The Writers and Free Expression project explores the role writers play in defending free expression in today’s globally interconnected world. Focusing on writers organisations, most significantly International PEN, the project considers the history of writers’ activism since 1921 and the current challenges writers face in defending free expression. The project brings together scholars, writers and activists with particular expertise in three geo-political areas, the UK, South Africa and India, to investigate these questions in their international dimensions.
#100PENMembers No.100: Carles Torner
Well, our 100th member could only really be Carles Torner, Catalan poet, human rights activist, Director of PEN International and the Director of PEN International’s Centenary programme.
Torner has had a tremendous impact on the organisation over the past twenty years, serving on PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee and advocating for writers in prison across the world.
He joined PEN in 1984 shortly after the publication of his first two books, and aged 21.
Torner has worked with a range of human rights organisations in his career but is also a poet, translator and activist. Born in Barcelona, his first job was based in Paris, working as a consultant who fed back to the Human Rights Council and UNESCO.
Torner’s impact on PEN has been important in many ways, but it is in the area of linguistic rights that he has been particularly significant. The question of literary representation and rights was a very live one from the very beginning of PEN’s history. When the first PEN centres were created in the early 1920s, they sprang up in cities and often represented particular literary and linguistic communities and traditions that cut across the nation state, as well as the attendant idea of national literatures. From the very start, for instance, there were two, completely independent PEN Centres in Spain, one in Barcelona, representing Catalan writers and writing, and one in Madrid.
Nearly a hundred years later, PEN continues to be an organisation whose internationalism acknowledges distinct literatures within nation states. As a Catalan writer, Torner has been pivotal to furthering this understanding and exploring its implications. In an interview with Co-Investigator on this project, Peter McDonald, he describes: ‘the PEN International Congress in Oslo in 1928, where, from what I have read, it was decided that PEN Centres would be recognised not according to states but according to literatures. For me, this is very important, and helps explain my involvement, because this creates another world map.’
For Torner, PEN, and the other NGOs with whom he has been involved throughout a lifetime of activism, have furthered a globalism that recognises the importance of independent literary and linguistic rights within nation states. ‘I feel at home’, he has stated, ‘in a kind of internationality that for 99pc of my friends and for the citizens of Catalonia does not exist. For them international life always goes through Madrid and always with a lot of obstacles that I simply have never felt […] I have never found myself having to confront Spain at an international level; also I have never been supported by Spain at an international level. So that is very peculiar and that explains why, as a Catalan writer, I have felt at home in PEN from the first day and able to participate fully in its international life.’
This passion has underpinned Torner’s important work on linguistic rights. He describes how, at first, translation and linguistic rights were not his key areas of interest. It was while attending a meeting in Majorca in May 1993 that, hearing the stories of minorities from Kenya to Scotland, Basque country to Quebec, he realised what a profound issue this was within the organisation and the wider world. Word soon got out and, as Torner describes, he was suddenly in touch with ‘the research world, all the writers and translators of PEN, and UNESCO officially acknowledging [and] offering the first economic support of the project.’
He went on to work with 61 NGOs, 41 PEN Centres and 40 experts in linguistic rights from across the world on what would become the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights in 1996. For Torner, free expression and linguistic rights are inseparable.
Citing Article 1 of the Declaration, Torner describes ‘as soon as we agreed a definition of “linguistic community”, [one] that could be subject of right, then everything fell into place.’
It was this idea of a linguistic community, as that which might connotate a territorial, a cultural, a social but not necessarily national connection, which those gathered felt that it was essential to protect.
Torner is currently the Director of the PEN Centenary, and therefore the perfect person to end our #100PENMembers.
Read about some of the influential figures from across the world who have influenced the growth of PEN from its founder Catharine Amy Dawson Scott to Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, Tstisi Dangarembga to Salman Rushdie our other #100PENMembers.
#100PENMembers No. 99: Majid Khadduri
Majid Khadduri was a member of the Baghdad PEN centre from the 1930s onwards, and became the Director of Iraqi PEN in 1951.
