#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.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights

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. 30: Dorothy Thompson

Dorothy Thompson was PEN America President from 1936 until 1939. Famous for her Suffragette activism and cutting-edge political journalism, as well as a radio broadcaster, she headed up the Berlin Bureau of the New York Post from the late 1920s, and was notoriously the first American journalist to be expelled from Germany when the Nazis took control. 

Along with Eleanor Roosevelt, she was famously viewed as one of the two most influential American women of the 1930s. On her return to New York in the mid-1930s, she took up the reins at PEN America, and was thereby central to the organisation during a key period in its history. 

During her time in Berlin, Thompson had befriended many writers and fellow PEN members, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Bertolt Brecht, all of whom were forced into exile from 1933, and would end up in the US. As the 1930s unfolded, she was responsible for using PEN networks, structures and funds to help with what was an escalating refugee problem. 

Her other significant contribution was in using her journalistic connections, understanding and clout to publicise and promote PEN’s activities. She presided over the PEN World Congress of Writers that formed part of the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Under the by-line ‘World Congress of Writers: Dedicated to the Basic Freedoms’, writers from all around the world attended the Congress, as well as a rosta of famous PEN writers in exile including Thomas Mann, Ernst Toller, Sholem Asch, Pedro Salinas, André Maurois, Jules Romains, Erich Maria Remarque and Lin Yutang. 

With glamorous photographs of writers wining and dining at the Plaza Hotel, and a dedicated ‘Hospitality Committee’, the event received impressive press coverage in Time magazine, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and other publications. Thompson was quoted as pointing out the power of the ‘writer’s tool, the word, which seems so weak but is strong.’ She continued: ‘Time and again in history’, ‘words have opened doors, they have shamed the powerful, they have mobilised nations, they have held together the discouraged and oppressed, they have tamed and civilised’. 

Time magazine aptly concluded of the PEN event and its discussions that ‘literary fashion’ has ‘changed…Clearly, the ivory tower had no place in the streamlined architecture of the 1939 World’s Fair: it had crashed into 55 pieces’. 

Thompson’s canny understanding of how to use the press and new media to promote PEN’s activities was crucial at this key moment in the organisation’s history. 

Read more about PEN’s work with refugees.

#100PENMembers No.23: Karel Čapek

The Prague PEN centre was one of the most active and successful in Europe from 1923 to 1938 and the globally prestigious playwright and novelist Karel Čapek was at the heart of this success.

The Club received a great deal of support from the Czechoslovakian government and boasted as members prominent Czech political and cultural figures, including the new Czech President, Tomáš Masaryk and his successor Edvard Beneš. In 1938 the International PEN Congress was held in Prague. 

Karel Čapek

When Dawson Scott wrote to him to ask him to create a Prague Centre in 1923,  Čapek was basking in his recent successes on the international theatre scene. His dystopian play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920), which he wrote with his brother Josef, had been translated into thirty languages by 1923, premiered in New York in 1922 and in London in April 1923. R. U. R. is famous for its coining of the word robot, from the Czech word robota meaning work and robotnik meaning worker, a linguistic transposition that has had a lasting impact on the English language. 

He replied to Dawson Scott by commending her on ‘such a sympathetic and useful idea’, the Prague centre was established that year and the following year PEN invited him to London in 1924, where they organised a lavish lunch at Gatti’s restaurant to honour Čapek, with over a hundred guests. Čapek, speaking in halting English, charmingly reflected on the role of writers in creating ‘unity’ in the world: they had ‘the right and the mission to help and to promote mutual understanding among human beings.’

Two years after the Gatti lunch, however, Čapek was forced to deal with literary and linguistic disunity in the new Czechoslovakian state that had been created in the post-war settlement. He confronted the desire of German speaking writers in Prague to found a separate German-language PEN centre. Čapek wrote in anguished terms to Ould insisting that having two Prague centres, ‘one for authors writing in Czech the other for authors writing in German’ would undermine one of the chief purposes of the P.E.N. Club which is, as he put it, ‘to promote the bringing together of the different nationalities.’  

There were two kinds of nationalism at work here. One aspired to represent the new territorial Czech sovereignty created after the war; the other was grounded in an imagined polity rooted in linguistic identity. While this was a particularly vexed question in Prague, where the dominant literary language was German, the issue was not confined to Czechoslovakia. The conflict between these different understandings of internationalism was one of the main preoccupations of International PEN in the mid to late 1920s. 

