#100PENMembers No.29: Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid had recently published A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle (1926) when he proposed setting up a Scottish PEN centre in Edinburgh in 1927. Along with Professor Herbert Grierson and novelist Neil Gunn, MacDiarmid’s aspiration soon bore fruit, and he became Scottish PEN President in the late 1920s. 

Hugh MacDiarmid in 1968

As well as being the key figure in the Scottish literary Renaissance, he was always politically active, and viewed PEN as a means with which to further his Communist and Scottish nationalist politics. He stood as a candidate for the Scottish National Party in 1945 and 1950, and would become a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1964. He was seen as a dangerous figure by the British government, and was watched by British Intelligence Services from 1931 to 1943. 

The Edinburgh centre was to be an important one. It not only promoted the distinctive features of Scottish writing as what they called a ‘national’ literature, it also hosted key congresses in 1934 and 1950; both of which were significant in the history of International PEN. At the 1934 Ediburgh Congress, PEN would commit the organisation to defending free expression. 

It was at the 1950 Congress, however, that MacDiarmid’s angry interventions caused a stir. The Congress was an acrimonious one, with members feeling the full force of Cold War divisions. New York playwright Robert Sherwood opened the proceedings with a rambling speech discussing his activities in the war, the diminishing popularity of the theatre in the age of the cinema, his personal liking for ‘pretty legs’ on the stage, the reason why the Americans had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the Soviet’s ‘incredible intransigence’, the meaning of the word ‘freedom’ and the situation in Korea. It was at this point that MacDiarmid, heckling from the audience, called out “stick to your subject,” and angrily left the Congress Hall. 

While not the first PEN member to have stormed out of a meeting, his actions prompted an agonised debate within PEN about freedom of speech in the context of the Cold War. 

Delegate, St. John Ervine, stated ‘I don’t like those angry little men who hurl themselves through the door. Was somebody saying something with which they don’t agree? Those are the most dangerous people in the world.’

He was not the only member to criticise what they saw as MacDiarmid’s angry refusal to listen to a contrary opinion. However, two days later, the PEN International Executive Committee called an emergency meeting to discuss Sherwood’s belligerent pro-US and anti-Soviet rhetoric, which had gone down badly with many people at the Congress, and the fall-out from MacDiarmid’s actions. 

Mrs Watts, Dawson-Scott’s daughter, addressed the hall and invoked her status as ‘the daughter of the Founder of PEN’. She asked the ‘assembly here whether they are prepared to allow the remarks of Mr. Robert Sherwood to go out to the world.’ Dutch writer Jilmar Johannes Backer, however, argued that PEN should not take any action because ‘a member is free to offer his opinion’ and this opinion did not ‘mean that it is the opinion of the meeting.’ Macdiarmid countered this. He welcomed Watts’ comments, questioning why Sherwood and his anti-Soviet views, had been given the floor in the first place, and also stipulating that, while he was not in favour of eliminating political discussion, he did think that if something is expressed others should be able to air opposing views.  

The debate captured some key Cold War literary tensions within PEN. While PEN had always been an organisation with members of different political views, the Cold War weaponization of free speech would divide members and centres for the next few decades. 

#100PENMembers No 28: Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was both a member of the executive board of PEN America from 1945 until 1949, and, because of his global literary importance, has been a central voice and resource for more recent PEN events and campaigns. 

An outspoken civil rights campaigner who used his growing fame as a poet to speak out racial issues, Hughes was involved with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) from 1921. Before becoming a PEN member, he used his literary status to help pressurise PEN America on behalf of black civil rights. In 1935 he formed part of the New York based ‘Committee for the Release of Jacques Roumain’, which campaigned on behalf of Haitian writer, Roumain, who was leader of the nationalist movement in Haiti against the US occupation from 1915-1934. He was imprisoned four times between 1928 and 1936, but this had not prevented him from founding the Haiti Communist Party in 1934. Along with Hughes the committee was also sponsored by other members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Jean Toomer. 

The group demanded that US PEN Delegate, Henry Canby to raise Roumain’s case at the 1935 Barcelona PEN Congress. Canby duly did so, and argued that an ‘error of justice had been committed’, and moved that the Government of Haiti be asked to reconsider the case. The motion was carried unanimously. It was the first time the PEN Executive had granted itself the authority to defend an imprisoned writer in a country which had never had a PEN centre. 

