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 first visited Berlin in the fall of 1990 just after Germany reunited. I was living in London and took my sons, ages 10 and 12, to witness history in the making. I returned on a number of occasions, researching scenes for a book, attending meetings, and visiting German PEN in preparation for PEN’s 2006 Congress. Each time Berlin’s face was altered as the municipalities east and west moved to become one city again.

PEN International’s 72nd World Congress, Berlin, 2006

At the time of PEN’s Congress in May 2006, Berlin was bedecked with water pipes above ground—pink, green, blue, red—before the city buried its plumbing and infrastructure beneath the streets. Portions of the city had the appearance of an amusement park; there were also sections of the Berlin Wall with its colorful graffiti still standing, more as art exhibit than stark barrier to freedom.

“Welcome to a United Berlin” the German PEN President headlined his letter to the 450 delegates and participants for PEN’s 72nd World Congress. The Congress theme “Writing in a World Without Peace” was challenged by the reunification of Berlin and Germany, a historic event which bode well for the prospects of peace and which stood in contrast to the history that had come before. Yet the globe was still in conflict in the Middle East, in Asia and in Latin America where writers were under threat.

“There are countries such as Iran, Turkey or Cuba, where authors are jailed because of their books,” noted International PEN President Jiří Gruša. Resolutions at the Congress addressed the situations for writers imprisoned or killed in China, Cuba, Iran, Mexico, Russia/Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and other countries.

Left: Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) meeting at Berlin Congress. Karin Clark (Chair WiPC) and Sara Whyatt (WiPC Program Director). Right: WiPC Conference in Istanbul: Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN/PEN Board), Jens Lohman (Danish PEN), Jonathan Heawood (English PEN), Notetaker

Two months before in March, over 60 writers from 27 PEN centers in 23 countries had gathered for International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee conference in Istanbul where the WiPC planned a campaign against insult and criminal defamation laws under which writers and journalists were imprisoned worldwide. The conference also addressed the recent uproar over the Danish cartoons, impunity and the role of internet service providers offering information on writers, especially in China. A working group formed to support the Russian PEN Center which was under pressure from the Russian government.

Berlin, however, was sparkling and filled with the energy of reunification. “Today, this city—once separated by a Wall most drastically manifesting the division of Germany and Europe—has not only been re-established as the capital of Germany, but has simultaneously turned into a thriving meeting-place between East and West and North and South,” welcomed Johano Strasser, German PEN President. “Here in Berlin, history in all its facets—from the great achievements of German artists, philosophers and scientists to the crimes of the Nazis—has left its mark on the urban landscape.”

Left: German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressing PEN members at 72nd PEN Congress, 2006; Right: PEN International President Jiří Gruša speaking to PEN delegates and members at the Federal Chancellery;  front row: German PEN President Johano Strasser, Chancellor Angela Merkel and PEN International Secretary Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. [Photo credit: Tran Vu]

PEN’s 72nd Congress marked PEN’s 85th Anniversary and was a grand occasion. Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted a reception at the Chancellor’s office. President of the Federal Republic of Germany Horst Kohler gave the welcoming address at the Opening Ceremony, noting, “If Germany is the nation of culture that it intends to be again, then we have to stand up and fight for freedom of language, art and culture.”

The keynote address by Nobel laureate Günter Grass challenged the conflicts around the globe and the countries engaged in them. “There has always been war. And even peace agreements, intentionally or unintentionally, contained the germs of future wars, whether the treaty was concluded in Münster in Westphalia, or in Versailles,” he said.

Nobel laureate Günter Grass addressing Opening Ceremony of PEN International’s 72nd World Congress in Berlin, 2006 [Photo credit: Tran Vu]

“Furthermore, preparations for war do not solely depend on weapon systems that have to be continually modernized and replaced: making people dependent and acquiescent by controlled shortages has been a proven method, from biblical times to the globalized present.” He quoted Willy Brandt: “Hunger is also war!” He then spent a good portion of his address attacking the United States and also Britain.

