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.
A Belarusian investigative journalist, essayist and oral historian, Svetlana Alexievich won the 2015 Nobel Prize in recognition of her ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to the suffering and courage of our time.’
Her first book The Unwomanly Face of the War (1983) depicted the fate of the approximately one million women who fought in the Red Army during the Second World War and were outcasts when they returned home. The book was controversial and led to the loss of her job at Neman magazine and criminal prosecution.
Undeterred, Alexievich remained determined to expose the failings and hardships of the crumbling Soviet Regime, publishing in 1989 Boys in Zinc, documenting the thousands of soldiers returned in Zinc coffins from the Soviet-Afghan war. The book was taken off the market and the play was banned.
Since the rise to power of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus in 1994, most of her books cannot be published in her home country and she faces persecution and censorship in Russia too, forcing her into exile for most of her working life. As a result, she has been a long-term participant in the PEN Writers in Exile programme from April 2008-March 2010.
Alexievich’s books are often described as collages of interviews, amplifying voices of silenced under the Soviet regime. The most successful of these was Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of the Nuclear Disaster (1997).
In 2017, she quit the Russian PEN Centre very publicly and alongside 30 other writers including poet Lev Rubenstein and writer Boris Akunin, in protest at the expulsion from the organisation of journalist and activist Sergey Parkhomenko.
She wrote in a statement: ‘My comment on Parkhomenko’s exclusion [from PEN] can only be my application to leave the Russian PEN, whose founding ideals were cravenly violated. In the perestroika years we took pride in our PEN but now we are ashamed of it. Russian writers acted as subserviently and outrageously only during the Stalinist period. But Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay. And the names will stay, too. We now live through times when we cannot win over evil, we are powerless before the ‘red man’. But he cannot stop time. I believe in that.’
The Russian PEN Centre responded by bizarrely claiming that Alexievich had never been a member of the Centre, prompting Alexievich to produce photographic evidence of her membership.
She delivered English PEN and RAW in WAR’s inaugural Anna Politkovskaya Memorial Lecture in 2019, paying tribute to the Russian campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her fearless reporting of the brutal treatment of civilians during the war in Chechnya, despite acts of intimidation and persecution to silence her.
She also wrote to Lydia Cacho, the Mexican journalist, feminist and human right’s advocate for Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2019. Cacho was imprisoned and tortured and continues to suffer death threats for her work exposing paedophilia and child sexual exploitation among politicians and officials.
Alexievich wrote: ‘When you have been fighting those who are seemingly all-powerful it is easy to believe that the battle will never be won. I know this feeling, my dear Lydia, because I have felt it too. When your culture has been forged in war and barricades, as mine has been, words like freedom and love can feel like they belong in fairy tales only.’
Svetlana Alexievich has been President of the PEN Belarus Centre since 2019.
Victoria Ocampo was the Vice-President of PEN Buenos Aires in 1936, when the centre hosted one of the most important and divisive congresses in its history.
She was a renowned Argentine feminist, writer, critic, and cosmopolitan, who created the important avant-garde magazine Surin 1931 and edited it for many years. Surpublished writers including Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, José Ortega y Gasset and Gabriela Mistral, as well as significant translations, such as Borges’ translations of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
She was internationally very well-connected, hosting a number of visiting cultural figures, including Rabindranath Tagore, who stayed at her famous Villa Ocampo in 1924 when he was ill, as well as Igor Stravinsky, André Malraux, Indira Gandhi and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She had a flirtatious, and volatile friendship with Virginia Woolf from 1934 until 1939, and strongly attempted to persuade Woolf to speak at the 1936 PEN Congress. Failing to convince Woolf to attend, Ocampo delivered a speech in which Woolf’s writing, and particularly her idea of the common reader, featured centrally.
The 1936 Congress involved passionate political disagreement between its European delegates. It was also contentious within Argentine cultural circles. Buenos Aires PEN had a number of Fascist and right-wing nationalist members, including its President, Carlos Ibarguren. As such, it was an example of what anti-Fascist and anti-government Argentine writers viewed as the broader government and right-wing nationalist encroachment into cultural organisations. The Argentine anti-Fascist organisation, The Agrupaciōn de Intelectuales, Artistas, Periodistas y Escritores (AIAPE), which was founded in 1935, issued a declaration to PEN Congress members in 1936 alerting them to the ‘conditions under which free-minded intellectuals and writers are compelled to live in Argentina’ and that ‘the official institutions related to the problem of culture are practically in the hands of fascism.’
