Writers decided to get together to form an international writers’ organisation called International PEN – standing for Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists – after the First World War. Established by a group of London writers, it soon spread, with centres being created in Paris, Berlin, Budapest, New York, Mexico City, Santiago and Beijing by 1925, in Tel Aviv, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, Bolivia, New Delhi and Mosul by 1933, and Tokyo, Rio De Janeiro and Bogotà by 1936.
Initially seen as a forum for international friendliness and translation initiatives, it became committed to defending the rights of imprisoned and exiled writers after the Nazi burning of the books and imprisonment of writers in 1933. Other International writers’ organisations emerged in the mid-1930s, such as the anti-colonial Indian Progressive Writers Association and the Soviet-funded anti-Fascist International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture. While this, and other anti-Fascist organisations folded during the Second World War, PEN continued its activities, acquiring consultative status to the UN and advising it on free expression issues, translation initiatives and writers in exile.
While International PEN continued to expand and change through the 1950s and 1960s, other organisations emerged amidst competing political claims about writers’ and rights. At the same time as dissident East European and Soviet writers became significant figures in the battles of the cold war, some writers’ organisations themselves were sites of racial exclusion and struggle. New writers’ organisations were created, to provide anti-colonial and anti-racist forums for the defence of free expression, or platforms for under-represented or marginalised voices.
The project team has particular research expertise in the history of free expression and writers’ organisations in Britain, South Africa and India. In these places, other writers’ organisations include Index on Censorship (1972 – present day) and Article 19 (1987 – present day) in Britain, the African Writer’s Association (1981 – 1992) and the Freedom of Expression Institute (1994 – present) in South Africa, and the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA 1935- mid-1950s), the SAHMAT Collective (1989 to present) or the recently launched Indian Writers’ Forum in India.
These, and other organisations around the world, are key agents in exposing the violation of free expression, and defending writers in prison or exile. They also continue to be important forums through which free expression debates take place.