PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey will be of interest.
I finished my term as International Secretary of PEN July 2007 at PEN’s 73rd World Congress in Dakar, Senegal. I handed over the responsibility to my longtime colleague Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN) who would continue to work with the Board, the Executive Director Caroline McCormick, new Treasurer Eric Lax and President Jiří Gruša. We had executed many changes in the last three years, and those who had been involved were continuing and active both in the international leadership and in the PEN centers.
Before the Congress, the staff and PEN members gave me a farewell party at PEN International’s relatively new London headquarters on High Holborn. PEN is about people, and I’d been fortunate to work over many decades with dozens of talented writers who were also competent in organizational work, friends from around the globe who remain friends today.
As a Vice President, I would continue to work, write appeal letters to governments for the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)’s RAN (Rapid Action Network) cases, speak when asked and hold meetings in Washington when asked, but I could return to being a writer. American PEN’s Executive Director Michael Roberts asked me to join American PEN’s board. I demurred and said I needed a break, but he and others urged me so in 2008 I joined the board of PEN America but worked at a far less intense pace for the next six years. When American PEN’s new Executive Director Suzanne Nossel came on, I was asked to extend for an additional year as a Vice President while she oriented to PEN’s international work. It is difficult to step away from PEN though most who are engaged find they must for a time, though not too far away.
As I left the historic Senegal Congress that July 2007, I boarded a plane and flew out over the Atlantic to Italy where I met up with my husband by a lake in one of our favorite spots for a vacation. He had patiently waited those three years as I spent 10-15 days a month on the road. In the first week without PEN’s emails and phone calls and conferences, we talked; I wrote, and I read four books in six days.
Back home I soon realized I needed to join the 21st century as a writer. At PEN we had begun to use some tools of social media in publicizing cases of writers under threat, but I hadn’t engaged personally. I remember sitting with a group of women writers in Washington, DC, many younger than me, who were talking about their websites and blogs and Twitter, and Facebook. In 2007 writers having URLs, Twitter handles, Facebook pages was relatively new. Twitter had only launched the year before, and though blogs had been around for a few years, I had never written one. Facebook seemed an odd medium, also only a few years old. I was of the “private” generation; we were not prone to sharing our activities and feelings on a “social” platform. Those of us who’d been journalists were used to having to condense stories, but never to 140 characters which Twitter demanded. We were in a new communications age, and I needed to understand and at least to put a toe in the water, even if I didn’t jump fully in.
Encouraged by friends and agent, I set up a website. The developer urged me to blog. I didn’t want to blog, I explained. I wanted to write fiction and occasional journalism, but I agreed to post a blog once a month. I have done so for over ten years now. Often when I considered what was worth writing about each month, I found myself reflecting on work with PEN. When asked to write about PEN’s history as I’d witnessed it in anticipation of the Centennial, I reasoned I could post twice a month. That seemed a reasonable way to get through PEN’s history year by year. A serial blog. I have sped up the pace since Covid locked us all into our homes and travel has halted. I have now come to an end of this particular PEN Journey though I will write an introduction. I will also reference links to those blog posts I wrote after 2007 when I continued to work with PEN.
In this final post, I want to review a few areas of PEN International I feel I haven’t explored sufficiently, and I want to give a quick view forward of what and who came next.
In Journey’s 7, 8, 22, 25, 26, I touched on the work of the PEN Emergency Fund. I want to highlight that here. Founded in 1971 by Dutch Writer A. (Bob) den Doolaard who had an active role with PEN International, the PEN Emergency Fund fulfilled a missing link in PEN’s work. Doolaard noted that PEN had no mechanism to grant material aid to writers, especially those under threat who had to flee their countries so he and Dutch PEN set up the aid fund based in the Netherlands, operated under Dutch law. The PEN Emergency Fund gives a one-time grant to writers in dire circumstances and is able to act quickly. Over the years PEN’s Emergency Fund has provided rapid support for writers on every continent, especially those in Eastern Europe during the Communist era and those in the Balkans War in the 1990s and also to persecuted writers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Every year dozens of writers have been helped with grants that have bridged to longer term answers. The Fund operates in close collaboration with PEN International whose professionals furnish the Fund with information and with the PEN centers and members who have contributed to the Fund. I’ve had the privilege of serving on the PEN Emergency Fund Advisory Board for a number of years.
Prizes: As a literary organization, PEN through its centers awards numbers of literary awards, but only a few literary prizes have been awarded by PEN International. Over the years the idea of a PEN International Prize for Literature or even for Peace has arisen. When I first took on the position of International Secretary, we were approached by a donor offering to give PEN $100,000 for the PEN International Prize for Peace. Well-meaning though the donor was, it quickly became clear that PEN International could not accept. The donor already had his first winner in mind—Bono. We explained that any prize would have to be independently judged with established criteria and nominating processes, and in order for PEN to give an annual prize, we would need to have a substantial financial commitment in an account to assure we could afford the prize each year as well as the cost of the judging and ceremony. We named the figure. The discussions broke off though the donor, I think, did find another way to give his prize though not through PEN.
