PEN International Congress – Pune

This week more than 400 PEN members from across the world are gathering in Pune, India for the PEN International Congress.

Dn7_7SDVsAIz5XbWriters from all over the world – including Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ashok Vajpeyi, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Ashis Nandy and PEN International President Jennifer Clement – will gather to discuss linguistic rights, the freedoms of writers across the world and key PEN achievements of the last 12 months including the Women’s Manifesto and the Make Space campaign for displaced writers.

These Congresses have a special place in the history of PEN and are often places where key organisational policy and standpoints are decided.

At one of the first congresses in 1933, then International President H.G. Wells expelled the German PEN delegates for their stance on the increasing persecution of Jewish writers in Germany.

As an organisation dedicated to political impartiality but also to human rights and artistic freedom, this was the first time PEN had taken serious stance on the politics of its member centres and marked a crucial step toward the organisation becoming a more active force in world politics.

Since then these annual congresses have brought delegates together to discuss such key world events as the end of World War Two, the impact on writers of the fall of the Berlin Wall and whether to become involved in the campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela.

In the business-sessions of these Congresses writers such as Arthur Miller (then International President) have fought to diffuse Cold War tensions between individual national Centres, to offer responses to Apartheid in South Africa, to support writers in prison across the world, to persuade, unite and meaningfully deploy a hugely diverse community of writers from more than 100 centres across the world.

Resolutions have been offered in solidarity with Salman Rushdie, in condemnation of the killing of Mexican journalists, on UN policy on censorship and much much more, helping PEN to forge its identity as an international campaigning organisation.

More informally, these sessions have always included social trips and dinners, bringing writers together to share creative practice and to forge friendships.

E.M. Forster and Hermon Ould travelled to first PEN Congress held in India – in Jaipur in 1945 – both forming close and lasting friendships with Indian colleagues and even travelling widely throughout the country as part of their trip.

Since that time Indian PEN has played a key role in the organisation, leading on important issues such as linguistic rights. Working with Laetitia Zecchini, our Research Associate Chinmay Sharma is currently working through the archives of Indian PEN to unearth its fascinating history. He will also be attending the Pune Congress.

 

 

PEN Past and Present: PEN’s first meeting

On 5th October 1921 a group of writers gathered at the Florence Restaurant in London.

Some were big names in the literary world, such as John Galsworthy, Viola Hunt, May Sinclair and Rebecca West, others were lesser known but extremely well-connected.

They were gathered at the behest of Amy Dawson Scott, a playwright and well-known figure in the London literary scene.

The aim of the meeting was to bring together writers working in London for regular dinners and meetings to discuss their work and build their professional networks.

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Image of the menu from the first PEN meeting appears courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

It was also – in the wake of the devastation in Europe after World War One – to help to promote friendship and understanding between writers of different nations, through their shared interest in literature.

It was to be resolutely unpolitical – politics only led to war – and must promote literary art and freedom as the pinnacle of civilised life.

The choice of restaurant was very much a testament to their love of continental culture, as shown by the picture of Florence on the front of the menu (below).

The 42 guests enjoyed the finest French cuisine – Turbot Mornay, Beef Bordelaise and a Bombe Pralinée.

This modest start grew throughout the following decades, spreading from Prague and Berlin to New York, Buenos Aires and Bombay and becoming what we now know as PEN International. See  the spread of PEN Centres throughout the world on our interactive map.

 

 

PEN Past and Present: PEN and Refugees

Last year PEN launched its Make Space campaign, to help to support and advocate for refugees, Senior Research Associate Katherine Cooper explains why this is a natural choice for an organisation which has always advocated for refugee rights…

In October 1938 following the Munich Pact in which Chamberlain and the allies gave away large amounts of the Czech Sudetenland to Germany, English PEN President Storm Jameson wrote to English and International Secretary Hermon Ould.

She noted her own shame at her government’s complicity in a deal which she felt let down Czechoslovakia, abandoning it to the Nazis and wondered what PEN might do to help the inevitable flow of refugee writers fleeing Nazi censorship and persecution.

‘It is money that the Czechs want’ she noted, and with that she and Ould began the Refugee Writers Fund.

Since Hitler came to power in 1933, Ould had been receiving letters from beleaguered writers enquiring about passage to England and assistance that PEN could provide once there.

At the Dubrovnik conference of that year, International President H.G. Wells had kicked out the German PEN for their lack of action to defend these writers, many of whom were Jews.

