#100PENMembers No. 51: Taha Hussein

The prolific writer and influential public intellectual Taha Hussein, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature fourteen times, was a member of Egyptian PEN from the 1930s and 1950s. 

Hussein wrote many novels and essays, including his autobiography Al-Ayyam which was published in English in 1932 as An Egyptian Childhood and was also a distinguished academic, working as a professor of history at Cairo University from 1919. He experienced censorship throughout his life. His literary critical book, On Pre-Islamic Poetry, which was published in 1926, was banned because it suggested that the Qur’an might not be seen as an objective source of history. 

Throughout his life, he combined his literary interests with political and diplomatic roles, and was a fierce supporter of the Egyptian revolution in 1952, Arab unity and social reform. Prior to the Revolution, Hussein was censored again when he found himself at odds with the Egyptian government. Stories he had published in the periodical Katib al-Masri came out as a book, The Sufferers, in 1947. The book was banned by the government. It was immediately published in Lebanon, and smuggled back to Egyptian readers from there and only became available in Egypt after the Revolution. 

Responding to the banning of his book he was insightful about the perils of censorship: ‘I try to comprehend the source of the fear that turned the government against this book, causing it to deprive it of life in Egypt, and I am unable to understand.’ Government ‘fear’, he stated, ‘is the pitfall of oppression’. He also spoke of how censorship had stimulated new forms of literary expression, including the use of ambiguity, symbols, riddles, and allusions in Egyptian literature. 

He became minister of Education in 1950 and he represented the Egyptian PEN centre at the UNESCO International Conference of Artists held in Venice in 1952. 

Egyptian PEN was founded in 1934, and was resurrected in 1945, a key moment in the history of PEN’s global expansion, particularly in the Middle East, with PEN Lebanon also being created just after the Second World War. Hussein was an important figure in the early years of the centre, using his global reputation to promote Egyptian PEN on the world stage. 

In 1934, he attended the inauguration of the Egyptian PEN centre at the League of Nations Restaurant, Sharia Maghrabi. However, it was at the 1952 UNESCO Conference brought together creative artists, including Henry Moore representing the world of sculpture, and Lucio Costa representing architecture that he made a mark. The conference issued declarations on artistic rights against discrimination on the grounds of ‘political convictions’. But there were also fierce debates about the role of the State with regard to the arts. 

Hussein, representing PEN, delivered an important statement on ‘The Writer in the World Today’. Intervening in the heated debate about government responsibilities towards and power over writers, he argued that writers should not be maintained financially by the government. Literary writing is a ‘disinterested, uncompromising activity of a free mind.’ He was ‘bitterly opposed to State and private patronage which endangers the writer’s freedom. A writer, then should have a profession as ‘far removed from the writer’s personal tastes the better.’ The writer’s duty, he concluded ‘is to preserve his integrity’. In the context of the cultural cold war in the early 1950s, the issue of State patronage was a very live one. While both the Soviets and the US ploughed enormous state subsidies into the arts, ‘disinterested’ literary freedom was often politicised as being pro-Western and anti-Soviet . Yet Hussein’s anti-state individualism, a product of his long experience at the hands of state censors, was not reducible to an anti-Soviet cultural politics.

In 1973 he received the United Nations Human Rights award. 

#100PENMembers: We’ve reached 50!

This means we have featured 50 writers from PEN’s 100 year history!

We have roamed around the world, highlighting the activities of writers from China to Nigeria to Argentina to India to Japan to the US to Zimbabwe to the UK to Hungary and more. We have travelled across history, looking at PEN’s founding members, including Catharine Dawson Scott, John Galsworthy, Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells and Sophia Wadia, and its contemporary voices, such as Jennifer Clement, Kamila Shamsie, Isabel Allende, and Elif Shafak. We have detailed the contributions of some of PEN’s most controversial members, including F. T. Marinetti, as well as those caught up in the politics of the cultural cold war, such as Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller, Boris Pasternak, and Václav Havel.

We have honed in on global writers crucial to the promotion of political and civil rights, including Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe, as well as writers at the forefront of more recent global free speech disputes around blasphemy and government sedition, such as Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Liu Xiabo, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Ma Thida.

