#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. 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. 77: Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall was one of a group of feminist writers, including May Sinclair, Rebecca West, Vera Brittain and Violet Hunt, who were among PEN’s earliest members. She was a pivotal novelist of the twentieth century, breaking cultural taboos in her championing of queer and lesbian perspectives and stories.

Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Known to her loved ones as John, Hall was famous for her tailored masculine suits and her love of beautiful women. Hall’s barrier-breaking book The Well of Loneliness was revolutionary in its portrayal of lesbian and queer communities, lives and friendships and was banned as obscene in Britain in 1928.

Whilst Hall had been a member of PEN for many years, whenThe Well of Loneliness was put on trial in London in 1928, PEN members including Storm Jameson rushed to her aid, both on paper and in person as potential witnesses at the trial. The trial, meanwhile, spurred E.M. Forster to join English PEN a month later. 

Hall said, ‘I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world.’

The book, published by Jonathan Cape, was condemned by James Douglas, the Editor of the Daily Express as ‘not fit to be sold by any bookseller of to be borrowed from any public library.

Famously, he declared that, ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.’

Douglas’s article prompted the British authorities to intervene, citing what they saw as the obscenity of Hall’s compassionate portrayal of what was referred to at the time as ‘sexual inversion’. 

The novel tells the story of Stephen, a writer growing up queer in a hostile society and building their identity. Stephen – like Hall – wears men’s clothes and pursues passionate love affairs with women. The novel was seen as problematic because it portrayed life from Stephen’s perspective in a highly sympathetic and compelling story, which sought to represent a non-sensationalised queer experience. The novel is at once joyous in its depictions of queer and homosexual love and harrowing in its articulation of Stephen’s feelings of alienation and despair at society’s treatment of her and her friends. Despite the obscenity charge, the novel contains no explicit descriptions of sex.

The trial – prompted by Douglas’s pleas to the highly conservative Home Secretary – took place on the 9 November 1928.

The judge ruled that writers could not testify as experts and Hall’s friends and supporters from PEN were forced to sit in silence as the book was banned.

Woolf wrote afterwards: ‘Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.’

The Well of Loneliness ended up becoming a global bestseller – it has been translated into 14 languages. In France and America, accusations of obscenity did not result in censorship.

The trial and the treatment of Hall’s novel awoke writers to the ways in which censorship could be used to suppress minority voices and cultures, illustrating the link between freedom of expression and rights to sexual freedom.

#100PENMembers No.62: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

PEN International Vice President Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a novelist, essayist, playwright, academic and social activist, who has played an integral role in the shaping of African literature and culture.

Courtesy Random House: Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Thiong’o’s engagement with PEN stretches for more than 70 years. He reminisced in a piece for Frieze in 2018 about attending the 1966 New York Congress organised by then PEN International President Arthur Miller. Thiong’o’s essay offers a crucial and fascinating perspective on the congress and on some of PEN’s biggest figures. 

At the time, he was a postgraduate student at Leeds University. He described his surprise at being invited as a regional guest of honour to represent Africa. PEN, of course, during this period, was increasingly looking to represent the newly independent African nations. The author of two novels already, the young Thiong’o described feeling a little out of place and  trying ‘a few poses to make me feel like a writer and to project myself as one.’

His ears pricked up when he heard Ignazio Silone (President of PEN International 1946-7)  complaining about the lack of translations of Italian writers into English and rudely asserting that ‘Italian is not like one of these Bantu languages with one or two words in their vocabulary.’ Thiong’o was rightly outraged and stood to correct this slur on African language. He remembers that the Chair Arthur Miller ‘was diplomatic: he said people could praise their own languages, but they did not have to bad-mouth others’ in the process.’

The incident illustrated, for Thiong’o, the tensions between what he called the ‘Decade of Africa’ in which nations gained independence and African writers began to get global recognition for their work, and the racism and imperialism that remained at the heart of many of the historically Eurocentric international organisations. 

