#100PENMembers No. 89: J.M. Coetzee

Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee is one of PEN International’s Vice Presidents and a frequent signatory to its many campaigns. His relationship with PEN has not always been easy, however.

© The Nobel Foundation

‘While there is nothing special about writers as human beings,’ Coetzee remarked in  in an 2019 interview with our co-investigator Peter McDonald, ‘there is (sometimes) something special about what they write.’ From his debut with Dusklands (1974) to The Death of Jesus (2019), Coetzee has done more than contribute ‘something special’ to the history of literary writing in the English language. He has re-shaped the ethical and political terms in which we think the literary life, in part, as the citation for his Nobel Prize put it in 2003, by portraying in ‘innumerable guises’—fictive, autobiographical, sociological, philosophical—‘the surprising involvement of the outsider.’ His collection of essays Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996) remains one of the most incisive reflections not just on the harms of censorship but on the terms in which writers have, individually and collectively, claimed the right to speak truth to power.  

For Coetzee, the history of PEN in South Africa in the apartheid era did rather too much to confirm that ‘there is nothing special about writers as human beings.’ Speaking of that period, he said in the interview: ‘As I remember it, the Cape Town PEN of my youth was more or less indistinguishable from the [local] English Association, culturally conservative, disdainful of Afrikaners and the Afrikaans language, and a bit timid. I never considered joining.’ Under the often-controversial presidency of the bestselling re-teller of classical histories Mary Renault in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Cape Town branch in fact narrowly missed being expelled from the international body on more than one occasion. Starting in 2007, Coetzee did, however, agree to judge the SA PEN literary award, an annual short-story prize for writing across Africa, a role which kept him engaged with the local literary scene following his move to Australia in 2002. 

About PEN International, which elected him Vice President in 2006, Coetzee was more positive: ‘It is a big organization whose word carries a certain weight. It speaks up on behalf of persecuted writers—in practice, in our day, mainly persecuted journalists—and does a lot of good work behind the scenes too.’ This last observation is significant. For various ethical and strategic reasons, International PEN has always been careful about using the ‘oxygen of publicity’ in its difficult and sometimes dangerous human rights work. 

#100PENMembers No. 88: Humbert Wolfe

The poet Humbert Wolfe is a little known English PEN member, who played a key role in helping liaise between the British government and PEN to get refugee writers out of Europe in the 1940s.

Born in Italy, Wolfe was an early member of English PEN and involved in its committees throughout the 1930s, including the English Executive which he sat on alongside H.G. Wells, Noel Streathfeild and Storm Jameson.

It was his post at the Ministry of Labour which made him especially useful to PEN during this period, particularly once the requests for help and support from German writers after the Nazis came to power in 1933. 

In July of that year Hermon Ould, the International Secretary and Secretary of English PEN, wrote to Wolfe, enclosing a letter from the Home Office about German refugee writers. He asked for Wolfe’s help in understanding the Home Office’s stance and how best to manage it. Ould – completely underestimating the problem – wrote that ‘the likelihood of German writers wishing to come to England and attempt to earn their living here is not very great, but as it is possible that some may wish to do so the Executive Committee wondered whether the Home Office would be willing to regard the PEN in an advisory capacity should applications be made.’ Wolfe was asked for his advice, at a time when the other apparatus put in place during the refugee crises following the First World War– namely the Nansen passport – had been disbanded, leaving those seeking safety with inadequate paperwork to make the move to England on a permanent basis.

With retrospect, we now know that the need and ‘likelihood’ of German writers wishing to come to Britain and to work would become very high indeed, added to in 1935 and 1938 respectively by Austrian, Czechoslovakian and Polish writers too, leading to the setting up of the PEN Refugee Fund in 1938. During this time PEN were, indeed, advising the government on new arrivals as well as carrying out crucial relief work for refugees already in Britain.