Our PEN100 site opens up a view of global literary networks, collaborations and disagreements. Tomorrow we launch ourselves into the next 50 PEN members!

#100PENMembers No. 50: Iman Humaydan

Iman Humaydan is a novelist and activist and the 50th PEN Member of our #100PENMembers!

She helped to found PEN Lebanon in 2012, became its President in 2015 and serves on the board of PEN International.

She is also the founder of ARRAWI, a non-profit center for marginalised youth in Lebanon.

Reflecting her own international outlook Humaydan’s novels B Mithl Beit, Mithl Beirut [B as in Beirut], Toot Barri [Wild Mulberries], Hayawat Okhra [Other Lives] and Khamsoun ghraman mena aljannah [Weight of Paradise] have been published in Arabic, French, German, English, Italian and Dutch. Her short stories, essays, and journalism have appeared in German, Swiss, French, and Arab newspapers and magazines. Humaydan co-wrote the screenplay for Chatti ya Deni [Here Comes The Rain], which won the first prize at the 2010 Dubai Film Festival, and the documentary film Asmahan, Une Diva Orientale, and edited the creative writing textbook Kitabat alkitabah (2010). Humaydan teaches creative writing in Paris 8 University in France.

Unsurprisingly she is a key voice in PEN’s Make Space campaign, launched in 2017 and the latest in a century of activism around refugee writers: ‘Wherever I go in Europe and elsewhere, I meet Arab writers who cannot go back to their countries.’

As a result of this PEN Lebanon presented works of refugees at the Arab Book Fair in 2016, drawing attention to the voices of displaced writers. They also arranged for Lebanese and displaced writers to visit schools in Beirut to discuss their work and put on performances in the centre of Beirut to showcase the work of writers in exile.

Humaydan told the Daily Star Lebanon in 2017 that ‘Through literature we are trying to build bridges with the younger generations and to launch an awareness campaign with respect to the vital issues [such] as freedom of expression and the situation of writers in different parts of the world.’

PEN Lebanon – a key voice in the region –  also took part in a PEN International trip to Turkey to meet displaced writers and journalists living there. 

Humaydan’s commitment to the displaced forms the basis of her writing: ‘For refugee writers, writing about migration means learning how to deal with conflict but in another language. And to dream of a peace that is missing.’

Since then, the situation in Lebanon has changed significantly following the civic uprising of October 2019 which brought down the government, only to replace it with a series of rival political and religious factions, vying for power. 

Lebanese PEN continues to speak out and to play an active role in PEN International, drawing attention to events in Lebanon whilst continuing to speak out for writers across the globe. You can follow their activities on their website.

#100PENMembers No.49: Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy is often credited with reviving interest in political theory in the English-speaking world but his calm defence of liberalism and opposition to political extremism made him a valuable member and counsellor to PEN during the Cold War years.

Isaiah Berlin

Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin and his family had moved to London in 1921, where he undertook a distinguished scholarly career, becoming a key part of the British philosophical and literary scene. During the war he moved the America, working for the British Intelligence services, here he came into contact with writers and particularly persecuted writers such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova. Pasternak would, of course, be supported by PEN when Russian authorities censored his work and forced him into repeated exile, he also became an active and committed member of the organisation. Berlin had joined PEN in 1960 and also delivered the Hermon Ould Memorial Lecture of that year on ‘Tolstoy and the Enlightenment.’

Berlin’s most important work with PEN came through his involvement with Pasternak and, more specifically, his long-term amour, Olga Ivinskaya. Following Pasternak’s death in 1960 Ivinskaya and her daughter Irina were sentenced by the Russian courts for trading in false currency, Olga to eight years in a forced labour camp and Irina to three. The sentences scandalised Western writers and intellectuals and figures, leading several – including PEN members Bertrand Russell and Rebecca West – to form the ‘Oxford Committee’ to pressure the Soviet government for their release. PEN Secretary David Carver also swung into action, writing immediately to Alexei Surkov of the Soviet Writers Union asking for the trial proceedings of the two women to be made public. Surkov ignored the letter. This was in keeping with his fraught relationship with Carver and his long term dislike of Pasternak who he had banned from the Soviet Writers Union years before. Carver sent several telegrams begging for Surkov’s help andrelied heavily on Berlin’s advice. 