Khadduri was to become a key global figure in the study of International Relations and the politics of the Middle East, with an academic career spanning seventy years. After studying at the American University in Lebanon, he returned to his birthplace in Mosul in 1932 before going to live in Baghdad where he joined the Iraqi PEN organisation. He would continue to be a member of Baghdad PEN for many years, and became its director in the 1950s. From the early 1940s he was an authoritative figure in international politics, during 1940-1941 preparing the White Book report used by the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs in negotiation with Britain, and in 1945 becoming the Iraqi delegate to the founding of the United Nations, working on the Trusteeship Committee and the Regional Arrangements Committee. He would go on to be a key thinker on Islamic history and in the emerging academic field of international relations.
At the 1936 Buenos Aries PEN Congress, at the age of 27, he took to the floor to participate in a debate about literature’s relationship to politics and human rights, a debate in which Jacques Maritain also featured prominently. Khadduri argued that there was an intellectual ‘crisis’ at the current time, a crisis that the PEN organisation itself would be well advised to address.
Khadduri identified two key aspects of this crisis. First, he criticised the claim that art is important for its own sake. Second, he attacked those who propagate ideas that serve the interests of a vested class. The masses, he declared, are left out of both of these approaches to knowledge. Their identification with ‘movements of a reactionary character’, according to Khadduri, is understandable when ‘we publicly and emphatically declare that we think and write, that is, that we apply our intelligence just for the sake of thinking and writing’.
His second main contribution was to argue that intellectuals needed to strip bare their prejudicial categories that filter the world. The writer, he declared, should speak the truth, and recoil from letting their intelligence be poisoned with ‘egoistic nationalism, sectarianism, or racial differences.’ It is only when intellectuals speak pragmatically and without prejudice that they will restore the prestige of intelligence. Khadduri’s intervention was greeted with ‘loud applause’ from the audience.
He would go on to write a number of influential essays and books on human rights, including his influential essay of 1946, ‘Human Rights in Islam’. Here he argued that human rights were both necessary in the new world order; but he also identified the difficulties faced by Islamic countries in adapting the Koran, which he called their ‘fixed bill of rights’ to the commands of Universal rights. In one of his first books, War and Peace in the Law of Islam which was published in England in 1941, and then republished in an expanded version in 1955, he elaborated on the specific problems faced by Islamic nations in adapting to the United Nations and Universal rights. Modern Islamic states, in order to enter the United Nations, have had to adapt their understanding of Islamic law to an existing system of foreign relations and international co-operation. Their participation ‘in promoting stable world order and international co-operation’ has required a significant amount of adaptation.
Khadduri’s early work on this, at a time when human rights were being discussed and reconceived on an international level through organisations such as the UN, offered a crucial voice for the Arab world within the unfolding international human rights debate.
#100PENMembers No. 98: Salil Tripathi
Salil Tripathi is an author, award-winning journalist, and a human rights campaigner who currently chairs PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.
Tripathi, who was born in Bombay/Mumbai and moved to London in 1999, has also been a board member of English PEN, and previously worked for Amnesty International where he took part in missions to Nigeria and Bosnia, developing policy on complicity, privatisation and corruption.
He credits his interest in human rights and free expression to his years in Bombay and especially to the Indian Emergency(1975–77) which gave Indira Gandhi authority to lead by decree, suspended civil liberties and resulted in widespread censorship of the press. In 2009, he published Offence: The Hindu Case, about the rise of Hindu nationalism and its implications on free expression; in 2015, Detours: Songs of the Open Road, which is a travelogue about places that have been affected by violence, conflict or human rights challenges, and in 2016, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy, on the 1971 Bangladesh war of Independence from Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands civilians were killed.
Despite his years with PEN and as a free expression activist, Tripathi recently became a victim of censorship: On 6 December 2020 his Twitter account was suspended, just hours after he posted a video of himself reading a poem he had written about his late mother and referencing the anniversary of the controversial demolition of the Babri Masjid in North India by a mob of Hindu nationalists. He had also recently used his Twitter to discuss an article on Indian foreign policy and the erosion of democracy in India. Another Twitter account run by a pro-government group in India claimed responsibility for the suspension. The group operates to de-platform critics of India’s ruling BJP government, often targeting their social media account to shut down debate and censor criticism. The suspension caused widespread condemnation among the free expression community and was condemned by Irene Kahn the current United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and her predecessor David Kaye as well as #100PENMembers, acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie and Indian politician and writer Shashi Tharoor. Although the account was reinstated, the suspension highlighted the continued curtailments of free expression in India.