The biennial PEN David T. Wong International Short Story Prize did come into being for a time, with a much more modest monetary award for a new writer, open to nominations by all PEN Centers and run by International PEN Foundation’s Gilly Vincent, who later became General Secretary of English PEN. Gilly was a pro and lined up well-qualified writers as judges. The nominations came in from PEN Centers around the world and the winner was often celebrated at PEN’s Congress. One of the first winners for 2002-2003 was a young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, who won for her short story “One Half of the Yellow Sun,” submitted by her local PEN Center USA West. The story went on to become the celebrated novel by the same name, and she went on to win wide international acclaim for that and other books. The PEN David T. Wong Prize was one of the first international recognition of her as a writer. The judges for 2003 were William Trevor, Michele Roberts and J.M. Coetzee who won the Nobel Prize for Literature later that year. The 2001 prize had been won by Rachel Seifert, who went on to have her first novel short-listed for Booker Prize.
PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, the PEN Emergency Fund and Oxfam Novib each year do give the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Free Expression Award to writers who work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution. The award is given to writers and journalists committed to free speech despite the danger to their own lives.
Many other literary awards and literary festivals are hosted by PEN’s centers around the world. I had the pleasure of visiting a number of those, including in Croatia and in Turkey, hosted by the PEN centers.
There are many aspects of PEN’s work I’ve touched on but not explored fully such as the formation of a PEN center, which technically can occur when 20 reputable writers get together and petition the International office. There is a limit of five centers per country; most countries have fewer, and many countries have only one center. The rationale for additional centers has been to reflect linguistic diversity in a country. For instance, Switzerland has French, German, Italian, and Esperanto centers, or to facilitate participation when the land mass is large. The U.S. used to have two centers, one based in New York and one in Los Angeles, but in the past years, the two centers have merged into one PEN America. In Canada where there is both large land mass and diverse languages PEN has two centers—PEN Canada based in Toronto essentially uses English as the primary language and Quebecois PEN uses French. In some countries there are many, many languages as in India, which also has a large landscape and has the All-India Center in Bombay and the PEN Delhi Center. The rationale depends largely on the ambition and needs of the writers on the ground. Often a center will form branches within a country to provide the services and community for writers.
One document I did not include in an earlier post was the rationale from PEN International Vice President and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer regarding the formation and naming of centers as related to a petition from writers in South Africa to form an Afrikaans Center. I’ve copied it here because it was from one of PEN’s eminent and active members and because it articulated ongoing questions in PEN. Gordimer’s argument did not prevail at the Berlin Congress in 2006 where an Afrikaans Center, not a Pretoria Center, was voted in though the center is based in Pretoria. The reasoning nonetheless is worth considering. The dynamics are ongoing in a number of countries and will likely continue as new centers are added or removed when they grow inactive.
Nadine Gordimer: “Let me make it clear. My objection to the formation of an Afrikaans language PEN club has no significance whatever of any kind of prejudice against my brother and sister South Africans, who are Afrikaans speakers and writers just as I am an English-speaking writer. We have eleven languages in our country. I should have exactly the same objection to the formation of an isiZulu or isiXhosa Club. We cannot have separate-but-equal (shades of apartheid) Clubs for every language, even though most of which have the strong linguistic claim of ante-dating colonially imported English and colonially created Afrikaans. I support a vigorous and linguistically open South African PEN Club, to have local representation in each region, with membership actively pursued among writers in whatever South African languages are theirs. Only such a chapter could have the strength to fulfil our needs…Historic-culturally determined circumstances give us both the necessity to overcome them and the fine opportunity to make full use of them, for our writers and our poly-literature.”
PEN is a breathing, living organization whose main body has been working around the world for a century with new members and centers joining every year as other centers at times have fallen dormant or closed. It is a fellowship of writers, of citizens in civil society holding watch over freedom of expression, linguistic diversity, over literature, and over the imagination and art by which societies flourish. Particular issues and threats change according to the times. PEN declares itself an apolitical organization, yet it is an organization whose central principle and commitment to freedom of expression sets it in the fray of politics since an early warning of a society descending into authoritarianism is the arrest of its writers and the closing down of space for free expression.