Berlin also acted as an intermediary with the Russian writers during discussions about Ivinskaya’s imprisonment. When a Russia delegation visited Britain in 1961, with the clear purpose of silencing the rising tide of protest about Ivinskaya’s imprisonment, Berlin played a key role in hosting and raising the issue with the visitors. Surkov’s discussions with Berlin during this trip, as documented in Berlin’s letters, are filled with misogynistic slurs on Ivinskaya’s character, as Surkov sought to undermine her character in the eyes of her defenders. 

Berlin and Carver were not taken in, particularly as before his death Pasternak had foreseen that the Soviets would punish Ivinskaya and her daughter. Berlin told Carver that, ‘I feel that a memorial addressed to them now, signed, if possible, by fairly left-wing writers and those they know -e.g. Maugham, Russell, Graham Greene, Moravia, Mauriac, and of course if you can get them Sartre, etc. just to ask what is happening and whether there is any hope of clemency could not do any harm.’ He warned against using the names of more obvious Soviet detractors such as Stephen Spender and Rebecca West. However he did mention that Surkov – apparently in an act of bravado which over-emphasised his own power in the situation – had promised him that Ivinskaya and her daughter would be released in a few months.

In November 1961 Carver appeared on the BBC’s Russian Service and accused Surkov of ‘vicious attacks on Mrs Ivinskaya’s morals’. Carver said that ‘the protestations of Alexei Surkov in speeches, conversations and letter that these women had been involved in illegal traffic in roubles […] has done nothing to shake the firm belief held here that the trial and condemnation of Olga Ivinskaya and her daughter is an act of sordid revenge.’ Carver’s outburst added to the rift between PEN and the Soviet Writers, but Berlin acknowledged that the points that he made were valid and hoped that the broadcast might help to further pressure the Soviets.

The two women were eventually freed in 1962. Berlin stepped back from the ongoing struggle between Surkov and PEN, which peaked in 1964 with a particularly vicious piece by Surkov in the Russian magazine Izvestia. Berlin viewed Surkov’s lashing out as evidence that PEN were doing their job effectively, as he wrote to Carver in 1964: ‘it does us nothing but credit’.

Carver continued to pursue the idea of a Russian PEN Centre through his fraught relationship with Surkov. Berlin was offered the Presidency of English PEN in 1969, but declined stating that ‘it is desirable that the President of P.E.N. should not be viewed with particular disfavour by any of the governments whose activities need to be attacked or criticised and whose behaviour it is desired to modify.’

#100PENMembers No. 48: Paul Tabori

Hungarian-Jewish author, novelist, journalist and psychological researcher was a long-serving member of PEN, a founding member of the Writers in Exile Centre and a pivotal figure during the early years of the Cold War.

Born in Budapest in 1908, Tabori received his Ph.D. in Economic and Political Science from Kaiser Wilhelm university in Berlin and between the wars worked across Europe as a foreign correspondent and screenwriter.

Tabori’s father died in Auschwitz in 1944 but the young man and his mother managed to escape Budapest, eventually arriving in London in 1938.

There he immediately became involved with English PEN, working with Storm Jameson and Hermon Ould on the PEN Refugee Fund, he also offered advice and support with publishing for refugees living in Britain.He even helped to found the Hungarian PEN Centre in 1946.

Due to his experiences in Hungary, Tabori foresaw the issues PEN International would contend with in the postwar world in 1949 and wrote presciently to the organisation asking: ‘I wonder how long the International P.E.N. will be able to avoid facing the situation of the Centres behind the Iron Curtain.’ He acknowledged the desire by PEN to keep its existence ‘for as long as possible in the totalitarian countries. But the fact is – and you must know it just as clearly as I do – that none of these Centres are true to the PEN Charter; that they endorse the violations of the basic liberties by their Governments and thereby lend the prestige of PEN to the suppression of free speech and free thought.’ He concluded that ‘We can, like Pollyanna, hope for the best and take a rosie view; but I am not sure whether we do not owe it to ourselves to bring it into the open.’