Ocampo, who had herself flirted with Fascism when she met Mussolini in 1935, was, by the time of the 1936 PEN Congress, already in the middle of a rapid political transition; she sided with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and, in 1937, along with the other editors of Sur openly came out against Fascism. In her role as Vice-President of Buenos Aires PEN at the 1936 Congress, then, she was forced to confront Fascism, both within and beyond Buenos Aires PEN. She was criticised by F. T. Marinetti during her speech on Woolf’s common reader for failing to understand what he viewed as the necessary hierarchies of artistic creation.
Ocampo would continue to be an influential figure in Argentine cultural circles and abroad, attending the Nuremburg Trials in 1946. In 1953, when she was thrown into jail by Juan Domingo Perón’s political dictatorship, it was Ocampo’s turn to receive help from fellow PEN members. Gabriela Mistral, who had long been involved with PEN, successfully lobbied Roger Caillois at UNESCO and David Carver at London PEN on behalf of Ocampo, highlighting her importance as an Argentine woman ‘accustomed to defending culture, freedom and justice in her country’. She also wrote to Perón himself, begging him to release her. Ocampo was freed a few days later.
The British novelist Phyllis Bentley receives little scholarly or public attention these days, but she was a prolific writer, PEN member and committed activist for a number of political causes from helping refugees during the war to trying to bring Centres together during the difficult Cold War period.
Bentley was part of a group of Yorkshire women (from the North-East of the UK) who had benefitted from grammar schools and the widening of access to university education, dedicated feminists and socialists who used their uncompromising Northern sensibilities to have enormous influence on politics, literature, education.
Alongside trailblazers such as Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Ellen Wilkinson (technically from the North-West but the first female MP for Middlesborough) and Bentley used their novels and what fellow Yorkshire folk would call “gumption” (tenacity and hard work) to draw attention to inequality wherever they found them.
Bentley had joined PEN in the 1930s and played a key role in the organisation from the start. In 1940 she wrote to Hermon Ould, PEN’s International Secretary that ‘I am delighted that the P.E.N. to bring forth a series of books, undeterred by the threatening situation. If literature in the past had been deterred by threatening situations, the world would certainly not have much literature.’
Bentley was a key member of the organising committee of the war time PEN Congress in London in 1941, despite her long and busy days at the Ministry of Information.
In 1944 she wrote a report on the Areopagitica Conference – celebrating the Tercentenary of Milton’s great work on censorship and free expression – writing that ‘during the week when Paris freed herself, at a time when the menace of the flying bomb was still in ample evidence in Southern England, the conference celebrated the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica by discussing the place of spiritual and economic values in the future of mankind.’
She went on that the conference had ‘achieved by integration a consensus of opinion, a general agreement on certain main points. It agreed that there should be the maximum interference with the freedom to exploit but the minimum interference with individual freedom, that censorship was deplorable and should be resisted on behalf of the detestable as well as agreeable opinions, that spiritual or cultural values were essential to the life of the complete man (Klingender) and formed the quality of existence (Anand), and that these values were inextricably entwined with economic values.’
She often represented English PEN at international Congresses but never took on a formal role with the organisation, although she was a frequent and vocal member of the board at English PEN Committee meetings in London.
In the late 1940s and 1950s she took part in a number of the earliest discussion about PEN’s apoliticism, and particularly the relations between Communist and Non-Communist Centres. After the 1951 Lausanne Congress she contacted Ould about the growing tensions between Centres and the unsuitability of the English delegates, often changed each year as ‘rabbits in a den of snakes.’
She wrote that ‘PEN in countries other than the British Isles has become a pawn in the political game, I fear.’ Going on that ‘under these circumstances we must take great care to send delegates who can cope with politics’ and with ‘knowledge of the personalities and politics concerned.’ She writes that ‘Galsworthy would turn in his grave if he knew what his friendship association had become.’
