#100PENMembers No. 25: Robert Neumann

Austrian writer Robert Neumann transformed PEN repeatedly, playing key roles in the evolution of its Charter, its remit and its politics during his fifty-year membership of the organisation.

Robert Neumann

A German Jew, Neumann first came to PEN when his works fell victim to the Nazi book burnings in 1933. He left his home in Vienna in 1934 and fled to Britain where he was the founder of the Austrian PEN Centre in exile in 1938.

During World War Two, he worked tirelessly on behalf of refugee and exiled writers in London, despite being interned as an ‘Enemy Alien’ himself for several months in 1940. Alongside English President Storm Jameson and International Secretary Hermon Ould he worked as a fundraiser for the PEN Refugee Fund and even provided a weekly drop-in session – as part of his role as an editor with Hutchinson International –  to give writers advice on how to publish or find work as translators in London.

After the war he helped to revive and became Honorary President of the Austrian PEN Club in 1947 and PEN Vice President in 1950. This membership and his history with the organisation gave him a unique platform to critique and influence PEN policy at every level.

A lifelong socialist, Neumann could be a vehement critic of PEN’s more conservative tendencies, particularly during the early postwar years.

Neumann’s experiences in Austria left him with a very personal and violent response to any indication of government interference in free expression. He had seen first-hand where such interventions could end.

In 1953, he lobbied the PEN International Congress in Dublin to add a very important element to PEN’s Charter. 

The contribution formed part of a raft of measures proposed by the French Centre to formally reassert PEN’s commitment to freedom of expression, to condemn censorship and the banning of books by governments. 

There were a number of these types of reaffirmations in PEN Press releases and meetings at the time, which reflected an organisation seeking to find terra firma in the postwar world and to ensure that the slide to fascism could not be repeated.

It was also a response to simmering Cold War tensions within the organisation, which was starting to become aware of the threats to free expression in Eastern European countries.

Neumann wanted to add in a clause which would stipulate that all national PEN Centres must report regularly on the state of intellectual freedom within their respective countries and ‘their own actions to combat victimizations and other Government and private interferences with that freedom. He wanted UNESCO to assist PEN in publishing these findings.

Issues were raised with the Amendment, among those PEN Centres in Iron Curtain countries who might find themselves having to report regular and humiliating infringements on their liberties but also among those in the West, who feared leaving potentially-infiltrated centres in the East to raise free expression issues. Neumann himself had long been wary of the domination of more centrist and right-wing politics within PEN, speaking out at the 1950 Congress about PEN’s internal Cold War under President Charles Morgan.

The debate marked a fissure which would rupture PEN policy and campaigning on free expression throughout the Cold War.

It also came to mark a crucial point in PEN’s history and its sense of the role of itself and its Centres in monitoring and reporting on free expression worldwide.

Most tellingly, this type of reporting would come to form a crucial element of PEN’s work with human rights charities and is now a routine part of UN monitoring of human rights across the world: Where a report is being compiled local PEN Centres are asked to provide information on attitudes to writers and writing, conditions of censorship, the imprisonment of writers, because – as Neumann so shrewdly recognised – the way a society treats its writers is hugely indicative of the health of its democracy.

Neumann continued to take a leading role in PEN until the end of his life, serving as a Vice President . In 1971, just five years before his death he was at the Congress in Yugoslavia, submitting an amendment on writers in Israel and Palestine and continuing his lifelong fight for free expression.

#100PENMembers No.24: David Carver

David Carver cut a dashing figure at PEN conferences and dinners, and oversaw a period of the organisation’s history which was dominated by glamourous parties but also the complex international rifts of the Cold War.

David Carver [far left]
Photos from Edinburgh Congress 1950 (Tatler Sept 6 1950) reproduced with kind permission of the Harry Ransom Center, Texas

He served as the Secretary of International PEN from Hermon Ould’s death in 1951 until his own in May 1974. Although International Presidents have come and gone, it is notable that both Ould and Carver served as International Secretary for so many years. They thereby provided a certain stability, as well as a central point for Centres around the world. 