Later that month, Ould invites Wolfe to join the Executive Committee of English PEN, perhaps recognising the advantages of having a high-ranking civil servant on side during a time when PEN might increasingly have to liaise with government offices. 

Wolfe was also involved, as a member of the Executive, in negotiations about the possibility of Marinetti hosting the PEN Congress of 1937 in Fascist Italy. Obviously this was highly contentious, and whilst it was ostensibly agreed in a vote at the Congress in 1936 in Buenos Aires, PEN actually spent the next six months trying to get out of it. As Ould describes to Wolfe in November 1936: ‘Frankly I am amazed the H.G. [Wells] should imagine that it would be possible to influence Fascist Italy by holding a P.E.N. Congress there and speaking our minds!’

Wolfe replied, very astutely and with great irony: ‘[Marinetti’s] attention should be drawn to certain articles in which he deliberately advocated vetoing the import of foreign literature, together with a progressive militarisation of intellect.’ The incompatibility of PEN’s stance on the ability of ideas (and literature) to traverse national borders and its commitment to the freedom of the individual mind would be incompatible with the Fascist leader’s stance. Wolfe added, ‘I don’t believe that even Marinetti could so far contradict himself as to accept these two fundamental principles.’ Marinetti was, of course, a fractious and deliberately provocative member of PEN during these years, using his position and politics to bait PEN’s liberal members, but the conference in Rome did not go ahead.

Wolfe continued to advise PEN on refugee and labour matters throughout the 1930s, providing crucial guidance through the intricacies of Whitehall and placing PEN in useful dialogue with relevant government offices. His assistance with PEN’s refugee work doubtless saved many lives and contributed to the tremendous effectiveness of PEN’s refugee activism during this time.

#100PENMembers No. 87: Ahtam Omer

Today’s #100PENMembers is prominent Uyghur writer Ahtam Omer, recently sentenced to twenty years in prison by the authorities of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China.

Image: Uyghur PEN

He is the author of a well-known short story Child of the Eagle and the popular novel Greetings to the Homeland from Distant Horizon, which depicts the author’s first travel abroad and the comparisons that he makes with his homelife. 

He was taken from his home on 12 March 2017, a month after his brother and nephew. The reason given, according to witnesses, was that he had paid for his brother’s son to study in Egypt.

Egypt is one of several countries blacklisted in the XUAR for travel by Uyghurs because of a perceived risk of their coming into contact with and being indoctrinated by Islamic extremists.

He was charged with “separatism” in a secret trial in the Xuar capital, Urumqi in 2018.

In 2020 several of his books – including Child of the Eagle – were burned by authorities. According to an RSA report ‘The story was initially published in China Ethnicities Literature, a national journal, and long stayed far away from any official criticism as a result. However, by 2017, as a wave of “looking to the past” had begun in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), including in the field of literature, a number of books were rounded up under accusations that they contained separatist content.’

The book had a significant impact on Uyghur society because of its focus on the themes of freedom and the spirit of struggle.

Omer’s arrest took place at the same time as authorities in the region began to detain an estimated 1.8 million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in vast internment counts. The Chinese government has denied the existence of camps, then, in 2019, began to refer to them as boarding schools designed to provide vocational training and discourage radicalisation of these Muslim Chinese citizens. 

Uyghur PEN is campaigning for Omer’s release and the release of other Uyghur writers facing persecution for their work but also for their religion and ethnicity.

Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee said: ‘The suppression of human rights in Xinjiang is a colossal tragedy, encompassing the entire range of human rights. The arbitrariness, the secrecy, the unjustness, and the pitiless cruelty of the state has been consistent. The lack of access to information only compounds the tragedy. We wish we could have expressed our outrage earlier. Ahmetjan Juma and Ahtam Omer should not have been jailed at all; and yet they have spent months under incarceration. Such perverse sentencing must stop, as should all the repression the Uyghurs are facing.’

Find out how you can help.