During Hughes’ time on the Executive Board of PEN America, the organisation a faced some key challenges, most notably PEN’s evolving relationship with the United Nations, whether centres in Germany and Italy could be reconstituted, as well as the conflicts of the emerging Cold War. 

In 1960, when Hughes was awarded the NAACAP’s Springarn Medal, he spoke of his political and literary priorities: he could only accept the medal ‘in the name of the Negro people who have given me the materials out of which my poems and stories, plays and songs have come, and who, over the years, have given me as well their love and understanding and support. Without them on my part there would have been no poems, without their hopes and fears and dreams, no stories. Without their struggles, no dramas; without their music, no songs. Had I not heard as a child in the little churches of Kansas and Missouri “Deep river, my home is over Jordan” or “My Lord what a mornin’ / When the stars begin to fall,” I might not have come to realize the lyric beauty of living poetry.’

Indeed, Hughes’ poetry still provides a touchstone for PEN America, featuring regularly in events addressing a range of topics from the surveillance state, to race. Hughes’ writing and activism touched on so many areas of American life, from race and slavery to chain gangs, religion to Jim Crow, scenes of the rural South and bustling accounts of life in New York, it lends itself to almost every occasion offering clear-eyed and prescient wisdom applicable to topics from to Black Lives Matter to poverty and austerity. Certainly poems like ‘Oppression’ though outwardly about race in America, might seem to epitomise PEN’s own free expression mission. 

PEN celebrated Hughes’ one hundredth birthday in 2002 with a Twentieth Century Masters Tribute event featuring Hughes himself reading one of his earliest poems ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ and a host of poets and admirers contributing readings and thoughts on Hughes’ influence on American art, politics and life.

#100PENMembers No.27: Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann was asked to become an honorary member of London PEN within a year of its founding, in September 1922. As one of the most important global writers, his honorary status was unsurprising. But, he was also an active member, helping to create Berlin PEN in December 1924 and later becoming an important figure in the German Writers in Exile centre, which was established in January 1934.

Thomas Mann

Initially, Mann acknowledged the importance of PEN networks in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when travel between Germany and France was extremely difficult. In a short piece for the French PEN Bulletin in 1926 he explained his happiness at being invited to speak abroad, noting his delight in being the first German writer to be received in London since the end of hostilities. For Mann, and for other German PEN members such as Heinrich Mann, Gerhart Hauptmann and Robert Musil, PEN networks in the mid-1920s provided an invaluable means through which to supersede frosty German-French political relations. Speaking of the foundation of PEN itself, Mann commented on the humorous nature of the organisation’s name, and extolled its symbolic embodiment of the international solidarity of ‘spiritual workers’, as he called them: ‘My personal impression,’ he exclaims, ‘is that the association is a European force of great importance, able to influence the vital questions of the day.’ The spiritual solidarity represented by the organisation lay not in any imposed programme or ideology; but in the ‘voluntary’ union of writers. 

The Berlin PEN centre was one of the most successful in the 1920s and early 1930s. However, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, it was taken over by Nazi writers, who immediately excluded writers including Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann, and Erich Maria Remarque, as well as Communist and Jewish writers. They also refused to protest when Nazi students burnt books in German universities and town squares in May 1933. Mann, who had fled to Switzerland when Hitler came to power, became a key figure for the German Writers in Exile centre. German refugees were sometimes strategically referred to as the Thomas Mann Group of Refugees, a label used to enlist support. In 1940, for instance, Hermon Ould wrote to American PEN asking if they could help the Thomas Mann Group of Refugees, who ‘have suffered extreme persecution and have fought the Nazi Regime since its beginning.’ In 1939, Mann emigrated to the US and began making anti-Nazi broadcasts. 

#100PENMembers No.26: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, writer, civil rights activist, feminist, filmmaker, survivor and PEN member used her writing to change the perceptions of contemporary America and the world.

Maya Angelou, 1974. (Photo by Craig Herndon / The Washington Post)

Her work opened up the world’s eyes to suffering, not only of African Americans but of women, the poor, the destitute and the forgotten.

A member of PEN America, Angelou is one of the country’s most frequently banned authors.

Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), one of the most influential in American literature, received 39 public bans in America for its tackling of themes of childhood rape, sexuality and racism and continues to be a controversial inclusion on reading lists in high schools and colleges across her home country.

The memoir describes Angelou’s childhood in the Southern United States, as she navigated the Jim Crow laws and racially-segregated society, seeing the black community repeatedly falling victim to poverty and violence as they skirted the sidelines of the faceless and affluent whites living in the more prosperous areas of town. It also includes a description of Angelou’s own childhood experience of sexual violence.

Whilst the sexual violence is most often cited as the reason for banning the book in schools, it is often described in reports by school boards as being ‘sexually explicit’, as ‘encouraging homosexuality’ and as being ‘anti-white’.

Nonetheless, the book received a National Book Award and remained on US bestseller lists for almost two years.

In response to the book being banned in Huntington Beach, California in 2010, Angelou told the local newspaper ‘I’m always sorry that people ban my books. Many times I’ve been called the most banned. And many times my books are banned by people who never read two sentences. I feel sorry for the young person who doesn’t get to read.’

Angelou also won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1972, Tony and Emmy Awards and Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word album in 1993, 1995, and 2002.

But the reach of Angelou’s voice stretches far beyond her successful writing career –she political campaigner who worked closely with civil rights activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Maya Angelou with the novelist James Baldwin

‘We are all political, whether we accept it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not. Everything is a political act.’

Maya Angelou

Much like inspirational young poet Amanda Gorman who read at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration, Angelou read the poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. 

In recognition of her political work and her tremendous achievements in the arts, Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011.

#100PENMembers No. 25: Robert Neumann

Austrian writer Robert Neumann transformed PEN repeatedly, playing key roles in the evolution of its Charter, its remit and its politics during his fifty-year membership of the organisation.

Robert Neumann

A German Jew, Neumann first came to PEN when his works fell victim to the Nazi book burnings in 1933. He left his home in Vienna in 1934 and fled to Britain where he was the founder of the Austrian PEN Centre in exile in 1938.

During World War Two, he worked tirelessly on behalf of refugee and exiled writers in London, despite being interned as an ‘Enemy Alien’ himself for several months in 1940. Alongside English President Storm Jameson and International Secretary Hermon Ould he worked as a fundraiser for the PEN Refugee Fund and even provided a weekly drop-in session – as part of his role as an editor with Hutchinson International –  to give writers advice on how to publish or find work as translators in London.

After the war he helped to revive and became Honorary President of the Austrian PEN Club in 1947 and PEN Vice President in 1950. This membership and his history with the organisation gave him a unique platform to critique and influence PEN policy at every level.

A lifelong socialist, Neumann could be a vehement critic of PEN’s more conservative tendencies, particularly during the early postwar years.

Neumann’s experiences in Austria left him with a very personal and violent response to any indication of government interference in free expression. He had seen first-hand where such interventions could end.

In 1953, he lobbied the PEN International Congress in Dublin to add a very important element to PEN’s Charter. 

The contribution formed part of a raft of measures proposed by the French Centre to formally reassert PEN’s commitment to freedom of expression, to condemn censorship and the banning of books by governments. 

There were a number of these types of reaffirmations in PEN Press releases and meetings at the time, which reflected an organisation seeking to find terra firma in the postwar world and to ensure that the slide to fascism could not be repeated.

It was also a response to simmering Cold War tensions within the organisation, which was starting to become aware of the threats to free expression in Eastern European countries.

Neumann wanted to add in a clause which would stipulate that all national PEN Centres must report regularly on the state of intellectual freedom within their respective countries and ‘their own actions to combat victimizations and other Government and private interferences with that freedom. He wanted UNESCO to assist PEN in publishing these findings.

Issues were raised with the Amendment, among those PEN Centres in Iron Curtain countries who might find themselves having to report regular and humiliating infringements on their liberties but also among those in the West, who feared leaving potentially-infiltrated centres in the East to raise free expression issues. Neumann himself had long been wary of the domination of more centrist and right-wing politics within PEN, speaking out at the 1950 Congress about PEN’s internal Cold War under President Charles Morgan.

The debate marked a fissure which would rupture PEN policy and campaigning on free expression throughout the Cold War.