A musician and singer by trade, Carver proved as dedicated a Secretary to PEN as Ould had been, but his approach to the organisation was different. While Ould was always diplomatic, influencing PEN members through friendship and good humour, Carver was more high-handed and bullish. 

Never afraid to wade into national or even international politics, Carver was in many ways the ideal personality to shepherd the organisation through the Cold War years. He spent a good deal of time making peace between Communist elements within PEN and other member Centres.

He was highly involved, in the 1950s and 1960s, along with President Arthur Miller, in encouraging the Soviet Writers Union to form a Russian PEN Centre. During this time he visited Russia and held talks with key Soviet officials about the possibility of Russia joining the organisation and arranged for Soviet observers to attend the PEN Congress in New York in 1966.

In 1961 he spoke out on the BBC – blaming the Soviet Writers Union for the detainment by the Russian authorities of Boris Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaya and almost causing an international crisis!

He quite frequently engaged in these types of public spats with the Soviet Writers Union, writing on 1st February 1964 an incendiary letter to the Russian newspaper Isvestia in response to a piece by Alexei Surkov, the head of the SWU. 

Surkov’s piece – which rather mischievously described PEN as the ‘one time respectable writers’ organisation’ – accused it of pandering to American efforts to subvert and undermine the ‘youthful culture of socialist countries.’ It critiqued PEN’s apparently apolitical stance alleging that ‘the International Organisation of Pen [sic] Clubs have thrown themselves deliriously into the defence of literary reactionaries.’

Carver’s letter, in turn, attacks Surkov for his ‘foul slanders’ on the organisation and seeks to set the record straight about PEN’s activities. The rift soured relations for several years but Carver and Arthur Miller made enormous efforts to win back Surkov’s support and after several exchanges of correspondence and even a clandestine meeting with Russian officials in 1965, the Russians were invited to the New York Congress as observers and the fight to establish a Russian PEN Centre continued.

This back-and-forth characterised relations between PEN and the Soviets during these years. Carver was a good match for Surkov – both men were strong characters with quick tempers and seem to have gained a certain amount of enjoyment in baiting each other! It often fell to PEN International Presidents Miller and the Dutch writer Victor Van Vriesland to calm frayed tempers and return all parties to the negotiation table.

Carver was also, however, highly effective and a great many key advancements in the management and policy of PEN were brought in under his instruction, such as building PEN’s status as a key advisor to UNESCO, organising the first international conference in Africa (in Ivory Coast in 1967) and building better links to PEN India and the other Asian Centres. He also organised some of the most high profile free expression campaigns – such as the campaign to free Wole Soyinka and Boris Pasternak and the celebrations International Year of Human Rights in 1968.

He and his wife Blanche, were regular attendees of all of PEN’s events and conferences and both were well-loved by members from all over the world.

Carver was a somewhat dominant personality and whilst his bullishness in the face of adversity meant he was often not an ideal mediator during the heady days of the Cold War, in many ways, his skillset could not have been more suited to dealing with the political intrigue and crises of those years.

Not only did he keep the organisation together during this time, his determination to become involved in political processes, from writing to Eastern European dictators to clandestine meetings with Russian spies, actually served PEN remarkably well.

He was replaced following his death in 1974 by Peter Elstob.

#100PENMembers No.23: Karel Čapek

The Prague PEN centre was one of the most active and successful in Europe from 1923 to 1938 and the globally prestigious playwright and novelist Karel Čapek was at the heart of this success.

The Club received a great deal of support from the Czechoslovakian government and boasted as members prominent Czech political and cultural figures, including the new Czech President, Tomáš Masyrak and his successor Edvard Beneš. In 1938 the International PEN Congress was held in Prague. 

Karel Čapek

When Dawson Scott wrote to him to ask him to create a Prague Centre in 1923,  Čapek was basking in his recent successes on the international theatre scene. His dystopian play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920), which he wrote with his brother Josef, had been translated into thirty languages by 1923, premiered in New York in 1922 and in London in April 1923. R. U. R. is famous for its coining of the word robot, from the Czech word robota meaning work and robotnik meaning worker, a linguistic transposition that has had a lasting impact on the English language. 

