#100PENMembers No.6: Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa, an honorary member of American PEN with close ties to the American West branch, was the first of our #PEN100Members to need the organisation’s help when he was imprisoned for his environmental campaigning.

Ken Saro Wiwa

Many of Saro-Wiwa’s 1970s and 1980s works, most prominently his play Transistor Radio and his novel Sozaboy, which dealt with the Biafran War, were political. By the early 1990s he had begun to focus his politics into direct environmental and civil rights activism, particularly the defence of the land of the minority Ogoni people of Nigeria, of whom he was a key member. Their land needed protection from the environmental destruction caused by the excavation of crude oil by the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company, which had struck oil on the Ogoni land in 1958 and since then extracted an estimated $30bn worth of oil, with no formal compensation of the Ogoni for the loss of their land or livelihoods.

Because Saro-Wiwa’s international profile as a writer meant that his protests had global reach, he was seen as particularly troublesome by the Nigerian government and he endured several spells of imprisonment as a result of his activism. 

In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa and several fellow activists were arrested, accused of murder by the Nigerian government.

PEN, as well as trying to support Saro Wiwa through statements and letters to the press, also developed its strategy of getting members to write to him in prison to keep his spirits up. Writing to prisoners remains a key part of the organisation’s work, with prisoners often commenting on how important such contact can be. Saro-Wiwa even managed to have several letters smuggled out of the prison thanking them for their efforts and writing that with their support he would survive his unjust imprisonment.

Letter from Ken Sara Wiwa to English PEN February 1995, from the International PEN Archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. Appears courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

In this typed-up version of a letter he had smuggled out of jail in 21stFebruary 1995, he expresses his thanks to International PEN for its work on his behalf, saying that he is ‘in good spirits’ and that he hopes that ‘with your support I’ll survive my travails.’

PEN and other organisations such as Amnesty International and Article 19 lobbied governments across the world for Saro-Wiwa’s release, including Sani Abacha’s Nigerian government. They even approached Shell for support but their protests fell on deaf ears. 

On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and several other Ogoni leaders were executed after a short trial. British Prime Minister John Major described the case as ‘judicial murder’.

Our Case Study, compiled from information held in the PEN International Archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, tells the story in greater detail.

PEN continues to appeal to the Nigerian government to overturn the murder conviction.

Most importantly, Saro-Wiwa’s tragic case became symbolic of the plight of writers and activists in prison across the world.

In mid-November every year PEN’s international community come together to focus their thoughts and efforts on writers in prison around the world. They call it day of the Imprisoned Writer (15th Nov). It’s proximity to the anniversary of Ken’s execution makes it all the more poignant.Read more about PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee here.

#100PENMembers No.5: Margaret Atwood

With Twitter deciding, this weekend, to ban Donald Trump permanently from its platform, and Amazon pulling support for Parler, the so-called ‘free speech’ social network, the issue of online speech and its limits has reached a crisis point. 

Portrait by Alasdair McLellan for The Gentlewoman

The dangers posed by the sheer reach and power of Trump’s online speech were predicted by many, including our PEN member for today, Margaret Atwood. She admitted in 2018 that there were horrifying similarities between the fictional state of Gilead in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale and Trump’s Presidency: ‘We’re not living in Gilead, but there are Gilead-like symptoms going on’. 

But the issue of online censorship is complex. For some, the decision by social media companies to censor Trump’s words has come far too late. Others, including Angela Merkel, who clearly condemned the violent attack on the Capitol last week, have nevertheless questioned the fact that it is social media companies who are deciding on the limits to expression. 

Not even Atwood could have predicted that, along with her fictional handmaid’s costumes becoming a global symbol for feminist pro-choice demonstrators they have also, during the COVID pandemic, been appropriated by Trump-supporting, far-right protestors at anti-quarantine rallies. 

But it has also been a feature of recent history that the right to free speech itself has become politicised and weaponised by the extreme right, appealed to as a so-called ‘American’ or ‘Western’ value connected to constitutional history, and defined against anti-Western cultures and progressive liberal values. 

What are the implications for novelists and poets, who have long defended the rights of writers to free speech? How can free speech be reclaimed as a progressive value? 

When Atwood first started work for Canadian PEN in the early 1980s the organisation, as she wrily described it, consisted of  ‘no money and some postage stamps and dining room tables.’ 

A pivotal member since those modest early days when PEN Canada had recently moved from Montreal to its new home in Toronto, Atwood has been very active in both PEN USA and PEN Canada. She now serves as a PEN International Vice President whilst retaining her membership of both Centres.

