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.
Our South African Research Associate Kate Highman talks us through the racial politics she uncovered whilst investigating the archives of the Johannesburg PEN Centre…
There is a telling moment in the archives of Johannesburg PEN – the iteration of it that ran from the 1927 to 1974 – where a funding application to the Department of Education, Arts and Science lists as the persons whose interests PEN represents as ‘Europeans’, rather than ‘non-Europeans’.
Telling, as the Centre generally insisted on its non-racial bona fides – after all, the 1948 PEN Charter pledged its members ‘to do their utmost to dispel all national, race and class hatreds’ and stipulated that membership will be open to all, ‘without regard to nationality, race, colour or religion.’ (In 2017, the Charter was reformulated so that members are now pledged to ‘dispel all hatreds’, not confined to those of nationality, race, colour or religion.)’
Nevertheless, the Centre remained almost exclusively white for its entire duration –with at most three members of colour over its span of nearly half a century.
Even in the early 1970s, when the dwindling organisation was desperate for new members – cold-calling various white individuals to solicit their membership – they clearly struggled to extend these invitations to writers of colour.
Minutes of a 1972 meeting show extended debate about whether to invite black author ‘Oswald Mshali’ (sic) to join PEN, as well as an unusually direct glimpse of the racism that appears to have subtended its ostensibly hapless racial exclusivity: ‘several members had indicated that if Non-Europeans joined they would resign’.
Whether Mtshali joined is unclear from the archives (in the end it was ‘unanimously agreed’ to invite him); either way, the organisation was shortly defunct. Had Mtshali declined membership, it would not be surprising given PEN’s earlier treatment of him.
While a contributor to the PEN publication New South African Writing (1969), he was not invited to its launch party, for this would have necessitated holding the event at a venue open to all races or applying for a permit for him to attend – something the Chair, Edgar Bernstein, did not do, instead writing to Mtshali that while the Centre would have ‘liked’ to invite him, PEN was bound by ‘the laws of the land’.
Going through the Centre’s papers, it becomes clear that again and again it is PEN’s adherence to petty apartheid and the letter of the law that helps keep it so overwhelmingly white. And ironically, it is the sociality that lies at PEN’s core (it was originally conceived as dinner club for writers) that enables this. For the PEN ‘luncheon’ (it’s never simply ‘lunch’) or ‘sherry party’ is invariably held at a ‘whites-only’ venue.
The fundamental bad faith of hosting PEN events in whites-only venues is something that Nadine Gordimer pointed out in 1965, in an archly polite letter explaining her refusal of their invitation to host a lunch in her honour:
‘For some time it has seemed to me to be improper and distasteful that PEN – a non-racial, no-colour-bar body by constitution – should hold official gatherings in hotels and restaurants which, in accordance with licensing laws, are reserved for the use of white people only. I feel there is little excuse for us to meet in self-congratulation, as it were, while we have so little cause for congratulation where efforts to make the comradeship of South African writers non-racial are concerned’.
Gordimer’s phrase ‘meeting in self-congratulation’ sticks, as does her barb about what is ‘(im)proper and (dis)tasteful’. For she not only touches here on the Centre’s inflated sense of its own importance, but does so in the terms that matter most to it.
Leafing through the archives it becomes clear that the organisation is animated by an almost neurotic concern with what is ‘proper’ and ‘tasteful’.
This is evident in its anxiety that membership be limited to writers of sufficiently ‘literary’ merit (a mystical term of much confusion), as well as the menus for the luncheons and sherry parties, the choice of venues, the official letterheads, etc. It is an anxiety and self-importance very much rooted in the Centre’s awareness of itself as part of a prestigious international organisation — one, moreover, of European origin, with its headquarters in England, the imperial centre.
Reflecting back on the funding application which describes the people whose interests PEN served as exclusively ‘Europeans’, it is telling not just because it is unusually frank about the Centre’s actual membership, but because of the way PEN inscribed itself into South African society — at least until 1978, when a new, black-led PEN emerged in Johannesburg.
Answering to, and in the language of, the white supremacist government, the organisation (as constituted by the Johannesburg and Cape Town Centres and the Afrikaans Skrywerskring, which disaffiliated from PEN in 1967) arguably not only paid it lip service but – more troublingly — served to uphold, or at least legitimise, the status quo of European domination in South Africa, using ‘literature’ to do so.
