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.
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)!
In an interview with Laetitia Zecchini, writer and journalist Salil Tripathi says that he always felt passionate about free expression…
He traces this back to his parents, who he says never put any constraints on his reading, except to occasionally suggest that he wait until he was older to read certain volumes.
‘So I always felt that if people want to write, they should be able to write.
‘It’s also very simple and very self-evident that if you don’t like something, don’t read it, don’t buy it, shut the book, or campaign against it, lobby against it, write a counterargument.
‘All those options are available. From a very young age in fact I used to collect books that were banned.’
Fittingly, Tripathi is now chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, which campaigns for those imprisoned because of their writing.
For him the most important thing is to keep bringing these cases to the attention of the public and of the government:
‘At PEN, we have this idea of the empty chair: every time we have an event, we have an empty chair, and we talk about all these writers who are forgotten, as it were and who we must remember.
‘The challenge is that we have to make sure that they remain in the limelight.’
He discusses this role as well as Salman Rushdie, Liu Xiaobo and the future of PEN in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
I should begin by pointing out that a mere four months is by no means enough time to get through PEN’s enormous archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
In order to approach the archive, I had to work closely with Professor Rachel Potter, the PI on the project, to ascertain precisely the best way to tackle the archival holdings which comprise hundreds of archive boxes.
These boxes hold not only committee and meeting minutes but also financial records, personal and organisational letters between figures from H.G. Wells to Glenda Jackson, Salman Rushdie to George Bernard Shaw and countless other items of ephemera from theatre programmes to menus from PEN dinners.
We decided to concentrate primarily on working through the meeting minutes, year by year, which would guide us outward to other documents whilst making sure that we still viewed events within their historical context and in chronological order.
This would help to track the development of discussions around free expression but also the growth and influence of the organisation as a whole.
As Rachel had already made inroads into the earlier part of the archive, my job was to begin in 1951 with the congress in Lausanne, Switzerland.
This method allowed me to watch the history of the second half of the twentieth century unfurl through PEN, observing how its members, their debates and opinions echoed the debates taking place internationally.
I began then, with the aftermath of World War Two, with PEN dealing with UNESCO to address the ongoing paper shortage on a practical level.
On a political level, meetings at this time were also preoccupied with the difficulties of dealing with the re-establishment of Centres in formerly fascist countries and with extending membership to writers who had either sympathised with or who had not actively condemned the actions of fascist governments.
Clearly, for countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France, it was unconscionable to allow collaborators back into PEN and this raised a number of thorny issues around PEN’s commitment to stand above politics and national sympathies.
There followed through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, significant clashes between Communist and Western centres, each citing PEN’s commitment to political impartiality, whilst trying to uphold PEN’s commitment to defend free speech, and to prevent the writer from becoming part of the apparatus of the State.
As a clipping from The Times discussing PEN’s 1959 Congress explains: ‘‘Behind a façade of unity there lies a deep rift among members of the club about the attitude the club should take toward the Cold War. This has resulted in a policy of “neutrality” and “coexistence”, to which the directors have given a distinct fellow-travelling tinge’ (The Times, 24 March 1959).
This attitude changes markedly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which often see PEN taking a harder line with countries such as Russia and Hungary, who were persecuting writers who could be seen as subversive or critical of the Communist state.
PEN remained engaged in these debates until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the admittance of a mainland China Centre in 1980 and a Russian Centre in 1989.
Beyond the machinations of the Cold War, PEN addressed many other key issues of the times, speaking out about the use of atomic weapons, critiquing the Communist witch-hunts of McCarthyism in the US and even fighting Apartheid in South Africa.
It was also at the forefront of campaigning for writers’ freedom for almost a century, playing a key role in the cases of Boris Pasternak, Salman Rushdie and Ken Saro-Wiwa, among many hundreds of others.
There was even a spirited discussing in the 1990s about whether Nelson Mandela qualified as a writer and therefore could legitimately be given PEN’s support, unfortunately it was decided that this was something of a stretch and the organisation should concentrate their activities elsewhere. They remained vocal supporters of Mandela however, despite not themselves undertaking direct action to secure his release.
The incredible historical value of this archive has now been properly recognised and it is being fully-catalogued and, in places, digitised which we hope will help other researchers to tease out other areas of the archive.
I had no time, for example, to look at the records relating to individual national Centres housed at the HRC (as well as in PEN Centres and former Centres across the world), or to investigate fully PEN’s activities with, for example, queer activism, feminism or postcolonialism.
There is much work currently being undertaken – as you can see from our growing research network – and much, much more still to be done.
The next stop for me and the rest of the team is the PEN Archive at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa.
Do you work on any aspect of PEN’s work, on freedom of expression or on another writers organisation? Do get in touch.
If you would like to write a blog for our website about any of the topics discussed in this post, do get in touch.