As I sat on the dais on the edge of the stage listening to this renowned German writer, I leaned over to Jiří and said, If there is a standing ovation, I can’t stand. I was concerned. Grass could say and think whatever he wanted, but PEN was a non-political organization. Whatever my views of my country’s foreign policy, I was an American; I was also the mother of a son in uniform. Jiří leaned back to me and said in effect: Don’t worry, I won’t stand either. The speech ended with applause but no ovation, and then everyone got up and went to the next event.

It wasn’t my role to argue with Günter Grass even had the occasion allowed. But it was important that PEN assure the open space for debate existed which it did later in the Congress workshops and programs. PEN was filled with a multitude of points of view among its members; it did not have a litmus test of politics, only a commitment to the free expression of ideas. It offered a wide tent where views could be debated and challenged. Dogmatic political certainties often fell on their own in the alchemy of literature and imagination.

PEN members and delegates from around the world at Opening Ceremony of 2006 PEN Congress [Photo credit: Tran Vu]

A few months later Günter Grass had his own reckoning when he revealed that he, who had lectured the Germans on morality for the last half century, had himself as a young man been a member of the Waffen S.S., the military arm of Himmler’s elite corps absorbed into the regular German Army. Grass, who had sermonized on the need to face the truth of the past, had kept his secret for 50 years.

Programs at the Congress also featured Nobel laureate and PEN International Vice President Nadine Gordimer and writers from around the world, including former International PEN Presidents Ronald Harwood, and György Konrád, Bei Dao, A.L. Kennedy, Margriet de Moor, Péter Nádas, Per Olov Enquist, Mahmoud Darwish, Duo Duo, Jean Rouaud, Johano Strasser, Veronique Tadio, Patrice Nganang and others. These writers participated in the literary events, including an evening of African literature and one of writers of German literature who had immigrated from abroad to Germany or had non-German cultural backgrounds. Afternoon literary sessions included prominent PEN writers introducing authors of their choice, an afternoon of essays and discussions on the theme Writing in a World without Peace and a lyric poetry afternoon.

PEN’s 85th anniversary coincided with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. Both organizations had been founded after a World War out of an idealism that arose from desperate times with the hope that the future could be better than what had just transpired. “Both organizations were founded on a belief in dialogue and an exchange of ideas across national borders,” I noted in my address to the Assembly of Delegates. “When U.N. members were writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the framers consulted, among other documents, PEN’s Charter.”

PEN also had a history with the city of Berlin, where PEN members had gathered in 1926 for the first international meeting of importance held in Berlin after World War I. At that Berlin Congress tensions had arisen among old and young writers, writers from the west and the east, and debate had flared about the political versus the nonpolitical nature of PEN. The debate that stirred in Berlin in part led to the framing of PEN’s Charter the following year.

Since those early days, PEN had grown in size beyond what the founding writers might ever have imagined. After the 2006 Berlin Congress, with the addition of centers in Jamaica, Uruguay, and Pretoria, South Africa, PEN had 144 centers in 101 countries in almost every time zone. The PEN world didn’t sleep. Someone, somewhere was always awake doing something. Through its centers PEN International participated in at least a dozen conferences around the world each year, including meetings of its standing committees. PEN thought globally but worked locally.

Berlin—with its own alterations and progress—proved a fitting location for the presentation of International PEN’s new Three-Year Plan. For the past decade, since the 75th Anniversary at the Congress in Guadalajara, PEN International had been in an organizational reformation. It now had a governing structure with a global Board that participated in decision-making; it had revised its Constitution and Rules and Regulations; it had developed a budget, increased its funding, and recently moved its offices into Central London to a larger space with cheaper pro rata rent and an elevator, which had meaning for anyone who had climbed the steep four (or five?) flights to PEN’s old offices. The staff size had also increased, and PEN had hired its first Executive Director, Caroline McCormick Whitaker, former Development Director from the British National History Museum.

