PEN turns 100 this year. That’s 100 years of writers collaborating, dining, debating, disputing, walking-out, campaigning, agitating, petitioning and declaring. During 2021 we will be using this website to reflect upon PEN’s history and to think about its current challenges.
What began as the first London literary club open to women quickly became an international organisation that campaigned for writers’ rights. PEN was shaped by the major political events of the last 100 years: the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the refugee crises of the late 1930s and 1940s, anti-colonial fights for national independence, the cold war, and global disputes over the limits to blasphemous expression. Its activities continue to be moulded by events. Writers have confronted the recent politicised conflicts over the meaning of free speech, and the implications of the spread of false news and hate speech when amplified by the internet.
But PEN has not simply been fashioned by history; it has also been a significant forum for the creation of new ideas. It allowed space for international literary collaboration and the engagement with human rights from the 1930s, particularly rights to free expression of imprisoned and exiled writers. It liaised with UNESCO after the second world war on educational and translation initiatives. From the 1930s onwards, it devoted significant time to helping refugee writers, legally and financially. It developed a set of principles on literary linguistic rights in 1996 and women’s rights in 2017.
PEN is the sum total of its members. It is a literary network, a forum for literary debate and a campaigning NGO. Its history is a history of the activities and views of individual members and includes many of the most significant global writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In 2021 we will focus in on some of PEN’s most significant members. We’ll be tweeting #PEN100 #100PENMembers to tell you about some of the inspirational writers who have been part of the organisation over its first one hundred years. We’ll also be working with PEN International and English PEN on some exciting events and publications to celebrate their rich history. Follow us on @writefreeexpress to meet those fascinating characters from all over the world who made PEN what it is today.