#100PENMembers No.4: Toni Morrison

Today we turn to one of the most important PEN members in the organisation’s history. The Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison was not only one of the most significant writers of the last fifty years, she was also one of the world’s most powerful and insightful free speech advocates. She was a leading member of PEN America for many years, and became Vice President of International PEN in 2006. 

Toni Morrison

She used her role in PEN to amplify African-American voices within the organisation and her worldwide fame and influence to support PEN’s free expression campaigning.

Invoking the famous line from PEN’s 1927 Principles that literature ‘knows no frontiers’, she spoke of her ‘respect’ for the PEN organisation as having ‘no borders’. 

She saw PEN as an important means with which to mobilise a collaborative activism in defence of free expression and articulated this in her work on the collection of essays, Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word which she edited and published in conjunction with PEN in 2009. 

In her powerful introductory essay to the book, entitled ‘Peril’, she described the different kinds of threats to writers’ freedoms: the censorship imposed by authoritarian regimes, and also the prohibitions within liberal democracies: the corporate thief, the corrupt justice system and what she called the ‘comatose public’. She also exposed the perils of self-censorship, the ‘erasure’ of voices, of ‘unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people’. 

Morrison also argued that writers have a particular responsibility for defending free expression. The protection of writers, she suggested, should be ‘initiated by other writers’; a statement that deliberately foregrounded the importance of the PEN community for highlighting the plight of persecuted and silenced writers. 

Her work for PEN arose from lifelong interests, both in giving voice to ‘invisible’ black experiences, and in dissecting the power of language. In her 1993 Nobel Prize speech, she exposed the power of language both to paralyse and to activate. While many Western legal systems prohibit certain kinds of language by separating out words and the actions they incite, she famously identified language itself as having agency: ‘Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge’. At the same time, however, she did not suggest that there should be more prohibitions on language. Instead, she argued that language has, as she put it, the ‘agency’ to change the world. Language is an ‘act with consequences’. 

In 2016 she was honoured with the PEN Saul Bellow Award, reflecting what PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel called ‘her unmatched ability to use story to kindle empathy and rouse the imaginations of millions to contemplate lived experiences other than their own’.

PEN Key Figures: Margaret Storm Jameson

Margaret Storm Jameson was President of the English Centre during the war years 1938-1944.

Storm_Jameson

Margaret Storm Jameson

During this relatively short stint she became a hugely influential figure within both English and International PEN going on to serve on committees such as the Writers in Exile Committee and the Writers in Prison Committee and as an International Vice President well into the 1970s.

Herself a novelist, hailing from Whitby in North Yorkshire, Jameson was hugely prolific and very well respected during her lifetime but has since been neglected by critics and scholars alike.

During her lifetime Jameson published more than 48 novels, as well as plays and countless polemics detailing everything from her views on marriage to her hopes for Europe after the war.

Towards the end of her life she became very disillusioned with her own literary career, describing her presidency of PEN as ‘the only act of a dull life’.

Her impact on the organisation was tangible.

It was she and International Secretary Hermon Ould who set up the PEN Refugee Fund in 1938, and they both worked tirelessly during this period to support writers escaping from Nazi Europe.

In 1941 it was she and Ould who organised the famous London Congress, which brought refugee writers from Europe together with influential literary figures from all over the world, at the height of the Blitz.

Food for the Congress was tricky to come by but Ould and Jameson pulled out all the stops and managed to arrange an lavish dinner at the Ritz to reward their long-suffering guests.

Despite wartime conditions and the difficulty of traveling to England, more than 800 guests attended from more than 30 countries including India, China and Mexico.

They even had to hold dinner across two rooms, with a host in each!

Another PEN figure motivated by the organisation’s original tenets of internationalism and friendship, Jameson continued her work following the war. She was invited to serve as a Honorary President of the Writers in Exile Center in 1952, served on the Writers in Prison Committee and worked throughout her life to help and support writers from all over the world.

Even in her eighties there are still letters from Jameson recommending writers for membership of PEN or asking about publishing opportunities for young writers who had asked for her help.

Find out more about Storm Jameson and her work.

 

 

PEN’s Women’s Manifesto

Rachel Potter looks at the important implications around PEN’s new Women’s Manifesto and its place in the organisation’s history…

At the end of last year, for the first time in its history, PEN International issued a Women’s Manifesto. Listing six key principles, and with signatures from 22 global PEN centres, the Manifesto is partly the result of 25 years work by the PEN international Women Writers Committee, as well as the more recent efforts of its first ever woman International PEN President, Jennifer Clement. It calls on PEN centres to endorse non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity.

That Jennifer is the first woman President of International PEN is, in many ways, surprising. From 1923, the organisation began to host annual Congresses in various cities around the world and as the organisation expanded, its rules and regulations became more structured. Dawson Scott was consistently vigilant in ensuring that PEN uphold her

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Current P.E.N. International President Jennifer Clement

feminist principles. In 1928, at the Oslo PEN congress, she noted that it had come to her attention that one of the PEN centres did not admit women. Declaring that this was ‘contrary to the spirit of the PEN’, she insisted that the principle of equality be enshrined in PEN principles.

It was not only London PEN that included prominent Women in its early days. They were key to its global network of centres as well. The vocal cosmopolitan writer and theosophist Sophia Wadia energetically headed up the Bombay PEN centre that was established in 1933. Turkish writer, women’s rights activist and exile, Halide Edip Adivar was a central figure in PEN circles throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was a key figure in the discussions after the Second World War about the rights of writers. When Adivar and another famous writer gave a speech to the London PEN centre in 1927, the Times wrote enthusiastically about her spellbinding performance. The other writer got barely a mention. He was James Joyce.

There were many other women writers who were active in PEN in the period before the Second World War, including Victoria Ocampo, on-off friend of Virginia Woolf and editor of surrealist magazine Sur who was involved in Buenos Aires PEN, and was important in running the 1936 Buenos Aires Congress.

When Dawson Scott died in 1934, the organisation continued to have strong female and feminist members, including Storm Jameson, who ran the London centre in the late 1930s, and, after the Second World War a host of prominent global women writers, including  Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.

It is not the case that women writers have never been asked to take on the role of International PEN president in the past. At times they simply haven’t wanted to. Perhaps most amusingly, when Virginia Woolf was approached in the mid-1930s she recoiled violently, writing to her sister that she had ‘never been so insulted’ in all her life.

It is nevertheless interesting that the creation of the organisation’s first women’s manifesto should coincide with the fact that it has its first woman president, and that the specific challenges faced by women when trying to write freely has been addressed as an issue distinct from broader rights to freedom of expression. One of the key differences here is that while the founding feminist PEN members tended to focus on equality of rights to membership, access and opportunity, the principles announced today see equality as both ‘equality with men before the law’, and as something that requires taking ‘steps to eliminate discrimination’ as well as the ‘advancement of women writers’. Despite the different understandings of what equality for women writers might entail, I have no doubt that the Women’s Manifesto, and the spirit that lies behind it, would have been enthusiastically endorsed by the organisation’s founder.