He replied to Dawson Scott by commending her on ‘such a sympathetic and useful idea’, the Prague centre was established that year and the following year PEN invited him to London in 1924, where they organised a lavish lunch at Gatti’s restaurant to honour Čapek, with over a hundred guests. Čapek, speaking in halting English, charmingly reflected on the role of writers in creating ‘unity’ in the world: they had ‘the right and the mission to help and to promote mutual understanding among human beings.’

Two years after the Gatti lunch, however, Čapek was forced to deal with literary and linguistic disunity in the new Czechoslovakian state that had been created in the post-war settlement. He confronted the desire of German speaking writers in Prague to found a separate German-language PEN centre. Čapek wrote in anguished terms to Ould insisting that having two Prague centres, ‘one for authors writing in Czech the other for authors writing in German’ would undermine one of the chief purposes of the P.E.N. Club which is, as he put it, ‘to promote the bringing together of the different nationalities.’  

There were two kinds of nationalism at work here. One aspired to represent the new territorial Czech sovereignty created after the war; the other was grounded in an imagined polity rooted in linguistic identity. While this was a particularly vexed question in Prague, where the dominant literary language was German, the issue was not confined to Czechoslovakia. The conflict between these different understandings of internationalism was one of the main preoccupations of International PEN in the mid to late 1920s. 

Čapek would continue to play a formative role in the Prague PEN centre, and internationally. He agreed to become International PEN President in 1936 before ill health prevented him from taking up the post. Three months before the Munich Settlement of 30thSeptember 1938 in which the International Community agreed to German demands to annex the Sudetenland frontier areas of Czechoslovakia, the International PEN Congress was held in Prague. 

It had been touch and go whether the Congress would go ahead, but to Čapek and the other Czech writers, the event was an essential final opportunity to publicise the Czech cause in the face of increasing Nazi aggression. Writers such as English PEN President Storm Jameson, who attended the conference, describe their discomfort at visiting Czechoslovakia when the Allies had, she felt, betrayed Czechoslovakia in the agreement at Munich.

The Czech Centre – which received a good deal of funding from the Czech government – laid on lavish meals and characteristically warm hospitality but events were haunted by tensions around Czechoslovakia’s future and the role that the Allies and even writers from Allied countries might play in helping them in the event of future Nazi onslaught. Jameson fictionalises events at the Congress in her novel Europe to Let (1940), describing how ‘excited by plum brandy, the writers were swearing to defend Czechoslovakia.’ She feared that their promises were empty and their power to save the Czechs, limited.

When Nazi tanks rolled into Prague a year later, Čapek was number two on their list of public enemies who needed to be located. They swiftly tracked him down to his house but were surprised, when they arrived, to discover that he was already dead, having expired rather suddenly of pneumonia on 25thDecember 1938. They promptly took his wife, Olga, instead. 

#100PENMembers No. 22: Václav Havel

Former Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel was one of PEN’s most high-profile members during and after the end of the Cold War and also the subject of one of its most longstanding campaigns.

Václav Havel
Photo: Prague Morning

He was famed for saying that in 1947 as the Iron Curtain descended on Europe, the clocks had stopped in his half of Europe and had only begun ticking again in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall.

Within PEN, cold war tensions between Soviet bloc writers’ centres and writers in exile who had been persecuted by Communist states often split apart Congresses. At the 1967 PEN Congress in Dublin, there was acrimonious disagreement between the Prague PEN Centre and the Writers in Exile Center, who had responded to distress signals from Czech writers by proposing a resolution opposing the literary censorship and surveillance of the government run Union of Czechoslovakian Writers. Members of the Prague PEN Centre, most of whom were broadly supportive of the Communist government, criticised the resolution, arguing that it did not reflect their experience as Czech writers. 

The close connections between politics and literature were impossible to ignore for many Eastern bloc writers. The following year, during the Prague Spring of 1968, Havel was not only banned from Czech theatres, he also became the de-facto leader of the resistance movement. In January 1977, he and a civic collective of activists penned a document ‘Charter 77’ which was highly critical of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime.

The document and its signatories were declared traitors to the Czechoslovak nation. Even circulating the document was illegal, although it was published widely abroad in newspapers such as The TimesLe Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the New York Times.