Čapek would continue to play a formative role in the Prague PEN centre, and internationally. He agreed to become International PEN President in 1936 before ill health prevented him from taking up the post. Three months before the Munich Settlement of 30thSeptember 1938 in which the International Community agreed to German demands to annex the Sudetenland frontier areas of Czechoslovakia, the International PEN Congress was held in Prague. 

It had been touch and go whether the Congress would go ahead, but to Čapek and the other Czech writers, the event was an essential final opportunity to publicise the Czech cause in the face of increasing Nazi aggression. Writers such as English PEN President Storm Jameson, who attended the conference, describe their discomfort at visiting Czechoslovakia when the Allies had, she felt, betrayed Czechoslovakia in the agreement at Munich.

The Czech Centre – which received a good deal of funding from the Czech government – laid on lavish meals and characteristically warm hospitality but events were haunted by tensions around Czechoslovakia’s future and the role that the Allies and even writers from Allied countries might play in helping them in the event of future Nazi onslaught. Jameson fictionalises events at the Congress in her novel Europe to Let (1940), describing how ‘excited by plum brandy, the writers were swearing to defend Czechoslovakia.’ She feared that their promises were empty and their power to save the Czechs, limited.

When Nazi tanks rolled into Prague a year later, Čapek was number two on their list of public enemies who needed to be located. They swiftly tracked him down to his house but were surprised, when they arrived, to discover that he was already dead, having expired rather suddenly of pneumonia on 25thDecember 1938. They promptly took his wife, Olga, instead. 

#100PENMembers No. 21: Mulk Raj Anand

One of the foremost writers and modernists of India, who helped to shape and define the cultural, artistic and critical scene before and after independence, Mulk Raj Anand was also a champion of India’s freedom struggle, a staunch internationalist, a lifelong humanist, and a member of the Indian PEN. 

Mulk Raj Anand Photo: National Portrait Gallery, UK

Born in Peshawar (now Pakistan), he went to England in 1924 and received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of London in 1929. He began his literary career in England, and was associated with the Bloomsbury group. A prolific writer, he first gained recognition for his novels, many of which articulated his sympathy for the poorest and most marginalized segments of society, such as Untouchable (1935, with a foreword by another of the prominent #100PENMembers E.M. Forster) and Coolie (1936). These were concerns that would dominate his life and writing. 

Part of the anti-fascist movement, he fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. His staunch anti-colonial and anti-fascist political beliefs were closely connected. Not only, he acknowledged, were Indians “accepted as equals for the first time in England” during the anti-fascist movement, but fascist repression paralleled colonial repression – and they also command the same resistance. 

‘We, the writers of India, know how the forces of repression and censorship have thwarted the development of a great modern tradition in the literatures of our country; we saw the ugly face of Fascism in our country earlier than the writers of the European countries …’ 

(“On the Progressive Writers’ Movement”, 1939) 

It was also the spirit of anti-colonial resistance that animated his speech at the first All-India Writers’ Conference organized by the PEN in Jaipur in 1945: “As intensely as other people – as intensely as the resistance movement in France – we do hunger for and suffer for freedom.”

He participated in the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Paris (1935), and in 1936 he co-founded the influential ‘Progressive Writers’ Association’ in London, whose manifesto (first written in English, then then translated into various Indian languages) asked writers to confront the realities of Indian life, to criticize the ‘spirit of reaction’ in India, and commit to ‘further the cause of Indian freedom and social regeneration’. A year afterwards he co-organized the first All-India Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow (1936) 

Straddling different worlds, he was also an important member of different national and international political/cultural/literary organisations that are often seen as being at different ends of the ideological spectrum. An important member of the World Peace Congress, and of its Indian branch the All-India Congress for Peace, he became one of the important leaders of the peace moment in India and abroad. He also worked extremely closely with Communist-backed progressive cultural organisations such as the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (AI PWA) and the Indian People’s Theatre Organization (IPTA). One of the driving forces behind the first Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in Delhi in 1956 (for which he obtained Nehru’s support) that laid the groundwork for the Afro-Asian Writers Association and its successive conferences – the first one, of which he was part, was held in Tashkent in 1958 – he was also a prominent member of the PEN and participated in most of its major conferences in India. 

In 1946 he founded and long edited one of the most important magazines in India, Marg, devoted to the arts, and which is still published today. He also launched and organized the first Triennale India in Delhi (1968). 