History was soon to bear this out, placing Tabori at the centre of PEN’s Cold War wranglings.

In 1956 he was integral to managing the organisation’s response to the Hungarian Revolution and its aftermath in which more than 1,500 Hungarians were killed as the Soviet government tried to quell the dissent. He helped to set up and organise a fund for Hungarian refugee writers arriving in Britain and even assisted them in finding writing work. He also organised and coordinated parcels and financial assistance for Hungarian refugees living elsewhere writing in 1959 in support of one Hungarian writer living in Austria ‘a talented poet and journalist, [who had] to hock [sic] his typewriter to eat.’

During this time, he was an outspoken critic of the Hungarian PEN Centre who he suspected of colluding with the oppressive Soviet regime. In 1956 he spearheaded a resolution at the Tokyo Congress accusing the Centre of being in breach of PEN’s charter and calling for the it to be suspended. In his speech in support of the Resolution, Tabori made reference to the expulsion of the German Centre in 1933, invoking the spirit of H.G. Wells as he urged that ‘the Hungarian PEN made no protest [on the murder of Endre Havas] – no record exists of their having voiced the smallest protest against the mass-arrests, torture and murders of scores of Hungarian writers and intellectuals.’

The Hungarian Centre – who had refused to attend – sent a telegram accusing Tabori and others of being ‘hostile to our country’. The organisation was divided, with Centres based in Communist or sympathetic countries voting against the suspension and the rest voting for. Without a 2/3 majority required to suspend a Centre, the resolution was defeated.

The Executive, in an effort to bridge the divide between Centres – those in Communist countries supporting the Hungarians, those in the West supporting the suspension – eventually arranged to have a ‘Committee of Five’ senior PEN Members from both sides of the Iron Curtain, who would investigate the allegations and decide on suspension. They eventually voted to suspend the Centre, though this remained under continuous review.

The Centre was readmitted on 22ndJuly 1959 at the Frankfurt Congress, after years of close monitoring by the so-called Committee of Five, who pronounced themselves satisfied that the Hungarian Centre’s efforts. Tabori’s voice is absent at the Congress, but the Hungarian writer George Paloczi-Horvath, representing the writers in Exile Centre, was broadly supportive of the move, provided the Centre re-doubled its protests to the Hungarian government over the cases of imprisoned writers.

Tabori remained active in the organisation and in the Writers in Exile Centre, though he was also a member of English PEN, until his death in 1974.

#100PENMembers No. 47: Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak was the Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist whose treatment at the hands of the Soviet authorities forced PEN to confront their Cold War divisions.

Pasternak in 1959

Pasternak is a towering figure in world literature and the subject of one of PEN’s most high-profile campaigns. 

It was Doctor Zhivago that first bought Pasternak to PEN’s attention. The book, which is a sprawling account of the impacts of Russia’s revolution and related events on the lives of a group of interconnected but ordinary Russians, has been repeatedly banned and censored in the Soviet Union, despite earning Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.

While portions of the novel were published in Russia, Pasternak knew that it would not get past the censors. In 1957, a full manuscript was smuggled into Italy at the behest of the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who published it in Italian translation. This led to a proliferation of translated versions appearing across the West, helped in no small part by the CIA who saw the book as an opportunity to get one over on the Soviets. It was widely lauded and was translated into several languages but it remained banned in the Soviet Union because of its depiction of the history of the revolution and its rejection of socialist realism, in which all literature must support the broader aims and interests of the revolution.

Pasternak was given the Nobel Prize in 1958 for ‘his important achievement both in contemporary lyric poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.’ Although he initially accepted the award, the Soviet authorities placed significant pressure on him and he was forced to decline it.

This is when he came to PEN’s attention. On 28thOctober 1958 International President Andre Chamson and International Secretary David Carver sent a telegram to the Soviet Writers’ Union stating, ‘International P.E.N., very distressed by rumours concerning Pasternak, asks you to protect the poet, maintaining the right of creative freedom. Writers throughout the world are thinking of him fraternally.’

