#100PENMembers No.70: Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral was a high profile Chilean public intellectual. A poet, journalist and diplomat, she was the first South American writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. 

She was invited to represent South America when the League of Nations Institute for Intellectual Cooperation was founded in Paris in 1926. She located to France in early 1926, and worked for the League throughout the late 1920s and 1930s. She was friends with a number of world leaders, including Eduardo Santos, President of Colombia from 1938 to 1942, the Presidents of Chile and Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Her second major poetry collection, Tala was published in Buenos Aires in 1938 with the help of her lifelong friend and fellow PEN member, Victoria Ocampo

She was an honorary member of the London PEN Centre for many years, and was a floating presence within the organisation, participating in a number of Congresses, and helping to liaise between the League of Nations and PEN, and then subsequently UNESCO and PEN. 

She attended the 1937 Paris PEN Congress, and spoke of the importance of Nansen Passports for exiled writers. She wanted to initiate help for persecuted writers who were forced to quite their countries of origin but had no legal means of travelling to new countries. Many writers were being forced to change their nationality. The Nansen Passport was a means of protecting them. 

She acted as Vice Chairman of the UNESCO International Conference of Artists in Venice in 1952, and participated as a representative of the Chilean PEN Club. The conference members agreed to oppose ‘censorship in all its forms’, although with qualifications around ‘exceptional cases of obscenity and slander’. Members, describing themselves as thinking practically about censorship and free speech, insisted that writers are not advocates of ‘freedom for freedom’s sake’; rather, artists have a ‘clear vision of what freedom is’, involved in the ‘servitude to truth’. 

The aim of this event was to bring together artists and artists’ organisations from all over the world to advise the newly-founded UNESCO on the key issues affecting them.

PEN was one of the first organisations to be invited to contribute to discussions and sent a large delegation of writers to the literature committee, but there were also a number of other committees looking at the plastic arts, architecture, theatre and music. 

The Literature Committee focussed its efforts on four main areas, censorship, particularly on the part of hostile governments, financial support for writers, translation, publishing and copyright issues.

It began a long and mutually beneficial relationship between PEN and UNESCO, which informed worldwide legislation not only on the arts but also on human rights, global cooperation, linguistic rights and copyright protections and continues to this day.

#100PENMembers No.69: Sholem Asch

Sholem Asch was born in Poland, and became President of what was called the Yiddish PEN Club in 1930.

He was a prodigious writer, famous in his lifetime for his plays, novels and essays, as well as his representations of the Jewish migrant experience. In 1931 he was living in Paris, after periods of time spent in New York from 1918-1925, and he had just published the second and third instalments, Warsaw (1930) and Moscow (1931) of his Russian Revolution trilogy, which was translated into English as Three Cities

The formation of Yiddish PEN had not occurred without controversy. PEN centres were created in cities, with the idea that they represented national literatures, broadly defined. The desire of Warsaw Jewish writers to create a separate ‘Yiddish’ chapter within Warsaw, however, was fuelled by their perilous position, in terms of civic and cultural rights, within the Polish state. The centre was the first to be founded on what PEN called a ‘non-territorial’ basis. 

Asch was an important figure in PEN circles, not only because of he was a very active Director of Yiddish PEN, attending most Congresses in the 1930s, but also because of his testimonies of what was happening to Jewish writers in Berlin and Warsaw. 

This sometimes involved an insistence upon the specific position of persecuted writers or writer refugees. He protested against the original wording of Galsworthy’s 1931 ‘Appeal to All Governments’, which was designed to be read at the League of Nations World Disarmament Conference to be held in Geneva in February 1932.

While the Appeal opposed the ‘ill treatment’ of ‘people imprisoned on political or religious grounds’, it also insisted that PEN would not ‘question the right and need of Governments to imprison such as are in opposition to their regimes’.  Citing the dangerous situation of Jewish writers in Poland, and other European countries, Asch, along with a few other members, protested that it ‘implied a provisional acknowledgement of the rights of governments to imprison people on religious and political grounds’. The wording was duly amended. 