All of this raises a number of questions that we hope to consider in conversation with the current, very different South African PEN Centre, in a conference planned for September 2020:
– How does (and did) PEN, an organisation founded in England but born in the spirit of internationalism, ‘translate’ across different political, legal and cultural contexts?
– How have issues of race played out in the history of PEN internationally, and how did International PEN, and the wider community of PEN centres, shape, regard and respond to the practices of the various PEN centres in South Africa?
– How do issues of race and free expression continue to intersect, and how does PEN address such intersections?
David Carver was the Secretary of International PEN from Herman’s Ould’s death in 1951 until his own in May 1974.
A musician and singer by trade, Carver proved as dedicated a Secretary to PEN as Ould, but his approach to the organisation was completely different.
While Ould was ever the diplomat, influencing PEN members almost without their knowing through his friendship and good humour, Carver was slightly more high-handed in his management style.
Although International Presidents often had limited time in which to serve, the International Secretary position was so onerous that once a candidate agreed, they 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 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.
Never afraid to wade into national or even international politics, Carver was in many ways the ideal personality to shepherd to organisation through the Cold War years.
During his tenure as International Secretary, Carver spent a good deal of time making peace between Communist elements within PEN and other member Centres.
He was highly involved, in the 1950s and 1960s, with President Arthur Miller, in encouraging the Soviet Writers Union to form a Russian PEN Centre.
During this time he visited Russia and even took part in talks with key Soviet officials about the possibility of Russia joining the organisation.
He arranged for Soviet observers to attend the PEN Congress in New York in 1966, and encouraged a continuing dialogue between the Russians and other members of PEN.
However, he soon lost patience with the Russians, writing an incendiary piece for the Russian newspaper Investia , about his frustrations at dealing with Alexei Surkov, the head of the Soviet Writers Union.
In 1961 even spoke out on the BBC – blaming Surkov for the detainment by the Russian authorities of Boris Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaya and almost causing an international crisis!
Carver was highly effective and a great many key advancements in the management and policy of PEN were brought in under his instruction, such as building PEN’s status as a key advisor to UNESCO, organising the first international conference in Africa (in Ivory Coast in 1967), building better links to PEN India and to the other Asian Centres and organising some of the most high profile free expression campaigns – such as the campaign to free Wole Soyinka, the boycott of South Africa by PEN’s playwrights and PEN’s centrality to the International Year of Human Rights in 1968.
He and his wife Blanche, were regular attendees of all of PEN’s events and conferences and both were well-loved by members from all over the world.
Carver was a somewhat dominant personality and whilst his bullishness in the face of adversity meant he was often not an ideal mediator during the heady days of the Cold War, his skillset could not have been more suited to dealing with the political intrigue and crises of those years.
Not only did he keep the organisation together during this time, his determination to become involved in political processes, from writing to Eastern European dictators to clandestine meetings with Russian spies, actually served PEN remarkably well.
He was replaced following his death in 1974 by Peter Elstob.
One of the most famous cases in PEN’s history of campaigning for free expression was the case of Salman Rushdie.
The case raised a number of serious issues around free expression and religious freedom, issues which would become increasingly important in the decades to come.
It concerned the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988) which was considered blasphemous under Islamic state and religious law.
As a consequence the religious leader of Iran – the Ayatollah Khomeini – called for Rushdie’s death and one Islamic group even went so far as to offer a financial reward for the killing of the writer.
Rushdie was forced into hiding, in fear of his life.
PEN’s intervention in the case was inevitable – the threat to Rushdie’s life directly contravened all of its policies on free expression.
PEN joined the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers, just six days after the Ayatollah’s pronouncement, beginning a long campaign to defend Rushdie.
By 2nd March 1989, writers around the world presented their World Statement of Writers in Support of Rushdie to governments, newspaper and the UN.
The statement was signed by more than 1000 writers including PEN members and Centres.
Vigils were held outside the United Nations in New York and at other key government buildings in other cities around the world.
Letters were sent to the Iranian government and to individual national governments by PEN Centres in countries as diverse as Argentina, India, Mexico, France,
PEN worked with organisations such as the Society of Authors, the Booksellers Association, the Publishers Association and Article 19.