As the award-winning author of thirty works of fiction, poetry and critical essays, and one of the most important writers of the last sixty years, she has consistently used her global voice in PEN to represent and publicise the plight of persecuted, imprisoned and censored writers. As she put it, she acts as ‘a stand-in for the thousands of people around the world who speak and act against [human rights] abuses’. 

The policing of language and behavior, as well as the solidarity and pleasures ignited by the free use of language, are central to many of her novels, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and The Testaments (2019). Campaigning for free expression has also been an integral part of Atwood’s life.  She won PEN’s Pinter Prize in 2016 in recognition of her work defending writer’s rights. On accepting the award, she nominated Ahmedu Rashid Chowdhury for the international prize, after the publisher from Bangladesh survived a machete and gun attack by Islamic extremists.

The Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses affair in 1989 was a turning-point for literary free speech debates, and it was significant for Atwood. She put her name to the PEN Rushdie petition which was signed by writers from all over the world. The letter was circulated widely to global newspapers, was presented to the United Nations and sent to Iranian representatives. She also addressed the specific challenges faced by Canadians, joining a campaign to defend the ‘lives and property of Canadian booksellers, Canadian publishers, and Canadian readers’ threatened because of Ayatolleh Khomeini’s ‘appalling incitement to murder Salman Rushdie’. This was designed for submission to the Prime Minister of Canada but also to garner press attention worldwide.

Image ‘Canadians Under Attack’ from the International PEN Archive appears courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Since then she has served as a figurehead for Canadian PEN and PEN America, spearheading action for writers in prison all over the world and using her global fame to raise issues and funds. She even performed a duet with fellow writer Robertson Davies at the 1990 PEN Canada Benefit! 

She is a very active International Vice President. She continues to write to Writers in Prison around the world, often making her correspondence public in order to draw attention to key causes. In 2016, in her letter to the Turkish author Asli Erdroğan, she wrote that ‘You are not alone: you have the entire PEN community of writers from around the world fighting for your freedom.’ She was a prominent signatory to the 2017 ‘Make Space Campaign’, which highlighted the position of writers displaced through racism and xenophobia, and sought to challenge hostility to refugees and asylum seekers. 

Most recently, she wrote, with J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie 150 others, a defence of free expression which raised anxieties that it was ‘daily becoming more constricted’ as ‘a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.’

This intervention proved controversial, with some arguing that it failed to acknowledge the structural inequalities that allow free speech to some, and denies it to others. The furore it caused reveals the increased politicization of disagreements about free speech. It seems likely that Atwood, a life-long free speech advocate, will continue to be at the centre of these debates around what may be said and written and will continue her fierce defence of writers’ rights around the world.

#100PENMembers No. 3: H.G. Wells

Author H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946) Shown: H.G. Wells (1932)

A personal friend of Dawson Scott, H.G. Wells attended the first meeting of PEN. His main contribution to the organisation, however, was in shaping its commitment to free speech activism after he became International PEN President on John Galsworthy’s death in 1933. 

In Spring 1933, the Nazis took control of Berlin PEN and resolutely refused to protest when Socialist and Jewish writers were thrown out of Germany.

One of Wells’ first tasks as President was to steer the infamous 1933 PEN congress in Dubrovnik. There were passionate speeches on both sides, with the Nazi PEN members insisting that PEN should remain apolitical, and one of Germany’s most famous literary exiles, Ernst Toller, demanding that PEN act to protect Germany’s persecuted writers.

When Wells, hampered by protocol, nevertheless threatened to resign rather than suppress the issue of free speech in Germany, the Nazi PEN members stormed out. 

It was the first time a PEN centre had effectively been turfed out of the International organisation. The fall-out was momentous. While some members bemoaned PEN’s new political stance, Wells argued that PEN should become an organisation committed to defending what he called, at the 1934 Edinburgh PEN Congress, the ‘one end’ of freedom of expression. It is a commitment to free speech activism that has defined the organisation ever since. 

At the same time, however, as political events spiralled out of control in Germany, Spain, and Italy, Wells was also often exasperated with what he saw as PEN’s ineffectiveness in defending persecuted writers, and after the 1936 Barcelona PEN Congress he resigned as International PEN President. He continued, however, to participate in PEN activities, even travelling to Stockholm for the 1939 PEN Congress, despite the fact that it had to be cancelled because of the outbreak of war. 

Wells continued to agitate for the right to free expression, something that formed part of his 1939 ‘Declaration of Rights’. A document that influenced the penning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights some of Wells’ rights now strike an anachronistic note, such as the right not to be sterilized.