International PEN Board meeting preceding 72nd PEN Congress in Berlin, May 2006. L to R: Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN), Judith Rodriguez (Melbourne PEN), Kata Kulakova (Chair Translation & Linguistic Rights Committee), Sylvestre Clancier (French PEN), Sibila Petlevski (Croatian PEN), Chip Rolley (Chair Search Committee), Karen Efford (Program Officer), Caroline McCormick Whitaker (Executive Director), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (PEN International Secretary), Jiří Gruša (International PEN President), Peter Firkin (standing—Centers Coordinator), Eric Lax (PEN USA West), Jane Spender (Programs Director), Judith Buckrich (Women Writers Committee Chair)

Because British charitable tax law had changed, the opportunity had also arisen to unite International PEN and the International PEN Foundation into one charitable organization: International PEN, Ltd, a step that would provide the legal framework and protection for the organization and PEN’s name, would limit personal financial liability of the Board and attract a wider funding base. At the Berlin Congress, resolutions and approval were endorsed for this step which would be finalized the following year at the 2007 Congress in Dakar.

Caroline Whitaker took the Assembly of Delegates through the Three-Year Plan which had been developed after widespread consultation with PEN centers and the Board. She acknowledged that PEN couldn’t do everything that everyone wanted right away, that it was necessary to focus resources even as PEN developed more resources.

The Plan, which had grown out of all the discussions and preceding plans, concentrated on PEN’s three missions: to promote literature, to protect freedom of expression and to build a community of writers. “International PEN will work regionally to connect the activity of its many Centers around the globe on these issues,” Caroline told the delegates.

All PEN’s Standing Committees met at Berlin Congress—Writers in Prison Committee, Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, Women Writers Committee and Peace Committee [Photo credit: Tran Vu]

A few highlights included a proposal to enhance PEN International’s literary work by hosting an International Literary Festival that could become a trademark for PEN centers to use in their areas. American PEN had successfully launched its own World Voices Festival in New York a few years before. In 2008 in London, PEN International inaugurated the Free the Word! Festival, that developed into a roaming event series of contemporary literature around the world which many centers incorporated.

In helping to develop PEN’s centers, the Three-Year Plan recommended International PEN focus on one region at a time, beginning with Africa where the 2007 PEN Congress would be held. International PEN would assist in programming and fundraising for development of PEN’s African Centers. The next regional focus would be Latin America, where PEN’s 2008 Congress was to be held. This rolling focus would allow the limited international staff to plan strategically. Regular daily work would still continue for the needs of centers in all regions.

PEN members met in workshops at 72nd Berlin Congress. Topics: PEN in the World—Global Issues; Education; the Strategic Plan; Centers; Networks and Partners; Asia and Central Asia; Middle East; Africa; Europe and Americas [Photo credit: Tran Vu]

The new Centers Coordinator Peter Firkin held training workshops at the Berlin Congress to assist centers to become more self-sustaining. Other workshops at the Congress engaged members on topics including PEN in the World—Global Issues; Education; the Strategic Plan; Centers; Networks and Partners; Asia and Central Asia; Middle East; Africa; Europe and Americas.

As International PEN’s work had taken me across the globe that year, I’d come to see that PEN and its members formed a kind of intricate net which helped hold civil society together, the kind of sturdy net used on hills to prevent landslides. In a way that is what PEN members did around the world. They helped prevent literary culture and languages and freedom of expression from slipping away by both their active programming and their defensive actions

At the 1926 PEN Congress in Berlin International PEN’s President John Galsworthy and PEN’s founder Catherine Amy Dawson Scott had their voices recorded and preserved in a project of the German state. Galsworthy read a page from his Forsyte Saga. According to Dawson Scott’s journal, she recorded the following: “Even as individuals become families and families become communities and communities become nations, so eventually must the nations draw together in peace.”

It was a worthy, if not yet realized goal, but at least in PEN we had a global family.

Mayor’s reception for PEN members and participants at 72nd World Congress in Berlin, May 2006 [Photo Credit: Tran Vu]


Elections at 2006 Congress:

International PEN President: Jiří Gruša was re-elected for further 3-year term.

