‘Europeans Only’: A Note on ‘The South African Centre of PEN, Johannesburg’, 1927-74

Our South African Research Associate Kate Highman talks us through the racial politics she uncovered whilst investigating the archives of the Johannesburg PEN Centre…

There is a telling moment in the archives of Johannesburg PEN – the iteration of it that ran from the 1927 to 1974 – where a funding application to the Department of Education, Arts and Science lists as the persons whose interests PEN represents as ‘Europeans’, rather than ‘non-Europeans’.

Telling, as the Centre generally insisted on its non-racial bona fides  – after all, the 1948 PEN Charter pledged its members ‘to do their utmost to dispel all national, race and class hatreds’ and stipulated that membership will be open to all, ‘without regard to nationality, race, colour or religion.’ (In 2017, the Charter was reformulated so that members are now pledged to ‘dispel all hatreds’, not confined to those of nationality, race, colour or religion.)’

Nevertheless, the Centre remained almost exclusively white for its entire duration –with at most three members of colour over its span of nearly half a century.

Even in the early 1970s, when the dwindling organisation was desperate for new members –  cold-calling various white individuals to solicit their membership – they clearly struggled to extend these invitations to writers of colour.

Minutes of a 1972 meeting show extended debate about whether to invite black author ‘Oswald Mshali’ (sic) to join PEN, as well as an unusually direct glimpse of the racism that appears to have subtended its ostensibly hapless racial exclusivity: ‘several members had indicated that if Non-Europeans joined they would resign’.

Whether Mtshali joined is unclear from the archives (in the end it was ‘unanimously agreed’ to invite him); either way, the organisation was shortly defunct. Had Mtshali declined membership, it would not be surprising given PEN’s earlier treatment of him.

While a contributor to the PEN publication New South African Writing (1969), he was not invited to its launch party, for this would have necessitated holding the event at a venue open to all races or applying for a permit for him to attend – something the Chair, Edgar Bernstein, did not do, instead writing to Mtshali that while the Centre would have ‘liked’ to invite him, PEN was bound by ‘the laws of the land’.

Bernstein letter

Reproduced with the permission of Historical Papers Research Archive, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Collection A977; folder 5.13)

Going through the Centre’s papers, it becomes clear that again and again it is PEN’s adherence to petty apartheid and the letter of the law that helps keep it so overwhelmingly white. And ironically, it is the sociality that lies at PEN’s core (it was originally conceived as dinner club for writers) that enables this. For the PEN ‘luncheon’ (it’s never simply ‘lunch’) or ‘sherry party’ is invariably held at a ‘whites-only’ venue.

The fundamental bad faith of hosting PEN events in whites-only venues is something that Nadine Gordimer pointed out in 1965, in an archly polite letter explaining her refusal of their invitation to host a lunch in her honour:

‘For some time it has seemed to me to be improper and distasteful that PEN – a non-racial, no-colour-bar body by constitution – should hold official gatherings in hotels and restaurants which, in accordance with licensing laws, are reserved for the use of white people only. I feel there is little excuse for us to meet in self-congratulation, as it were, while we have so little cause for congratulation where efforts to make the comradeship of South African writers non-racial are concerned’.

 

Gordimer letter

Reproduced with the permission of Historical Papers Research Archive, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (Collection A977; folder 3.7)

Gordimer’s phrase ‘meeting in self-congratulation’ sticks, as does her barb about what is ‘(im)proper and (dis)tasteful’. For she not only touches here on the Centre’s inflated sense of its own importance, but does so in the terms that matter most to it.

Leafing through the archives it becomes clear that the organisation is animated by an almost neurotic concern with what is ‘proper’ and ‘tasteful’.

This is evident in its anxiety that membership be limited to writers of sufficiently ‘literary’ merit (a mystical term of much confusion), as well as the menus for the luncheons and sherry parties, the choice of venues, the official letterheads, etc. It is an anxiety and self-importance very much rooted in the Centre’s awareness of itself as part of a prestigious international organisation — one, moreover, of European origin, with its headquarters in England, the imperial centre.

Reflecting back on the funding application which  describes the people whose interests PEN served as exclusively ‘Europeans’, it is telling not just because it is unusually frank about the Centre’s actual membership, but because of the way PEN inscribed itself into South African society — at least until 1978, when a new, black-led PEN emerged in Johannesburg.

Answering to, and in the language of, the white supremacist government, the organisation (as constituted by the Johannesburg and Cape Town Centres and the Afrikaans Skrywerskring, which disaffiliated from PEN in 1967) arguably not only paid it lip service but – more troublingly — served to uphold, or at least legitimise, the status quo of European domination in South Africa, using ‘literature’ to do so.

All of this raises a number of questions that we hope to consider in conversation with the current, very different South African PEN Centre, in a conference planned for September 2020:

– How does (and did) PEN, an organisation founded in England but born in the spirit of internationalism, ‘translate’ across different political, legal and cultural contexts?

– How have issues of race played out in the history of PEN internationally, and how did International PEN, and the wider community of PEN centres, shape, regard and respond to the practices of the various PEN centres in South Africa?

– How do issues of race and free expression continue to intersect, and how does PEN address such intersections?