Changes in PEN leadership internationally and in centers effect the organization, but the Charter holds the whole body together. The leadership of PEN International used to reside in the President, the International Secretary and the Treasurer as the Executive, which represented the Centers’ Assembly of Delegates between two annual Congresses. The narrative of this PEN Journey has shown the change in the organization and its governance as it has grown and the world in which it operated has altered. PEN International has more than doubled in size over the last three decades to 155 centers in more than 100 countries. It now holds only one Congress a year, and the leadership is a partnership among the President, the International Secretary, the Treasurer, and an elected 7-member Board representing the Centers. Work is facilitated by an Executive Director, a position first hired in 2005, who heads the staff. Depending on the skills and experience and personality of each, the dynamic changes. In my term, I tended to be hands-on as an International Secretary. The President Jiří Gruša with whom I served was engaged as the Director of a Diplomatic Academy and had not been very active in PEN before he took the role of President. I would check in with Jiří before each monthly board meeting, explain the agenda as I saw it, ask if he wanted to add or change any items and if he wanted to attend. Jiří, a former prisoner of conscience, had lived the principles of PEN, understood them and with experience, knowledge and wit was an authentic voice on the international stage. But the day-to-day decision-making and running of the organization he largely left to me and then with the first Executive Director, the Board and the staff.
Jiří’s successor John Ralston Saul, former President of PEN Canada, had been a long time PEN member, active in the organization with experience in governing. He took on a much more active role as President, working with International Secretary Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN) and then International Secretary Hori Takeaki (Japan PEN). John traveled the globe visiting PEN centers and government officials and taking on the issues of his period. After John, PEN elected its first woman President Jennifer Clement, former President of PEN Mexico, who took on the work, along with a special focus on the issues of women globally. She spearheaded, along with PEN’s Women Writers Committee, a Women’s Manifesto and later an Imagination Manifesto and will serve until the end of the Centenary Congress in England in 2021. Kätlin Kaldmaa (Estonian PEN) has served as International Secretary during this time along with longtime PEN member Carles Torner as Executive Director.
Unfortunately over the years as PEN’s website has been upgraded, the content has not always been exported so many of the documents and speeches and records have not followed into the digital universe. The narrative is carried in paper files which overflow in my basement and even more in PEN’s and in the memories of PEN members. My own PEN Journey has been an effort to record some of the history and offer a continuity of narrative during a particular period, through the eyes of one PEN member who has had the privilege and pleasure of standing up close for part of that history. I’ve tried to render the direction and actions. The flaws, the missteps of people, including myself, I’ve also witnessed but have largely left to the side in this narrative. My purpose has not been to be a critic nor a hagiographer, nor a novelist, but a reporter, recording the actions and the journey with a touch of personal memoir.
The opening of the PEN International Charter states that literature knows no frontiers. This speaks to both real and, no less importantly, those imagined.
PEN stands against notions of national and cultural purity that seek to stop people from listening, reading and learning from each other. One of the most treacherous forms of censorship is self-censorship —where walls are built around the imagination and often raised from fear of attack.
PEN believes the imagination allows writers and readers to transcend their own place in the world to include the ideas of others. This place for some writers has been prison where the imagination has meant interior freedom and, often, survival.
The imagination is the territory of all discovery as ideas come into being as one creates them. It is often in the confluence of contradiction, found in metaphor and simile, where the most profound human experiences reside.
For almost 100 years PEN has stood for freedom of expression. PEN also stands for, and believes in, the freedom of the empathetic imagination while recognizing that many have not been the ones to tell their own stories.
PEN INTERNATIONAL UPHOLDS THE FOLLOWING PRINCIPLES:
- We defend the imagination and believe it to be as free as dreams.
- We recognize and seek to counter the limits faced by so many in telling their own stories.
- We believe the imagination accesses all human experience, and reject restrictions of time, place, or origin.
- We know attempts to control the imagination may lead to xenophobia, hatred and division.
- Literature crosses all real and imagined frontiers and is always in the realm of the universal.
Next and final installment of PEN Journey: Introduction—the Curtain Rises
Links below are to blog posts mentioning PEN after 2007. I was not writing official reports of Congresses or WiPC conferences or other events, but reflecting on PEN’s work, cases and the impact of ideas in my own monthly posts, some of which I used in writing this PEN Journey:
The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate
March 31, 2020
Arc of History Bending Toward Justice?
March 20, 2019
Gathering in Istanbul for Freedom of Expression
May 23, 2018
Women’s Voices Rising (Women’s Manifesto)
February 28, 2018
Liu Xiaobo: On the Front Line of Ideas
December 7, 2017
Reclaiming Truth In Times Of Propaganda (83rd PEN Congress in Lviv, Ukraine)
September 28, 2017
“Finding Room for Common Ground: No Enemies, No Hatred”
September 8, 2017
In Turkey, a show of solidarity with writers behind bars (PEN Turkey Mission)
February 3, 2017
Power on Loan
January 23, 2017
Hope for Songs Not Prison in 2017
December 27, 2016
Building Literary Bridges: Past and Present (82nd PEN Congress in Ourense, Spain)
October 3, 2016
Call for Help inside Iran’s Evin Prison
May 23, 2016
Spring and Release
March 18, 2016
View on the Bosporus: Rights in Retreat
January 29, 2016
Democracy in Africa: Who Can Chat with Kabila?