Signatories were targeted by the government, often facing detention, trial, imprisonment, forced exile, loss of citizenship and even losing their jobs and families. During this period, PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee campaigned strenuously on Havel’s behalf.

In 1979, telegrams were sent from PEN International’s Rio de Janeiro Congress to members of the Czech government and to governments across the world condemning the imprisonment of Havel and other dissenters ‘for their opinions.’ It stated clearly that ‘freedom of opinion is a basic principle of International PEN and we protest against the trial which is soon to open in Prague.’ Their protests were fruitless and Havel remained in prison until February 1983. 

However in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin wall, Prague was plastered with a poster emblazoned ‘Havel na Hrad’ (Havel to the Castle, referring to Hradčany, the President’s castle in central Prague). The crowds of protestors who gathered in the streets did not give up until Havel was in the castle, serving as the new President of a reborn Czechoslovakia republic.

Addressing the Prague World Congress of PEN International in 1994 he told the delegates: ‘Let us admit that most of us writers feel an essential aversion to politics. By taking such a position, however, we accept the perverted principle of specialization, according to which some are paid to write about the horrors of the world and human responsibility and others to deal with those horrors and bear the human responsibility for them.’

In 2009, he and his fellow Charter 77 signatories wrote to request a fair trial for Liu Xiaobo – who had recently published his Charter 08 requesting democratic reform in China – stating that the harsh sentence given to such a ‘prominent citizen of your country merely for thinking and speaking critically about various political and social issues was chiefly meant as a stern warning to others not to follow his path.’

On Havel’s death in 2011, International Secretary of PEN International, Hori Takeaki said, “Václav Havel was the most courageous fighter for the freedom of speech. He trusted and believed in the ‘power of the powerless’ in the most democratic sense. So many spiritual seeds were planted by him all over the world. He changed the paradigm of global society with his fight for democracy and freedom of speech.”

#100PENMembers No. 21: Mulk Raj Anand

One of the foremost writers and modernists of India, who helped to shape and define the cultural, artistic and critical scene before and after independence, Mulk Raj Anand was also a champion of India’s freedom struggle, a staunch internationalist, a lifelong humanist, and a member of the Indian PEN. 

Mulk Raj Anand Photo: National Portrait Gallery, UK

Born in Peshawar (now Pakistan), he went to England in 1924 and received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of London in 1929. He began his literary career in England, and was associated with the Bloomsbury group. A prolific writer, he first gained recognition for his novels, many of which articulated his sympathy for the poorest and most marginalized segments of society, such as Untouchable (1935, with a foreword by another of the prominent #100PENMembers E.M. Forster) and Coolie (1936). These were concerns that would dominate his life and writing. 

Part of the anti-fascist movement, he fought on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. His staunch anti-colonial and anti-fascist political beliefs were closely connected. Not only, he acknowledged, were Indians “accepted as equals for the first time in England” during the anti-fascist movement, but fascist repression paralleled colonial repression – and they also command the same resistance. 

‘We, the writers of India, know how the forces of repression and censorship have thwarted the development of a great modern tradition in the literatures of our country; we saw the ugly face of Fascism in our country earlier than the writers of the European countries …’ 

(“On the Progressive Writers’ Movement”, 1939) 

It was also the spirit of anti-colonial resistance that animated his speech at the first All-India Writers’ Conference organized by the PEN in Jaipur in 1945: “As intensely as other people – as intensely as the resistance movement in France – we do hunger for and suffer for freedom.”

He participated in the First International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture in Paris (1935), and in 1936 he co-founded the influential ‘Progressive Writers’ Association’ in London, whose manifesto (first written in English, then then translated into various Indian languages) asked writers to confront the realities of Indian life, to criticize the ‘spirit of reaction’ in India, and commit to ‘further the cause of Indian freedom and social regeneration’. A year afterwards he co-organized the first All-India Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow (1936) 

Straddling different worlds, he was also an important member of different national and international political/cultural/literary organisations that are often seen as being at different ends of the ideological spectrum. An important member of the World Peace Congress, and of its Indian branch the All-India Congress for Peace, he became one of the important leaders of the peace moment in India and abroad. He also worked extremely closely with Communist-backed progressive cultural organisations such as the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (AI PWA) and the Indian People’s Theatre Organization (IPTA). One of the driving forces behind the first Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in Delhi in 1956 (for which he obtained Nehru’s support) that laid the groundwork for the Afro-Asian Writers Association and its successive conferences – the first one, of which he was part, was held in Tashkent in 1958 – he was also a prominent member of the PEN and participated in most of its major conferences in India. 

