Gabriela Mistral was a high profile Chilean public intellectual. A poet, journalist and diplomat, she was the first South American writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945.
She was invited to represent South America when the League of Nations Institute for Intellectual Cooperation was founded in Paris in 1926. She located to France in early 1926, and worked for the League throughout the late 1920s and 1930s. She was friends with a number of world leaders, including Eduardo Santos, President of Colombia from 1938 to 1942, the Presidents of Chile and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Her second major poetry collection, Tala was published in Buenos Aires in 1938 with the help of her lifelong friend and fellow PEN member, Victoria Ocampo.
She was an honorary member of the London PEN Centre for many years, and was a floating presence within the organisation, participating in a number of Congresses, and helping to liaise between the League of Nations and PEN, and then subsequently UNESCO and PEN.
She attended the 1937 Paris PEN Congress, and spoke of the importance of Nansen Passports for exiled writers. She wanted to initiate help for persecuted writers who were forced to quite their countries of origin but had no legal means of travelling to new countries. Many writers were being forced to change their nationality. The Nansen Passport was a means of protecting them.
She acted as Vice Chairman of the UNESCO International Conference of Artists in Venice in 1952, and participated as a representative of the Chilean PEN Club. The conference members agreed to oppose ‘censorship in all its forms’, although with qualifications around ‘exceptional cases of obscenity and slander’. Members, describing themselves as thinking practically about censorship and free speech, insisted that writers are not advocates of ‘freedom for freedom’s sake’; rather, artists have a ‘clear vision of what freedom is’, involved in the ‘servitude to truth’.
The aim of this event was to bring together artists and artists’ organisations from all over the world to advise the newly-founded UNESCO on the key issues affecting them.
PEN was one of the first organisations to be invited to contribute to discussions and sent a large delegation of writers to the literature committee, but there were also a number of other committees looking at the plastic arts, architecture, theatre and music.
The Literature Committee focussed its efforts on four main areas, censorship, particularly on the part of hostile governments, financial support for writers, translation, publishing and copyright issues.
It began a long and mutually beneficial relationship between PEN and UNESCO, which informed worldwide legislation not only on the arts but also on human rights, global cooperation, linguistic rights and copyright protections and continues to this day.