Bentley’s revelation shows PEN becoming much more of a microcosm for world politics during the Cold War period, as centres – particularly in the East – come to identify much more readily with their national or ideological interests which come into conflict with PEN’s free expression commitments.
Whether writing reports in PEN News, hosting refugees during the war or discussing crucial matters of free expression during the Cold War, Bentley played a crucial but unsung role in PEN during her long membership of the organisation.
Today we feature one of the most controversial members in PEN’s one hundred year history, Italian Futurist and Fascist, F. T. Marinetti. Marinetti was President of the Rome PEN centre throughout the 1930s, and was a regular congress attender, going to the notorious Dubrovnik congress in 1933, as well as congresses in Edinburgh in 1934, Barcelona in 1935, and Buenos Aires in 1936. He was a vocal, argumentative, very problematic and extremely canny operator. He was the absolute master at using PEN protocols and free speech principles to wind up other members, and to get his way.
PEN, which claimed as an organisation to stand aside from politics, has always been a broad church, and this was particularly true in the 1930s when it had Communist, liberal, and Fascist members. But Marinetti was a real problem for International PEN. The majority of PEN members were socialists or liberals, and found his Fascism heinous. While behind the scenes International PEN members discussed what to do about the ‘Marinetti problem’, they were also reluctant, given their stated apoliticism, to throw him out.
And so, Marinetti would regularly take to the floor at Congresses to admonish other members to steer clear of politics and stick to the subject of literature, or to defend Italy and Fascism. One of the most controversial moments was at the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress, where he was asked by far right Argentine nationalist Carlos Ibarguren to Chair a session. This enraged a number of delegates, most notably the French writers Jules Romains and Benjamin Crémieux. Romains cited a text that Marinetti had been circulating at the Congress which promoted the values of ‘Italian pride…against every manner of friendship with foreigners’, ‘preparation for war’ and ‘martial education’. Romains insisted that, if Marinetti was to chair a PEN meeting, he must ‘disavow’ these opinions, which were opposed to PEN’s internationalism and pacifism, in ‘the most formal manner’. This produced a fracas in the Congress hall, with ‘delegates from Italy’ indulging in ‘violent demonstrations against the French delegation’. There was further ‘uproar’ in the gallery when Marinetti refused to retract and comply with the French PEN Club, ‘whose sentiments against fascism and Italy’, as he put it, are ‘well known.’
While Marinetti continued to test PEN’s stated apoliticism and tolerance of diverse views, he also represented a real threat to the organisation’s cohesion. At Buenos Aires, the Italian centre proposed that the 1937 PEN Congress be held in Rome – a proposition that was accepted by Congress. The International PEN Executive spent the next 6 months trying to get out of the commitment, succeeding in the end in hastily rearranging the 1937 to take place in Paris. Marinetti’s presence in PEN produced some of its most violent Congress moments, and anguished disagreements about the limits of its members right to express. Could the organisation promote internationalism and pacifism and also have Marinetti, and other Fascists, as members? On the other hand, could the organisation defend free speech as an ‘inalienable right’ as they called it, and then exclude those with certain views – Fascist or otherwise? These questions would continue to trouble PEN after Marinetti’s death in 1944.
‘I used to joke, many years ago, thank God for PEN because if the Nigerian government ever throws me in prison at least somebody will care’Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Our 35th PEN Member needs no introduction. Award-winning novelist, activist, feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has used her platform to draw attention to some of the biggest issue of our times, from Black Lives Matter to feminism, #metoo, to what it means to be an African writer.
Whilst her novels have been incredibly successful – Purple Hibiscus, her debut, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2004, Half of a Yellow Sun won her the Orange Prize in 2006 and Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle award in 2014 – she is also known for her outspoken TED talks, public speeches and essays.
Her 2013 TED talk We Should All Be Feminists was so popular that it was published as a pamphlet, distributed to all 16-years olds in Sweden and even sampled by Beyoncé in her song ‘**** Flawless’.
PEN awarded her the 2018 Pinter Prize in recognition of her ‘outstanding literary merit’ placing her alongside writers like Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Tom Stoppard, but also marking the tremendous contribution which she continues to make to global debates. To coin an instagram phrase, Adichie is a literary influencer, instantly recognisable not only for her signature style but for her ideas, which capture the imagination of millions almost every time she speaks.