His free speech commitments to ‘access to information’ and to ‘freedom of discussion’, however, not only feature in the UDHR, but also continue to be central human rights in today’s world.  

#100PENMembers No.2: Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International

Current P.E.N. International President Jennifer Clement

While we began with PEN’s founder, we now turn to its current International President.

It is fitting that in PEN’s centenary year the organisation has its first ever female International President. Jennifer Clement took over in 2015, after having already run Mexican PEN from 2009-2012. A prize-winning novelist and poet, Jennifer has been extremely active in pushing forwards PEN’s feminist agenda, and is responsible for spearheading the writing and endorsement of PEN’s 2017 Women’s Manifesto and The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, issued in 2019. 

Jennifer’s literary interests have fuelled her activism. Many of her novels and poems are steeped in the Mexican landscape, and relate the stories of deprived, threatened or silenced women. Her first novel, A True Story Based on Lies tells the story of a young Mexican peasant girl who works as a domestic servant.Discussing her 2014 novel, Prayers for the Stolen she describes its origins in the reality of Mexico’s stolen, hidden and missing women. As she put it, ‘I have spent more than ten years listening to women affected by Mexico’s violence’. The novel’s fictional story of one such woman, Ladydi Garcia Martínez was ‘inspired’ by the ‘truth’ of these voices, as Jennifer says, and this truth seems to have, in turn, energised the creation of the PEN Women’s Manifesto, which advocates for women’s rights to non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity. The Manifesto not only insists that women and girls should be able to ‘express themselves freely’; it also details the material, legal, economic and educational conditions needed for expression.  

Last year, meanwhile, she launched The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, which is a striking declaration of the rights of the literary imagination to wander freely across physical, emotional and psychological frontiers. Calling for the rights of the ‘empathetic imagination’, the Manifesto is a timely defence of the free play of the literary imagination against the prohibitions of censorship and self-censorship. 

In honour of PEN’s 100thbirthday Jennifer has helped organise a celebratory Congress in September at which, for the first time in the organisation’s history, representatives from all global PEN centres will gather together to talk and debate. 

We interviewed Jennifer about her Presidency and about the role of women in PEN in 2017. 

#100PENMembers No.1: Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, Founder of PEN

Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, 1865-1934

Poet Catharine Amy Dawson Scott set up the PEN Club in London 5thOctober, 1921. She recruited a number of feminist and women founding members, including Rebecca West, May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera Brittain, and Violet Hunt, but also John Galsworthy, who agreed to become President, and Bertrand Russell, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells. It saw itself as unique because it was a London centre where well-known writers of ‘both sexes’ could meet – no such centre existed at the time.[1]

From the start, Dawson Scott wanted the PEN club to be an international organisation in which writers from around the world could meet and discuss, and she encouraged the creation of PEN Centres. By 1923, PEN centres had been established in most Western and Eastern European capitals, as well as New York and Mexico City. By 1925, there were centres in Santiago, Milan and Toronto. By 1934 there were centres in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Baghdad, Bombay and Cairo. 

Dawson Scott always defended women’s centrality to the PEN organisation. At the 1928 Oslo PEN Congress, she spoke out strongly to protest that some PEN centres were refusing to admit women. She ‘emphasized the importance of women in the international work for development and peace’ work that meant that in a ‘league of nations like the PEN’, as she put it, ‘the participation of women ought to be assured. She presented a motion, under the title ‘Women in PEN’: 

It had come to her notice that one of the PEN centres did not admit women to membership. As this was contrary to the spirit – and indeed to the rules – of the PEN she wished the principle to be expressed at this congress that membership was open to writers of standing, irrespective of her sex.’ She thereby moved, ‘that women shall be considered eligible for membership of the PEN, if writers’. It was carried unanimously.’ 

Dawson Scott also continued to argue for the internationalism of PEN. On the Tenth Anniversary of PEN’s founding, she delivered a speech where she spoke of ‘scattering’ seeds of friendliness. She said there was more to do. ‘We must have PEN’s’, she declared, from Palestine East to Nagasaki; from Peru and Ecuador to New York; in Australasia from Perth Even to Napier’ [PEN News, November 1931, p. 3] 

When she died in 1934, her expansionist ambitions had born fruit. Tokyo PEN was created 2 years later, and there were centres in many areas of the world, with clusters of activity in Europe, Northern America, the middle East, South America, South East Asia and Australasia.


[1]‘P.E.N. Club’, Vertical Files, Box 628.