November 30, 2015
Life instead of Death…Rationality instead of Ignorance (81st PEN Congress in Quebec, Canada)
October 23, 2015
What Are You Not Reading This Summer? (WiPC Conference in Amsterdam)
June 11, 2015
Times and Tides
November 14, 2014
PEN on the Plains of Central Asia (80th PEN Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
October 7, 2014
Poets, Pardons and Ramadan
August 2, 2014
Qatar: A Poet in a Desert Cell
November 1, 2013
The Last Colony?
October 15, 2013
Parallel Universe in a Glassed Concert Hall in Iceland (79th PEN Congress in Reykjavik, Iceland)
September 16, 2013
Living In and Beyond History (WiPC Conference in Krakow, Poland)
May 20, 2013
Two Voices Behind the Iron Doors
April 8, 2013
North Korean Writers in a Land of the Rising Sun (78th PEN Congress in Gyeongju, South Korea)
September 15, 2012
facebook or not?
June 28, 2012
Voices Around the World
January 30, 2012
Bridge Over the Bosporus: Citizenship on the Rise (77th PEN Congress, Belgrade, Serbia mentioned)
September 28, 2011
Tourist in Beijing: A Dance with the Censor
July 29, 2011
Ice Flows: Freedom of Expression
January 29, 2011
In the Woods: On History’s Doorstep
December 22, 2010
Full Moon Over Tokyo (76th PEN Congress in Tokyo, Japan)
September 30, 2010
Introducing Isabel Allende
May 21, 2010
“Because Writers Speak Their Minds”–2
March 31, 2010
“Because Writers Speak Their Minds”
February 24, 2010
January 18, 2010
Yellow Geranium in a Tin Can
October 27, 2009
China at 60–Fate of Liu Xiaobo?
September 30, 2009
A Time of Hopening (WiPC Conference in Oslo, Norway)
June 24, 2009
“There Will Still Be Light” *
April 30, 2009
The Intensifying Battle Over Internet Freedom
February 24, 2009
Charter 08: Decade of the Citizen
December 30, 2008
China from the 22nd Floor (Hong Kong Conference)
May 28, 2008
OLYMPIC RELAY– A POEM ON THE MOVE
April 21, 2008
Words That Matter
March 4, 2008
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey will be of interest.
After PEN’s Asia and Pacific Regional meeting in Hong Kong February 2007, I flew to Tokyo for a two-day visit with members of Japanese PEN, along with International PEN board members Eric Lax and Takeaki Hori. We met with Japan PEN’s board, and in the evening I shared a stage and conversation with Mr. Hisashi Inoue, chairman of Japan PEN and one of the country’s well-known playwrights. Part of our discussions explored the possibility of Japanese PEN hosting an International PEN Congress. Only once before, in 1984, was the World Congress held in Japan.
Housed in an impressive building in Tokyo, Japan PEN was one of International PEN’s largest and most active centers with one of the more interesting histories. Founded in November 1935 on the eve of a tumultuous period in world affairs, Japan PEN members committed to the PEN ideals of freedom of expression and “one humanity living in peace in one world.” By 1935 Japan had left the League of Nations in the wake of the Manchurian Incident and was moving towards international isolation, a direction that concerned liberal literary figures and diplomats. In this climate International PEN in London, with support from leading novelists, poets and foreign literary figures, reached out and requested that writers in Japan form a PEN Club. Japan’s well-known novelist Toson Shimazaki served as the founding president. As suppression of free speech increased as war in the Pacific broke out and the Second World War advanced, Japanese PEN stayed in limited contact with International PEN in London and provided a unique portal to the world for its writers and citizens during that time.
Personally, I remember the hospitality of Japan PEN members who took me out on the Ginza to toast my birthday as I rounded a decade. I had explained that I needed to fly home that evening, a day early to share the birthday. I still remember the glasses of pink champagne flowing up and down the Ginza, (though I was drinking sparkling water), as my own new decade was heralded, then flying halfway around the world and arriving in time to have another dinner that same night with my husband.
Three years later, in September 2010 Japan PEN hosted the 76th PEN International World Congress in Tokyo, one of PEN’s largest with representatives from 90 centers around the theme “The Environment and Literature—What Can Words Do?”
World War II, D-Day, the fall of the Berlin Wall—all were global events in the 20th Century which framed the history that followed for much of the world and stirred both despair and optimism among politicians and citizens and inspired stories and poetry among writers. PEN’s Peace Committee conference in March 2007 settled on three themes: Languages under Threat—Dying Cultures, Reading as a Social Event, and Post-Totalitarian Resistance.