#100PENMembers No.18: Wole Soyinka

Our writer for today is the Nobel Prize winning author and playwright, Wole Soyinka. First as an imprisoned writer who required defending, and then as a literary activist working to protect other writers, Soyinka is one of the most important figures in the organisation’s history.

Since the mid-1960s Soyinka’s writing has confronted tyrannical governmental authority, first in his native Nigeria, where he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years for his criticism of the Yakubu Gowon’s government, and then in countries across the world. As he put it, ‘books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.’

On Soyinka’s imprisonment in 1967 International PEN acted quickly. Arthur Miller, International PEN President at the time, dispatched Peter Elstob to Nigeria to gather information and make the case for his freedom. At the International PEN Congress in Menton, France, David Carver, International PEN Secretary, reported back on the success of Elstob’s trip. Despite his efforts over several days, Elstob had not been ‘permitted to see Soyinka, and he was understood still to be in prison and to be suffering from a disease of the eyes’. 

Elstob’s endeavours were followed-up by cables from both the American and English PEN centres to the Nigerian Government. The Congress expressed dismay that Soyinka has never appeared in court to address the charges against him. They decided to continue to rally the British and Nigerian governments. 

Soyinka was finally released in 1969, when the Nigerian Civil War ended and an amnesty was declared, and not – as PEN myth proclaims – because Gowon received a telegram from Arthur Miller and was star-struck into fulfilling a request from Marilyn Monroe’s husband.

As with many of its efforts on behalf of writers in prison PEN’s influence lay in ensuring that Soyinka’s name was brought to the attention of the world-wide public. It was the beginning of Soyinka’s life-long connection to the organisation. 

Soyinka acknowledged these connections, as well as the power of literary naming, in his lecture for the Sixth Annual PEN America Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, delivered in 2011. He spoke of his appreciation of the human rights organisations who bore witness to his own imprisonment; and the importance more broadly of writers bearing witness to and publicising the names of the imprisoned. 

Recognising the multiple meanings of the word freedom, from the ‘freedom to cow-tow to power’ to the ‘freedom of exile’, which ‘for some is no freedom at all’, he was also sober about the protests of the ‘literary tribe’ which can often be so much ‘sound and fury’, signifying nothing. However, writers can sometimes mobilise their power to challenge authority through the power of the name and the word. Relating his experience of visiting Tunisia in 2011 to give a lecture on behalf of International PEN, he described the moment he spoke the names of imprisoned dissident writers, including Taoufik Ben Brik. The authorities, believing in the power of Soyinka’s public declaration of the names of the imprisoned, immediately extinguished the lights.

For Soyinka, this moment reveals both the authoritarian state’s belief in the power of the word, and the responsibilities of writers to defend other writers. The names of dissidents, as he put it, ‘have meaning’ in such contexts. Soyinka’s literary anti-authoritarianism and experiences of imprisonment make him one of the most insightful writers in identifying the limits, and the power of authors. He continues to be a powerful activist in defence of free expression.

#100PENMembers No.17: Hermon Ould

Today’s PEN member is one of the unsung heroes of the organisation, labouring behind the scenes in the early days, he was instrumental to the shaping of PEN.

Hermon Ould served as Secretary of English and International PEN from the beginnings of the organisation until his death in 1951.

A photograph of a bust of Hermon Ould in 1938 by his friend the sculptor Christine Gregory, currently held at the Victoria and Albert Museum

During Ould’s time PEN grew from a dining club for writers to an influential international organisation. The poet and dramatist gave up his own promising career as a writer to guide and fashion the fledgling organisation through its early years.

Although International Presidents often had limited time in which to serve, the International Secretary position was so onerous that once a candidate agreed, they often held the position until they were forced to withdraw due to ill-health (or instincts of self-preservation!)

In this role they provided a central point for Centres around the world, as well as acting as a secretary to English PEN, organising all of the international events and overseeing PEN’s dealings with international organisations such as the UN.

This meant that figures such as Ould and his successor David Carver had a very significant influence on shaping PEN, often over several decades, and provided a steadying influence and sense of continuity through the choppy political waters of the twentieth century.

Hermon Ould (right) with John Galsworthy and C.A. Dawson Scott, founder of PEN

Ould became Secretary to the English Centre and International Secretary at the Berlin Congress in 1926 (following a brief tenure by Dawson Scott’s daughter Marjorie Watts) –  roles which he made his own and which ideally suited his personality: His friend Beatrice Webb said that Hermon’s greatest gift was for friendship and his ability to befriend but also to bring together writers from across the world was transformative for PEN.

