#100PENMembers No.72: Suzanne Nossel

Suzanne Nossel is a human rights advocate, author and the Chief Executive Officer of PEN America. 

She has led PEN America since 2013 and previously worked for Amnesty International and for the US State Department. During her tenure she has overseen the unification of PEN America with the Los Angeles-based PEN Center USA and the establishment of a Washington D.C. office to drive policy in the capital.

She is the author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All (2020), a set of principles to chart a course for free speech in the twenty-first century and one which crucially promotes equity and inclusion.

The book stresses the role and responsibility of the individual in maintaining free-speech and offers practical advice on speaking publicly including ‘How to be a Conscientious Speaker’ and ‘Good Apologies’.

As well as the book, in her role as CEO at PEN America she has taken a public stand on Free Speech issues in America, particularly around the use of the idea of free speech to support, in many cases, the repression of certain viewpoints and media outlets. She told the Quarantine Tapes podcast in November 2020 that: ‘the primary threat in this country, I believe, has been this administration, which has run roughshod over the First Amendment, threatening and retaliating against journalists for critical coverage. We’re responding right now to an announcement that they may be sanctioning some of the partner organizations we work with, very respectable organizations like Oxfam and Human Rights Watch, that this administration is smearing as not credible.’

She also highlighted the importance of ‘writers and intellectuals to help us process the trauma of the last four years and particularly this year, and analyze it and begin to bridge across some of these divisions.’

Most recently, she has supported the awarding of the 2021 PEN/Benenson Courage Award to Darnella Frazer, the young woman who documented the killing of George Floyd on her mobile phone. The tape helped to direct the world’s attention toward the ongoing tide of police violence against African Americans, sparking protests across the world. The evidence on the tape helped to lead to the successful prosecution of Floyd’s killer in a landmark ruling that many hope will help to begin to address the issue of police violence against black citizens in the US.

Nossel said of the award which was given in December 2020: ‘With nothing more than a cell phone and sheer guts, Darnella changed the course of history in this country, sparking a bold movement demanding an end to systemic anti-Black racism and violence at the hands of police,

‘With remarkable steadiness, Darnella carried out the expressive act of bearing witness, and allowing hundreds of millions around the world to see what she saw. Without Darnella’s presence of mind and readiness to risk her own safety and wellbeing, we may never have known the truth about George Floyd’s murder. We are proud to recognize her exceptional courage with this award.’

Nossel’s strategic and thoughtful leadership continues to keep PEN America at the forefront of free speech debates nationally and internationally.

#100PENMembers No. 30: Dorothy Thompson

Dorothy Thompson was PEN America President from 1936 until 1939. Famous for her Suffragette activism and cutting-edge political journalism, as well as a radio broadcaster, she headed up the Berlin Bureau of the New York Post from the late 1920s, and was notoriously the first American journalist to be expelled from Germany when the Nazis took control. 

Along with Eleanor Roosevelt, she was famously viewed as one of the two most influential American women of the 1930s. On her return to New York in the mid-1930s, she took up the reins at PEN America, and was thereby central to the organisation during a key period in its history. 

During her time in Berlin, Thompson had befriended many writers and fellow PEN members, including Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig and Bertolt Brecht, all of whom were forced into exile from 1933, and would end up in the US. As the 1930s unfolded, she was responsible for using PEN networks, structures and funds to help with what was an escalating refugee problem. 

Her other significant contribution was in using her journalistic connections, understanding and clout to publicise and promote PEN’s activities. She presided over the PEN World Congress of Writers that formed part of the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Under the by-line ‘World Congress of Writers: Dedicated to the Basic Freedoms’, writers from all around the world attended the Congress, as well as a rosta of famous PEN writers in exile including Thomas Mann, Ernst Toller, Sholem Asch, Pedro Salinas, André Maurois, Jules Romains, Erich Maria Remarque and Lin Yutang. 

With glamorous photographs of writers wining and dining at the Plaza Hotel, and a dedicated ‘Hospitality Committee’, the event received impressive press coverage in Time magazine, the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune and other publications. Thompson was quoted as pointing out the power of the ‘writer’s tool, the word, which seems so weak but is strong.’ She continued: ‘Time and again in history’, ‘words have opened doors, they have shamed the powerful, they have mobilised nations, they have held together the discouraged and oppressed, they have tamed and civilised’. 

Time magazine aptly concluded of the PEN event and its discussions that ‘literary fashion’ has ‘changed…Clearly, the ivory tower had no place in the streamlined architecture of the 1939 World’s Fair: it had crashed into 55 pieces’. 

Thompson’s canny understanding of how to use the press and new media to promote PEN’s activities was crucial at this key moment in the organisation’s history. 

Read more about PEN’s work with refugees.

#100PENMembers No 28: Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was both a member of the executive board of PEN America from 1945 until 1949, and, because of his global literary importance, has been a central voice and resource for more recent PEN events and campaigns. 

An outspoken civil rights campaigner who used his growing fame as a poet to speak out racial issues, Hughes was involved with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) from 1921. Before becoming a PEN member, he used his literary status to help pressurise PEN America on behalf of black civil rights. In 1935 he formed part of the New York based ‘Committee for the Release of Jacques Roumain’, which campaigned on behalf of Haitian writer, Roumain, who was leader of the nationalist movement in Haiti against the US occupation from 1915-1934. He was imprisoned four times between 1928 and 1936, but this had not prevented him from founding the Haiti Communist Party in 1934. Along with Hughes the committee was also sponsored by other members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Jean Toomer. 

The group demanded that US PEN Delegate, Henry Canby to raise Roumain’s case at the 1935 Barcelona PEN Congress. Canby duly did so, and argued that an ‘error of justice had been committed’, and moved that the Government of Haiti be asked to reconsider the case. The motion was carried unanimously. It was the first time the PEN Executive had granted itself the authority to defend an imprisoned writer in a country which had never had a PEN centre. 

During Hughes’ time on the Executive Board of PEN America, the organisation a faced some key challenges, most notably PEN’s evolving relationship with the United Nations, whether centres in Germany and Italy could be reconstituted, as well as the conflicts of the emerging Cold War. 

In 1960, when Hughes was awarded the NAACAP’s Springarn Medal, he spoke of his political and literary priorities: he could only accept the medal ‘in the name of the Negro people who have given me the materials out of which my poems and stories, plays and songs have come, and who, over the years, have given me as well their love and understanding and support. Without them on my part there would have been no poems, without their hopes and fears and dreams, no stories. Without their struggles, no dramas; without their music, no songs. Had I not heard as a child in the little churches of Kansas and Missouri “Deep river, my home is over Jordan” or “My Lord what a mornin’ / When the stars begin to fall,” I might not have come to realize the lyric beauty of living poetry.’

Indeed, Hughes’ poetry still provides a touchstone for PEN America, featuring regularly in events addressing a range of topics from the surveillance state, to race. Hughes’ writing and activism touched on so many areas of American life, from race and slavery to chain gangs, religion to Jim Crow, scenes of the rural South and bustling accounts of life in New York, it lends itself to almost every occasion offering clear-eyed and prescient wisdom applicable to topics from to Black Lives Matter to poverty and austerity. Certainly poems like ‘Oppression’ though outwardly about race in America, might seem to epitomise PEN’s own free expression mission. 

PEN celebrated Hughes’ one hundredth birthday in 2002 with a Twentieth Century Masters Tribute event featuring Hughes himself reading one of his earliest poems ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ and a host of poets and admirers contributing readings and thoughts on Hughes’ influence on American art, politics and life.

#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.