In my files I found the keynote paper “Post-Totalitarian Resistance” by Peace Committee Chair Edvard Kovač, a portion of which I quote here. It provokes thought with the kind of open-ended questions that don’t necessarily have answers but can lead to discovery. Contents of PEN’s forums are among its important legacy.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a great deal of hope that the era of totalitarian ideologies was over forever. Fukuyama and others even talked about the end of history. But ideological thinking has settled like sediment in people’s minds and it still persistently, albeit imperceptibly, affects our thoughts, conclusions and decisions.
The role of the writer is to be vigilant and to recognize a transformation in the rigid thinking that until only recently stifled his creativity and pushed him towards dissidence. Perhaps he will notice that the ‘class struggle’ has been transformed and that out of this transformation the germs of new ideologies are emerging: to the legitimate striving for the creation of a Palestinian state a new anti-Semitism has been attached and alongside the right to the existence of the state of Israel the humane protection of civilian population has simply been forgotten. Recognition of and admiration for Third World culture is fortified by anti-Europeanism while a critical attitude to technological civilization confirms the ethno-centrism of the young states. The spread of democracy is confused with domination of the world market and a critical attitude to processes of globalization is interlaced with anti-Americanism. An emphasis on the need for virility conceals a kind of anti-feminism, while the emancipation of women facilitates a new uniformity. The elements of old totalitarianism which have transformed into foundations of new ideologies are harder to unmask as they appear in the name of anti-ideological principles…
…the demise of totalitarianism does not necessarily equate with critical thinking. The defeat of ideologies only creates the possibility of enlightened thinking. In fact, the desire for quick and simple solutions is even greater in post-totalitarian states. Hence the unbearable lightness of new populisms. If in the past it was politics that fully led the economy, it has now come to a complete turnaround so that the economy is stifling political initiative and economic success is putting a noose around the neck of culture and artistic creativity that cannot be marketed…
How can a writer establish a reasonable dialogue when faced with the new fundamentalisms of all colors and creeds?…this new humanism of the pen, which would once again oppose the violence of the sword (which is also the idea behind PEN’s logo) must create new means of expression. So what is the writer’s language in this new struggle?” —Edvard Kovač, Slovene PEN
There are no simple answers to these observations, but the questions continue to be worth asking in PEN’s forums.
Somewhere in the world during most weeks, if not most days, one of PEN’s 150 centers is holding an event or conference and is at work on behalf of writers. For me, the conferences and literary festivals in 2007 included a visit, along with PEN International Executive Director Caroline McCormick to New York to PEN America’s impressive World Voices Festival with over 100 writers from around the globe. The annual World Voices Festival anticipated and informed the launch of PEN International’s own Free the Word! Festival in London in 2008 and in subsequent countries thereafter.
One of the privileges of serving as International Secretary was visiting centers and members around the world though I couldn’t accept all invitations. I regret missing the celebration of PEN’s Global Library launched by members of Slovak PEN. The Global Library gathered books from PEN members worldwide in multiple languages. I missed a conference on freedom of expression and Kurdish literature and a conference in Georgia arranged by Three Seas Writers and Translators’ and the Georgia Writers Union under the auspices of UNESCO, a frequent funder for PEN gatherings. Other International PEN board members and Vice Presidents often did attend as well as the PEN members.
Following the World Voices Festival, Caroline and I, along with International Board members Eugene Schoulgin and Eric Lax, met with UNESCO officials in Paris where former International PEN President Homero Aridjis was now Mexico’s Ambassador to UNESCO. The meetings at UNESCO headquarters and with Homero and the US representative to UNESCO were in anticipation of the renewal of PEN’s formal consultative relationship and “Framework Agreement” with UNESCO. In the prior agreement PEN had also been recognized as a Category II organization with ECOSOC (United Nations Economic and Social Council.) These agreements were renewed every six years; the relationship continues to this day.
One country in which PEN and UNESCO were active, but not always with compatible agendas was Turkey. Because UNESCO depended on governments for its funding and PEN frequently criticized the Turkish government for its suppression of free expression, we sometimes walked separate paths in Turkey.
The month after the UNESCO meetings I participated in Istanbul in the Forum on Freedom of Expression, sponsored by that independent organization. Along with dozens of PEN members, I had attended the first Forum on Freedom of Expression in Istanbul in 1997 as Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, and I and other PEN members had spoken at many of the biennial meetings since.
In Ankara, I was hosted at the International Ankara Short Story Days Festival, an initiative which also aspired to get UNESCO support to establish a World Short Story Day. Professor Aysu Erden, Turkish PEN’s international secretary and editorial board member of PEN International’s Diversity Project of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC) was a champion of the effort. That year the theme was “Preservation of Multiculturalism and Diversity,” a UNESCO focus as well.