Centres across the world from Denmark to India issued press releases to their local media and sent resolutions to Congress condemning the behaviour of the Russian authorities.

Within PEN these events caused a significant stir by drawing attention to existing fissures within the organisation between centres in the West and centres based in Communist countries. This came to a head in 1958 when Arthur Koestler publicly snubbed the Japan PEN Centre for, he felt, failing to offer their full support to Pasternak.

These issues dominated the Congresses of the late 1950s. In his statement to the Frankfurt Congress in 1959, Carver said: ‘The fight for the freedom of the Word has been a fight as for life itself. There are many ways of burning books, the Nazis did it with a match; the Soviet critics are seeking to burn Pasternak’s novel with scorching words. Fortunately the world can read this novel and judge for itself – which the Russian people at this moment are not allowed to do. Pasternak becomes, in our century, the living proof that the voice of the poet cannot be silenced; is destined, indeed, in Milton’s immortal words, to have a life ‘beyond life.’

But the German magazine Kulturspiegel wrote that ‘there are writers who ask themselves what is the use of our good old P.E.N. Charter if it is now full of holes, that is, if there are Hungarian Communists in the P.E.N., while in our midst all those who formerly saluted a certain flag are excluded from membership’ condemning the Charter as ‘the spiritual child of 1922 […] it was good then but it is not certain whether it will always continue to be as good as it was at the beginning.’

This was often compounded by the views of the Writers in Exile Centres, which were filled with PEN members who had defected from or been exiled from Communist countries for their criticisms of Communist ideology and governance. They believed that the Organisation should eject Centres who displayed signs of collusion with Communist governments and called for strict reprisals for those not supporting the Organisation’s commitment to free expression. The Centres which remained in Soviet countries and whose members were more sympathetic to their governmental regimes, repeatedly called for a return to PEN’s impartiality and, rather ironically in light of the violent treatment of writers by their governments, a return to the more genteel politics of bygone times. There was an immoveable wall between them and it was all that PEN’s management and more impartial centres could do to try to maintain some semblance of order.

Added to this heady mix was the sometime involvement of the C.I.A. in fermenting debates through organisations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the developing relations with the Soviet Writers Union, particularly around the formation of a Russian PEN Centre, and the organisation was being pulled in multiple directions at once.

The Times– very astutely – wrote on 24 March 1959 ‘Behind the façade of unity, there lies a deep rift among members of the club about the attitude the club should take toward the Cold War. This has resulted in a policy of “neutrality” and “coexistence”, to which the directors have given a distinct fellow-travelling tinge’ (The Times, 24 March 1959).

Even after Pasternak’s death in 1960,  the plight of his mistress Olga Ivinskaya would draw PEN once again into a dispute with the Soviet Writers Union, the Russian authorities and even its own members.

#100PENMembers No. 46: Ma Thida

Burmese activist Ma Thida is a surgeon, writer and human rights activist and President of PEN Myanmar.

A leading and influential intellectual in Myanmar, her background in medicine informs her political action: ‘health is truly political because it’s connected to everything’, she told the Financial Times in 2017.

‘We need to treat not just the patient, but their environment. We need to dig deeper into their symptoms.’

Her book, The Sunflower, was banned in the early 1990s in Myanmar because it was based on her experiences working as an assistant on Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1990 General Election campaign.

In 1993 she was sentenced to 20 years in Insein Prison on charges of ‘endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organisations and distributing unlawful literature’ as a result of her continued work for Suu Kyi’s National League For Democracy in the military-controlled Myanmar.

She was denied medical care during this time, and developed tuberculosis. In 1996 she was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. The award honours writers who have fought courageously in the face of adversity for their right to freedom of expression.

In 1999, she was released on humanitarian grounds, as a result of her declining health and the pressure applied by PEN. Since then she has become a key political campaigner in Myanmar, as well as raising awareness of free expression issues in Myanmar within the worldwide community.