It also came to mark a crucial point in PEN’s history and its sense of the role of itself and its Centres in monitoring and reporting on free expression worldwide.

Most tellingly, this type of reporting would come to form a crucial element of PEN’s work with human rights charities and is now a routine part of UN monitoring of human rights across the world: Where a report is being compiled local PEN Centres are asked to provide information on attitudes to writers and writing, conditions of censorship, the imprisonment of writers, because – as Neumann so shrewdly recognised – the way a society treats its writers is hugely indicative of the health of its democracy.

Neumann continued to take a leading role in PEN until the end of his life, serving as a Vice President . In 1971, just five years before his death he was at the Congress in Yugoslavia, submitting an amendment on writers in Israel and Palestine and continuing his lifelong fight for free expression.

#100PENMembers No.24: David Carver

David Carver cut a dashing figure at PEN conferences and dinners, and oversaw a period of the organisation’s history which was dominated by glamourous parties but also the complex international rifts of the Cold War.

David Carver [far left]
Photos from Edinburgh Congress 1950 (Tatler Sept 6 1950) reproduced with kind permission of the Harry Ransom Center, Texas

He served as the Secretary of International PEN from Hermon Ould’s death in 1951 until his own in May 1974. Although International Presidents have come and gone, it is notable that both Ould and Carver served as International Secretary for so many years. They thereby provided a certain stability, as well as a central point for Centres around the world. 

A musician and singer by trade, Carver proved as dedicated a Secretary to PEN as Ould had been, but his approach to the organisation was different. While Ould was always diplomatic, influencing PEN members through friendship and good humour, Carver was more high-handed and bullish. 

Never afraid to wade into national or even international politics, Carver was in many ways the ideal personality to shepherd the organisation through the Cold War years. He 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, along with President Arthur Miller, in encouraging the Soviet Writers Union to form a Russian PEN Centre. During this time he visited Russia and held talks with key Soviet officials about the possibility of Russia joining the organisation and arranged for Soviet observers to attend the PEN Congress in New York in 1966.

In 1961 he spoke out on the BBC – blaming the Soviet Writers Union for the detainment by the Russian authorities of Boris Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaya and almost causing an international crisis!

He quite frequently engaged in these types of public spats with the Soviet Writers Union, writing on 1st February 1964 an incendiary letter to the Russian newspaper Isvestia in response to a piece by Alexei Surkov, the head of the SWU. 

Surkov’s piece – which rather mischievously described PEN as the ‘one time respectable writers’ organisation’ – accused it of pandering to American efforts to subvert and undermine the ‘youthful culture of socialist countries.’ It critiqued PEN’s apparently apolitical stance alleging that ‘the International Organisation of Pen [sic] Clubs have thrown themselves deliriously into the defence of literary reactionaries.’

Carver’s letter, in turn, attacks Surkov for his ‘foul slanders’ on the organisation and seeks to set the record straight about PEN’s activities. The rift soured relations for several years but Carver and Arthur Miller made enormous efforts to win back Surkov’s support and after several exchanges of correspondence and even a clandestine meeting with Russian officials in 1965, the Russians were invited to the New York Congress as observers and the fight to establish a Russian PEN Centre continued.

This back-and-forth characterised relations between PEN and the Soviets during these years. Carver was a good match for Surkov – both men were strong characters with quick tempers and seem to have gained a certain amount of enjoyment in baiting each other! It often fell to PEN International Presidents Miller and the Dutch writer Victor Van Vriesland to calm frayed tempers and return all parties to the negotiation table.

Carver was also, however, 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) and building better links to PEN India and the other Asian Centres. He also organised some of the most high profile free expression campaigns – such as the campaign to free Wole Soyinka and Boris Pasternak and the celebrations 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, in many ways, 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.

#100PENMembers No.23: Karel Čapek

The Prague PEN centre was one of the most active and successful in Europe from 1923 to 1938 and the globally prestigious playwright and novelist Karel Čapek was at the heart of this success.

The Club received a great deal of support from the Czechoslovakian government and boasted as members prominent Czech political and cultural figures, including the new Czech President, Tomáš Masyrak and his successor Edvard Beneš. In 1938 the International PEN Congress was held in Prague. 