In a visit to a large school in Ankara and at a program later that evening, we considered how people and societies bridged differences, how consciousness could change in societies and how literature and stories could play a role. I reflected on the changes during the civil rights movement in the U.S. where I had grown up.
“Many of the stories in my short story collection No Marble Angels are set in the late 1950’s and 60’s in the American South during a time of upheaval in the United States. It was a time when blacks and whites peered at each other over the barriers of history and laws which separated them,” I told both audiences, aware that in Turkey, Kurds often faced discrimination as did Armenians, and the writers who wrote about this discrimination could face time in prison.
That schism is still one of the U.S.’s major national dramas though much distance has been travelled in my lifetime. The abolishment of the laws of segregation and the opening up of opportunity has strengthened U.S. society immeasurably, though there is still a journey to take. It is the closing of the distance between people which has interested me as a writer over the years, whether the distance arises from race or gender or age or simply from the self looking out into the world and seeing an image other than its own.
One of the books that had an impact on me growing up was written by another Texan who literally changed the color of his skin in an attempt to get inside the experience of being black in the South during the time when racial covenants dictated where a person could get a drink of water or sit on the bus or go to the bathroom. John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me came out when I was a school girl. I don’t remember if I read the book then, or a few years later, but when I read it, the dilemma it posed both shaped and mirrored feelings and questions which were growing in me. The questions were really questions of the human condition: Who am I? And who is that person who is not me and different from me?
For a time I considered these as political questions. I spent much of my youth debating issues of civil rights with family and friends. I located the antagonist outside myself, as some monolith, which for lack of a better description had a handle at the top, a wing on the west and several large rivers running through it. And so I left the state of Texas.
As long as the antagonist was outside in politics, society, and culture, I could separate myself from it. As a journalist in the Northeastern part of the United States, I gathered facts and statistics and social opinions and searched for answers to issues. I wrote articles on segregation and desegregation and integration of institutions in the United States. All the while other stories were building in me that I wanted to write, stories that couldn’t so easily be contained in facts and figures and social theory. I began a journey of my own, not by changing the color of my skin, but by considering experience from the inside out. I began writing fiction—short stories and novels. My writing changed from the journalistic to the consideration of the individual heart, from the objective to the subjective.
What continues to interest me in writing are the shadowy places in the individual heart, those places which keep us from seeing one another. Sometimes the distance between self and other is measured in terms of race, sometimes age, sometimes gender, sometimes culture, sometimes religion, sometimes country of origin. I’m interested in the way people go about making bridges or tearing them down.
To the extent a multicultural society recognizes the human spirit that connects its citizens at the same time valuing the cultural differences among them, the society progresses. Multiculturalism is at the heart of International PEN, which has 144 centers in 101 countries. PEN is committed to dispelling race, class and national hatreds in an effort to champion one humanity living in peace; PEN is also committed to freedom of expression.
Because we are writers, literature is our means of expression. Literature has an important role in bridging cultures. The first glimpse we have of another culture is often through reading. We let our imagination take an author’s images, scenes, and characters and bind them to our own lives. We draw from books wisdom and experience.
Many of the characters in my short stories are struggling to expand who they are and come out of themselves, to reach across to another person, to enter and occupy that space at the back of the house, that dark, vine-covered, musty room where “the other” lives. Entering that space, one raises the shades and opens the doors and windows and glimpses in the face of the other, a reflection of one’s self.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 45: Dakar—The Word, the World and Human Values
At PEN’s 71st World Congress in June 2005 over 275 writers from 88 PEN Centers gathered from around the world in the idyllic setting of Bled, Slovenia where history had been made 40 years before. In 1965, PEN had held its Congress in Bled, the first in Eastern Europe since the Second World War. Russian writers visited PEN for the first time. At that 33rd World Congress, American playwright Arthur Miller, who’d recently passed away in 2005, had been elected the first and only American President of International PEN.
In 2005 the global dynamics had changed. PEN now had active centers in most of the countries in the former Communist Eastern bloc, including in Russia. The European Union (EU) was in its ascendancy; 2005 marked Slovenia’s accession into the EU. Globalization was bringing benefits but also threats to the cultures of smaller countries.The theme of the 71st Congress branched into three tributaries: “The Tower of Babel—a Blessing or a Curse?”; “Literature as a Safeguard of the Cultural Landscape”; and “The Language of Peace—Literature as Lingua Franca.”