She went on to found PEN Myanmar in 2013, which she describes as ‘a dream’ for her during her days in prison, when PEN not only campaigned for her release and medical care, but were often also her only link to the outside world. During a moving ceremony, Thida reiterated the Centre’s dedication to promoting and protecting freedom of expression, public events and activities revitalising literature in Myanmar following decades of oppression, promoting creative writing in the community and making literature part of the country’s curriculum. The Centre would also address issues around the increasing use of social media in Myanmar and what free expression might mean within this new context.

In that same year, she took this message to the US, heading up a delegation which addressed the international media about the continued issues in Myanmar, notably the death in military custody of Aung Kyaw Naing aka Par Gyi, a freelance reporter. The delegation drew attention to growing incursions into press freedom in the country including the arrests of journalists, the closing of newspapers and new media control laws.

Even ahead of the appalling events involving the Muslim Rohingya people in 2017, Thida warned that the rise of social media and sudden relaxing of censorship laws in Myanmar left a country with ‘low media literacy’ weak and vulnerable to fake news and propaganda.

She said: ‘The goal for writers and journalists should be national reconciliation. We must take the lead now to show what kind of speech toward each other will aid the peace process.’

The incident exemplified in many ways the concerns that Thida had, particularly around the ability of Suu Kyi to tackle the country’s problems when the military retained such a lot of power in the country. She has also been keen to question to god-like status given to her boss in both Myanmar and in the West, and called her a ‘prisoner of applause’. Nonetheless, PEN Myanmar spoke out strongly against the massacre and Suu Kyi’s failure to act and speak out against it.

In 2016 she received the inaugural ‘Disturbing the Peace’ Award from Václav Havel’s Library Foundation when she was elected to the board of PEN International.

Even following this year’s military coup PEN Myanmar continues to speak out, despite the dangerous conditions. In February it released a statement on military leader Tatmadaw’s seizure of power: ‘We condemn the Tatmadaw’s military coup, which would lead to delaying the democratization process in Myanmar and wielding a severe damage on the peace building process, which has for decades been implemented with endeavours of all citizens.’Our thoughts are will all of the pro-democracy protestors and the writers facing persecution and even death following the coup in Myanmar. Keep up to date and find out what you can do to help.

#100PENMembers No. 45: Isabel Allende

This International Women’s Day we celebrate Isabel Allende, feminist, free expression advocate and PEN Member, as well as a trailblazing and truly international author.

Photo Credit: Hester Lacey/FT

Born in Lima, Peru, Allende spent time in Santiago and Lebanon as a child. Her books have been published in 35 languages and sold 67 million copies.

Her life as a writer started at Paula Magazine, the first Chilean feminist publication which she ran with a group of four other female journalists.

The job gave me a focus and a voice. It also gave me a language to express my anger, and for the first time, I felt like my anger served a purpose.

‘It was the first time that issues like abortion, infidelity, prostitution, and domestic violence were written about in Chile. These things were not even touched on before—at least not in public. It shook society.’ Allende continues to be an outspoken feminist campaigner in the US and on issues affecting women, particularly migrant women, across South and Central America.

Following the 1973 coup in Chile, in which her cousin – former President Salvador Allende – was assassinated, she fled the country and lived for 13 years as a political refugee in Venezuela. 

These years of exile and hardship had a huge influence on Allende’s writing and on her activism. Speaking at the US National Book Awards in 2018: ‘I write to preserve memory against the erosion of oblivion and to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories. If we listen to another person’s story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred. Because we realize that the similarities that bring us together are many more than the differences that separate us.’

In fact, just as her writing represents, perhaps, an attempt to reconcile these feelings of displacement and not-belonging from her time as a refugee, so too her work with PEN represents these concerns.

A vocal supporter of PEN’s 2017 Make Space campaign – which marks the latest stage in the organisation’s century of work with refugees and the displaced –  Allende commented that, It’s very easy to create a sense of hatred when you talk numbers, but when you see the faces of people, when you look at them in the eye one by one, then the whole thing changes, and that’s what art and literature can do.’

For her, literature and organisations like PEN can create this sense of belonging, of shared humanity and of understanding. 