Asch would continue to intervene on PEN matters. In a speech in London in the late 1930s he described how ‘my books are being publicly burnt in a certain country for no other reason except that I have committed the great crime of being born a Jew’.

For Asch writers needed to respond immediately and collectively: ‘In a time such as this we writers of books must close our ranks more firmly than ever.’ 

#100PENMembers No.68: Margie Orford

Margie Orford is an internationally-renowned writer and journalist and former President of PEN South Africa.

A lifelong activist and campaigner, she was imprisoned as a student during the 1985 State of Emergency in South Africa.

Since that time, she has been highly involved in politics both in South Africa and globally, particularly on free expression issues, which was what attracted her to PEN.

In an interview with this project’s Co-Investigator, Peter McDonald, she describes a childhood and an education in which ‘all the books were banned’ citing this as the reason for her ‘sensitive spot about what you can read and what you can’t.’

When the Apartheid regime was lifted there was, she says ‘such a sense of liberation and opening that sort of space that had been closed off so completely under Apartheid – no light, no oxygen – it really opened and expanded and into that came so much publishing and writing.’

Yet many of the undertakings of South African PEN in the intervening decades have been to address its legacy, from promoting new and emerging literature to tackling continued censorship of the media.

One of the biggest battles during Orford’s time with PEN was the so-called “Secrecy Act”, which sought to criminalise the publication of information which went against South Africa’s “national interests”. Orford describes it as ‘as broad and as Orwellian as you like.’

She continues: ‘And the consequences for journalists, writers, and the people who passed on the information – whistleblowers – were sentences up to twenty-five years.’

The legislation was especially chilling ‘for a country with a very immediate memory of apartheid and an era in which many, many writers were banned, detained, and imprisoned.’ Thanks to PEN South Africa and its allies, the legislation was never passed by the South African parliament.

PEN also campaigned in South Africa around literacy and citizenship – specifically how access to literature impacted the ability to partake in and benefit from being part of democratic process.

Orford became President of PEN South Africa in 2014 and was instrumental in campaigning on issues around gender and race, and particularly the intersections between the two as well as on free expression matters. For her the systemic violence against women in South Africa – and elsewhere – was itself a form of censorship: ‘It’s systemic, it happens, you know, there’s a kind of spectrum of it that happens from trolling on the internet to the murder of Jo Cox the MP, for instance.’

Orford joined with #100PENMembers and PEN International President Jennifer Clement to push through PEN’s Women’s Manifesto in 2017, a crucial turning point in thinking about systemic and institutional gender-based violence within the wider world but even with the organisation itself. 

She explained, ‘Jennifer’s from Mexico I’m from South Africa – and both of us have dealt for years with violence against women and violence against women as a form of censorship.’

The Manifesto was 25 years in the making, thanks to the efforts of the PEN International Women Writers Committee but it was perhaps fitting that it finally came to fruition under the organisation’s first female President.

The Manifesto listed six key principles, with signatories from 22 centres. Tackling ingrained inequality, it seeks to address all of the areas which restrict and censor women and female-identifying people’s ability to speak out, from internet trolling, education, access and safety to roam physically and intellectually without fear of violence or intimidation.

The Manifesto points out ‘For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.’

It goes on that ‘PEN believes that the act of silencing a person is to deny their existence. It is a kind of death. Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge.’

Whilst she stepped down as President of PEN South Africa in 2017, passing the baton to Nadia Davids, Orford remains active within PEN as a member of the Executive Board of PEN International.

Listen to our recent interviews with Margie.

#100PENMembers No.67: Jules Romains

French writer and critic Jules Romains was a significant and divisive early member of International PEN. He served as the organisation’s third International President from 1936 until 1941, but his activities during his tenure as President led to a damaging split within the organisation. 