International PEN Board: Cecilia Balcazar (Colombian Center) and Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN re-elected to the Board)

Vice Presidents: Toni Morrison (American PEN) and J.M. Coetzee (Sydney PEN) elected Vice Presidents for service to literature and Gloria Guardia (Panamanian Center) for service to PEN

Women Writers Committee: Judith Buckrich (Melbourne Center) re-elected as Chair

Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee: Carles Torner (Catalan PEN) stood down as Vice Chair, replaced by Josep Maria Terricabras (Catalan PEN)


 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 42: From Copenhagen to Dakar to Guadalajara and in Between

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.

 

Fremantle, Australia is far away, at least if you live in the Americas or Europe or West Africa. So is Tokyo, Manila, Nepal, Hong Kong,—all destinations of PEN Congresses and conferences. As a global organization with centers in over 100 countries, PEN tries to cover the world with its meetings and at least once or twice a decade organize a Congress in Asia or Australia with its centers there.

In 1995 for PEN International’s 62nd Congress Perth PEN hosted delegates from around the world in Fremantle, a port city on Australia’s western coast in the Perth metropolitan area, a picturesque city with Victorian architecture and, as I recall at the time, a town out of the 1960’s where time hadn’t quite caught up. The city’s reputation was partially derived from its history as a penal colony from the 1850’s to 1991. The traditional Aboriginal people who lived there called the area Walyalup “the crying place.”

The 65th Congress was one of the smaller for PEN, less formal with many delegates staying in the homes of local writers rather than in a hotel. Instead of formal receptions in  houses of state, at least one evening’s entertainment was a game of literary trivia and bingo. Because the venue was on the harbor, the swimmers among the delegates, particularly Sascha (Alexander Tkachenko) General Secretary of Russian PEN, tried to swim each day despite the warnings that waters were shark-infested. Sascha defied the sharks which he considered a milder threat than what he was dealing with back home in Russia.

The Congress theme Freedom of Expression and Cultural Context translated into an endorsement of the universality of human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Held in the 50th anniversary year of the United Nations founding, PEN insisted human rights were not a relative notion. “While the concept of a universal right may not have penetrated the mechanisms of all states, the invocation of the universal right to free expression remains one of the essential tools that PEN and other organizations use to apply pressure and insert a wedge into the conscience of nations,” the Writers in Prison Chair’s report noted that year.

While certain human rights were absolute, governance was relative, and PEN itself was beginning to struggle with its structure. The relaxed atmosphere of Fremantle allowed informal discussions among delegates who were urging a more democratic structure for PEN. As PEN International headed towards its 75th anniversary the following year, Boris Novak, Slovene PEN President and Chair of the Peace Committee noted that the inner structure of PEN was no longer adequate for the needs of such a large global organization. This sentiment was echoed by the American PEN delegate and delegates from Scandinavian centers. The International Secretary agreed to hold a special meeting in Perth on this question, and the discussion and the dissent began.

As chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, I shared the concerns, but the WiPC staff and I determined that  the Writers in Prison Committee should remain a place where everyone came together and focused on the mission of getting writers out of prison and securing freedom of expression so we stayed on the edge of the debate. The internal politics of PEN were stirring and erupted a year later at the 1996 Congress in Guadalajara. In Perth, however,  the breezes were balmy and the water warm enough to  dip in if not to cross the distance  between the old and the new. That process would evolve over the next  several years and Congresses to come.

 

Brief summary of work follows in this excerpt from my 1995 Writers in Prison Committee Chair report:

Since [he] was arrested, my relatives and close friends have not dared to speak to me or telephone me for fear of being arrested. They have steered clear of me. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of friends and relatives who have stood by me. Since our problems began, I have had to rely on my family and our friends from abroad…I am very grateful to them…In short, your support will not only help my family, but also the families of others who are in distress. We will never forget your help.”
—Letter to PEN WiPC  from the wife of an imprisoned writer who for reasons of security must remain anonymous.