She even chose to bring these two roles together in 2019, for the mutual benefit of each by pairing with New York jewellery brand Foundrae to design a ‘Free Expression medallion’ in aid of PEN America. The collaboration raised $120,000 but also brought PEN’s work to a whole new audience allowing Adichie to appear in platforms from Marie Claire to Teen Vogue discussing human rights and free expression.
In explaining the collaboration, she pointed to her shared interests with the organisation: ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, PEN supports writers who are imprisoned by governments—things that are important to me also’.
‘In this age of the privatised, marketised self, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the exception who defies the rule,’ said Maureen Freely, chair of trustees for English PEN. ‘Sophisticated beyond measure in her understanding of gender, race, and global inequality, she guides us through the revolving doors of identity politics, liberating us all.’
Indeed, Adichie’s Pinter acceptance speech touched on the issues connected to this platform, from her own sense of responsibility as a writer, to PEN’s history, debates around the relationship between writing and politics and between citizenship and creativity, to the writer’s role and identity in the world.
‘Artists are also citizens’ she states. ‘It is in some ways true that art is a thing apart because unlike politics art functions in great spaces, art humanises, it goes below the surface. But we also live in a world in which the nation-state dominates, in which the value the world gives us as human beings can be determined by the passports we carry.’
‘I did not choose to speak out about social issues because I am a writer, but my writing gave me a platform to speak about issues I have always cared about.’
Her ongoing relationship with PEN allows her to use this position to bring these issues to new audiences and to highlight the organisation’s work for a new generation of supporters.
Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is another of our PEN members who has both been defended by International PEN, and who has also become an active PEN member.
Pamuk first came into contact with International PEN when Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter visited Turkey on behalf of PEN in 1985 to protest the ruthless suppression of free speech. A young Pamuk was despatched to meet them at the airport, and then became their guide to Istanbul. He introduced them to Istanbul’s persecuted publishers, writers and journalists.
So began a long relationship to PEN. In 2005, he faced three years in prison for commenting during an interview with a Swiss newspaper that ‘thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in’ Turkey and ‘nobody but me dares to talk about it.’ When news of his Swiss interview reached Turkey, Pamuk received death threats and copies of his books were burned.
International PEN, PEN America and English PEN all protested this attack on Pamuk’s free speech. PEN America pointedly identified Turkey’s contradictory stance on free speech: ‘PEN finds it extraordinary that a state has ratified both the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, both of which see freedom of expression as central, should have a Penal Code that includes a clause that is so clearly contrary to these very principles.’ Eventually charges were dropped in 2006, and it is widely believed that this was because the high profile case drew international attention to Turkey’s draconian record on free expression and its past human rights record, at a time when the country sought the approval of the international community, not least for its bid to join the European Union.
In 2006, Pamuk delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York, and his experience at the hands of the Turkish authorities was central to his talk.
He also, however, spoke of Miller’s and Pinter’s visit to Turkey twenty-one years earlier. He described how their visit had changed his life, particularly in the way they had used their fame to bring the plight of Turkish writers to the ‘attention of the world’, and their desire to create a ‘consoling solidarity among writers’. But Pamuk also described his own conflicted relationship to this idea of solidarity. At that time he was on the margins of the political world, but while showing Miller and Pinter Istanbul and listening to the stories of oppressed and censored writers, he felt drawn into the political world through guilt and solidarity. At the same time, however, he felt a strong desire to stay aloof and simply write ‘beautiful novels’.
In the subsequent conversation with Margaret Atwood at the 2006 Festival, she interestingly asked him about the dominant theme of shame and guilt – and their opposite – pride, in his writing. While shame-pride, as he suggested has been both a driving theme in his writing, it might also be seen as being important for his activism. Activism requires solidarity to, as he put it, the basic acknowledgement that freedom of thought and expression are, as he insists ‘universal human rights’, but also the ongoing defence of these rights that should not be softened by nationalism or sensitivities.
Pamuk continues to use his own global status, as a Nobel prize winning novelist to protest free speech violations. In 2014 he joined other writers including Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie, in writing a joint International and English PEN letter protesting Turkey’s blocking of access to Twitter as an ‘unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of speech.’