Romains is best known now for his sequence of novels Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté. When the Paris PEN Centre was established in 1922, Romains was one of its first members. He was an active and influential figure, who often spoke at PEN Congresses and was a vocal pacifist, free speech champion and French liberal. He was an early advocate for a stronger and more centralised PEN structure, proposing in the mid-1920s that the organisation create a ‘superior council’ of members responsible for policy. He also sought to increase Parisian power over PEN. At the Paris Congress in 1925, the French centre proposed that the International PEN Council have its headquarters in Paris; an idea that went down very badly with PEN Founder Dawson Scott. She got John Galsworthy to intervene, and the idea was dropped. If it had carried, she said, ‘It would have meant the end of the PEN’.  

As the incumbent International President, it was Romains who stood up to oppose F.T. Marinetti’s chairmanship of a PEN Congress session in Buenos Aires in 1936; arguing forcefully that Marinetti’s Fascism was absolutely inconsistent with the pacificist and internationalist principles of the PEN Club. While his attack on Marinetti found a lot of support in the Congress Hall, he was also criticised for his own, often unexamined, culturally imperialist attitudes to PEN centres outside Europe. 

During the Second World War Romains’ activities led to a dramatic fall-out with London PEN. In face of the Nazi advance on Paris, Romains fled, first to Tourain and then eventually to New York. He was lionised at the PEN World Congress of Writers that formed part of the World’s Fair in New York in 1939, with a special Dinner and Reception ‘in honor of Jules Romains’. However, he also launched PEN dramatically into the political arena, using the occasion to assert that the organisation must ‘act in order’ that tyranny shall not exist. His call on PEN members to support their governments in opposing the Nazis was widely reported in the press as a radical change in PEN’s role, with straplines such as ‘Romains Demands End of Neutrality: Tells Writers it is Time for the Pen to Fight the Sword in World Crisis’ and ‘The Time has Come to Take Sides’. London PEN issued a protest, insisting that ‘pledging’ PEN members to ‘unreservedly’ support the ‘political policy of their governments’ was contrary to the ‘policy and constitution’ of PEN.  He spoke on the radio through the Voice of America. 

Nonetheless, Romains actions did not win him any favour with other PEN members who viewed his flight to America and subsequent calls to arms as hypocritical at best and outright cowardly at worst.

J.B. Priestley wrote to Hermon Ould in 1943 that ‘I […] think that a fatal mistake was made when Romains was elected international President and subsequent events have shown that I was right.’ 

#100PENMembers No.66 Victor van Vriesland

Victor Van Vriesland was a Dutch Jewish writer and critic who was President of PEN International from 1962-65 as the organisation wrestled with the Cold War, decolonising struggles in different parts of the world and the politics of the post-nuclear age.

Photo: Jack de Nijs / Anefo

Van Vriesland’s Presidency followed on from Alberto Moravia and preceded that of Arthur Miller. Like Miller, his reign was overshadowed by Cold War politics. 

Alongside Storm Jameson, he was a leading member of the so-called ‘Committee of Five’ who sought to restore the Hungarian PEN Club to the PEN International fold following its expulsion for colluding too closely with the Hungarian government in the censorship and persecution of writers.

The Hungarian Centre was eventually re-admitted on 22ndJuly 1959 after years of close monitoring. 

Van Vriesland was elected to the International Presidency on 3rdMay 1962 at the Brussels Congress. At the same time, another #100PENMembers Victoria Ocampo was elected as Vice-President, alongside Poland’s Jan Parandowski.

Van Vriesland’s biggest challenge was managing the politics between the Communist Centres of Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia and the other centres.

In 1962, the French Centre submitted a resolution to the International Executive which read: ‘The French P.E.N. Centre, meeting at its General Assembly on February 7, 1962, expresses its disapproval of all measures which tend to limit the freedom of expression of writers and journalists, and formally condemns all extreme measures – no matter what their source – aimed at the intimidation or removal of writers and journalists in the sole interest of suppressing al differences of opinion.’