In 1946 he founded and long edited one of the most important magazines in India, Marg, devoted to the arts, and which is still published today. He also launched and organized the first Triennale India in Delhi (1968). 

#100PENMembers No.20: Elif Shafak

Today we look at Turkey’s bestselling female author, Elif Shafak, who has been both the recipient of PEN support in her own fight for free expression and is a high profile and vocal PEN member in her own right. 

Photo: Zeynel Abidin (Dogan Kitap/Turkey)

In 2006, Shafak was prosecuted for violating Article 301 of Turkey’s criminal code in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. A speech made by a character in the novel referring to the deaths of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide was accused of contravening Article 301 by ‘insulting Turkishness’. Shafak was taken to court and faced a potential three year jail sentence. 

Shafak argued that this assault on literature was both illogical – ‘if there is a thief in a novel’, she said, ‘it doesn’t make the novelist a thief’ – and represented a gear-change in Turkey’s suppression of writers. ‘Article 301 has been used by ultranationalists as a weapon to silence political voices in Turkey’, she pointed out. ‘But for the first time, they are trying to bring a novel into court. The way they are trying to penetrate the domain of art and literature is quite new, and quite disturbing.’

PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee campaigned for the charges against Shafak to be dropped. It was the beginning of her close links to the PEN organisation and active role as a global defender of freedom of expression. 

In 2014 she was a signatory to the open letter of protest against Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay and blasphemy laws before the Sochi Olympics.

In 2017 she formed part of a high-profile PEN International message of solidarity with imprisoned writers in Turkey. 

In 2019, however, she was herself again the target of the Turkish authorities, when she, along with other Turkish writers including AbdullahŞevki,was attacked for tackling difficult issues such as child abuse and sexual violence in her novels The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). 

Shafak highlighted the terrible irony of these attacks. In a ‘country in which we have an escalating number of cases of sexual violence against both women and children’, she sated, and where the authorities ‘need to take urgent action to deal with sexual violence, instead they’re prosecuting writers. It’s the biggest tragedy. It has become like a witch-hunt.’

As a writer who has spent her life fighting, as she put it, for ‘ women’s rights, children’s rights, minority rights’, Shafak was insightful about how the authorities wanted to use these issues as an excuse to clamp down on literary freedoms: these attacks on Turkish writers will create a terrible chilling effect, with writers feeling that they ‘cannot write about these subjects any more.’

Resident in the UK for the past twelve years, Shafak continues to defend literary freedoms, and to be involved in events with English PEN, selecting her own panel for the ‘Extraordinary Times Call for Extraordinary Women’ series in 2019, featuring Patience Agbabu, Charlotte Higgins and Evie Wyld and appearing regularly at events.

In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman discussed the importance of language in influencing how societies understand themselves socially and politically. 

More recently, Shafak has confronted a different set of free speech issues, by engaging with the problems created by the online dissemination of fake news and hate speech. In the PEN America World Voices podcast from last year ‘These Truths: Fighting Words’, Shafak and John Freeman addressed the importance of truthful language for politics and literature.

‘What we have seen in Turkey’, Shafak argued, ‘is the demise of language. That’s the first thing that changes—how words are being distorted.’ 

While writers believe in freedom of speech’, she stated, they also understand clearly the ‘power of words’, a power with the potential to have both positive and negative effects:  It is ‘very painful to see how words can be misused’, Shafak stated. 

Shafak continues to use her position in PEN and her growing public platform in national newspapers and media to raise issues around free speech and free expression. This public-facing work seeks to ignite a public dialogue around the need for writers to engage in order to reclaim or repurpose an increasingly violent and polarised public discourse, and to promote human rights, empathy and equality.