Karel Čapek

When Dawson Scott wrote to him to ask him to create a Prague Centre in 1923,  Čapek was basking in his recent successes on the international theatre scene. His dystopian play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920), which he wrote with his brother Josef, had been translated into thirty languages by 1923, premiered in New York in 1922 and in London in April 1923. R. U. R. is famous for its coining of the word robot, from the Czech word robota meaning work and robotnik meaning worker, a linguistic transposition that has had a lasting impact on the English language. 

He replied to Dawson Scott by commending her on ‘such a sympathetic and useful idea’, the Prague centre was established that year and the following year PEN invited him to London in 1924, where they organised a lavish lunch at Gatti’s restaurant to honour Čapek, with over a hundred guests. Čapek, speaking in halting English, charmingly reflected on the role of writers in creating ‘unity’ in the world: they had ‘the right and the mission to help and to promote mutual understanding among human beings.’

Two years after the Gatti lunch, however, Čapek was forced to deal with literary and linguistic disunity in the new Czechoslovakian state that had been created in the post-war settlement. He confronted the desire of German speaking writers in Prague to found a separate German-language PEN centre. Čapek wrote in anguished terms to Ould insisting that having two Prague centres, ‘one for authors writing in Czech the other for authors writing in German’ would undermine one of the chief purposes of the P.E.N. Club which is, as he put it, ‘to promote the bringing together of the different nationalities.’  

There were two kinds of nationalism at work here. One aspired to represent the new territorial Czech sovereignty created after the war; the other was grounded in an imagined polity rooted in linguistic identity. While this was a particularly vexed question in Prague, where the dominant literary language was German, the issue was not confined to Czechoslovakia. The conflict between these different understandings of internationalism was one of the main preoccupations of International PEN in the mid to late 1920s. 

Čapek would continue to play a formative role in the Prague PEN centre, and internationally. He agreed to become International PEN President in 1936 before ill health prevented him from taking up the post. Three months before the Munich Settlement of 30thSeptember 1938 in which the International Community agreed to German demands to annex the Sudetenland frontier areas of Czechoslovakia, the International PEN Congress was held in Prague. 

It had been touch and go whether the Congress would go ahead, but to Čapek and the other Czech writers, the event was an essential final opportunity to publicise the Czech cause in the face of increasing Nazi aggression. Writers such as English PEN President Storm Jameson, who attended the conference, describe their discomfort at visiting Czechoslovakia when the Allies had, she felt, betrayed Czechoslovakia in the agreement at Munich.

The Czech Centre – which received a good deal of funding from the Czech government – laid on lavish meals and characteristically warm hospitality but events were haunted by tensions around Czechoslovakia’s future and the role that the Allies and even writers from Allied countries might play in helping them in the event of future Nazi onslaught. Jameson fictionalises events at the Congress in her novel Europe to Let (1940), describing how ‘excited by plum brandy, the writers were swearing to defend Czechoslovakia.’ She feared that their promises were empty and their power to save the Czechs, limited.

When Nazi tanks rolled into Prague a year later, Čapek was number two on their list of public enemies who needed to be located. They swiftly tracked him down to his house but were surprised, when they arrived, to discover that he was already dead, having expired rather suddenly of pneumonia on 25thDecember 1938. They promptly took his wife, Olga, instead. 

#100PENMembers No. 22: Václav Havel

Former Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel was one of PEN’s most high-profile members during and after the end of the Cold War and also the subject of one of its most longstanding campaigns.

Václav Havel
Photo: Prague Morning

He was famed for saying that in 1947 as the Iron Curtain descended on Europe, the clocks had stopped in his half of Europe and had only begun ticking again in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall.

Within PEN, cold war tensions between Soviet bloc writers’ centres and writers in exile who had been persecuted by Communist states often split apart Congresses. At the 1967 PEN Congress in Dublin, there was acrimonious disagreement between the Prague PEN Centre and the Writers in Exile Center, who had responded to distress signals from Czech writers by proposing a resolution opposing the literary censorship and surveillance of the government run Union of Czechoslovakian Writers. Members of the Prague PEN Centre, most of whom were broadly supportive of the Communist government, criticised the resolution, arguing that it did not reflect their experience as Czech writers. 

The close connections between politics and literature were impossible to ignore for many Eastern bloc writers. The following year, during the Prague Spring of 1968, Havel was not only banned from Czech theatres, he also became the de-facto leader of the resistance movement. In January 1977, he and a civic collective of activists penned a document ‘Charter 77’ which was highly critical of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime.