Tripathi said: ‘Twitter is a private space which creates the illusion of being a public space, which it clearly is not, and takes decisions on free speech and human rights that it does not have the mandate, expertise, or capacity for. It has the right to do what it wishes and to set its terms. It will be judged by whether it is capable of acting in a fair manner – in my case it hasn’t, but I’m hardly alone to say this.’
He used the suspension, characteristically, to draw attention to the writers and journalists around the world and in India who had been jailed and even murdered for their work. As the Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, Tripathi is only too familiar with these cases. The Committee is responsible for tracking the cases of writers facing prosecution all over the world, an enormous job and one with often little in terms of results. He described this work (also retracing his biographical and intellectual journey; his involvement with PEN and with the Writers in Prison Committee; and his diagnostis on the Indian situation) in a recent interview with Co-Investigator on this project, Laetitia Zecchini in 2018: ‘There are some writers who have been freed from prison and who have expressed their appreciation through letters. We have often received moving letters of thanks from writers once they are free again. Ngugi wa Thiong’ o has recently told us how much our letters meant to him when he was in jail. Ma Thida who is a Burmese writer and has now set up PEN Myanmar, she has always said that she treasured the fact that writers around the world were concerned about her fate. So there is that important part of it.’
Tripathi’s work with the Writers in Prison Committee remains central to PEN’s mission and has been throughout the last century – from the early days lobbying on behalf of writers like Lorca and Koestler during the Spanish Civil War to the tragic death of Liu Xiaobo. With the rise of authoritarian regimes across the globe, it looks set to remain so as PEN moves into its second century.
#100PENMembers No. 97: Erich Maria Remarque
Erich Maria Remarque was one of German PEN’s most significant literary exiles. His most important novel Im Westen Richts Neues, published in 1929, was famously translated into English by A. W. Wheen as All Quiet on the Western Front.
He was an early member of Berlin PEN, which in the late 1920s was one of the largest PEN centres. Seen as leading the way in Germany’s cultural rehabilitation on the European stage, Berlin PEN was viewed as an important intellectual organisation and its activities were prominently reported and promoted in German newspapers.
By the late 1920s, the Berlin PEN centre, with 400 members, was second only to the London branch in size. It was also an outspoken, effective and active centre, instigating a widely reported protest against the suppression of the film of Remarque’s Im Westen Richts Neues, the pacificism of which was accused of being un-Germanic.
When the Nazis rose to power in the spring of 1933, Remarque’s writing was labelled as unpatriotic, was thrown into fires by Nazi students, and was banned in Germany, and in 1938 his German citizenship was revoked. Along with Ernst Toller, Remarque was one of the German exiles who attended the controversial 1933 Dubrovnik Congress when the Berlin PEN centre, which had been taken over by Nazis, was effectively thrown out of the PEN organisation.
Wells spoke passionately at this Congress about the need for PEN to adapt to the ‘novel conditions’ of the present political moment, and to revise what it was and what it stood for. It has been the profession of the PEN Club to ‘keep out of politics’ but can it, Wells asked, ‘when things are in this state?’
Remarque would continue to be connected to the German writers in exile centre, or the ‘Thomas Mann group’ as they were often called. He attended the 1939 New York PEN World’s Fair Event, which was attended by many writers in exile, and spoke under the title ‘How Can Culture Survive Exile?’
#100PENMembers No. 96: Stephen Spender
British poet and editor Stephen Spender was a PEN member from the 1930s onwards, and agreed to become English PEN President in 1976. He helped set up the free speech organisation, Index on Censorship in 1972.
It was after the Second World War that Spender first played a key role in PEN, as he liaised between PEN and the newly formed UNESCO, where he worked from 1947.
He wrote in 1947 to Hermon Ould that he had just been appointed to represent the UNESCO at the PEN Club Conference in Zurich, pointing out the potential connections between the two organisations: ‘UNESCO can be of use to the PEN Clubs and PEN Clubs of use to UNESCO.’ As he explained, he wanted to suggest to PEN members at the Congress how they might help in ‘the urgent tasks of reconstruction and re-education […] are foremost parts of [UNESCO’s] programme.’
Spender was also a regular at the refugee events of the 1950s. His involvement in the United Nations at this time made him an important point of contact for PEN although even he expressed his frustration at being unable to help refugees as much as he wished. In 1957 he wrote, in response to the Hungarian crisis of the previous year ‘I also had a telegram, a few days ago, from a group of Hungarian writers, asking me to protest to the Secretary General of the United Nations’ but adding ‘I have the feeling that protests only demonstrate one’s ineffectiveness.’