We interviewed Elif in 2017 about free expression and her work with PEN.

#100PENMembers No. 19: Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was not only an awarding-winning poet, novelist and critic, she also served as President of PEN American during the turbulent period from 1987 to 1989, when Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published, violently condemned and burnt.  

Susan Sontag
Photo: Lynn Gilbert 1979

Always a bold advocate for free expression, prior to taking the reins at American PEN, she had been a prominent figure at PEN events, including the famous 48thInternational PEN Congress in New York in 1986. Here, she chaired a high profile panel discussion on ‘Alienation and the State’, with contributions from Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie, Herberto Padilla, Jiri Grusa and Georgy Konrad. Sontag was forthright in her own argument that writers should be seen as critical of, rather than alienated from, the state. She criticised the ‘cult of self-expression’ and subjectivity which she saw as part of the idea of authorial alienation. She had come to realise, she stated interestingly, that literary modernism might not be ‘amenable to the descriptive historical tasks of literature’. 

A year later, she took up the position of PEN American President, and used her position at PEN to criticise and pressurise governments, both in the US and elsewhere. 

One of her first tasks was to steer proceedings at the 1988 International PEN Congress in Seoul. The Congress was a controversial one because at the same moment that delegates sat in congress halls discussing free expression, five South Korean literary figures were in prison precisely because of their words. To ‘be at this gathering  while our colleagues sit in prison’, she declared, ‘some of them ill, all of them, ironically, deprived of pen and paper, is a profound disappointment and morally troubling to many of us.’ 

A year after that, she played a key role in defending Rushdie, addressing the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on the issue on 8thMarch 1989. She attacked the US government’s ‘disappointing’ stance on Rushdie’s plight, asking why it had failed to issue a clear public statement defending him. As with her defence of the South Korean writers, she defended Rushdie by appealing to an idea of literary solidarity. American writers should ‘spread the danger by treating the call to murder one writer as an attack on all.’

She used the idea of literary solidarity across frontiers to confront the US Senate Committee, insisting that the violent censorship of Rushdie was a form of terror whose effects would spread across national boundaries, affecting US citizens and institutions. The ‘attempt at censorship by terror and the fear that it has engendered,’ as she put it, ‘strikes not only at the writers, publishers and booksellers, but finally at libraries, schools, and the entire basis of the United States as a literate, free country.’ While writers have often highlighted the dire consequences of self-censorship, Sontag here identified clearly that the self-censorship ushered in by the Rushdie affair would affect writers around the world. 

She concluded that, in global terms, Rushdie’s case was not exceptional and that many other writers faced persecution: ‘PEN works year-round to bring attention to the plight of these writers, and assisting them should be an imperative of U.S. foreign policy.’

While Sontag continued her involvement with PEN America after stepping down as President, her tenure was notable for her mobilisation of the organisation’s cultural power to influence and pressurise governments. 

PEN America have recently digitized their archive, saving countless invaluable records of writer’s speeches and conversations over the years, many of which feature Sontag. Here she is holding a discussion with another one of our #100PENMembers Chinua Achebe.

#100PENMembers No.18: Wole Soyinka

Our writer for today is the Nobel Prize winning author and playwright, Wole Soyinka. First as an imprisoned writer who required defending, and then as a literary activist working to protect other writers, Soyinka is one of the most important figures in the organisation’s history.

Since the mid-1960s Soyinka’s writing has confronted tyrannical governmental authority, first in his native Nigeria, where he was imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years for his criticism of the Yakubu Gowon’s government, and then in countries across the world. As he put it, ‘books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.’

On Soyinka’s imprisonment in 1967 International PEN acted quickly. Arthur Miller, International PEN President at the time, dispatched Peter Elstob to Nigeria to gather information and make the case for his freedom. At the International PEN Congress in Menton, France, David Carver, International PEN Secretary, reported back on the success of Elstob’s trip. Despite his efforts over several days, Elstob had not been ‘permitted to see Soyinka, and he was understood still to be in prison and to be suffering from a disease of the eyes’. 