However, the matter divided PEN itself, pitting national centres against one another and causing rifts within International PEN itself.
While PEN was united in its condemnation of the death penalty for any writer, many members were critical of the book and some Centres refused to support the campaign at all.
The Rushdie affair raised the issue within PEN and the wider world of how far free expression arguments could be supported if they involved the endangering of other freedoms, such as religious freedom.
It marked an extremely high profile engagement with issues of free expression for PEN and placed a great deal of pressure on the organisation to present a united front, which they did.
However, in terms of our research, it is fascinating to revisit the Rushdie files to explore not only the debates which took place behind the scenes within PEN itself, but also to view the case in light of more recent free expression events, such as Charlie Hebdo.
Indeed, the balancing of these rights and freedoms have become even more delicate in recent years, as free speech and free expression arguments have been employed to defend hate speech or incitement – as Rachel Potter will discuss in her forthcoming post on free speech and the Alt-Right.
On 5th October 1921 a group of writers gathered at the Florence Restaurant in London.
Some were big names in the literary world, such as John Galsworthy, Viola Hunt, May Sinclair and Rebecca West, others were lesser known but extremely well-connected.
They were gathered at the behest of Amy Dawson Scott, a playwright and well-known figure in the London literary scene.
The aim of the meeting was to bring together writers working in London for regular dinners and meetings to discuss their work and build their professional networks.
It was also – in the wake of the devastation in Europe after World War One – to help to promote friendship and understanding between writers of different nations, through their shared interest in literature.
It was to be resolutely unpolitical – politics only led to war – and must promote literary art and freedom as the pinnacle of civilised life.
The choice of restaurant was very much a testament to their love of continental culture, as shown by the picture of Florence on the front of the menu (below).
The 42 guests enjoyed the finest French cuisine – Turbot Mornay, Beef Bordelaise and a Bombe Pralinée.
This modest start grew throughout the following decades, spreading from Prague and Berlin to New York, Buenos Aires and Bombay and becoming what we now know as PEN International. See the spread of PEN Centres throughout the world on our interactive map.
Margaret Storm Jameson was President of the English Centre during the war years 1938-1944.
During this relatively short stint she became a hugely influential figure within both English and International PEN going on to serve on committees such as the Writers in Exile Committee and the Writers in Prison Committee and as an International Vice President well into the 1970s.
Herself a novelist, hailing from Whitby in North Yorkshire, Jameson was hugely prolific and very well respected during her lifetime but has since been neglected by critics and scholars alike.
During her lifetime Jameson published more than 48 novels, as well as plays and countless polemics detailing everything from her views on marriage to her hopes for Europe after the war.
Towards the end of her life she became very disillusioned with her own literary career, describing her presidency of PEN as ‘the only act of a dull life’.
Her impact on the organisation was tangible.
It was she and International Secretary Hermon Ould who set up the PEN Refugee Fund in 1938, and they both worked tirelessly during this period to support writers escaping from Nazi Europe.
In 1941 it was she and Ould who organised the famous London Congress, which brought refugee writers from Europe together with influential literary figures from all over the world, at the height of the Blitz.
Food for the Congress was tricky to come by but Ould and Jameson pulled out all the stops and managed to arrange an lavish dinner at the Ritz to reward their long-suffering guests.
Despite wartime conditions and the difficulty of traveling to England, more than 800 guests attended from more than 30 countries including India, China and Mexico.
They even had to hold dinner across two rooms, with a host in each!
Another PEN figure motivated by the organisation’s original tenets of internationalism and friendship, Jameson continued her work following the war. She was invited to serve as a Honorary President of the Writers in Exile Center in 1952, served on the Writers in Prison Committee and worked throughout her life to help and support writers from all over the world.
Even in her eighties there are still letters from Jameson recommending writers for membership of PEN or asking about publishing opportunities for young writers who had asked for her help.
Last year PEN launched its Make Space campaign, to help to support and advocate for refugees, Senior Research Associate Katherine Cooper explains why this is a natural choice for an organisation which has always advocated for refugee rights…
In October 1938 following the Munich Pact in which Chamberlain and the allies gave away large amounts of the Czech Sudetenland to Germany, English PEN President Storm Jameson wrote to English and International Secretary Hermon Ould.