Whilst this Resolution may have appeared innocuous at first, bearing in mind PEN’s position as a free expression organisation, it caused consternation in some circles, namely those in Communist countries. They argued that it was essential that the resolution be amended to demonstrate PEN’s ‘impartiality’ and to make clear that it was referring only to restrictions on free expression under fascist governments. As the Hungarian Lazlo Kéry argued ‘the Hungarian Centre considers a completion of the Resolution of the French PEN Centre necessary in a form that should leave no doubt about the fact that International PEN does not take sides with any persons who exert an activity in the interest of fascism or with a view to unleashing a war.’ The French M. de Beer refused to support this amendment and as the minutes record ‘Mr Kéry said that he would not wish to defend all writers everywhere.’ 

This showcases perfectly the postwar struggle between the desire of Centres in non-Communist countries to defend free expression at all costs and among Communist Centres to support the oppression of writers where it threatened state or communist ideology. The impasse continued for two decades in a series of micro-tussles which framed every Executive meeting in some form.

Van Vriesland worked hard to bridge this gap. In 1965, as his Presidency came to an end, the PEN International Congress took place in Budapest, Hungary. Showing how far Hungary had come since its expulsion at the end of the previous decade, the Hungarian Centre under Istvan Sötereagerly welcomed their guests, and government officials held receptions and meetings with PEN members. The Congress marked a key turning point for East-West relations within PEN,  leading to breakthroughs in relations with the East German Centre and with the Soviet Writers Union. 

#100PENMembers No.65: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a novelist, academic, editor and feminist, and longstanding member of PEN America.

She won PEN America’s Freedom to Write award in 2015 and in 2016 delivered its Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.

‘The freedom to write,’ Gay told Literary Hub, ‘has been one of my life’s greatest blessings and it is a freedom that should be available to everyone who wants or needs to share their voice.

‘I am thankful that organizations like PEN Center USA are doing the necessary work to ensure that such freedom is protected. It is humbling to be considered worthy of such an award. I am thrilled and honoured.’

Her essays and articles including her recent, widely read New York Times piece “Where Are Black Children Safe?”are hugely popular and widely shared on social media, leading to national and international conversations on issues around race, gender and sexuality.

In 2016 she delivered PEN’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Writelecture at the PEN World Voices Festival (created by #100PENMembers Salman Rushdie). Gay brought the attention of the audience for the lecture to the obstacles faced by individual writers, discussing the self-censorship and personal hardships endured by female writers, particularly those of colour, framed by her own struggles.

‘I allow myself to believe my perspective, how I choose to narrate the world, is as valuable as anyone else who chooses to do so. I allow myself to believe my life experiences have relevance.

‘I allow myself to believe my voice matters in a world where as a woman, as a black woman, as a Haitian American woman, as a bisexual woman, I am told to remain silent in so many harmful ways.’

‘I refuse to accept that inequality or violence and suffering are things we must accept as facts of life as if we do not dare to want for better, for more.’

She discussed her anxieties about her own memoir Hunger(2017) and the role of black female role models like Beyoncé, shortly after the release of the singer’s Lemonadealbum, in empowering women to speak out and use their own experiences in their work.

She went on to criticise the publishing industry for failing to embrace black voices and black editors: ‘When white men write about themselves, people are like, oh my god that’s groundbreaking, like Knausgaard. When a woman does it it’s self-indulgent’ calling on publishers to ‘step up’.

In 2020 she judged the PEN America literary awards and she continues to support the organisation and the champion writers’ rights worldwide.

#100PENMembers No.64: Rebecca West

Novelist, journalist and essayist Rebecca West was a founding member of PEN.

West had been invited, alongside John Galsworthy, H.G. Wells, May Sinclair, Violet Hunt and several other writers of note to the first PEN meeting at the Florence Restaurant on the 5thOctober 1921 by C.A. Dawson Scott.

It was at this meeting that the influential few sketched out the ethos underpinning the future organisation, the rules for membership and its desire to promote friendship between writers in the precarious post-war world.