Nonetheless he suggested that PEN coordinate with the literary magazine Encounter – which he edited – to try to find ‘a demonstration more effective than putting one’s name to things.’ Certainly, Encounter frequently carried articles by PEN members or relating to PEN campaigns.
Spender liaised with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which funded many prestige publications, including Encounter magazine, and which was covertly funded by the CIA. While Spender always insisted he was unaware of the CIA’s funding of the CCF, others were less naïve. PEN members were wary of the possible links and unwilling to alienate their Soviet and Communist Centres, by forming too obvious or too public a relationship. For PEN International during that period, it seemed more important to keep up a dialogue with Communist authors or authors in Communist countries in order to help to influence and promote free expression than to push any hard ideological line, regardless of how financially lucrative that might prove to be.
In 1976 Spender agreed to take on the role of English PEN President, and hosted the PEN Congress in London in that year. In his speech, he spoke of the continued difficulties of the Cold War age, describing: ‘I think a lot of people feel that the purely literary discussions of the PEN Congresses are violated, traduced, ruined by people talking politics when they ought to be talking literature.’
He explained to the writers gathered from all over the world: ‘I don’t quite feel this partly because I think that whenever the word freedom is mentioned politics comes in. And whenever words like oppression and censorship are realities politics also come in.’
He went on to discuss PEN’s role in upholding its Charter and protecting free expression but also for the need to be flexible in interpreting the document, calling for a ‘hypocrisy’ in which PEN’s principles were always simultaneously upheld and undermined in order to promote the internationalism and freedom which the organisation sought to promote. In this, Spender hit on one of the major inconsistencies of the Cold War age, in which PEN’s free expression credentials had to be balanced with its commitment to discuss and uphold different points of view.
Spender continued to be involved with free expression campaigning until the end of his life, receiving in 1995 the Golden PEN Award from English PEN, in honour of his ‘lifetime’s distinguished service to literature’.
#100PENMembers No. 95: Antonia Fraser
Lady Antonia Fraser is another one of PEN’s incredible women, serving the organisation for decades as a member and as President of English PEN 1988-1990.
Fraser began her literary life in publishing, working for George Weidenfeld at Weidenfeld and Nicolson, whilst pursuing her own writing career. Her first major work was Mary, Queen of Scots (1969) and she went on to publish widely on history, particularly women’s history, winning the Wolfson History Award for The Weaker Vessel (1984) which documented women’s lives in seventeenth-century Britain. Her book Marie Antoinette: The Journey (2001) was adapted for the film Marie Antoinette (2006) by director Sofia Coppola, and starred Kirsten Dunst. She published her latest novel, The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton last month and continues to be a literary and intellectual force well into her eighties.
Whilst English PEN President, Fraser led opposition to the introduction of Section 28 in 1988 which sought to prevent the so-called promotion of homosexuality by local authorities in the UK. Fraser, and her fellow signatories the novelist Sybille Bedford, Harold Pinter and Michael Holroyd were outraged, writing to The Times that the ‘word “promote” is imprecise and as such highly dangerous’ and that this might permit libraries to ban or refuse to stock any books with any homosexual content at all. This was precisely as the British government had intended and their protests fell on deaf ears: The legislation was not over-turned until 2003 (2000 in Scotland).
Fraser was also President of English PEN during the Salman Rushdie case, taking the lead and the international spotlight in defending an English writer threatened with death as a result of his work.
On 24thFebruary 1989 Fraser even wrote to the Guardian newspaper noting how much English PEN had done to defend Rushdie, in response to an article claiming that the British literary establishment had been slow to act on the matter: ‘For the record, we sent a telegram to Rajiv Ghandi protesting against the banning of the book in October and in the same month attempted to engage in dialogue with the Moslem [sic] Council for Religious Tolerance on the subject of freedom of speech; protested against the Bradford book-burning in letters to the Press on 2 February’ and noting their letters to the British Prime Minister and Pinter’s own appearances on British and US television to discuss the matter. She added ‘it should be recorded that our firm but non-inflammatory position has received widespread Moslem [sic] support.’