#100PENMembers No. 85: Empty Chair

Since the 1980s PEN International has used an Empty Chair at events to symbolise a writer missing from proceedings, either because they are imprisoned, threatened, disappeared or even killed. This highly symbolic move serves as a reminder of the violence and censorship faced by writers all over the world.

Each year PEN Centres worldwide traditionally exhibit an Empty Chair on 15 November – the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. But as we will have finished our #100PENMembers by then, we wanted to use today to gesture toward PEN members and writers all over the world who are incarcerated, who are facing censorship or persecution for their work and who face physical danger every day. This Empty Chair symbolises each of them: Sedigeh Vasmaghi imprisoned in Iran;  Osman Kavala facing a life sentence in Turkey; Paola Ugaz facing legal action, harassment and threats in Peru; Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, detained and tortured and still under police investigation in Uganda and countless others from journalists in Mexico to Uyghur writers facing persecution in China.

It also honours the work of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and those who work around it, compiling lists of cases from all over the world, attending court cases or writing to writers in jail to raise their spirits and to remind them that they are not forgotten. 

Campaigning for writers facing persecution is perhaps the most important aspect of PEN’s work globally, particularly at a time when increasingly authoritarian governments are clamping down on free expression, often whilst duplicitously championing free speech.

Today, we stand with all of those whose lives are placed in danger or whose freedom is threatened simply for the act of writing.

Find out more about writers at risk around the world and how you can help.

Find out about PEN’s case list and the scope of their worldwide campaigns.

#100PENMembers No. 84: Ernst Toller

Ernst Toller, famous playwright and Communist, played an important role in the history of the PEN organisation. After the Reichstag Fire of 27thFebruary 1933, Toller was one of the first people the Nazis tried to arrest. Luckily for him he was in Switzerland at the time. From that moment onwards, he would live in exile from his homeland. 

He was a regular Congress attender during the early to mid 1930s, going to Budapest in 1932, Dubrovnik in 1933 and Edinburgh in 1934. At Budapest he questioned Congress’ claim that PEN stood apart from politics, because, as he put it, ‘it is politics if, for example, fascism is defended here. When a particular peoples’ relationship is praised, we must declare; we have to defend the community of all peoples’.

His most famous moment in the history of PEN, however, came at the May 1933 Dubrovnik Congress, where the German PEN Club, which had been taken over by Nazis, were effectively thrown out of the PEN organisation. 

Standing up to represent ‘exiled writers’, he delivered a rousing speech. He spoke movingly of the moral responsibilities of the writer, responsibilities which forced him to speak out. He was heckled in the Congress Hall, with one delegate shouting ‘You have no right to speak because you are a Communist’. But Toller would not be silenced. He described the circumstances in Berlin PEN, how members of the club had been told they were barred from PEN because of their Communist views. ‘If they exclude authors for reasons of their opinion’, as he put it, ‘it is they who carry politics into the PEN-Club’. 

Citing the burning of books by Nazi students on 10thMay, as well as the imprisonment, ousting and enforced exile of German writers, artists, actors, professors, scientists, and publishers Toller asked the Congress: What has the German PEN Club done to protest this outrage? The answer, he states, is nothing. 

He attacked the anti-semitism of the current members of the German PEN Club and spoke of the pain of enforced exile. The exile is prevented from seeing ‘again the country in which they were born’; they are ‘expelled, chased away, outcasts.’ He went on to thank the PEN congress for defending the writer against persecution. He described this era as one of ‘nationalistic madness, a madness of race, of hate.’ And, as he said ‘Millions of people in Germany may neither speak nor write freely. I am talking for all those millions who, today, have no voice.’ ‘The air around use becomes thinner and thinner.’ But, let us fight, he declared. ‘Let us conquer the fear which crushes and humbles us’ and let us dream of a ‘Utopia in which freedom from barbarity, lies, social injustice, and slavery will prevail.’ 