“The work of the Writers in Prison Committee this year has included appeals on writers’ behalf to 59 countries, around 150 appeals from the London office and hundreds more from centers around the world who responded to PEN’s Rapid Action calls and to the specific cases of the prisoners they have adopted….

“The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II saw celebrations in Europe but also saw a resurgence in racist and hate literature and speech. Anti-fascists writers found themselves threatened, especially in Austria where one writer was almost murdered. Turkey continued to be the most difficult country in the region with over 200 arrests, brief detentions, killings and disappearances, almost all relating to writings on the Kurdish situation.…

“The other issues to watch—the rise of militant fundamentalism, terrorism, separatist movements—but these are generally issues over which PEN has little control even though they affect the fates of individual writers.…

“Progress this year can best be measured in the releases of prisoners and also by the changes in certain countries’ laws. The Writers in Prison Committee lobbied governments and international bodies on general issues such as the death penalty, long term imprisonment and anti-terror laws and has seen some effect. PEN, along with other human rights organizations, urged the Indian government to reform or abandon its anti-terrorist law under which writers were detained, and recently the government has voted not to renew the law. The WiPC has also spent a large effort speaking with representatives of the Turkish government at embassies and at the United Nations to urge the amendment or abolishment of Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. Just last week the Goverment finally announced its plan to amend the law. We are hopeful this will soon take place in such a way that hundreds of writers detained because of Article 8 will no longer face prison terms, though we are cautious in our optimism.

“The main substance of the Writers in Prison Committee work, however, is not shown in the statistics nor through the reformed government policy, but can best be measured in the lives of individual writers. This year over 90 writers have been released from prison and some individuals facing severe penalties, including death, have instead received clemency. Unfortunately in many countries as one writer walks out of prison, another is being brought in….

“Turkish writer Esber Yagmurdereli, who is blind, recently had his 20-month prison sentence ratified. He was arrested for a speech about the Kurdish situation at a human rights meeting just weeks after his release from 13 years in prison. [I’d like to end with] an excerpt from one of his plays, “Crossing Boundaries” which deals with the experience of a political prisoner:

The moment lost all sense of time and the door opened
You were leaving…the anguish would lift from your heart
…Your unconquered eyes would be mine from now on.
…You went and waking to your absence was to be condemned to a harsh fate
And I felt the damnation again when I heard my forehead crack against these silent walls
…Suddenly I was without a country like so many Palestinians
I even forgot my language: I forgot I was a scream in the river of your voice
(Didn’t we force these walls to memorize our voices
Didn’t we breastfeed these rotten cells our best folk songs?)
We set alight wet stones as we rested our backs against them…
…I kept biting my lips, but never forgot the memory…
And as the moon fell into the night, I saw your smile in its eternal beauty
The rainbow shone on your forehead and its greeting was a declaration
…then that moment lost all sense of time and the door opened
The silenced suddenly arose and spirits soared like rain-birds.”

Next Installment: PEN Journey 17: Gathering in Helsingør

 

From China to Syria, repressive nations are cracking down hard on digital dissidents.

From The Christian Science Monitor

Washington – Eleanor Roosevelt never imagined the Internet.

Neither did the other framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago when they enshrined the right to freedom of expression. Yet they wisely left room for just such a development by declaring in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Today, the Internet is both the vehicle and the battleground for freedom of expression around the world. The struggle between writers and governments over this free flow of information has escalated this past year and promises to intensify. Those supporting open frontiers for ideas and information need to be on high alert and take steps necessary to protect those silenced and to keep the Internet unencumbered.

Last year became the first time that more Web journalists were jailed than those working in any other medium, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
China, Burma, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe have led the clampdown. They have arrested writers, blocked websites and Internet access, set strict rules on cyber cafes, and tracked writers’ work. In response, some writers have used proxy search engines, encryption, and other methods to try to get around censorship and detection.
“As in the cold war [when] you had an Iron Curtain, there is concern that authoritarian governments, led by China, are developing a Virtual Curtain,” says Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “There will be a free Internet on one side and a controlled Internet on the other. This will impede the free flow of information worldwide.”

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