Most recently, she awarded poet and Reggae legend Linton Kwesi Johnson the PEN Pinter Prize 2020, which honours writers like her late husband, the playwright Harold Pinter, who show ‘fierce intellectual determination….to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.’ The prize is given alongside the International Writer of Courage Award, selected by PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, in order to draw public attention to the struggles of a writer facing persecution or violence for their writing or their beliefs. This highlights a crucial part of PEN’s campaigning and one in which both Pinter and Fraser were heavily involved – Fraser is a former Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. This year’s International Writer of Courage was the Eritrean poet, critic and Editor of Zemen newspaper, Amanuel Asrat, who has been detained in high security prison since 2001.
At the ceremony Fraser remarked that, ‘on what would have been Harold’s 90th birthday, this is the perfect way to mark to memory of Harold, because, like him, the PEN Pinter Prize combines respect for great writing with an unquenchable concern for human rights.’
Her own ‘unquenchable concern for human rights’ has led Fraser to a lifetime of engaging with issues of free expression and writers’ rights all over the world, as one of English PEN’s most well-known and most influential members.
#100PENMembers No. 94: Sarojini Naidu
Sarojini Naidu was a prominent Indian writer, feminist, activist and civil rights campaigner, a brilliant orator, and a leading figure of the freedom struggle against British rule.
When the PEN India Center was founded in 1933, she served as one of its Vice Presidents of PEN, and replaced Rabindranath Tagore as president of the Indian organization, when he passed away in 1941, until her own death in 1949.
She won the Nizam’s scholarship to study at King’s College in London in the early 1890s, and in Cambridge, and was lauded as a poet exemplifying the highly-exoticised nineteenth century India. Her first collection of poems The Golden Threshold was published in 1905, with an introduction by Arthur Symons, her second by Edmund Gosse. Mahatma Gandhi called her ‘the Nightingale of India’ or ‘Bharat Kokila’.
Whilst studying in London she was an active suffragist. When she returned to India she became involved in the movement to overthrow British rule in India and became part of the Indian nationalist movement led by Gandhi. She joined the Indian National Congress in 1904 and was very active on women’s rights alongside trailblazing feminists such as Mithan Lam, Herabai Tata, and Annie Besant. In particular, she played a foundational role in shaping the Women’s India Association in 1917.
Naidu was awarded the Kaisar-I Hind Medal by the British government for her work during the plague epidemic in India but she returned it in April 1919 in protest at the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (Amritsar massacre) in which the British Indian Army, led by Acting Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians killing around 379 and injuring more than 1,200 people.
In 1929 Naidu presided over the East African and Indian Congress in South Africa where she was arrested alongside Gandhi and fellow early PEN member Jawaharlal Nehru. A leading figure in the Civil Disobedience Movement and the Quit India Movement, alongside Gandhi, she was repeatedly arrested by British authorities, spending more than 21 months in prison for her political activities.
She was appointed President of the Indian National Congress in 1925 and became Governor of the United Provinces in 1947. She was the first woman to hold the office of Governor in India, serving Uttar Pradesh from 1947 – when India finally gained independence from British rule – until her death in 1949.
Naidu’s significant contribution to art and politics in India is commemorated in the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication at the University of Hyderabad, formerly her father’s home.
Naidu, alongside her contemporary Sophia Wadia, represents the incredible feminist and political energy which characterised the women of Indian PEN in its early days, and took part in the most important meetings and conferences of the organization until her death. Her words, speeches and lectures are regularly featured in The Indian PEN newsletter. In 1936, she urged Sophia Wadia, sailing to the International PEN Congress in Argentina, to bring to the world the following message: that with its many languages, provinces, capitals and types of literatures, India could also ‘prove the reality of the word “unity”.’ And in her presidential addresses at the first and second All-Writers’ Conferences organized first in Jaipur in 1945, and then in Benares in 1947, she both stressed the ‘undivisible’, undivided heart of India, and urged writers to transcend ‘narrow nationalism’.
At the emotional “PEN Memorial meeting” held in her honour in Bombay, PEN members asserted that all of Sarojini Naidu’s life bore testimony to her faith in the ideals for which the PEN stood, and that they will never forget her ‘single-handed pioneering fight to uphold the freedom of expression”, when the British government’ banned Gandhi’s Hind Svaraj. By breaking the law and selling copies of the book, she was also telling the authorities that “freedom of expression is the divine birthright of every individual”.’
#100PEN Members No. 93: Rudolf Olden
Rudolf Olden was a German writer, journalist and lawyer, who acted as secretary of the German Exiles group of the PEN from January 1934 until 1940. After the Reichstag Fire, he fled Germany, and ended up in London. Here, he helped create the German writers in exile centre.