Toller also attended the 1934 Edinburgh Congress and spoke again as a representative of writers in exile. He described the power of the German state to control not only internal affairs, but also the book publishing of German exiles in both Spain and Italy: ‘The Hitlerite dictatorship’, as he said, ‘shrinks from no method of injuring those writers whom it cannot catch.’ He spoke movingly of the Nazis assertion of global pressure: ‘This well organised persecution of authors, publishers and booksellers who are obnoxious to the present regime in Germany, a persecution carried on systematically and supported by the immense resources of the state into even the most distant lands, constitutes the most dangerous threat to the freedom of the writer throughout the world.’ Facing the Congress hall he asked ‘Will you tolerate this threat?’

Toller would continue to oppose the Nazi state at PEN events, and attended the 1939 New York World Congress PEN event, and gave a talk on How Can Culture Survive Exile’, very soon before his tragic suicide. At New York he claimed that ‘The threatened culture can only be defended if those who were fortunate enough to escape slavery, devote themselves faithfully to their language…fight barbarism wherever it threatens.’ 

#100PENMembers No.83: Ahmet Altan

Ahmet Altan is a Turkish novelist and journalist imprisoned for life without parole for his journalism and media work.

Altan is an award-winning writer and journalist in Turkey and is an outspoken critic of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian government and particularly its treatment of Kurdish minorities within the country. His was one of PEN’s highest profile European cases in recent years. 

Altan’s original arrest in 2016 – with his brother Mehmet Altan, an economist and journalist – was on allegations of spreading ‘subliminal messages announcing a military coup.’ This was part of a crackdown on journalists following the bloodiest coup d’etat in the country’s history in which a section of the military attempted to seize control of several major cities to topple the government and unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in July 2016. 

‘You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here because like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.’

Altan, 2019

The brothers, alongside journalist Nazli Ilicak, were charged with attempting to abolish the Turkish Constitutional order, to overthrow the Turkish National Assembly and to overthrow the government, in relation to their appearance on television together the evening before the coup and on the basis of several articles and columns they wrote. The three men were convicted of the first charge in 2018. In 2019 Turkey’s Supreme Court overturned the verdict ruling that Mehmet be acquitted and Ahmet and Ilicak be retried on lesser charges of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation without being its member.’ The judge of that hearing refused them bail. Altan was then released on appeal but was sent back to jail just eight days later.

The case brought together PEN Centres from all over the world, who petitioned the Turkish government, attended trials as observers and supporters and raised the profile of the case all over the world. Altan is a member of Danish PEN, PEN Belgium/Francophone, PEN Belgium/Flanders, German PEN and Swedish PEN. As part of the international campaign to free him there was even an appeal made to Erdoğan himself by 38 Nobel Laureates including V.S. Naipaul, JM Coetzee, and Kazuo Ishiguro. These protests fell largely on deaf ears. 

Altan did not waste his time in jail: His latest book, the award-winning and aptly-titled, I Will Never See the World Again (2019) was written in prison and smuggled out among notes to lawyers. It was nominated for the Baillie Gifford Non-Fiction Prize 2019.

In it he writes: ‘You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here because like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.’

Altan was finally freed on 14 April 2021 when Turkey’s Court of Cassation followed a judgement by the European Court of Human Rights, ordering Turkey to release Altan and to pay him €16,000 in damages for violating his human rights.

Upon his release last month PEN International President Jennifer Clement said: ‘As we rejoice at the sight of the novelist embracing his loved ones, we do not forget how months ago the Turkish authorities freed him, only to cruelly send him back to jail eight days later. This cannot happen again.’

Altan’s close friend and President of English PEN, Phillippe Sands said: ‘he is one of the most remarkable and inspiring human beings I have ever known. After four years of wrongful, illegal imprisonment – like living without clocks in endless time”, he told me when I visited him in Silivri Maximum Security Prison – he is home. I celebrate him and his freedom, and all those who made this happen.’