Turkey currently ranks number one in the world for free speech violations. PEN has compiled a list of 80 writers who have faced proceedings around free expression issues in Turkey. Read more about Turkey’s clampdown on free expression on English PEN’s website.
PEN’s campaign to get Arthur Koestler freed from prison in 1937 was its first real writers in prison success story.
Koestler, who was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous ex-Communist anti-Communists, was a member of the Communist Party from 1931. He went to Spain in 1936, and 1937 on the direct instructions of Willi Münzenberg, head of Soviet covert operations in Europe, to report on Franco’s activities. He revealed that Franco was receiving direct assistance from both Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Koestler was arrested and thrown in prison in Seville from February to May, 1937, under sentence of death.
Lobbied by a group including Koestler’s wife, PEN joined both the British government, a number of establishment figures such as Lady Astor and the Archbishop of Westminster, and other organisations, in campaigning for Koestler’s release. Disingenuously claiming he was a ‘liberal’ journalist whose free speech rights should be respected, they wrote high-profile letters to the press, and also directly to Franco himself, stipulating their apolitical stance as an organisation, and mentioning the ‘immemorial rights of press correspondents’. Koestler’s release was widely publicised in the British press, under headings such as ‘Imprisonment of Journalist: P.E.N. Cable to Franco’, and the organisation thereby received a welcome burst of publicity.
Koestler was incredibly grateful. After his release he arrived in London and immediately wrote to PEN. Their actions on his behalf, and in defence of free expression of ‘opinion’, were what he called the ‘life-blood of democracy and humanity’.
Koestler did not forget his debt to PEN. He became a lifelong member of the organisation from 1937, and also established a PEN ‘Koestler Fund’, which was used to support exiled writers.
He was, however, to be one of the organisation’s most controversial and critical figures. A year after his imprisonment, Koestler left the Communist Party, and became one of its most high-profile critics, particularly of their suppression of free speech and literary expression.
While he continued to acknowledge his debts to PEN, writing, for instance, in 1941, to E.M. Forster about his ‘repeated thanks to Mr Ould […] for all of his kind actions in the past, in connection with my unpleasant adventures in various countries of the Continent’, he was also critical of what he saw as PEN’s lacklustre approach to the suppression of free speech in Communist countries, particularly among those with PEN Centres. He wrote to Ould in 1950, for instance, stating that the reason for his estrangement from PEN ‘is to be found in this kind of neutrality towards the most grotesque and dreadful persecution of art, science and literature, from geneticists and musicians to circus clowns [in Communist countries]’.
In 1958, Koestler’s forthright anti-Communist stance caused a highly publicised rift in PEN. He pulled out of a planned address to the Japanese PEN Club stating publicly that this was because of their refusal to condemn the treatment of Boris Pasternak by the Soviet authorities.
Pasternak had been awarded that year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, partly because of his novel, Doctor Zhivago, which had been banned by the Russian Authorities but smuggled out of the country and published to wide acclaim elsewhere. Pasternak had been forced to refuse to accept the award, causing widespread condemnation among PEN members and letters and petitions of support.
Alongside this support, however, the organisation often stopped short of criticising Soviet policy and alienating its Eastern bloc members in an attempt to be politically neutral. The Japanese PEN, in this instance, released a statement stating that they had no definite opinion on the Pasternak case, having not read Doctor Zhivago as it had not yet been published in Japan, but that they thought the incident ‘regrettable’.
The enraged Koestler protested that Japanese PEN seemed more willing to condemn the Swedish Academy for awarding Pasternak the prize than the Russian authorities for censoring him.
He spelled out the situation in very direct terms: ‘when one of the prominent members of their “international fraternity” had been deprived of the right of freedom of expression, and hounded and besmirched in a manner rarely paralleled in history, his colleagues in Japan had issued a statement which, when read carefully, put more blame on the defenders of the victim than on his persecutors.’
Japanese PEN rejected Koestler’s charges as ‘ill-considered.’ As the case exploded across the world media with camera crews encamped outside Japanese PEN’s headquarters, the PEN International office in London, then staffed by International Secretary David Carver and his team, were forced to intervene. The incident became the subject of numerous meetings of the PEN Executive, almost overshadowing the high-profile Pasternak case itself.