But by 1938 things were intensifying and the PEN offices were struggling to process requests for help to escape the continent and letters asking for references and employment ideas from writers who had made the journey to the UK already.

Ould, Jameson and others from the Executive Committee of English PEN began to write to members asking for contributions to the Fund, which would help to pay for visas, for travel and for staff at PEN to process the paperwork.

They also wrote to publishers and newspapers. One of their appeals in 1940 was entitled, ‘To the Conscience of the World’ foregrounding the importance that they attributed to the fates of these refugee writers.

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Image ‘To the Conscience of the World’ courtesy of the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas.

Janet Chance and Doreen Marsden were taken on to work solely on the fund as PEN began to advise the British government on refugee writers.

By 1940 the Fund began to focus on providing  weekly maintenance payments or one-off payment to help writers to buy paper, typewriter ribbons and to pay translators in order to continue their work in the UK.

The fund helped hundreds – even thousands – of writers to escape Europe and to make a living in the UK and led directly to the foundation of the Writers in Exile Centre after the war.

It began a long history of helping refugees, which PEN continued throughout the Cold War and wars of independence throughout Africa and Asia.

The Make Space Campaign is a clear continuation of PEN’s work to recognise the needs of refugees but also its belief that literature represents not only an opportunity for catharsis and coming-to-terms for individual refugees but also a point of collective and regeneration for society as a whole.

PEN’s Women’s Manifesto

Rachel Potter looks at the important implications around PEN’s new Women’s Manifesto and its place in the organisation’s history…

At the end of last year, for the first time in its history, PEN International issued a Women’s Manifesto. Listing six key principles, and with signatures from 22 global PEN centres, the Manifesto is partly the result of 25 years work by the PEN international Women Writers Committee, as well as the more recent efforts of its first ever woman International PEN President, Jennifer Clement. It calls on PEN centres to endorse non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity.

That Jennifer is the first woman President of International PEN is, in many ways, surprising. From 1923, the organisation began to host annual Congresses in various cities around the world and as the organisation expanded, its rules and regulations became more structured. Dawson Scott was consistently vigilant in ensuring that PEN uphold her

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Current P.E.N. International President Jennifer Clement

feminist principles. In 1928, at the Oslo PEN congress, she noted that it had come to her attention that one of the PEN centres did not admit women. Declaring that this was ‘contrary to the spirit of the PEN’, she insisted that the principle of equality be enshrined in PEN principles.

It was not only London PEN that included prominent Women in its early days. They were key to its global network of centres as well. The vocal cosmopolitan writer and theosophist Sophia Wadia energetically headed up the Bombay PEN centre that was established in 1933. Turkish writer, women’s rights activist and exile, Halide Edip Adivar was a central figure in PEN circles throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was a key figure in the discussions after the Second World War about the rights of writers. When Adivar and another famous writer gave a speech to the London PEN centre in 1927, the Times wrote enthusiastically about her spellbinding performance. The other writer got barely a mention. He was James Joyce.

There were many other women writers who were active in PEN in the period before the Second World War, including Victoria Ocampo, on-off friend of Virginia Woolf and editor of surrealist magazine Sur who was involved in Buenos Aires PEN, and was important in running the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress.

When Dawson Scott died in 1934, the organisation continued to have strong female and feminist members, including Storm Jameson, who ran the London centre in the late 1930s, and, after the Second World War a host of prominent global women writers, including  Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.

It is not the case that women writers have never been asked to take on the role of International PEN president in the past. At times they simply haven’t wanted to. Perhaps most amusingly, when Virginia Woolf was approached in the mid-1930s she recoiled violently, writing to her sister that she had ‘never been so insulted’ in all her life.

It is nevertheless interesting that the creation of the organisation’s first women’s manifesto should coincide with the fact that it has its first woman president, and that the specific challenges faced by women when trying to write freely has been addressed as an issue distinct from broader rights to freedom of expression. One of the key differences here is that while the founding feminist PEN members tended to focus on equality of rights to membership, access and opportunity, the principles announced today see equality as both ‘equality with men before the law’, and as something that requires taking ‘steps to eliminate discrimination’ as well as the ‘advancement of women writers’. Despite the different understandings of what equality for women writers might entail, I have no doubt that the Women’s Manifesto, and the spirit that lies behind it, would have been enthusiastically endorsed by the organisation’s founder.