She noted her own shame at her government’s complicity in a deal which she felt let down Czechoslovakia, abandoning it to the Nazis and wondered what PEN might do to help the inevitable flow of refugee writers fleeing Nazi censorship and persecution.
‘It is money that the Czechs want’ she noted, and with that she and Ould began the Refugee Writers Fund.
Since Hitler came to power in 1933, Ould had been receiving letters from beleaguered writers enquiring about passage to England and assistance that PEN could provide once there.
At the Dubrovnik conference of that year, International President H.G. Wells had kicked out the German PEN for their lack of action to defend these writers, many of whom were Jews.
But by 1938 things were intensifying and the PEN offices were struggling to process requests for help to escape the continent and letters asking for references and employment ideas from writers who had made the journey to the UK already.
Ould, Jameson and others from the Executive Committee of English PEN began to write to members asking for contributions to the Fund, which would help to pay for visas, for travel and for staff at PEN to process the paperwork.
They also wrote to publishers and newspapers. One of their appeals in 1940 was entitled, ‘To the Conscience of the World’ foregrounding the importance that they attributed to the fates of these refugee writers.
Janet Chance and Doreen Marsden were taken on to work solely on the fund as PEN began to advise the British government on refugee writers.
By 1940 the Fund began to focus on providing weekly maintenance payments or one-off payment to help writers to buy paper, typewriter ribbons and to pay translators in order to continue their work in the UK.
The fund helped hundreds – even thousands – of writers to escape Europe and to make a living in the UK and led directly to the foundation of the Writers in Exile Centre after the war.
It began a long history of helping refugees, which PEN continued throughout the Cold War and wars of independence throughout Africa and Asia.
The Make Space Campaign is a clear continuation of PEN’s work to recognise the needs of refugees but also its belief that literature represents not only an opportunity for catharsis and coming-to-terms for individual refugees but also a point of collective and regeneration for society as a whole.
We are really pleased to welcome two new Research Associates to the project, each of whom will be bringing their own particular expertise to our work on writers’ organisations and free expression.
Dr Kate Highman is an expert in South African literature, whose own work considers debates around plagiarism and cultural ownership in South African literature and the history of English Literature as a discipline in South Africa.She will be bringing her existing expertise on PEN South Africa and on other writers organisations to her research in the PEN Archives in Cape Town.
She will also be contributing blogs and interviews to this website, while she completes her research.
Dr Chinmay Sharma is an expert in Indian literature, particularly after Independence and has worked extensively on Mahabharata re-telling in English and Hindi, exploring through this issues around free speech, internationalisation, modernity and nation-building.
He will be working on the PEN Archives in Thesophy House in Bombay, as well as exploring other organisations campaigning for free expression in India.
Chinmay will also be contributing to this blog and hopes to secure some exciting interviews with key figures in Indian literature and free expression campaigning.
We are really looking forward to seeing what we can unearth as we move, this year, into the Indian and South African archives and will be sharing all of our most exciting discoveries here.
On behalf of the rest of the team – welcome Chinmay and Kate!
Read more about the project and our plans for it.
Hermon Ould served as Secretary of English and International P.E.N. from the beginnings of the organisation until his death in 1951.
The poet and dramatist gave up his own promising career as a writer to guide and fashion the fledgling organisation through its early years.
During Ould’s time P.E.N. grew from a dining club for writers to an influential international organisation.
He served as Secretary to the English Centre from its inception in 1921 and became International Secretary at the Berlin Congress in 1926– a role 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 Tercentenary Conference 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.
Rachel Potter looks at the important implications around PEN’s new Women’s Manifesto and its place in the organisation’s history…
At the end of last year, for the first time in its history, PEN International issued a Women’s Manifesto. Listing six key principles, and with signatures from 22 global PEN centres, the Manifesto is partly the result of 25 years work by the PEN international Women Writers Committee, as well as the more recent efforts of its first ever woman International PEN President, Jennifer Clement. It calls on PEN centres to endorse non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity.