Thiong’o himself described this informing, for him, a reassessment of the role of English literature in Africa, particularly in African Universities: ‘We were really questioning the organisation of literary knowledge in Africa. Without giving it a name, we had launched the battle for decolonial theories.’ His critical and creative work began to take a different path from this point on, revolutionising African literature but also English Literature and the teaching of literature (and even history) in universities, alongside other postcolonial scholars. This growing African consciousness led to the founding of Pan-African writers’ organisations which operated independently to address the growing concerns of the continent’s own literary community.

After moving back to Africa in 1977, Thiong’o continued his revolutionary progress by embarking on a novel form of theatrical performance in his landmark play Ngaahika Ndeenda which sought to address hierarchies in the theatre and beyond. The play, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening. Thiong’o was imprisoned for over a year. In prison, he wrote Devil on the Cross on prison-issued toilet paper, much like fellow PEN revolutionary and #100PENMembers Nawal Al Saadawi. He also decided to cease writing in English and to begin composing all of his creative works in Gikuyu, his native tongue.

During this time, he was the subject of campaigns by both PEN and by Amnesty International. Upon his release he fled to the United States.

His work on promoting minority or marginalised languages has been integral to his time with PEN. In 2017 he wrote an introduction to ‘Culture’s Oxygen’ report, published on International Mother Language Day stating that: ‘I believe in the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, Barcelona, 1996 which recognises that the right to a mother tongue or the language of one’s culture is not a privilege to be granted or withdrawn at will, it’s a human right.’

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o only returned to Kenya, with his family, in 2002 after the retirement of autocratic Vice President Daniel Arap Moi.

As well as serving on the board of PEN International, he has also acted as Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Languages at New York University and Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.

This year he was nominated for the International Booker Prize for his book The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi, the first book in an indigenous African language ever to be nominated. Thiong’o is also the first to be nominated as both writer and translator of the same work.

#100PENMembers No. 60: Vera Brittain

Author of Testament of Youth, her account of life as a nurse in World War One, Vera Brittain was a highly influential member of English PEN throughout her long life, working to assist refugees during World War Two and taking part in free expression campaigns for years afterward.

Vera Brittain

Brittain was also a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union, started in Britain in 1934 by Dick Sheppard to ‘renounce war and never again to support another.’ By the late-1930s, Brittain’s membership of the PPU would put her at odds with PEN policy.

In 1940, Storm Jameson and Hermon Ould, on behalf of English PEN, published a declaration in newspapers around the world entitled ‘To the Conscience of the World’. It urged ‘all those who have still the liberty to speak and to think’ to ‘make it clear to people in your country that we with our allies are not fighting only for ourselves but for the belief we share with every man of any race or religion, who holds that men should respect each other and minds should be free.’ It was signed by a number of influential PEN members including Storm Jameson, H.G. Wells, J.B. Priestley, Cecil Day Lewis, E.M. Forster, Rebecca West and Vera Brittain.

However, some PEN members who were also pacifists took exception to this stance. In November 1940, Ould wrote to Brittain, that another PEN member, a Pacifist named Horace Shipp, had protested the document at the recent English PEN Executive meeting, and suggested that Brittain supported him in this view.

He had, Ould explained, ‘told the Executive Committee that you had written to him in support of his attitude.’ Ould, ever diplomatically, writes ‘it would interest me, and I expect, that Committee, to know exactly what you did say, as I cannot imagine you signed an appeal without knowing what you were signing.’

Brittain admitted that she had been hasty in signing the letter and admitted that she had not agreed with ‘every detail’ but that she ‘was anxious to associate myself with PEN, which I regard as an influence for peace’.

Brittain’s error highlighted a major faultline in Engish PEN and, indeed, among most Britons and Americans in the late 1930s: Should Britain appease Hitler if it might somehow keep the peace in Europe or should it go to war to defend its Allies and values?

The statement made clear English PEN’s support of the war in a way that a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union could not possible countenance. Peace campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic weighed in to condemn Brittain’s involvement.