She wrote years later that ‘Fifty years ago PEN set out the bring about closer communications between writers, British and Continental, metropolitan and provincial. If it was necessary to create machinery for doing this in those days, it is even more necessary to maintain it in good working order today, for conditions have grown more and not less conducive to the isolation of the writer.’

She also recounted being deputised by Dawson Scott in the early days of the organisation to travel to an (unnamed but presumably European) country with the task of ‘asking the local literary lights if they would be prepared to start a branch of PEN.’

West describes being ‘disconcerted when the elderly gentleman who seemed to be the leader of the literary set turned out to be a terrible snob, and was only interested in the writers who were also related to the nobility, and in the nobility itself.’

West – whip-smart and extremely mischievous – describes herself as ‘inspired to inform him that Mrs Dawson-Scott herself was one of the nobility and called herself Mrs out of democratic spirit, and was really the equal of a Marchess.’

The gentleman then asked whether Dawson Scott had a country seat to which West – now on a roll – was ‘moved to inform him that [Dawson Scott] and the Prince of Wales between them owned the Duchy of Cornwall, as she remembered that Mrs Dawson Scott had a country cottage in Cornwall.’

The story is both entertaining but, more seriously, points to West’s lifelong involvement in PEN and her impatience with any sort of class prejudice. She enjoyed mocking people who believed that they were superior.

Even as her own career took off West’s commitment to PEN remained strong throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

As the 1930s came to a close and war looked inevitable West worked hard to support PEN’s work with refugees. She contributed both financial and public support to the Refugee Fund established by Hermon Ould and Storm Jameson and she presided at dinners and fundraisers. She was particularly active on issues involving Yugoslavian refugees. They occupied a special place in her heart as a result of her travels of the late 1930s, documented in her book Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, a love-letter to Yugoslavia. In a speech to a dinner honouring refugees from across the Balkan regions, she described how all of those gathered ‘came here not as fugitives but to assert and maintain the identity of [the Yugoslav] people, who are proving every day by the unsurpassed acts of courage of their armies and their partisan forces how necessary it is for the future of civilisation that they should survive in full sovereignty.’

She remained an active PEN member after the war, turning her mind to the new challenges of the post-war situation. She attended the 1950 Edinburgh PEN Congress as Vice President of English PEN, where she spoke of her personal interest in Scottish PEN and addressed the world’s need to face up to the great ‘crime’, as she put it of the Atomic bomb, concluding that ‘history is just people’. At this Congress, she also intervened in the anti-Soviet rhetoric of the cultural cold war, protesting against Robert Sherwood’s controversial pro-US speech. West was part of the organisation until her death in 1983, and was constantly approached to give speeches and lend her illustrious name to high profile campaigns, however she actually resigned from the organisation in 1950. A letter from another #100PENMembers Phyllis Bentley describes that West resigned ‘on account of the Candid America pictures of the PEN reception last year in the Picture Post, which have now been reproduced in Harpers.’ West felt that her privacy had been outraged by the incident and that this had been a cynical move on the part of the PEN, although Bentley argued that ‘in my view photographs of people in public life are a fair comment on a matter of human interest.’ She urged West ‘strongly not to leave PEN which is doing such important work for literature, for the sake of a comparatively small matter.’ West must have heeded her words or relented in her attitudes as she continued to lend her name to campaigns and took part in the centenary of Dawson Scott’s birth in 1965.

#100PENMembers No. 63: Achdiat Karta Mihardja

Indonesian novelist and playwright Mihardja helped found the Indonesian PEN centre in 1951, and was an active member during the 1950s. 

His 1949 novel, Atheis (Atheist) is one of Indonesia’s most important post-Second World War novels, published the same year as the United States of Indonesia, after years of bitter armed struggle, won Independence from the Netherlands. In 1950, he helped create the writers’ organization, Lekra, which was connected to the Communist Party of Indonesia, and in 1951 he set up the PEN centre. 