The document and its signatories were declared traitors to the Czechoslovak nation. Even circulating the document was illegal, although it was published widely abroad in newspapers such as The TimesLe Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the New York Times.

Signatories were targeted by the government, often facing detention, trial, imprisonment, forced exile, loss of citizenship and even losing their jobs and families. During this period, PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee campaigned strenuously on Havel’s behalf.

In 1979, telegrams were sent from PEN International’s Rio de Janeiro Congress to members of the Czech government and to governments across the world condemning the imprisonment of Havel and other dissenters ‘for their opinions.’ It stated clearly that ‘freedom of opinion is a basic principle of International PEN and we protest against the trial which is soon to open in Prague.’ Their protests were fruitless and Havel remained in prison until February 1983. 

However in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin wall, Prague was plastered with a poster emblazoned ‘Havel na Hrad’ (Havel to the Castle, referring to Hradčany, the President’s castle in central Prague). The crowds of protestors who gathered in the streets did not give up until Havel was in the castle, serving as the new President of a reborn Czechoslovakia republic.

Addressing the Prague World Congress of PEN International in 1994 he told the delegates: ‘Let us admit that most of us writers feel an essential aversion to politics. By taking such a position, however, we accept the perverted principle of specialization, according to which some are paid to write about the horrors of the world and human responsibility and others to deal with those horrors and bear the human responsibility for them.’

In 2009, he and his fellow Charter 77 signatories wrote to request a fair trial for Liu Xiaobo – who had recently published his Charter 08 requesting democratic reform in China – stating that the harsh sentence given to such a ‘prominent citizen of your country merely for thinking and speaking critically about various political and social issues was chiefly meant as a stern warning to others not to follow his path.’

On Havel’s death in 2011, International Secretary of PEN International, Hori Takeaki said, “Václav Havel was the most courageous fighter for the freedom of speech. He trusted and believed in the ‘power of the powerless’ in the most democratic sense. So many spiritual seeds were planted by him all over the world. He changed the paradigm of global society with his fight for democracy and freedom of speech.”

#100PENMembers No. 21: Mulk Raj Anand

One of the foremost writers and modernists of India, who helped to shape and define the cultural, artistic and critical scene before and after independence, Mulk Raj Anand was also a champion of India’s freedom struggle, a staunch internationalist, a lifelong humanist, and a member of the Indian PEN. 

Mulk Raj Anand Photo: National Portrait Gallery, UK

Born in Peshawar (now Pakistan), he went to England in 1924 and received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of London in 1929. He began his literary career in England, and was associated with the Bloomsbury group. A prolific writer, he first gained recognition for his novels, many of which articulated his sympathy for the poorest and most marginalized segments of society, such as Untouchable (1935, with a foreword by another of the prominent #100PENMembers E.M. Forster) and Coolie (1936). These were concerns that would dominate his life and writing. 

Part of the anti-fascist movement, he fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. His staunch anti-colonial and anti-fascist political beliefs were closely connected. Not only, he acknowledged, were Indians “accepted as equals for the first time in England” during the anti-fascist movement, but fascist repression paralleled colonial repression – and they also command the same resistance. 

‘We, the writers of India, know how the forces of repression and censorship have thwarted the development of a great modern tradition in the literatures of our country; we saw the ugly face of Fascism in our country earlier than the writers of the European countries …’ 

(“On the Progressive Writers’ Movement”, 1939) 

It was also the spirit of anti-colonial resistance that animated his speech at the first All-India Writers’ Conference organized by the PEN in Jaipur in 1945: “As intensely as other people – as intensely as the resistance movement in France – we do hunger for and suffer for freedom.”