This marked a serious rift between Brittain and Storm Jameson, then President of English PEN. Jameson had been a pacifist and campaigned alongside Brittain earlier in the decade, but in more recent years, she had come to see war as an inevitable and necessary evil, to rid the world of Nazism. Jameson – typically hard-headed – put little stock in the protests of Shipp and Brittain ‘one of whom had signed the Appeal without reading it, and the other without agreeing with it.’ As she put it.

The ‘Appeal’ would not be revised or withdrawn. The organisation would not support the appeasement of Hitler, but it would support those affected by escalations in hostilities.

Brittain brushed over the incident, close enough in her friendship to Jameson to understand there was little chance of changing her mind. 

Nonetheless she donated generously to the PEN Refugee Fund set up by Ould and Jameson, and she organised, with Phyllis Bentley, numerous social events at her home for refugee writers which continued into the 1950s. The parties offered opportunities for the writers to meet each other, to form friendships and to make contact with British writers and publishers who might be able to promote their work.

She was also an active campaigner on a range of issues, from starving children in war-torn to Europe to her later work encouraging links between English and Indian writers.

#100PENMembers No.58: Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes was born in 1880 and was an author, scientist and campaigner for women’s rights.

Marie Stopes (Photo: Marie Stopes International, Australia)

Her links to English PEN may not be obvious but she became a member when leading British newspapers refused to run adverts for her books on sex and contraception because they thought that they were immoral.

Stopes became a key PEN case during these years, as PEN Secretary Hermon Ould offered help and advice whilst she fought censorship as she campaigned for women’s rights.

Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in Britain in but it was her sex manual Married Love (1918) which caused huge controversy in the press and beyond.

The book and the controversy around it brought birth control into the public discourse and proved groundbreaking in terms of women’s rights, sex education and access to family planning in the UK.

She went on to write a number of publications on birth control and sexual fulfilment for women and men including Sex and the Young (1926), Enduring Passion (1928) and Change of Life in Men and Women (1936). She also wrote poetry.

Stopes’ books as advertised in the PEN News publication

Stopes attended the 1941 PEN Congress, speaking about literature and life after the war but it was the organisation’s experience of running free expression campaigns that she really needed.

On 5thAugust 1947 she wrote to Ould asking for help providing documents to the Royal Commission on the Press, to raise issues of her treatment.

Addressing the Commission, Stopes argued that the restriction of her publications, which had been carried by the Times since the 1920s but had been recently omitted, was a free expression issue: ‘Considering the Freedom of the Press to be the very life blood of English Liberties, I lay the following verifiable facts before the Press Commission because I feel that they indicate that form some points of view the Freedom of the British Press is violated.’

Stopes’ activism had some more sinister undertones and was linked to eugenics and ideas of racial engineering which were gaining popularity at the time. However, in conversations with the editor, as she describes to Ould, it became clear that ‘birth control was the stumbling block’ and not racial politics, and that several of her works were regularly being banned and even burned in Ireland.

Stopes believed that she was being prevented from testifying to the Commission in person in order to impede her case.

They also refused to publish her testimony as part of making proceedings public and declared the issue concluded.

English PEN’s Executive Committee wrote to the Royal Commission in November 1949  but the Commission replied that Stopes’ committed her evidence too late and that, while it would be considered, she would not be asked to attend in person. They regarded the matter as concluded.

In January 1950 after many years of campaigning, the English PEN Executive Committee answered Stopes letter but only to say that they considered‘that such editors are within their rights, however prejudiced their decisions might be. They added that the President (Desmond MacCarthy) was anxious to convey his sense of the social importance of your work.’

The banning of these advertisements, they conclude, is a commercial decision, rather than a free expression issue.

Stopes disagreed responding ‘the PEN is eager to help the oppressed in other countries, why do they do nothing for me?”