 

 

Un-covering PEN’s archives: Four months at the Harry Ransom Center

I should begin by pointing out that a mere four months is by no means enough time to get through PEN’s enormous archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

In order to approach the archive, I had to work closely with Professor Rachel Potter, the PI on the project, to ascertain precisely the best way to tackle the archival holdings which comprise hundreds of archive boxes.

Archives

The reading room at the HRC

These boxes hold not only committee and meeting minutes but also financial records, personal and organisational letters between figures from H.G. Wells to Glenda Jackson, Salman Rushdie to George Bernard Shaw and countless other items of ephemera from theatre programmes to menus from PEN dinners.

We decided to concentrate primarily on working through the meeting minutes, year by year, which would guide us outward to other documents whilst making sure that we still viewed events within their historical context and in chronological order.

This would help to track the development of discussions around free expression but also the growth and influence of the organisation as a whole.

As Rachel had already made inroads into the earlier part of the archive, my job was to begin in 1951 with the congress in Lausanne, Switzerland.

This method allowed me to watch the history of the second half of the twentieth century unfurl through PEN, observing how its members, their debates and opinions echoed the debates taking place internationally.

I began then, with the aftermath of World War Two, with PEN dealing with UNESCO to address the ongoing paper shortage on a practical level.

On a political level, meetings at this time were also preoccupied with the difficulties of dealing with the re-establishment of Centres in formerly fascist countries and with extending membership to writers who had either sympathised with or who had not actively condemned the actions of fascist governments.

Clearly, for countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France, it was unconscionable to allow collaborators back into PEN and this raised a number of thorny issues around PEN’s commitment to stand above politics and national sympathies.

There followed through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, significant clashes between Communist and Western centres, each citing PEN’s commitment to political impartiality, whilst trying to uphold PEN’s commitment to defend free speech, and to prevent the writer from becoming part of the apparatus of the State.

As a clipping from The Times discussing PEN’s 1959 Congress explains: ‘‘Behind a 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).

This attitude changes markedly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which often see PEN taking a harder line with countries such as Russia and Hungary, who were persecuting writers who could be seen as subversive or critical of the Communist state.

PEN remained engaged in these debates until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the admittance of a mainland China Centre in 1980 and a Russian Centre in 1989.

Beyond the machinations of the Cold War, PEN addressed many other key issues of the times, speaking out about the use of atomic weapons, critiquing the Communist witch-hunts of McCarthyism in the US and even fighting Apartheid in South Africa.

It was also at the forefront of campaigning for writers’ freedom for almost a century, playing a key role in the cases of Boris Pasternak, Salman Rushdie and Ken Saro-Wiwa, among many hundreds of others.

There was even a spirited discussing in the 1990s about whether Nelson Mandela qualified as a writer and therefore could legitimately be given PEN’s support, unfortunately it was decided that this was something of a stretch and the organisation should concentrate their activities elsewhere. They remained vocal supporters of Mandela however, despite not themselves undertaking direct action to secure his release.

The incredible historical value of this archive has now been properly recognised and it is being fully-catalogued and, in places, digitised which we hope will help other researchers to tease out other areas of the archive.

I had no time, for example, to look at the records relating to individual national Centres housed at the HRC (as well as in PEN Centres and former Centres across the world), or to investigate fully PEN’s activities with, for example, queer activism, feminism or postcolonialism.

There is much work currently being undertaken – as you can see from our growing research network – and much, much more still to be done.

The next stop for me and the rest of the team is the PEN Archive at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa.

Do you work on any aspect of PEN’s work, on freedom of expression or on another writers organisation? Do get in touch.

If you would like to write a blog for our website about any of the topics discussed in this post, do get in touch.

 

 

 

 

Margie Orford: ‘I have a sensitive spot about what you can read, and what you can’t’

In Part One of our interview, Peter McDonald talks to Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa, talks about why she is sensitive about the topic of banned books, why she joined PEN and why freedom of expression is a global concern…

Inspired in her politics and in her writing by her experiences growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, Orford first came to PEN as an activist:

‘I was educated in South Africa in the eighties and all the books were banned.’

‘I did economic history, half the books were banned – my shaping of the world was having restricted access to books.’

‘Most of the African writers and the criticism I wanted to read, were banned.’

1 Italy smile

Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa

As a result, she has a real resistance to the censorship of books and the curtailment of freedom of expression for writers more generally: ‘I have a sensitive spot about what you can read, and what you can’t.’

She describes how, later, with the new South African constitution in 1994 it seemed that ‘the right to free expression is constitutionally protected’.

‘There was such a sense of liberation and opening that sort of space that had been closed off so completely under Apartheid – no light, no oxygen – it really opened and expanded and into that came so much publishing and writing.’

She describes how, despite its difficult history in terms of free expression she has always found South Africa ‘an extremely outspoken country even under the worst of Apartheid people might be banned or detained but there was a determination that the truth would be told.’

It was later, under the Zuma government, that she realised she needed to join PEN: ‘My interest with PEN was very specifically around the Secrecy Bill, this was legislation that could put people I know and know well into prison.’

Since then she’s never looked back: ‘I like international work, I think that freedom of expression issues are global.’

Echoing the words of the PEN Charter itself, she adds: ‘If you’ve grown up as a reader, national borders are irrelevant.’

Listen to the first part of Margie’s interview with Peter McDonald, to hear her discuss Danish cartoonists, absolutes in free expression and why speech is always political.