Elstob’s endeavours were followed-up by cables from both the American and English PEN centres to the Nigerian Government. The Congress expressed dismay that Soyinka has never appeared in court to address the charges against him. They decided to continue to rally the British and Nigerian governments. 

Soyinka was finally released in 1969, when the Nigerian Civil War ended and an amnesty was declared, and not – as PEN myth proclaims – because Gowon received a telegram from Arthur Miller and was star-struck into fulfilling a request from Marilyn Monroe’s husband.

As with many of its efforts on behalf of writers in prison PEN’s influence lay in ensuring that Soyinka’s name was brought to the attention of the world-wide public. It was the beginning of Soyinka’s life-long connection to the organisation. 

Soyinka acknowledged these connections, as well as the power of literary naming, in his lecture for the Sixth Annual PEN America Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, delivered in 2011. He spoke of his appreciation of the human rights organisations who bore witness to his own imprisonment; and the importance more broadly of writers bearing witness to and publicising the names of the imprisoned. 

Recognising the multiple meanings of the word freedom, from the ‘freedom to cow-tow to power’ to the ‘freedom of exile’, which ‘for some is no freedom at all’, he was also sober about the protests of the ‘literary tribe’ which can often be so much ‘sound and fury’, signifying nothing. However, writers can sometimes mobilise their power to challenge authority through the power of the name and the word. Relating his experience of visiting Tunisia in 2011 to give a lecture on behalf of International PEN, he described the moment he spoke the names of imprisoned dissident writers, including Taoufik Ben Brik. The authorities, believing in the power of Soyinka’s public declaration of the names of the imprisoned, immediately extinguished the lights.

For Soyinka, this moment reveals both the authoritarian state’s belief in the power of the word, and the responsibilities of writers to defend other writers. The names of dissidents, as he put it, ‘have meaning’ in such contexts. Soyinka’s literary anti-authoritarianism and experiences of imprisonment make him one of the most insightful writers in identifying the limits, and the power of authors. He continues to be a powerful activist in defence of free expression.

#100PENMembers No.17: Hermon Ould

Today’s PEN member is one of the unsung heroes of the organisation, labouring behind the scenes in the early days, he was instrumental to the shaping of PEN.

Hermon Ould served as Secretary of English and International PEN from the beginnings of the organisation until his death in 1951.

A photograph of a bust of Hermon Ould in 1938 by his friend the sculptor Christine Gregory, currently held at the Victoria and Albert Museum

During Ould’s time PEN grew from a dining club for writers to an influential international organisation. The poet and dramatist gave up his own promising career as a writer to guide and fashion the fledgling organisation through its early years.

Although International Presidents often had limited time in which to serve, the International Secretary position was so onerous that once a candidate agreed, they often held the position until they were forced to withdraw due to ill-health (or instincts of self-preservation!)

In this role they provided a central point for Centres around the world, as well as acting as a secretary to English PEN, organising all of the international events and overseeing PEN’s dealings with international organisations such as the UN.

This meant that figures such as Ould and his successor David Carver had a very significant influence on shaping PEN, often over several decades, and provided a steadying influence and sense of continuity through the choppy political waters of the twentieth century.

Hermon Ould (right) with John Galsworthy and C.A. Dawson Scott, founder of PEN

Ould became Secretary to the English Centre and International Secretary at the Berlin Congress in 1926 (following a brief tenure by Dawson Scott’s daughter Marjorie Watts) –  roles which he made his own and which ideally suited his personality: His friend Beatrice Webb said that Hermon’s greatest gift was for friendship and his ability to befriend but also to bring together writers from across the world was transformative for PEN.

It was Ould, working under various English and International Presidents, who spearheaded campaigns, such as the Refugee Fund which he and Storm Jameson launched in the 1930s.

At the end of that decade he helped to calm the waters between the pacifist sections of PEN and those who saw another war as essential in ridding Europe of the scourge of Nazism.

It was Ould who helped organise one hugely successful Congress and two conferences in war-torn London – the 1941 International Congress, the Coming of Age Conference celebrating PEN’s 21st birthday in 1942 and the Milton Areopagitica Conference (celebrating 300 years since this ground-breaking publication on early censorship and free speech) in 1944.