The divisions exposed, once again, the faultlines in PEN during the Cold War.
Five years before his death in 1978, Koestler was invited to become a Vice President of English PEN. He remains one of the organisation’s most famous but perhaps most controversial members.
Heinrich Böll was President of PEN International from 1971-1974, marking an attempt by the organisation to bridge the gap between centres in the West and those in the Communist East.
As a former President of the West German branch of PEN, the Nobel Prize winner bought unique insight to this role and a real empathy with writers on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
He was elected at the congress held in Dublin as the organisation celebrated its jubilee. A unifying candidate, his Presidency offered a respite from the more divisive days of Arthur Miller, who, despite his attempts to create a Russian PEN Centre, had often raised the hackles of other Eastern Centres with his heavy-handed approach.
Böll had experience in managing these dynamics and more respect throughout the region having campaigned in 1961 – as the Berlin Wall was erected – for a UN headquarters in both the East and West areas of the city.
He spoke at the inaugural meeting of the Association of German Writers in 1969, calling for more ethical government particularly around relations with Eastern Europe.
He had travelled widely in Eastern Europe, and was invited to visit Czechoslovakia in August 1968 where he witnessed the invasion by Warsaw Pact troops, bringing years of communist dictatorship and the further suppression of human rights and particularly the activities of writers in Czechoslovakia.
He was highly influential in bringing to PEN’s attention the plight of the Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. He had visited Solzhenitsyn during his travels and after Solzhenitsyn’s arrest in 1974, he gave the exiled writer the use of his cottage in Langenbrioch in the Eifel hills.
At his first meeting as President he asked for writers in the West not to judge their counterparts in Soviet countries for their action or inaction on censorship: ‘It is all right for everyone to take risks for themselves, whether calculated or not, but as soon as it becomes a matter of other people’s risks, caution and silence are not cowardice, nor even diplomacy. Nobody should take risks for other people, nobody can know exactly what other people risk.’
His ties to the East were such that he was once named “warden of the Dissident Wayfarers”in an East German magazine. But Böll’s activities were not limited to these so-called “dissident Wayfarers” from the East. In 1969, he had rallied PEN to organise a campaign appealing to the US government to drop proceedings against civil rights activist Angela Davis.
As a political thinker and activist Böll remained active throughout his life speaking out on the key issues of the twentieth century, campaigning for civil rights in the US, against nuclear weapons in his native German, in support of Vietnamese boat people in 1979 and against oppressive governments across the world.
As well as being a lifelong campaigner for free expression, Böll’s interest in the environment led to the foundation after his death in 1985 of the Heinrich Böll Foundation which funds and orchestrates ‘green ideas and projects’ all over the world, and has branches in 32 countries worldwide.
Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, a Trustee of English PEN and of the Free Word Centre, has written seven novels to great critical acclaim and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017 for Home Fire, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. As well as being an active PEN member, she has also been defended by the organisation.
In 2019 Shamsie won the Nelly Sachs Prize but it was rescinded because of her public support of the movement to boycott Israel (BDS – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). The international literary community – including PEN International members – responded immediately and a letter was published in the London Review of Books protesting the decision and signed by more than 250 leading contemporary writers including Arundhati Roy, Jeanette Winterson and PEN International President Jennifer Clement.
The letter asked about the balance of literature and human rights: ‘What is the meaning of a literary award that undermines the right to advocate for human rights, the principles of freedom of conscience and expression, and the freedom to criticize? Without these, art and culture become meaningless luxuries.’
The jury for the prize – awarded in memory of the Jewish German Nobel Prize winner – felt that Shamsie’s actions placed her at odds with its ethos because her action against Israel ‘is clearly in contradiction to the statutory objectives of the award.’ As they put it, ‘The cultural boycott does not transcend borders, but affects the whole of Israeli society regardless of its actual political and cultural heterogeneity. Kamila Shamsie’s work is also withheld from the Israeli population in this way.’
Shamsie responded: ‘It is a matter of great sadness to me that a jury should bow to pressure and withdraw a prize from a writer who is exercising her freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.’