It was Ould, working under various English and International Presidents, who spearheaded campaigns, such as the Refugee Fund which he and Storm Jameson launched in the 1930s.

At the end of that decade he helped to calm the waters between the pacifist sections of PEN and those who saw another war as essential in ridding Europe of the scourge of Nazism.

It was Ould who helped organise one hugely successful Congress and two conferences in war-torn London – the 1941 International Congress, the Coming of Age Conference celebrating PEN’s 21st birthday in 1942 and the Milton Areopagitica Conference (celebrating 300 years since this ground-breaking publication on early censorship and free speech) in 1944.

His wartime work was such that members fundraised in 1945 to hold a dinner in his honour and even raised money to give Ould a small bonus, a generous cheque to thank him for the countless extra hours he put in for the organisation during the war.

Writing to encourage members to donate and to attend, writer and PEN member L. Steni describes Ould as serving PEN with ‘single hearted devotion’ often to the detriment of his own literary career.

He goes on to point out that ‘that we have emerged from the years of conflict with increased prestige (and also augmented responsibilities) is due, for the most part to Hermon Ould.’

Ould’s letters show him as gatekeeper, organiser, friend, literary agent, confidant and much more to PEN’s many English members and to others across the world.

Ould served as Secretary to the English Centre and International Secretary until his death in 1951, which left the organisation reeling.

It was Ould’s close friend David Carver who stepped into his role, himself convinced that Ould was irreplaceable.

A true internationalist, it is no overestimation to say that Ould’s influence on PEN – due to his longstanding role and his unique personality – made him as influential a force in shaping the organisation as Galsworthy, Wells and Dawson-Scott herself.

#100PENMembers No.6: Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa, an honorary member of American PEN with close ties to the American West branch, was the first of our #PEN100Members to need the organisation’s help when he was imprisoned for his environmental campaigning.

Ken Saro Wiwa

Many of Saro-Wiwa’s 1970s and 1980s works, most prominently his play Transistor Radio and his novel Sozaboy, which dealt with the Biafran War, were political. By the early 1990s he had begun to focus his politics into direct environmental and civil rights activism, particularly the defence of the land of the minority Ogoni people of Nigeria, of whom he was a key member. Their land needed protection from the environmental destruction caused by the excavation of crude oil by the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company, which had struck oil on the Ogoni land in 1958 and since then extracted an estimated $30bn worth of oil, with no formal compensation of the Ogoni for the loss of their land or livelihoods.

Because Saro-Wiwa’s international profile as a writer meant that his protests had global reach, he was seen as particularly troublesome by the Nigerian government and he endured several spells of imprisonment as a result of his activism. 

In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa and several fellow activists were arrested, accused of murder by the Nigerian government.

PEN, as well as trying to support Saro Wiwa through statements and letters to the press, also developed its strategy of getting members to write to him in prison to keep his spirits up. Writing to prisoners remains a key part of the organisation’s work, with prisoners often commenting on how important such contact can be. Saro-Wiwa even managed to have several letters smuggled out of the prison thanking them for their efforts and writing that with their support he would survive his unjust imprisonment.

Letter from Ken Sara Wiwa to English PEN February 1995, from the International PEN Archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. Appears courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

In this typed-up version of a letter he had smuggled out of jail in 21stFebruary 1995, he expresses his thanks to International PEN for its work on his behalf, saying that he is ‘in good spirits’ and that he hopes that ‘with your support I’ll survive my travails.’

PEN and other organisations such as Amnesty International and Article 19 lobbied governments across the world for Saro-Wiwa’s release, including Sani Abacha’s Nigerian government. They even approached Shell for support but their protests fell on deaf ears. 

On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and several other Ogoni leaders were executed after a short trial. British Prime Minister John Major described the case as ‘judicial murder’.

Our Case Study, compiled from information held in the PEN International Archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, tells the story in greater detail.

PEN continues to appeal to the Nigerian government to overturn the murder conviction.

Most importantly, Saro-Wiwa’s tragic case became symbolic of the plight of writers and activists in prison across the world.