Nonetheless the Stopes organisation was hugely successful in opening clinics offering birth control and contraceptive advice all over the world throughout the twentieth century. This work continues to this day. However, the legacy of Stopes’ racism and eugenicism has tarnished and undermined its legacy and it has since been renamed MSI International in an effort to distance the organisation’s good works from the deeply problematic views of its founder.

#100PENMembers No.57: Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is an award-winning novelist and committed member of PEN America.

Photo Credit: Dominique Nabokov

Her first novel, White Teeth won the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction and she has since enjoyed huge success with novels such as The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016).

A writer with a significant international profile and a reputation for her thoughtful interventions in contemporary debates, from feminism to race, English nationalism to literary culture itself, she is a frequent contributor to PEN Campaigns and activities.

At the PEN World Voices Festival in 2006 she spoke about how ingrained in a tradition of dead, white male authors she felt and considered the politics of being considered a postcolonial writer. Whilst admitting that many of her early influences were the famous white men whose work dominated her school and university syllabi, she mused: ‘When I first read Virginia Woolf I felt pleasure that she was a genius, but also great relief that she was a genius, because she was a woman.’

Smith also contributed to PEN America’s tribute to Toni Morrison New Daughters of Africa, in 2019. In the piece, she described the gradual impact of groundbreakers like Morrison on her own life and writing. She remembers her mother’s close friend the Ghanaian-born publisher Margaret Busby publishing Daughters of Africa in 1992, featuring writing by Morrison. She goes on: ‘A year after that, Morrison won the Nobel Prize. A year after that, I went to university to embark on a course of English Literature which included not a single daughter of Africa nor any sons either. Change was a long time coming, but Morrison stayed out front, leading us into the future, like a pilot light.’

She remembers this ‘pilot light’ as a school girl in London: ‘It’s hard now, in 2019, to recreate or describe the bottomless need she answered. There was no “black girl magic,” in London, in 1985. Indeed, as far as the broader culture was concerned, there was no black girl anything, outside of singing, dancing, and perhaps running.’ 

Smith admires Morrison’s strength to carry the burden of this expectation, of being the black female author, the one who stood as a beacon to all of those young black school girls all over the world. Movingly, Smith describes herself as not only a daughter of Africa but one of many ‘daughters of Morrison.’

In 2014, she joined other #100PENMembers Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie in adding their name to a call from English PEN and PEN International to prevent the Turkish government from blocking access to Twitter and thus further censoring debate in the country.

Pamuk, the Turkish writer who had helped to coordinate the event commented at the time that the situation for writers in the country ‘is going from bad to worse and even towards terrible.’

She continues to campaign on these issues and to speak out. Ever industrious, Smith used the first lockdown to pen a collection of essays Intimations taking in a range of topics from racism to the inequalities highlighted by Covid. In the book she attacked UK and US responses to the pandemic.

Smith continues to be an active and vocal advocate on issues of free speech, race and inequality all over the world, both in her fiction and beyond.

#100PENMembers No.55: Josep Batista I Roca

Josep Maria Batista I Roca was a Catalán writer, historian and activist who was a key member of Catalán PEN and campaigned against censorship in Spain under Franco’s government.

Born in Barcelona in 1895, he attended Oxford University cementing a lifetime affiliation with Britain. However the most useful alliance that he made during this period was in visiting Dublin where he became captivated by the Irish nationalist movement, an interest which underpinned his work as an early advocate for Catalán culture and independence.

Although he was active during the Spanish Civil War – hoping that it might culminate in a free and independent Catalán state – he fled to London in 1938, leading a band of refugees to the border where he wrote to Hermon Ould for aid.

English PEN scrambled resources to bring Batista I Roca and the refugees to England.

By end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 Batista I Roca was working as Professor of History at Trinity College, Cambridge where he investigated the historic links between the English and the Cataláns and founded the Anglo- Catalán Society. Throughout his time in Britain, he made the case to the English and other Europeans for a Catalán state. In 1940 he was secretary of the Consejo Nacional de Cataluña  and travelled to London under Carles Pi I Sunyer, the head of PEN Club Catalán to the PEN London Congress. He took a very active role in PEN throughout his life, making the case for Catalán independence through the organisation and fighting for Catalán writers persecuted and silenced under Franco.