“We live in an age when many preconceived ideas, nurtured for centuries and ostensibly immutable, are no longer valid,” noted Slovene PEN President Tone Peršak. “The linguistic and cultural image of the world is in flux and civilization as a whole, under the influence of globalization, is taking on a new character. These events are also echoed in discussions within PEN centers…They guided us in our selection of the main topic for discussion at the Congress, namely the issue of linguistic and consequently cultural diversity of the world. The topic is proposed as a question: does linguistic diversity stimulate or hinder cultural development? Is it a curse or a blessing that made possible the emergence and encounter of various world views, different emotional responses to the human destiny, and finally also brought about the formulation of different schools of thought and philosophical doctrines?
“We regard the question of linguistic and cultural diversity also as a human rights issue. Attempts to unify and subject all aspects of life to uniform standards and norms is viewed as a very questionable encroachment on these rights. One of the topics is therefore the question of the need to protect languages and cultures, and that means also the smallest ones which may be on the verge of extinction. Let us also draw your attention to literature’s role in the preservation of the memory of the cultural landscape, which has been undergoing considerable changes and in some cases may even disappear forever…[Is] literature a kind of lingua franca which could and should contribute to a better mutual understanding and insight into the different cultures and nations that sustain cultural diversity?”
These were questions without definitive answers, but questions that occupied writers from dozens of cultures and languages in the Congress’s literary sessions. [At PEN Congresses, the main sessions and the Assembly of Delegates were usually translated into PEN’s three official languages—English, French and Spanish—and also the language of the Congress host.]
A number of the delegates had before been to Bled, home of PEN International’s annual Writers for Peace Committee conference, hosted by Slovene PEN. During the Cold War the Peace Committee, founded in 1984, provided one of the only open forums for dialogue between writers from the East and West.
“Let us learn the language of our neighbors so that we all may better come to know and understand our neighbors and forestall incomprehension and conflict,” the Peace Committee and the Congress organizers urged.
In my own address to the Congress as International Secretary, I relied on the prevailing metaphor of the bridge, using an example close to home:
I recently crossed a soaring new bridge in Boston, Massachusetts, a bridge at least 14-years in the making. This bridge spanning the Charles River was the result of what is called the Big Dig, a project anyone who has lived in or regularly visited Boston has come to think of as the Eternal Dig for it is hard to remember when a large segment of downtown wasn’t under construction. But at last there is this soaring bridge with stanchions into the sky in gracious arcs and at night a blue light shining up into its cables as it rises above the city. There is also an elaborate network of freeways and tunnels underground.
I sometimes think International PEN is a bit like the Big Dig. For much of the last decade we’ve been reconstructing ourselves, trying to reflect in our governing structures the expansion that PEN has experienced across the globe, an expansion brought on in part by the opening up of societies after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of the so-called Iron Curtain. This expansion has also been enabled by the linking of the globe through the internet. International PEN has instituted a Board, been through a long range planning process, revised rules and regulations, and while we still have construction going on and probably always will, I’m hopeful that we too will start to see more and more of the benefits of all this work…Throughout we’ve continued to witness remarkable activities from our Centers…
This year I’ve been telling people that PEN is a place where cultures don’t clash but communicate. PEN members may not always agree, in fact frequently don’t agree, but the fellowship among members can keep that disagreement from turning into confrontation. At our best PEN’s forums offer a place where the energy of competing ideas releases light, rather like that spectacular blue light which shoots upwards on the cables of the grand bridge in Boston.
Arthur Miller once described PEN: “With all its flounderings and failings and mistaken acts, it is still, I think, a fellowship moved by the hope that one day the work it tries and often manages to do will no longer be necessary. Needless to add, we shall need extraordinarily long lives to see that noble day. Meanwhile we have PEN, this fellowship bequeathed on us by several generations of writers for whom their own success and fame were simply not enough.”
The work included substance and form, the latter focusing on the organizational structure which allowed the work to go forward. At the Bled Congress the delegates approved procedural reforms, broke into workshops to discuss PEN itself and global and regional issues, and were introduced to PEN’s first Executive Director, who would begin the following month. After an extensive search, the board and staff had agreed to hire Caroline Whitaker (née McCormick) who had worked in theater development, had a degree in literature and was coming to PEN from the Natural History Museum where she was Director of Development.
At the Congress seven candidates from Algeria, Colombia, Croatia, France, Finland, Japan, and Russia ran for positions on the International Board, and Mohamed Magani (Algerian PEN), Sibila Petlevski (Croatian PEN), Sylvestre Clancier (French PEN), and Takeaki Hori (Japan PEN) were elected.
The Congress discussed and passed over 20 resolutions and actions challenging the situations for writers in Algeria, Basque region of Spain, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Maldives, Mexico, Nepal, Russia, Syria, Tibet, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam as well as resolutions relating to the attacks on journalists in war zones and the crackdown on internet writing in Tunisia where the World Summit on the Information Society was to be held that fall.