Shamsie is herself a dedicated campaigner for free expression, writing and speaking in defence of writers all over the world. She has been particularly prominent in her support of PEN’s International Day of the Imprisoned Writer.
Day of the Imprisoned writer(now 15thNovember) has been a mainstay of PEN’s calendar since it was instigated in 1981 by PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. The idea was first proposed by Arthur Miller at the 1969 PEN International Congress at Menton, France, where, in one of his last actions as President, he wrote a Memorandum calling for ‘all P.E.N. Centers to set aside a date, to be decided, as International Writers’ Day. On this day the Centers shall gather as many writers in their areas as possible into public meetings, whether outdoors or in, along with interested private and official personalities, to draw the world’s attention to the facts of the imprisonment and exile of writers; to demand their freedom and to assert by every means of publicity that the imprisonment of writers is regarded by civilised men everywhere as a violation of men’s sacred right to think and speak his thoughts and to communicate with other men.’
The Day of the Imprisoned Writer – as it is now known – marks a day once a year when PEN members across the world undertake one of the most important activities in the organisation’s history – they write to imprisoned writers. In some cases, these open letters are published in national and international media to draw attention to the plight of certain writers or causes, but primarily this is an exchange between individuals in which writers write to writers, exchanging words and ideas through prison walls in a way which invokes freedom by defying the barriers of nationality, race, age and the physical walls of persecution and oppression. It enacts PEN’s central premise, that there can be no barriers to ideas, ‘that literature knows no frontiers.’
In 2017 Shamsie took part in the Day of the Imprisoned Writer by writing to Razan Zaitouneh –human rights defender, lawyer, blogger and founder of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria and who was abducted in December 2013 from the offices of the VDC and remains imprisoned in Syria.
Shamsie praised Zaitouneh for continuing to inspire others: ‘I hope one day after you’re returned to your family, I’ll have a chance to meet you. I’ll bring along a book of poems by Faiz, one that contains some lines that he wrote when he was in prison (for opposing autocracy): though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed/ in rooms where lovers are destined to meet/ they cannot snuff out the moon, so today/ nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed.’
Dorothy Thompson was PEN America President from 1936 until 1939. Famous for her Suffragette activism and cutting-edge political journalism, as well as a radio broadcaster, she headed up the Berlin Bureau of the New York Post from the late 1920s, and was notoriously the first American journalist to be expelled from Germany when the Nazis took control.
Along with Eleanor Roosevelt, she was famously viewed as one of the two most influential American women of the 1930s. On her return to New York in the mid-1930s, she took up the reins at PEN America, and was thereby central to the organisation during a key period in its history.
During her time in Berlin, Thompson had befriended many writers and fellow PEN members, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Bertolt Brecht, all of whom were forced into exile from 1933, and would end up in the US. As the 1930s unfolded, she was responsible for using PEN networks, structures and funds to help with what was an escalating refugee problem.
Her other significant contribution was in using her journalistic connections, understanding and clout to publicise and promote PEN’s activities. She presided over the PEN World Congress of Writers that formed part of the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Under the by-line ‘World Congress of Writers: Dedicated to the Basic Freedoms’, writers from all around the world attended the Congress, as well as a rosta of famous PEN writers in exile including Thomas Mann, Ernst Toller, Sholem Asch, Pedro Salinas, André Maurois, Jules Romains, Erich Maria Remarque and Lin Yutang.
With glamorous photographs of writers wining and dining at the Plaza Hotel, and a dedicated ‘Hospitality Committee’, the event received impressive press coverage in Time magazine, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and other publications. Thompson was quoted as pointing out the power of the ‘writer’s tool, the word, which seems so weak but is strong.’ She continued: ‘Time and again in history’, ‘words have opened doors, they have shamed the powerful, they have mobilised nations, they have held together the discouraged and oppressed, they have tamed and civilised’.
Time magazine aptly concluded of the PEN event and its discussions that ‘literary fashion’ has ‘changed…Clearly, the ivory tower had no place in the streamlined architecture of the 1939 World’s Fair: it had crashed into 55 pieces’.
Thompson’s canny understanding of how to use the press and new media to promote PEN’s activities was crucial at this key moment in the organisation’s history.
Read more about PEN’s work with refugees.