He lived in London during this time, and liaised with Hermon Ould, often around refugee issues.
He attended the 1934 Edinburgh Congress, and discussed the situation for writers and for PEN in Germany. He argued that PEN needed to take up a more robust stance against Germany. He defended the actions of Ernst Toller when he publicly criticised the German PEN Centre for its complicity with the Nazis, and also declared that it was the question of Germany which ‘at present moved the world very deeply and which I believe in future will be the main issue which will determine the course of the world.’ All the hot air about peace, he insisted, was irrelevant, demanding that PEN take firm action to condemn the actions of the Nazi government and all who lent them their support. He lamented that ‘the XIIth P.E.N. congress would go down to history probably as futile and neither hot nor cold’ because of its failure to act decisively against fascism.
Emil Ludwig lamented the fact that many PEN delegates could not understand Olden’s speech because of bad translation. However, he stated, ‘If you could not understand his language, you saw the trembling man, and you heard the trembling voice. You had before you in these moments the real symbol of these poor writers and thinkers who are exiled.’
In 1939 Hermon Ould enlisted Olden to help him guarantee the status of German refugees. As Ould stated, ‘we in the PEN Club are certainly in a position to give sound information on the subject of the refugee writers who have passed through our hands, or about those whom you and our other helpers are accurately informed.’ Ould continued, by insisting ‘I need not impress upon you the necessity for scrupulous care in dealing with this matter.’ Olden wrote to Ould in frustration, for instance, at the internment of the Amsterdam publisher Fritz Landshoff, who had worked at the anti-Nazi Querido publishers. He had accidentally been in Britain when the Nazis conquered Holland: ‘for his friends, he is above suspicion of any pro-Nazi sympathies.’ But, as Olden explains, ‘he was given “B” – qualification and so he was interned when the “B’s” were rounded up.’ Olden continued his letter by describing two German writers, given category “C” and “B”, who have recently been interned. By June 1940, Olden himself had been put under a curfew by the authorities, and his wireless seized so that ‘we are no more able to hear the new regulations pouring in continuously’. Ould endeavoured to help Olden, asking him to send the date of his application for naturalisation, reference numbers of any communications with the authorities, his date of arrival in England and his wife’s national status so that he could ‘make the necessary application to the Home Office’.
He died en route to the US in 1940. The ship in which he was sailing was attacked and sunk by the Nazis. Eight days before his death, he had written to Ould, handing on his PEN responsibilities, with lists of the ‘German Group’, or anti-Nazi writers, or the ‘Thomas Mann group’ as they were called. While the group began with Thomas Mann, Ernst Toller, Ludwig Renn and others as members, by the late 1930s, membership included Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht.
His successor, Friedrich Burschell spoke of the ‘tragic experience’ of going through Olden’s lists and portfolios of exiled writers. They revealed Olden’s indefatigable efforts, ‘to warn of dangers’, to offer his services and to ‘forward schemes’. As far as I can see, Burschell stated gloomily, ‘he never succeeded in anything’. He was met with friendly, but inactive responses. Now he has gone, as Burschell wrote, we have lost a friend, ‘liberal in every respect’.
#100PENMembers No. 92: J.B. Priestley
J.B. Priestley was one of PEN’s earliest members. The Yorkshire novelist and playwright also served as one of the first Presidents of English PEN, from 1937-1938 but he was often very ambivalent about PEN and his role in the organisation.
He spoke at the 1939 New York World’s Fair PEN event via the airwaves, making this, perhaps, PEN’s first virtual author appearance. When Hendrik van Loon introduced him over the radio, Priestley apparently exclaimed ‘My God! He’s early’. He delivered his speech, where he spoke of literature as ‘the art of noble persuasion’, arguing that writers should fight for democracy. He condemned what he saw as the two extremes faced by writers; of what he labelled the ‘ivory-tower attitude’, on the one hand, and the requirement to be political, what he described as the necessity to describe ‘the death agonies of the International Brigade on all occasions.’ He said that ‘some writers had allowed the world’s cruelty to seep into their work’, but also defended the ‘right of the author to deal with current affairs.
He lent his name to ‘To the Conscience of the World’ the 1940 letter which appealed especially to America to stand with Europe where ‘inasmuch as we are fighting for the consciences of our children we are fighting for the people of every nation, without exception’, and to countless other campaigns throughout his life.