That Jennifer is the first woman President of International PEN is, in many ways, surprising. From 1923, the organisation began to host annual Congresses in various cities around the world and as the organisation expanded, its rules and regulations became more structured. Dawson Scott was consistently vigilant in ensuring that PEN uphold her
feminist principles. In 1928, at the Oslo PEN congress, she noted that it had come to her attention that one of the PEN centres did not admit women. Declaring that this was ‘contrary to the spirit of the PEN’, she insisted that the principle of equality be enshrined in PEN principles.
It was not only London PEN that included prominent Women in its early days. They were key to its global network of centres as well. The vocal cosmopolitan writer and theosophist Sophia Wadia energetically headed up the Bombay PEN centre that was established in 1933. Turkish writer, women’s rights activist and exile, Halide Edip Adivar was a central figure in PEN circles throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was a key figure in the discussions after the Second World War about the rights of writers. When Adivar and another famous writer gave a speech to the London PEN centre in 1927, the Times wrote enthusiastically about her spellbinding performance. The other writer got barely a mention. He was James Joyce.
There were many other women writers who were active in PEN in the period before the Second World War, including Victoria Ocampo, on-off friend of Virginia Woolf and editor of surrealist magazine Sur who was involved in Buenos Aires PEN, and was important in running the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress.
When Dawson Scott died in 1934, the organisation continued to have strong female and feminist members, including Storm Jameson, who ran the London centre in the late 1930s, and, after the Second World War a host of prominent global women writers, including Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.
It is not the case that women writers have never been asked to take on the role of International PEN president in the past. At times they simply haven’t wanted to. Perhaps most amusingly, when Virginia Woolf was approached in the mid-1930s she recoiled violently, writing to her sister that she had ‘never been so insulted’ in all her life.
It is nevertheless interesting that the creation of the organisation’s first women’s manifesto should coincide with the fact that it has its first woman president, and that the specific challenges faced by women when trying to write freely has been addressed as an issue distinct from broader rights to freedom of expression. One of the key differences here is that while the founding feminist PEN members tended to focus on equality of rights to membership, access and opportunity, the principles announced today see equality as both ‘equality with men before the law’, and as something that requires taking ‘steps to eliminate discrimination’ as well as the ‘advancement of women writers’. Despite the different understandings of what equality for women writers might entail, I have no doubt that the Women’s Manifesto, and the spirit that lies behind it, would have been enthusiastically endorsed by the organisation’s founder.
With research at the Harry Ransom Centre finished and with me and Professor Rachel Potter at work on a report outlining our findings so far, it was time to head off for another slice of PEN’s archives, this time at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Before taking up the position of Director of the Harry Ransom Centre, Thomas F. Staley served as Chair of Modern Literature and Provost at the University of Tulsa and it was here that he first began acquiring parts of the PEN Archive.
He continued collecting in his new role at the HRC, which is why the other parts of the archive are in Texas.
The collection of materials at Tulsa is the first part of its archive that PEN sold, and was acquired by the library in 1984.
It consists of 28,300 letters by writers in correspondence with English PEN, including Arthur Koestler, T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, Sam Selvon, Rebecca West and Kingsley Amis.
Covering the period from 1932 to 1983, the letters offer unique insights into these writers works and their lives, as they discuss everything from wartime paper shortages to the challenges of seeing the organisation through the perils of the Cold War.
In many ways they complement and expand the findings from the Ransom Centre offering behind-the-scenes insights and off-the-cuff remarks pertaining to the big literary and political scandals of the day, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to T.V. censorship, the actions of the Soviet Writers Union to discussions of the organisation’s core aims and ideas.
Most excitingly, they offer a great insight into the everyday workings of PEN through the decades, providing a full record of events, who attended, what hospitality was on offer and even what writers thought of one another!
We see the personalities of PEN’s hardworking International Secretaries come to the fore in their letters and responses to even the most menial of requests. We will be publishing some blogs on these unsung heroes – Hermon Ould, David Carver and Josephine Pullein Thompson based on our findings.
We even learned that there was an informal expectation that members contribute to the “PEN Cellar” – the communal bar at their one-time headquarters in Glebe House – a bottle of spirits for every book published in a given year! While we see contributions from such as Cynthia Asquith and Vera Brittain, Enid Blyton wins the day after publishing 12 books in one year and contributing no less than 12 bottles (6 vermouth and 6 gin)!