He took to the floor at the 1951 Lausanne PEN Congress to speak about the ratification of the Indonesian Centre. He spoke movingly about the creation of both the new Independent Indonesian nation and the PEN Club. Speaking of the Club’s founding, he stated that it means the ‘opening of the gate that leads to wider fields of connections, experience and learning.’ He also described the impotence of Indonesian literature during the colonial period: for more than ‘three ages’ as he put it, ‘we were silent, emotionless and isolated from the free world outside.’ As well as being isolated from the world, Indonesia was also controlled internally: ‘Both materially and spiritually we were bound’, and the people were suppressed, politically, economically and spiritually. In these circumstances the mind could not ‘take root’, as he put it; it ‘suffered, withered and died’. Is it any wonder that such a ‘dead mind’, dwelling in darkness’ did not create anything important. 

However, with the 1945 revolution, the ‘first light of modern Indonesian literature ‘broke through’. He described the generation of young writers who collected around the avant-garde journal Poedjangga Baroe (meaning new Literature or writers), which ran from 1933 until 1942, and which promoted an Independent Indonesia, as well as modern avant-garde literature. It is no wonder, he declared, that once we achieved political freedom, we looked to International PEN, both for its internationalism and the aims laid down in the Charter. PEN’s freedom is called ‘Pantjasila’, in Indonesian, a philosophy of life composed of five principles: ‘divine omnipotence, humanity, nationalism, democracy and social justice.’ These Indonesian ideals, then, are also PEN’s. The ratification was unanimously accepted. The Dutch delegates, in particular, welcomed the founding of the Indonesian centre. 

Mihardja did much to promote and further international literary connections, linking up with Stephen Spender, and befriending Richard Wright when he travelled to Bandung for the 1955 Bandung Conference, the first large scale Asian-African Conference of newly Independent nations. Organised by Indonesia, Burma, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India the Conference aimed to promote the economic and cultural interests of newly independent, post-colonial nations against the cold war dominance of Western nations and the Soviets. 

He died in Canberra, Australia in 2010.

#100PENMembers No.62: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

PEN International Vice President Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a novelist, essayist, playwright, academic and social activist, who has played an integral role in the shaping of African literature and culture.

Courtesy Random House: Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Thiong’o’s engagement with PEN stretches for more than 70 years. He reminisced in a piece for Frieze in 2018 about attending the 1966 New York Congress organised by then PEN International President Arthur Miller. Thiong’o’s essay offers a crucial and fascinating perspective on the congress and on some of PEN’s biggest figures. 

At the time, he was a postgraduate student at Leeds University. He described his surprise at being invited as a regional guest of honour to represent Africa. PEN, of course, during this period, was increasingly looking to represent the newly independent African nations. The author of two novels already, the young Thiong’o described feeling a little out of place and  trying ‘a few poses to make me feel like a writer and to project myself as one.’

His ears pricked up when he heard Ignazio Silone (President of PEN International 1946-7)  complaining about the lack of translations of Italian writers into English and rudely asserting that ‘Italian is not like one of these Bantu languages with one or two words in their vocabulary.’ Thiong’o was rightly outraged and stood to correct this slur on African language. He remembers that the Chair Arthur Miller ‘was diplomatic: he said people could praise their own languages, but they did not have to bad-mouth others’ in the process.’

The incident illustrated, for Thiong’o, the tensions between what he called the ‘Decade of Africa’ in which nations gained independence and African writers began to get global recognition for their work, and the racism and imperialism that remained at the heart of many of the historically Eurocentric international organisations. 

Thiong’o himself described this informing, for him, a reassessment of the role of English literature in Africa, particularly in African Universities: ‘We were really questioning the organisation of literary knowledge in Africa. Without giving it a name, we had launched the battle for decolonial theories.’ His critical and creative work began to take a different path from this point on, revolutionising African literature but also English Literature and the teaching of literature (and even history) in universities, alongside other postcolonial scholars. This growing African consciousness led to the founding of Pan-African writers’ organisations which operated independently to address the growing concerns of the continent’s own literary community.