In mid-November every year PEN’s international community come together to focus their thoughts and efforts on writers in prison around the world. They call it day of the Imprisoned Writer (15th Nov). Its proximity to the anniversary of Ken’s execution makes it all the more poignant. Read more about PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee here.

#100PENMembers No.5: Margaret Atwood

With Twitter deciding, this weekend, to ban Donald Trump permanently from its platform, and Amazon pulling support for Parler, the so-called ‘free speech’ social network, the issue of online speech and its limits has reached a crisis point. 

Portrait by Alasdair McLellan for The Gentlewoman

The dangers posed by the sheer reach and power of Trump’s online speech were predicted by many, including our PEN member for today, Margaret Atwood. She admitted in 2018 that there were horrifying similarities between the fictional state of Gilead in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale and Trump’s Presidency: ‘We’re not living in Gilead, but there are Gilead-like symptoms going on’. 

But the issue of online censorship is complex. For some, the decision by social media companies to censor Trump’s words has come far too late. Others, including Angela Merkel, who clearly condemned the violent attack on the Capitol last week, have nevertheless questioned the fact that it is social media companies who are deciding on the limits to expression. 

Not even Atwood could have predicted that, along with her fictional handmaid’s costumes becoming a global symbol for feminist pro-choice demonstrators they have also, during the COVID pandemic, been appropriated by Trump-supporting, far-right protestors at anti-quarantine rallies. 

But it has also been a feature of recent history that the right to free speech itself has become politicised and weaponised by the extreme right, appealed to as a so-called ‘American’ or ‘Western’ value connected to constitutional history, and defined against anti-Western cultures and progressive liberal values. 

What are the implications for novelists and poets, who have long defended the rights of writers to free speech? How can free speech be reclaimed as a progressive value? 

When Atwood first started work for Canadian PEN in the early 1980s the organisation, as she wrily described it, consisted of  ‘no money and some postage stamps and dining room tables.’ 

A pivotal member since those modest early days when PEN Canada had recently moved from Montreal to its new home in Toronto, Atwood has been very active in both PEN USA and PEN Canada. She now serves as a PEN International Vice President whilst retaining her membership of both Centres.

As the award-winning author of thirty works of fiction, poetry and critical essays, and one of the most important writers of the last sixty years, she has consistently used her global voice in PEN to represent and publicise the plight of persecuted, imprisoned and censored writers. As she put it, she acts as ‘a stand-in for the thousands of people around the world who speak and act against [human rights] abuses’. 

The policing of language and behavior, as well as the solidarity and pleasures ignited by the free use of language, are central to many of her novels, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and The Testaments (2019). Campaigning for free expression has also been an integral part of Atwood’s life.  She won PEN’s Pinter Prize in 2016 in recognition of her work defending writer’s rights. On accepting the award, she nominated Ahmedu Rashid Chowdhury for the international prize, after the publisher from Bangladesh survived a machete and gun attack by Islamic extremists.

The Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses affair in 1989 was a turning-point for literary free speech debates, and it was significant for Atwood. She put her name to the PEN Rushdie petition which was signed by writers from all over the world. The letter was circulated widely to global newspapers, was presented to the United Nations and sent to Iranian representatives. She also addressed the specific challenges faced by Canadians, joining a campaign to defend the ‘lives and property of Canadian booksellers, Canadian publishers, and Canadian readers’ threatened because of Ayatolleh Khomeini’s ‘appalling incitement to murder Salman Rushdie’. This was designed for submission to the Prime Minister of Canada but also to garner press attention worldwide.

Image ‘Canadians Under Attack’ from the International PEN Archive appears courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Since then she has served as a figurehead for Canadian PEN and PEN America, spearheading action for writers in prison all over the world and using her global fame to raise issues and funds. She even performed a duet with fellow writer Robertson Davies at the 1990 PEN Canada Benefit! 

She is a very active International Vice President. She continues to write to Writers in Prison around the world, often making her correspondence public in order to draw attention to key causes. In 2016, in her letter to the Turkish author Asli Erdroğan, she wrote that ‘You are not alone: you have the entire PEN community of writers from around the world fighting for your freedom.’ She was a prominent signatory to the 2017 ‘Make Space Campaign’, which highlighted the position of writers displaced through racism and xenophobia, and sought to challenge hostility to refugees and asylum seekers. 

Most recently, she wrote, with J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie 150 others, a defence of free expression which raised anxieties that it was ‘daily becoming more constricted’ as ‘a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.’