In recognition of both the international reach of her work and of her outspoken campaigning for refugees and migrants but also for women, in 2016 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN Centre USA (West) for her feminism, her commitment to social justice and her take on the 1973 military coup in Chile. Previous recipients have included Joan Didion, Francis Ford Coppola, Octavia Butler and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She also won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 2010 and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. She said this final accolade from the US, her home for decades, made her feel at last as though she belonged there and had been accepted.

A lifelong supporter of PEN, she is a member of the PEN Writers circle: ‘writers who believe that literature and freedom of expression are at the heart of a strong vibrant society. They support PEN International’s activities to ensure that silenced unheard and unknown voices are connected to readers and writers everywhere.’

Her latest book, The Soul of a Woman ‘isn’t quite a memoir and it isn’t quite a feminist manifesto’ according to its author and came out in the UK last week but launches with a PEN America #PENOutLoud session with Concepción de León at 8pm ET today. What a perfect Mother’s Day or IWD present for a superb woman in your life!

#100PENMembers No. 44: Phyllis Bottome

British novelist and short story writer, activist and lifelong PEN member, Phyllis Bottome was an outspoken voice on some of the biggest issues which faced PEN during the twentieth century.

Taking in refugee rights, punishment and reconciliation in the postwar period and the politics of race, Bottome is perhaps best remembered for her novel The Mortal Storm which became a Hollywood movie starring James Stewart.

She moved to Austria after World War One with her husband Ernan Forbes Dennis, a British diplomat who posed outwardly as a Passport Officer but who was reported the MI6 station head for Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia during this time. It is fitting perhaps that she is also – somewhat bizarrely – often credited with being the true creator of James Bond, as the home for boys she ran in Austria (which served the errant sons of Britain’s upper classes) once housed Bond’s creator Ian Fleming. Fleming, to whom Bottome was something of a surrogate mother-figure, also reportedly took the idea for Bond from a character in Bottome’s novel The Lifeline.

Bottome’s experiences in Austria in the interwar period meant that she was one of the first to contact English PEN about support for Austrian refugees in 1938. She wrote to International Secretary Hermon Ould about organising a book sale for Austrian refugees in Spring 1938 and served on the Committee for the aid of Austrian Writers. 

Following the war, Bottome found herself placed in the middle of one of PEN’s greatest challenges to date: how to reconcile the organisation’s free speech commitments with the activities of writers who had either explicitly or implicitly collaborated with the Nazis. Bottome had been a lifelong friend of the American poet and Fascist Ezra Pound, who had made hundreds of broadcasts from Nazi-occupied Italy in support of Mussollini and Fascism. When Pound was arrested by US forces in 1945 for treason, Bottome, ever loyal, was one of the few PEN members who wrote to International Secretary Hermon Ould asking for the organisation’s assistance.  On 30thAugust 1945 she rather gingerly asked whether PEN might ‘unite behind some appeal for Ezra’s life?’ She went on to describe Pound as ‘always a fanatic’ but reasoned that ‘Mussollini for his own ends flattered and in the true sense of the word, de-ranged Ezra [underlining in original].’ She pleaded that ‘it seems wrong if we are to have a new friendly world’ that a man ‘should be forcibly deprived of life because of his mistaken ideas.’ Ould’s response was muted, comparing the case to Lord Haw-Haw and asking unenthusiastically for more information. Bottome – who had studied psychology in Vienna with Alfred Adler – was eventually vindicated when Pound was declared to be of ‘unsound mind’ and released to a range of mental health facilities. However, Bottome’s pleas were illustrative of a wider concern in postwar PEN, highlighting a new flashpoint between free expression and hate speech, the need to defend writers but to punish collaborators, and, as Storm Jameson put it, ‘justice versus expediency’.

Bottome’s central role in these debates continued into later decades. In 1958 as the Notting Hill Riots drew increasing attention to racial inequalities in Britain,  she attempted to rally PEN to speak out against racism. Bottome was indefatigable in her pursuit of then International Secretary David Carver, insisting that PEN make a clear statement against racial discrimination arguing that: ‘this question has nothing to do with politics – the extremist Conservative and the wildest Leftist being clearly human beings’ she had decided that PEN ‘the writers of England should appeal to it’s [sic] people.’ Bottome saw growing racial prejudice in Britain as a symptom of what she called the ‘Nazi disease’ successfully bringing together a group of PEN members to make a clear case to the Press and the public against the colour bar in Britain. 