#100PENMembers No. 82: Lydia Cacho

Today’s #100PENMember is the truly inspirational Mexican journalist and human rights activist Lydia Cacho Ribeiro.

Cacho is famous for investigating violence against women and children, informed by her feminism and her desire to make Mexico a better, safer place to live.

Her work is enormously dangerous, often operating at the intersections between Mexican politics and big business and the exploitative power of the cartels, which reach beyond the drugs wars into political corruption, people trafficking and even paedophilia.

Her first book Los Demonios del Eden (Demons of Eden, 2005) uncovered a child pornography and prostitution ring in Puebla, involving high-ranking local politicians and businessmen.  After its release, police drove miles from Puebla to Cancun to arrest her for defamation and hinted at a plan to rape her whilst in custody. Local police colluded with politicians involved in the case in an attempt to silence and intimidate Robeiro with a series of arrests and even an attempt on her life as she awaited her call to testify at the trial of the men involved. She was advised by the UN Human Rights Council to leave Mexico for her own safety.

PEN America wrote to the Mexican government in 2009 to express their concern about harassment of Cacho by armed men parked outside her home. They demanded that crimes of harassment against journalists be made a federal offence and that Cacho’s case be fully investigated. In the same year, the Inter-America Commission on Human Rights also intervened, asking the Mexican government to take precautionary measures to protect her. According to Article 19, insufficient action was taken by the Mexican authorities to address either of these concerns.

Undeterred by continuous threats to her life and freedom, Cacho continued to investigate and to publish other stories, from the hundreds of femicides in Ciudad Juárez to child slavery and prostitution involving some of Mexico’s most powerful politicians and business leaders.

In a piece for PEN International’s website in 2019, Cacho wrote that ‘I write for others, I write for myself, I write to record that life counts. I don’t want to lose my head.’

In the piece, she speaks of her daily life, as she deals with the constant threats to her life from powerful people whose misdeeds she has exposed. She speaks about her kidnap and torture, about her therapy and the coping techniques she has developed in a life under constant threat: ‘That’s what I do each time a new death threat arrives. I denounce and then I continue my life, ratcheting up my defences, and I continue writing, which is the same as to continue living.’

Writing for PEN Transmissions of the death of her friend and colleague Rubén Espinosa, she writes: ‘Only those who live under death threats know how the clock marks the hours differently. Not only does it imply living with fear, but it also goads the spirit of self-censorship that makes us ask: Is it worth it? Is exposing yet another atrocity in a country of despicable leaders really worth the risk? I can only answer that it is always worth telling the truth, always worth fighting against ignominy and trying to build a country in which it is worth growing up, living, loving.’

Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, with 100 journalists murdered between 2000-18. Leopoldo Maldonado, deputy director of Article 19 in Mexico described the Mexican state as ‘like a mafia, which acts to protect its own, to persecute those telling the truth, to persecute those who search for justice and to defend human rights through journalism.’

PEN are also active in defending journalists and in liaising with the Mexican authorities on their behalf. Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International and former President of PEN Mexico, made it her top priority when in charge of PEN Mexico. She explained that: ‘the problem is that nobody who has killed a journalist is in jail for killing a journalist. This is a terrible problem. The other problem is that to kill a journalist continues to be a state crime. That must be changed to a federal crime, because criminal organizations have infiltrated the local governments, which makes it very hard for the local governments to police themselves. Killing a journalist has to be a federal crime so that it’s a more serious crime.’

Cacho is the co-founder of the Network of Journalists from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean as well as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2012 she contributed to PEN’s Write Against Impunity Campaign.  She received the 2008 Tucholsky Prize from Swedish PEN and the 2009 One Humanity Award from Canadian PEN and is an honorary member of Scottish PEN.

In recognition of her bravery and the importance of her work, she has been awarded the Don Sergio Méndez Arceo National Human Rights Prize, Amnesty International’s Ginetta Sagann Prize, UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano Prize for freedom of Expression and the PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage. 