His wartime work was such that members fundraised in 1945 to hold a dinner in his honour and even raised money to give Ould a small bonus, a generous cheque to thank him for the countless extra hours he put in for the organisation during the war.

Writing to encourage members to donate and to attend, writer and PEN member L. Steni describes Ould as serving PEN with ‘single hearted devotion’ often to the detriment of his own literary career.

He goes on to point out that ‘that we have emerged from the years of conflict with increased prestige (and also augmented responsibilities) is due, for the most part to Hermon Ould.’

Ould’s letters show him as gatekeeper, organiser, friend, literary agent, confidant and much more to PEN’s many English members and to others across the world.

Ould served as Secretary to the English Centre and International Secretary until his death in 1951, which left the organisation reeling.

It was Ould’s close friend David Carver who stepped into his role, himself convinced that Ould was irreplaceable.

A true internationalist, it is no overestimation to say that Ould’s influence on PEN – due to his longstanding role and his unique personality – made him as influential a force in shaping the organisation as Galsworthy, Wells and Dawson-Scott herself.

#100PENMembers No.16: Chinua Achebe

Our next PEN member is trailblazing Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe.

Not only was he among the first writers to bring African literature to an international audience through novels such as Things Fall Apart(1958) and The Arrow of God(1964)he also did much to raise the profile of African writing and writers within PEN.

Before the Second World War PEN’s presence in Africa was limited to white-run centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Egyptian PEN was created in 1945, and there was a very successful international congress in the Ivory Coast in 1967, but it was not until the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that many African countries created PEN centres and black African voices began to be central to the organisation. Along with the establishment of centres in Ghana and Malawi in 1994, the important PEN Africa Network was created in 2001. Facilitating collaborative action and extending PEN’s International Programmes, the Network also encouraged the founding of centres in Nigeria, Kenya, Algeria, Zambia and Morocco.  

Prior to this, however, in 1989 a number of PEN centres persuaded Achebe to run as a candidate to succeed British writer Francis King as President of PEN International. John Ralston Saul, who was International PEN President from 2009-2015, spoke retrospectively of the collective desire of some PEN members to have Achebe as President in order to spearhead the global reform and modernisation of PEN. 

Per Wastberg, then International Vice President for the organisation, argued that the ‘the time had now come to balance the American/European presence and to have the literature of the Third world represented on a Presidential level.’ Wastberg believed that Achebe was crucial if the organisation wanted to continue to be relevant. 

In electing an International Presidential candidate at this time PEN voted by centre, after speeches by leading members in favour of each candidate. The nominees were not asked to speak for themselves so we have no way of knowing what Achebe made of this. Achebe secured almost fifty per cent of the vote, but lost by 30 votes to René Tavernier’s 35. 

If PEN International was not ready at that point for its first African President, the ensuing debate raised important questions about PEN and Africa, about the importance of African voices within the organisation and paved the way for a greater involvement of African writers and African centres.

Alongside his fellow Nigerian Wole Soyinka, Achebe began to appear more frequently at PEN meetings from this time. He was a valuable voice in round tables and conferences, dedicated to the view of PEN as an international commonwealth of letters and international writers’ community.

In 2007 PEN America hosted a 50thanniversary event of Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart,attended by Achebe himself, along with Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michael Cunningham, Edwige Danticat, Suheir Hammad, Ha Jin, Colum McCann and Toni Morrison.

Listen to a rare recording of Achebe reading from Things Fall Apart

After Achebe’s death in 2013, Tade Ipadeola, President of the PEN Nigerian Centre wrote that, ‘it wasn’t possible to be indifferent to Achebe. You loved him or hated him. Sometimes you did both at the same time.’ He described hearing PEN’s former President John Ralston Saul’s account of his support of Achebe’s candidacy for the PEN International Presidency in 1989:

‘I saw in Saul’s eyes the conviction that had been the equivalent of a cardinal voting for a black Pope, a dancer to a distant tropic drum. Few had seen what he saw back then. Not anymore, Africa’s best are at the forefront of the writing profession everywhere today and it is undeniably due to the labours of such great spirits as Chinua Achebe.’