Bottome’s humanity is the thread which runs through many of her interactions with PEN – from her compassion for refugees, her defence of Pound and her absolute inability to tolerate the growing racism in British society in the 1950s – and these personal campaigns often marked out key areas for PEN’s activism in the twentieth century from postwar reconciliation to race.

#100PENMembers No. 43: Rosamund Lehmann

Rosamund Lehmann, novelist, journalist and English PEN President was a keen supporter of writers in prison and of refugee writers during her years of activism.

© National Portrait Gallery, London

She joined PEN in 1942, in order to become involved with the Refugee Fund set up by English President Storm Jameson and International Secretary Hermon Ould. As well as donating generously to the fund she also sponsored individual writers to help find asylum in England and ran events to help refugees to socialise with each other and with the wider literary community.

A regular attendee of PEN Committees, in November 1954 she went on a tour of Switzerland for English PEN and the British Council, doing readings from her books and lecturing on ‘The Theme of Innocence in English Fiction.’

Finally, and under some duress, in 1962, she became President of the English Centre, which she led until 1966. She describes telling her brother, the writer and editor, John Lehmann, also an active PEN member, about her new position and he ‘rocked and swayed with laughter like a poplar in a roaring gale, and tried to make my flesh creep by grisly descriptions of what the job would entail – but I believe I can do it, and feel it will be very good for me, and therefore I HOPE for PEN.’

The issue was not that Lehmann was in some way incapable but that John Lehmann was only too aware of the shark-infested waters which his sister entered as President of English PEN at a moment when the organisation was reshaping itself for the aggressive Cold War climate of the 1960s. At this time, infighting within PEN was rife and times were changing from the more genteel politics of the 1950s to a more hands-on approach to East-West relations, to issues of racial persecution and colonialism, and to state terror. 

During a speech to the English Centre about her experiences at the International Congress at Bled in Yugoslavia in 1965 Lehmann said: ‘It was memorable first for the election of Arthur Miller as the International President; and the rapid realisation on the part of all of us there that here was the only man to swing PEN into a New Age era of activity and influence.’…‘Dr Victor von Vriesland [the previous President] was, to my mind, in his inimitable way, an ideal President. Arthur Miller will not imitate him – or anybody else; and he will be, I believe, another kind of ideal President. We are very lucky.’

What Lehmann alludes to – very diplomatically – is the fact that Miller would and did take a much more definitive stance on many aspects of PEN’s work and, in particular, on its work with the Soviet Union and Communist countries. This was a far cry from the more conciliatory stance of Presidents such as Von Vriesland.

Lehmann’s chief occupation and interest during her tenure as President and as a PEN member of many year’s standing, was the plight of writers in prison. Alongside Storm Jameson, Arthur Miller and Victor von Vriesland, she was a founding member of the Writers in Prison Committee, formed in 1960, following a resolution at the PEN Congress in Rio de Janiero of that year.

While previously the International Secretary would oversee pleas and campaigns involving imprisoned writers across the world, the role had become increasingly unmanageable in the postwar era as the organisation grew to take in more countries and more members.

The Writers in Prison Committee would take responsibility for overseeing campaigns to free writers in prison around the world, writing to governments, liaising with local PEN Centres and even personally visiting countries as Miller and Harold Pinter did in the 1980s.

They would report on their activities to PEN Congress meetings, with lists of their charges arranged by country over pages and pages at the back of each Congress agenda from 1960 onward.

They were, by their own admission ‘rarely out of business’ in a postwar world in which governments, both left and right, sought to silence and persecute writers who sought to question their ideas or their methods. The Committee rarely spoke of its work beyond this forum and rarely claimed victory, aside from raising awareness when writers were suffering, as they operated, and continue to operate, largely in secret. They have worked to help writers from Wole Soyinka to Liu Xiaobo, Elif Shafak to Ken Saro Wiwa.

Lehmann’s work – both on this Committee – and before its founding helped to establish PEN’s commitment to writers in prison.