He was a key organiser and activist for Spanish writers within PEN. He organised a Spanish writers’ boycott of the Pasternak protests in 1958 in order to draw attention to the plight of writers in Spain, which he felt were being neglected. As he put it, ‘the Spanish writers thought it made no sense for them to sign against the Russians for their treatment of Mr Pasternak when nobody has expressed any concern about the way they are treated by the Spanish Francoist authorities.’

The Catalán Centre followed up this protest by submitting a series of detailed reports listing the persecution of Spanish and Catalán writers by the totalitarian government in Spain. Writing to the International Executive Committee in 1959, they stated that ‘it is hoped that some practical expression of concern will ensue from this grave violation of the freedom of expression and of the rights of writers stated in the P.E.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, and the fundamental documents and resolutions of UNESCO and UNO, of which Spain is a member.’

The reports detailed the state censorship of all books and periodicals, with ecclesiastical censorship resulting in the banning of the philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s work as anti-religious. They described the licenses for which publishers must apply in order to print books and separate ones for retailers which may dictate where and how a writers’ work might be sold and displayed. They outlined the purges of public libraries by ecclesiastical censors and lists the hefty fines levelled at writers and publishers. They also outlined restrictions on the receipt of foreign books, even by private citizens. The receipt of foreign books could lead to a citizen being placed on a government watch list. The reports are supported by a resolution by Catalán PEN insisting that PEN International take action on behalf of their Spanish colleagues.

Batista I Roca returned from exile in 1976 and continued to work for the Catalán cause within Spain and within PEN International. He died in 1978 and his personal library was given to the Biblioteca de Cataluña (Library of Cataluña), in total he donated around 1400 individual documents about history, but more especially, the history of Cataluña.

#100PENMembers No.54: Nawal El Saadawi

Today we interrupt our #100PENMembers pay tribute to a very special PEN Member, Nawal El Saadawi the highly influential novelist, feminist, activist and doctor, who died this weekend.

Described by Simone de Beauvoir as ‘Egypt’s most radical woman’, El Saadawi wrote 40 books translated into many languages, which became best sellers across the world.

She founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and the Arab Association for Human Rights and viewed these two struggles as mutually informing.

Born in Egypt in 1931, as a child she suffered female genital mutilation. These experiences galvanised her lifelong pursuit of equal rights for women and her campaigning against FGM. However, her parents took care to educate all of their children and she went on to study medicine at the University of Cairo. Her studies and experiences became her first book Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958). She went on to become the Director of the Government Health Education Department.

In 1972 she published Women and Sex, which became a foundational text of Second Wave feminism and which pointed toward an intersectional understanding of women’s oppression, one which took in gender alongside class, race and imperialist oppressions.

It also marked one of the first critiques of FGM. 

Speaking to the Guardian in 2010, she said: ‘For me feminism includes everything. It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice . . . It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this.’

The controversy around this highly influential text led to her dismissal from her post as Director of Health Education. She continued to publish both novels and critical work, laying out the field of postcolonial feminist theory as she went, setting her sights on the overlapping influences of capitalism, patriarchal oppression, imperialism, class struggle and racial discrimination on the lives of women in the Middle East and beyond.

El Saadawi herself, incidentally, contested the term ‘postcolonial’ arguing that ‘postcolonial is as if we are finished with the colonial. We are neo-colonial.’

In 1981 El Saadawi was arrested and imprisoned for crimes against the state, for her vocal critique of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

During this period, she wrote Memoirs From The Women’s Prison and formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. She wrote with an eyebrow pencil on toilet paper, observing that ‘Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.’

In 1988 Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt after threats by Islamists for her outspoken views. She taught for several years at universities across the United States. In 1996 she moved back to Egypt. 

Her work continued to shock, leading to several unsuccessful court cases, one to forcibly dissolve her marriage on religious grounds and one to strip her of her Egyptian nationality.