He was one of the earliest supporters of the PEN Refugee Fund – as one of the organisations’ most successful members, both professionally and financially. He also acted as guarantor to vast numbers of refugees. Again, his comparative financial solvency was an advantage here – one letter from the administrator of the fund begged him to guarantor an Austrian writer’s visa, stating simply that ‘Storm Jameson would have done it… if her overdraft at the bank had been smaller.’
However, Priestley was always pessimistic about the future of the organisation, writing to Hermon Ould in 1943 that ‘while I think the P.E.N. represents a good idea, I have no confidence in its future. I have never at any time felt easy in it in the past because although there would good people in the movement, it had a habit of attract- [sic] a certain type of inferior author and, with a few exceptions, I never felt that its functions here or in America really were represented by my profession.
‘My own feeling is that the whole P.E.N. situation ought to be carefully reviewed. I should like to see an international society of authors established after the War, but I feel extremely doubtful now if the present P.E.N. is the best foundation for such a society.’
Ould invited him to lunch with himself and Storm Jameson to try to assuage his doubts, but Priestley’s correspondence was often coloured by negativity about PEN and its work, in spite of his generous personal and financial support of many of its campaigns.
Nonetheless, he seems to have been persuaded to stay and into the 1950s continued his work with PEN, arranging a lecture tour on ‘The Art of the Dramatist’ with the British Council to raise money for Hungarian writers and intellectuals. Despite his hostility toward PEN at several points in his life, Priestley’s better nature always compelled him to help and to support PEN when it mattered.
#100PENMembers No. 91: Stella Nyanzi
Stella Nyanzi is a academic, activist and feminist working in Uganda. She has frequently faced imprisonment because of her outspoken criticism of the country’s President.
Nyanzi is a medical anthropologist at Makerere University and has published widely on issues relating to culture, health, law, gender and sexuality. She is an outspoken activist for women’s rights as well as for LGBT rights and around sexual health issues, particularly AIDS.
In 2017 Nyanzi launched the #Pads4girlsUg Project which raised money for sanitary products for Ugandan schoolgirls. Her first arrest involved a poem which she wrote about the First Lady and Cabinet Minister for Education Janet Museveni and her husband, the President, prompted by the government’s refusal to provide sanitary pads in schools.
Until recently she has been serving an 18-month sentence in Uganda for another poem she wrote criticising the country’s President and implying that the country would be better off if he had not been born. She was imprisoned under the Computer Misuse Act 2011, which Amnesty International has criticised publicly because it is most frequently deployed to imprison those who are publicly critical of the government.
Nyanzi frequently uses the traditional Uganda strategy of “radical rudeness”, which was developed as a response and disruptive device to British colonial rule. Her satirical poems, published on social media perform a crucial purpose in using this “radical rudeness” and often shocking imagery, to draw attention to the inconsistencies of the Ugandan dictatorial regime.
In 2020 Nyanzi was awarded the Oxfam Novib/ PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression. It recognised the breadth of her work as an academic, activist and feminist. In a speech smuggled out of prison Nyanzi wrote that: ‘Unlawful laws are used in unjust courts to punish citizens whose only crime is exercising their constitutional freedom to write boldly about the dictatorship.’
She added: ‘My custodial sentence in a maximum security prison highlights how fearful this dictator and his cronies are of writers. Isn’t the pen, indeed, mightier than the sword?’
PEN International President Jennifer Clement said of the award: ‘At PEN we believe unshakeably in the need for writers to be able to criticise, parody, and mock at the highest levels. This award recognises the work she has done for women, civil society, and in the defence of free expression. We will continue to amplify her voice until she is released.’
The award was accepted on behalf of Dr Nyanzi by PEN Uganda President Danson Kahyana ‘Dr Stella Nyanzi’s winning of the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression Award is good news not only to her, but to all freedom of expression defenders in Uganda and elsewhere, for it shows that demonising and harassing a courageous writer does not signal their vocal death.’
An Empty Chair was used to symbolise her presence in light of her continued imprisonment.
Although she has now been released, in February 2021 Nganzi fled to Kenya following the abduction of several fellow activists in Uganda. Speaking with CNN she said: ‘I fled to get my voice back, I fled to get my mind back. I fled to get my freedom back.’