#100PENMembers No. 81: Maria Kuncewiczowa

Maria Kuncewiczowa was a Polish writer and novelist who was founder of PEN’s Writers in Exile Centre in 1952 and its first President.

Kuncewiczowa, the child of Polish intellectuals exiled to Russia during her early years for their involvement in the 1863 Polish insurrection, was very active in the Polish PEN Club during the 1920s.

Her work often explores the connections between mother and child but also issues of feminism, female sexuality and desire.

In 1938 she was awarded the Gold Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature. However, her work was banned during the war years. Kuncewiczowa left Poland in 1939, travelling to Paris and then England. She and her husband emigrated to Chicago in 1956. She returned to Poland to Kazimierz Dolny in East Central Poland in 1969 and remained there until her death in 1989.

Kuncewiczowa was an incredibly effective member of PEN. She was also notoriously assertive, leading to her being labelled “difficult” by other members of the organisation. She was an avid letter writer and never failed to address herself to the International Secretary and various Presidents if she felt that the interests of refugee writers were being threatened.

The first Writers in Exile Centre for German Writers was founded in London in 1934 by Heinrich Mann and others. At the Lausanne Congress in 1952 the new Centre was welcomed into the PEN fold – a completely new idea, this was the first Centre designed specifically not to correspond to a particular nation or geographical location but to offer a catch-all for all of those displaced by war or politics.

Kuncewiczowa had first put forward a resolution calling for a Writers in Exile centre at the 1949 Venice Congress, an idea that was backed by Storm Jameson

Kuncewiczowa herself outlined to the Congress delegates how this ‘rather unusual’ Centre would work. She explained that each ‘candidate must be someone who would be eligible for membership in a national Centre but who, if he were to return to his own country, might be in a great danger of the denial of his rights.’ She described how the Centre would be modelled on the Yiddish Centre, which was also a PEN Centre that – crucially – not been based on a geographical location. Kuncewiczowa continued that no writer need relinquish their membership to a national centre in order to join the Writers in Exile Centre, as the centre was ‘a spiritual one’, which would provide a home and democratic representation within PEN for all of those displaced by war or persecution.

Whilst writers in exile centres continue to exist – the North Korean Writers in Exile Centre, for example – many writers in exile centres are now tied to national or large regional PEN Centres and provide specific support for any writer in exile in that country. A particularly successful and indeed, partly state-supported, Writers in Exile programme operates as part of the German Centre. There are also programmes and Centres for Writers in Exile in the UK, in Canada and across the world. These branches provide networks offering writers in exile country-specific advice and assistance to continue to work, to build social ties and even to develop professional contacts, just as the PEN Refugee Fund did during the war. They build on a great tradition within PEN of supporting those not only persecuted but forced to uproot their lives as a result of persecution and war.

Kuncewiczowa continued to work with refugees throughout her life and can certainly be credited with shaping PEN’s response to writers in exile from the organisation’s earliest days.

#100PENMembers No. 80: György Konrád

György(George) Konrád was a Hungarian novelist and essayist who led PEN International from 1990-1993.

A Hungarian Jew, Konrád and his sister had escaped their hometown of Berettyóújfalu after his parents were taken to Austria to a concentration camp.

The children spent World War Two in a Swiss sponsored safehouse in Budapest and the family were re-united after the war. They were the only Jewish Berettyóújfaluto survive the Holocaust.

The experience left Konrád with a lifelong distrust of the sort of populism and totalitarian politics which characterised both fascism and communism and he was critical of these political systems throughout his life.

He served in the Hungarian National Guard during the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union.

In addition to his own novel-writing, he also worked in publishing, editing the work of others from Gogol to Balzac, and immersing himself in the literary culture of Europe. However, he remained dedicated to politics publishing ‘The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power’ in 1974 which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment for incitement against the state. His work was viewed as highly dangerous and subversive in Hungary and his writing was banned in his home country until 1989.