She delivered PEN’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2009. During that lecture she recounted her time in jail, remembering: ‘in prison the jailers come in every day to my cell and they inspect my cell looking for a piece of paper and a pen and the head of them used to tell me: “if I find paper and pen, in your cell it is more dangerous than if I find a gun”.’

She told the audience of rapt PEN Members with characteristic verve and humour: ‘You see how writing, how the pen is important? How powerful if it is used against injustice against hypocrisy against lies? If the pen is used with responsibility, with freedom, then we can change the world.’

Her activism continued until the end of her life, despite frequent death threats, and threats of imprisonment. She was involved in the Tahrir Square demonstrations in 2011 and went on to address conferences across the world speaking about the events of the Arab Spring and feminism.

A huge influence on feminist thought, on human rights and a tireless campaigner for PEN and other organisations, Nawal El Saadawi was a definitive voice in her lifetime and a huge loss to the international community.

#100PENMembers No. 53: John Lehmann

John Lehmann, editor, publisher, writer was a central figure in British literary life and an active member of English PEN.

His sister, the writer Rosamund Lehmann was President of English PEN but John carefully avoided taking on official PEN duties, although he did serve on the Writers in Prison Committee.

Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Lehmann founded New Writingthe London Magazine and after a spell with Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, his own press, John Lehmann Limited. He also wrote poems and a number of memoirs. Perhaps the most intriguing and notable of his writings was his novel, In the Purely Pagan Sense (1976), a thinly-disguised memoir of the life of a gay man coming of age in early twentieth century Britain. Its unselfconsciously joyous account of homosexual love and lust, of sensual pleasure and the pursuit of true and lasting love through Berlin, Vienna and wartime London, makes it a little-known classic.

He was an attendee of the 1941 wartime congress in London, when almost 800 guests from across the world braved the conditions of London in the Blitz to demonstrate the solidarity of the world literary community in the face of Nazi brutality and censorship. As Lehmann himself wrote in his autobiography, it was ‘a demonstration against the Axis not merely because it was held in battered London and attended by so many distinguished writers from the free world, but also because the refugee writers from occupied Europe who were settled in England used it to send out their challenge to the military masters of their homelands.’

Lehmann was a regular contributor to the PEN Refugee Fund and even set up – as an offshoot of the hugely successful New Writing – a journal for refugee writers, the rather-short-lived Daylight which was integrated into New Writing after its first issue.

He also worked for the Ministry of Information in Britain, reporting back on his liaisons with Russian publishers and editors.

This connection to Russia also played out in Lehmann’s connection to PEN. Lehmann was part of the committee that helped to transferArthur Koestler’s Fund for Intellectual Freedom, designed to support anti-Communist writers in Soviet countries and to help them to publish in the West, over to PEN in the early 1950s. 

Lehmann was also a Vice President of another organisation, COMES Comunita Europea Degli Scrittori [European Writers Community] which was dragged into debates between PEN and the Soviet Writers Union in 1964. In this instance, Alexei Surkov General Secretary of the Soviet Writers Union and regular correspondent of David Carver, had accused PEN in a newspaper article of censoring and ostracising their Soviet members and of being ‘out-of-work Trotskyites, turncoats from Communist parties, renegades of every description, and suchlike rabble’, in league with the CIA to conspire against socialist countries. He cited COMES as his allies in this attack, quoting Giancarlo Vigorelli, the leader of the organisation, as telling his committee that ‘Anti-Communists are just as bad as fascists and Nazis’ and calling for them to be expelled from COMES. Lehmann, as a longstanding member of both COMES and PEN was called in to invigilate between the two organisations. He facilitated several meetings between the two which led to a closer relationship, particularly when it came to protesting the mistreatment of Soviet writers. Lehmann helped to coordinate, in this case, collaborations between the two organisations in the cases of Sinyavsky and Daniel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Lehmann remained an active PEN member until the end of his life.