After moving back to Africa in 1977, Thiong’o continued his revolutionary progress by embarking on a novel form of theatrical performance in his landmark play Ngaahika Ndeenda which sought to address hierarchies in the theatre and beyond. The play, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening. Thiong’o was imprisoned for over a year. In prison, he wrote Devil on the Cross on prison-issued toilet paper, much like fellow PEN revolutionary and #100PENMembers Nawal Al Saadawi. He also decided to cease writing in English and to begin composing all of his creative works in Gikuyu, his native tongue.

During this time, he was the subject of campaigns by both PEN and by Amnesty International. Upon his release he fled to the United States.

His work on promoting minority or marginalised languages has been integral to his time with PEN. In 2017 he wrote an introduction to ‘Culture’s Oxygen’ report, published on International Mother Language Day stating that: ‘I believe in the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, Barcelona, 1996 which recognises that the right to a mother tongue or the language of one’s culture is not a privilege to be granted or withdrawn at will, it’s a human right.’

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o only returned to Kenya, with his family, in 2002 after the retirement of autocratic Vice President Daniel Arap Moi.

As well as serving on the board of PEN International, he has also acted as Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Languages at New York University and Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine.

This year he was nominated for the International Booker Prize for his book The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi, the first book in an indigenous African language ever to be nominated. Thiong’o is also the first to be nominated as both writer and translator of the same work.

#100PENMembers No.61: Masha Gessen

We’re marking International Trans Day of Visibility by looking at Russian-American journalist, author, translator, and Vice President of PEN America Masha Gessen, who identifies as non-binary and transgender. 

Masha Gessen Photo: Christopher Lane/The Observer

A Russian citizen, born in Moscow in 1967, Gessen moved to the US in 1981 as part of a refugee re-settlement programme. In 1991 they moved back to Russia to work as a journalist. 

Gessen joined the PEN America board in 2014 after two decades in Russia working as a journalist and campaigning for LGBT rights.

This experience as a refugee, as a Russian journalist and as an LGBT rights activist in a country famously hostile to both the media and to LGBT rights, informed their activism. 

Gessen’s tenure at PEN America coincided fittingly with the rise of the right wing in America and, significantly with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. 

Gessen became an essential advisor to PEN America and to activists across the United States because of their experience and the persecution they endured in Putin’s Russia. 

Soon after the election, as progressives in the United States tried to make sense of Clinton’s loss, Gessen stepped in with a piece in the New York Times entitled ‘Autocracy: Rules for Survival’. The piece criticised the acceptance of Democratic politicians and called for increased vigilance to defend ‘the laws, institutions and the ideals on which our country is based.’ 

This presence of mind – the result of hard-won experience – gained national renown. 

When Gessen gave PEN’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2017 they concentrated on these parallels.  In the lecture, they discussed language as a structure of power and the ways in which regimes in Russia and America used language to ‘pre-emptively discredit’ ideas of freedom and truth. 

Gessen described, to an audience of writers and their guests, the importance of language in enacting violence, enacting a Judith Butler-esque critique of the violence inflicted on language by authoritarian regimes like those of Trump and Putin – for example by undermining or attempting to redefine phrases such as ‘fake news’ and ‘safe space’. They raised a laugh among the audience about the fact that, as they shrewdly pointed out, ‘witch-hunts cannot actually be carried out by losers, the agent of the witch hunt must have power.’ Their point was serious and their discussion a masterclass in the techniques of authoritarian power from a writer who had experienced it first-hand. 

They continue to be active on free expression issues through PEN and also write regularly about LGBT and particularly Trans* rights in the United States and beyond. 

PEN itself is becoming increasingly active on LGBT and Trans* issues across the world, promoting the work of Trans* writers and speaking up for Trans* rights in countries such as Belarus, Hungary and Russia, as well as America

Gessen’s latest book, Autocracy: Rules for Survival – based on the influential New York Timespiece is out now.