The Congress also noted the tenth anniversary of the death of PEN member Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. International PEN President Jiří Gruša noted: “We are living in a time of extraordinary threats to writers and the freedom to write. In the ten years since our colleague Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in Nigeria, hundreds of writers and journalists around the world have died by violence. Crackdowns on internet writers and anti-terrorism legislation have named writers and chilled freedom of expression in a number of countries.
“While our colleagues in countries such as Myanmar, Cuba, China and Belarus continue to struggle against conventional governmental censorship and repression, writers also face the threat of moral violence in countries from Mexico to Iraq and new pressures associated with writing and publishing on the internet.”
And for the first time since the Tiananmen Square massacre June 4, 1989, a writer from the People’s Republic of China attended as a representative of the new Independent Chinese PEN Center whose members included writers from inside and outside of mainland China. I include below much of his talk which rings truer than ever.
Wang Yi* addressed the Assembly, noting that this was the first time in 16 years “the voice of a non-official and independent Chinese writers’ group could be heard, a group that is independent or at least strives for its independence, that is free or at least longs for freedom and that tries to perpetuate the freedom of expression in the face of great political pressure…
“I come here heavy-hearted without blessing, because there is no reconciliation between a free writer, an independent intellectual, and his government. I come to Bled representing those who have been disgraced, who have stood in the shadow of terror and the peril of political oppression, and who have yet never resigned but have insisted upon their freedom of speech and writing, such as Mr. Liu Xiaobo whose work has been not allowed to be published and who has not been allowed to go abroad. I also come for myself, who experienced in the sixteen years after Tiananmen a long period during which memories have been erased forcefully and silence has been ordered. This has been a time during which mothers, who lost their sons and daughters at Tiananmen, have not been allowed to weep…
“To me and my colleagues, writing is a rescue plan for the hostage. Writing means dignity and freedom; it is kind of belief. But we cannot rescue ourselves, even when we have courage and when justice is on our side in the face of institutional arbitrariness…
“Our salvation depends upon that higher community, depends upon common universal values that we share as writers, as free people and as intellectuals. It is the source of liberty and imagination…
“We are disappointed to see that some European governments are gradually abandoning free values and lessening their criticism of the despotic regime in Beijing. For a common benefit they abandon the writers, reporters, dissidents and orators who are imprisoned…
“According to the Independent Chinese PEN club, more than 50 writers and reporters are currently in jail…
“I want to mention two points: the first one is the belief that through writing, we can enlighten and preserve basic human values. Second, there is a global realistic linguistic environment. These two points make me think that the persecution of Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur and other minority writers reaches across borders to become an international issue…There is only the suppression of the right to freedom of expression and the persecution of human beings, which needs to be rooted out, and the victim needs to be consoled and supported…
“The Chinese government’s suppression of writers has accelerated in recent years, since the beginning of the Internet era…pen names and pseudonyms are prohibited. With this act, the last bastion of self-protection is destroyed.
“Every morning, the Communist Party’s propaganda department issues a list of prohibited news to the media. Whoever dares to break the taboos will get into big trouble. As the government stifles the mouths of the media and betrays the public, it also tampers with the truth in historical textbooks and deceives the children in school. An increasing number of courageous writers, reporters and public figures are daring to challenge the status quo so more and more of them have been thrown into jail on charges of committing the crime of “instigation and subversion of the state” or “disclosing state secrets” to “hostile forces…
“Among the harassed and persecuted are also the president of ICPC and his deputy, Mr. Liu Xiaobo* and Mr. Yu Jie*. Under such circumstances, you cannot but regard the Chinese writer as a hostage…
“I come to Bled hoping to present myself as a writer, but I am indeed only a hostage…One of the reasons that I definitely wanted to come is that I believe we all belong to the same world. In this world, the state, the glory and the lawful right all belong to that higher spiritual origin that makes us, without regret, proud to be a writer.”
*[Wang Yi, deputy Secretary General of ICPC 2003-2007, has been imprisoned in China since December 2018, serving a 9-year sentence for “activities disobedient to the government control” and “inciting subversion of state power and illegal business.” Wang Yi is a writer and a Christian pastor. Liu Xiaobo, the second President of ICPC, was sentenced in December 2008 to an 11-year prison sentence as “an enemy of the state” for “incitement of subverting state power.” He was the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2010 and died in custody June 13, 2017. Yu Jie, a celebrated writer, was one of the drafters, along with Liu Xiaobo, of Charter 08, which set out a democratic vision for China; he was arrested and tortured in 2010 and immigrated to the U.S. in 2012. He is author of Steel Gate to Freedom: The Life of Liu Xiaobo.]
Next Installment: PEN Journey 38: PEN’s Work On the Road in Kyrgyzstan and Ghana