Konrád ’s first PEN Congress as President was in Paris in 1991. This was a crucial event in many ways as the organisation struggled still to address the Rushdie case and to deal with the aftermath of the Cold War.

He described the organisation he had come to lead as itself the institutionalisation of a cause, free expression, whose task of ‘defending colleagues in prison as also a kind of self-defence.’

He addressed the Cold War directly in his speech arguing that PEN must always ‘support the fundamental freedom of literature’ because ‘literature had always suffered from dictatorship and authoritarianism.’ He argued that PEN Centres must detach themselves from the national because ‘in the past individual writers in East Europe had regarded the P.E.N. Centres there with some suspicion as being in the service of cultural diplomacy’, or of trying to advocate for the national political regime or ideology rather than for writers themselves.

During this period, PEN was trying to move outside Europe and develop more global networks. It organised a series of meetings regionalised meetings to unite East and West across the Middle East, India and Asia.

It was also in the midst of one of the biggest free expression cases of its history – that of #100PENMembers’ Salman Rushdie.

As PEN International’s President Konrád wrote to the UN Secretary General and to the President of Iran to reiterate PEN’s stance on the case as Rushdie reached 1000 days under threat of death. He also attended the meeting in February 1992 to further make the case.

Konrád – as PEN International Director Carles Torner remembers  – welcomed Salman Rushdie to the PEN Congress in Santiago de Compostela in 1993 by telling him: ‘You represent all writers around the world who have been punished, sentenced, even to death, because they wrote what they wrote.’

Following his time at PEN Konrád served as President of Berlin’s Academy of Arts but he is remembered by his colleagues in PEN for the literary and political activism which characterised his life.

#100PENMembers: No.79: Maureen Freely

Maureen Freely is a novelist, translator and free expression campaigner and a former President of English PEN.

Born in New Jersey, US, but spending her formative years in Turkey, Freely is one of the most important translators of Turkish literature working today. This job, she admits, places her at a curious cultural crossroad between East and West but also in a complex position with relation to Turkey’s increasing hostility to the West and to its liberal and democratic values.

Freely came to translation after many years as a journalist. She is a champion of translators both in the public eye and within PEN itself describing how ‘when I translate, I become a shadow novelist. When I am shadowing [Turkish novelist and #100PENMembers Orhan] Pamuk, what I want to do most is capture the music of his language as I hear it.’

She is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick University and regularly writes about Turkish literature, the politics of translation and PEN itself for the British national press. 

Freely has been involved with English PEN for decades, focussing her campaigning on free expression in Turkey, where she regularly took part in fact-finding missions and attending trials of writers who fell foul of the country’s strict censorship laws.

She served as President of English PEN from 2014-18, she said: ‘English PEN has been amazingly effective in recent years. It has worked with like-minded organisations to reform libel law, bring clarity to the debate on press reform, and champion the rights and needs of writers in the digital age. For it does not just campaign for writers. It is interested in their ideas, their friendship, and their work.’

It is this notion of international friendship and cooperation which underpins all of Freely’s work, both professionally and with PEN itself: In an article for the Guardian in 2014, Freely wrote, ‘[t]his, for me, is the essence of PEN. We do not just campaign for writers. We share our ideas and our work, and in doing so, we do often make friends. We argue a great deal, too, of course. But if a Turkish writer wants to complain about the missionary mentality that we at PEN sometimes exhibit when we swoop in from London or Oslo or New York to attend a trial that shows Turkey at its absolute worst, that writer can tell me what he or she thinks, and I shall have to think about it, and if I want to figure out how to do things better, I will not go back to head office to construct a more robust strategy, I will go back to talk to my friend, and other writers we both think might have something to add. 

‘In an age when human rights work is as marketised as any other line of work, an organisation grounded in friendship becomes more important than ever.’