This intervention proved controversial, with some arguing that it failed to acknowledge the structural inequalities that allow free speech to some, and denies it to others. The furore it caused reveals the increased politicization of disagreements about free speech. It seems likely that Atwood, a life-long free speech advocate, will continue to be at the centre of these debates around what may be said and written and will continue her fierce defence of writers’ rights around the world.

#100PENMembers No. 3: H.G. Wells

Author H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946) Shown: H.G. Wells (1932)

A personal friend of Dawson Scott, H.G. Wells attended the first meeting of PEN. His main contribution to the organisation, however, was in shaping its commitment to free speech activism after he became International PEN President on John Galsworthy’s death in 1933. 

In Spring 1933, the Nazis took control of Berlin PEN and resolutely refused to protest when Socialist and Jewish writers were thrown out of Germany.

One of Wells’ first tasks as President was to steer the infamous 1933 PEN congress in Dubrovnik. There were passionate speeches on both sides, with the Nazi PEN members insisting that PEN should remain apolitical, and one of Germany’s most famous literary exiles, Ernst Toller, demanding that PEN act to protect Germany’s persecuted writers.

When Wells, hampered by protocol, nevertheless threatened to resign rather than suppress the issue of free speech in Germany, the Nazi PEN members stormed out. 

It was the first time a PEN centre had effectively been turfed out of the International organisation. The fall-out was momentous. While some members bemoaned PEN’s new political stance, Wells argued that PEN should become an organisation committed to defending what he called, at the 1934 Edinburgh PEN Congress, the ‘one end’ of freedom of expression. It is a commitment to free speech activism that has defined the organisation ever since. 

At the same time, however, as political events spiralled out of control in Germany, Spain, and Italy, Wells was also often exasperated with what he saw as PEN’s ineffectiveness in defending persecuted writers, and after the 1936 Barcelona PEN Congress he resigned as International PEN President. He continued, however, to participate in PEN activities, even travelling to Stockholm for the 1939 PEN Congress, despite the fact that it had to be cancelled because of the outbreak of war. 

Wells continued to agitate for the right to free expression, something that formed part of his 1939 ‘Declaration of Rights’. A document that influenced the penning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights some of Wells’ rights now strike an anachronistic note, such as the right not to be sterilized.

His free speech commitments to ‘access to information’ and to ‘freedom of discussion’, however, not only feature in the UDHR, but also continue to be central human rights in today’s world.  

#100PENMembers No.2: Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International

Current P.E.N. International President Jennifer Clement

While we began with PEN’s founder, we now turn to its current International President.

It is fitting that in PEN’s centenary year the organisation has its first ever female International President. Jennifer Clement took over in 2015, after having already run Mexican PEN from 2009-2012. A prize-winning novelist and poet, Jennifer has been extremely active in pushing forwards PEN’s feminist agenda, and is responsible for spearheading the writing and endorsement of PEN’s 2017 Women’s Manifesto and The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, issued in 2019. 

Jennifer’s literary interests have fuelled her activism. Many of her novels and poems are steeped in the Mexican landscape, and relate the stories of deprived, threatened or silenced women. Her first novel, A True Story Based on Lies tells the story of a young Mexican peasant girl who works as a domestic servant. Discussing her 2014 novel, Prayers for the Stolen she describes its origins in the reality of Mexico’s stolen, hidden and missing women. As she put it, ‘I have spent more than ten years listening to women affected by Mexico’s violence’. The novel’s fictional story of one such woman, Ladydi Garcia Martínez was ‘inspired’ by the ‘truth’ of these voices, as Jennifer says, and this truth seems to have, in turn, energised the creation of the PEN Women’s Manifesto, which advocates for women’s rights to non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity. The Manifesto not only insists that women and girls should be able to ‘express themselves freely’; it also details the material, legal, economic and educational conditions needed for expression.  

Last year, meanwhile, she launched The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, which is a striking declaration of the rights of the literary imagination to wander freely across physical, emotional and psychological frontiers. Calling for the rights of the ‘empathetic imagination’, the Manifesto is a timely defence of the free play of the literary imagination against the prohibitions of censorship and self-censorship. 

In honour of PEN’s 100th birthday Jennifer has helped organise a celebratory Congress in September at which, for the first time in the organisation’s history, representatives from all global PEN centres will gather together to talk and debate. 

We interviewed Jennifer about her Presidency and about the role of women in PEN in 2017.