He participated in the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Paris (1935), and in 1936 he co-founded the influential ‘Progressive Writers’ Association’ in London, whose manifesto (first written in English, then then translated into various Indian languages) asked writers to confront the realities of Indian life, to criticize the ‘spirit of reaction’ in India, and commit to ‘further the cause of Indian freedom and social regeneration’. A year afterwards he co-organized the first All-India Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow (1936) 

Straddling different worlds, he was also an important member of different national and international political/cultural/literary organisations that are often seen as being at different ends of the ideological spectrum. An important member of the World Peace Congress, and of its Indian branch the All-India Congress for Peace, he became one of the important leaders of the peace moment in India and abroad. He also worked extremely closely with Communist-backed progressive cultural organisations such as the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (AI PWA) and the Indian People’s Theatre Organization (IPTA). One of the driving forces behind the first Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in Delhi in 1956 (for which he obtained Nehru’s support) that laid the groundwork for the Afro-Asian Writers Association and its successive conferences – the first one, of which he was part, was held in Tashkent in 1958 – he was also a prominent member of the PEN and participated in most of its major conferences in India. 

In 1946 he founded and long edited one of the most important magazines in India, Marg, devoted to the arts, and which is still published today. He also launched and organized the first Triennale India in Delhi (1968). 

#100PENMembers No.20: Elif Shafak

Today we look at Turkey’s bestselling female author, Elif Shafak, who has been both the recipient of PEN support in her own fight for free expression and is a high profile and vocal PEN member in her own right. 

Photo: Zeynel Abidin (Dogan Kitap/Turkey)

In 2006, Shafak was prosecuted for violating Article 301 of Turkey’s criminal code in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. A speech made by a character in the novel referring to the deaths of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide was accused of contravening Article 301 by ‘insulting Turkishness’. Shafak was taken to court and faced a potential three year jail sentence. 

Shafak argued that this assault on literature was both illogical – ‘if there is a thief in a novel’, she said, ‘it doesn’t make the novelist a thief’ – and represented a gear-change in Turkey’s suppression of writers. ‘Article 301 has been used by ultranationalists as a weapon to silence political voices in Turkey’, she pointed out. ‘But for the first time, they are trying to bring a novel into court. The way they are trying to penetrate the domain of art and literature is quite new, and quite disturbing.’

PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee campaigned for the charges against Shafak to be dropped. It was the beginning of her close links to the PEN organisation and active role as a global defender of freedom of expression. 

In 2014 she was a signatory to the open letter of protest against Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay and blasphemy laws before the Sochi Olympics.

In 2017 she formed part of a high-profile PEN International message of solidarity with imprisoned writers in Turkey. 

In 2019, however, she was herself again the target of the Turkish authorities, when she, along with other Turkish writers including AbdullahŞevki,was attacked for tackling difficult issues such as child abuse and sexual violence in her novels The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). 

Shafak highlighted the terrible irony of these attacks. In a ‘country in which we have an escalating number of cases of sexual violence against both women and children’, she sated, and where the authorities ‘need to take urgent action to deal with sexual violence, instead they’re prosecuting writers. It’s the biggest tragedy. It has become like a witch-hunt.’

As a writer who has spent her life fighting, as she put it, for ‘ women’s rights, children’s rights, minority rights’, Shafak was insightful about how the authorities wanted to use these issues as an excuse to clamp down on literary freedoms: these attacks on Turkish writers will create a terrible chilling effect, with writers feeling that they ‘cannot write about these subjects any more.’

Resident in the UK for the past twelve years, Shafak continues to defend literary freedoms, and to be involved in events with English PEN, selecting her own panel for the ‘Extraordinary Times Call for Extraordinary Women’ series in 2019, featuring Patience Agbabu, Charlotte Higgins and Evie Wyld and appearing regularly at events.

In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman discussed the importance of language in influencing how societies understand themselves socially and politically. 

More recently, Shafak has confronted a different set of free speech issues, by engaging with the problems created by the online dissemination of fake news and hate speech. In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman addressed the importance of truthful language for politics and literature.

‘What we have seen in Turkey’, Shafak argued, ‘is the demise of language. That’s the first thing that changes—how words are being distorted.’ 

While writers believe in freedom of speech’, she stated, they also understand clearly the ‘power of words’, a power with the potential to have both positive and negative effects:  It is ‘very painful to see how words can be misused’, Shafak stated. 

Shafak continues to use her position in PEN and her growing public platform in national newspapers and media to raise issues around free speech and free expression. This public-facing work seeks to ignite a public dialogue around the need for writers to engage in order to reclaim or repurpose an increasingly violent and polarised public discourse, and to promote human rights, empathy and equality.

We interviewed Elif in 2017 about free expression and her work with PEN.