PEN International was founded in 1921 and is one of the largest international organizations in the field of promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. Its members include (or have been included at times) great names in literature and the intellectual world – from James Baldwin, Margaret Adwood, Tony Morrison, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Thomas Mann and M. Hain, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Don Delilo.
It operates in 100 countries with more than 140 national centers.
The History of PEN International
The British poet Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, in 1921, founded PEN as a meeting place to unite writers after the devastation of World War I. In the beginning, it was nothing more than a meeting / invitation to dinner, providing the space for the writers to share ideas and socialize. This is how PEN clubs were created and developed in other European cities, so that writers on their travels would have a place to meet friends and colleagues. The first president of PEN, John Galsworthy, was also invited to Catherine Amy Dawson Scott’s dinners, where he spoke about the potential of an international union – a “League of Nations for Men and Women of Letters”.
So the organization now known as PEN International started in London in 1921, simply as PEN. Designed as an acronym: “Poets, Essayists, Novelists”, it later expanded to “Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists”, but after World War II, as it developed with various centers around the world, PEN became known as PEN International. In addition, over time, participation in PEN has expanded to include a different range of people involved in literature and freedom of expression, and the aforementioned categories no longer determine solely who will be able to participate.
Today, PEN includes as its members readers, novelists, poets, playwrights, children’s and adolescent book writers, literary theorists and critics, screenwriters, essayists, historians, journalists, translators, translators, editors, editors, authors and graphic novels, publishers and other contributors to print or online magazines – and, more generally, anyone with a professional or organic connection to the field of books and written communication.
Until 1931, PEN had 25 centers in Europe, South America and China. Before the outbreak of war in 1939, PEN member centers included Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Palestine, Uruguay, USA and others, as well as Scandinavian and Eastern European countries. Today PEN is one of the first non-governmental organizations in the world and one of the first international human rights organizations to include 146 National Centers.
PEN was and is the first world association of writers and the first organization to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable – a principle that continues to be defended to this day and is expressed in the PEN Charter of Principles, and with which all PEN members worldwide agree.
PEN Charter was created in 1926 and signed at the International PEN Congress in 1948 in Copenhagen. It also lists the statutory objectives of the PEN which are the following:
PEN affirms that:
- Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.
- In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.
- Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.
- PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.
PEN, now 100 years old, has faced the challenges of literature and freedom of expression, starting immediately after World War I until the outbreak of World War II, then throughout the Cold War. and the fall of the Soviet Union and in the current global climate. It has responded to dramatic moments in modern history, and PEN activists and supporters include the most famous intellectuals of all time, as well as countless and dedicated global members fighting to ensure that the right to write, speak, read and publish is an inalienable right and remains free.
PEN, since its first time of operation, apart from the direct achievement of the global interconnection of its members (Networking) and the meeting of different literary cultures, started its activities in 1932.
Here are some of the PEN actions:
- In 1932, at the Budapest Congress, an appeal was made and sent to all governments regarding religious and political prisoners.
- The British novelist H. G. Wells (president of PEN in 1933) led a campaign against the burning of books by the Nazis in Germany.
- The first success of PEN was the release of Arthur Koistler (then a journalist), who had been imprisoned in fascist Spain and sentenced to death. Federico Garcίαa Lorca, on the other hand, was executed shortly after his arrest; PEN was not informed in time.
- In 1967, under the chairmanship of American playwright Arthur Miller, PEN sued the Nigerian government over the playwright, whose name was not widely known outside his home country at the time, and Walle Soginka, Immediate execution by the head of state of Nigeria, General Yakubu Gowon, during the civil war. A businessman sent a letter from Arthur Miller (then president of PEN) to Yakubu Gowon, who wrote down the author’s name and asked if he was the same man who had married Marilyn Monroe (whom Arthur Miller had married in 1956). When he was assured that yes, he was himself, and demanded the release of Walle Soginka, Yakubu Gowon released him – who later left the country and, of course, became one of the world’s most distinguished poets, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature 1986.
- Also, Arthur Miller in 1970 had spearheaded the international campaign for the release of our great composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was imprisoned during the days of the junta.
- In 1989, Salman Rushdie (Booker Prize winner) and former president of PEN AMERICA was forced into hiding after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious decree: “fatwa” and demanded the author’s death because he allegedly insulted it. Islam with his novel. PEN played a key role in the global campaign for the author.
PEN historical moments include the resolution introduced by PEN America in 1949, in which PEN gained advisory status in the United Nations as the “representative of the world’s writers” and also the establishment of the PEN Committee for Writers in Prison. Committee (WiPC)] which was established in April 1960.
By the end of the millennium, the impact of PEN had already been felt in the world. Today, PEN National Centers address issues such as freedom of expression, translation of literary works, problems faced by women writers, censorship, persecution and imprisonment of writers.
It is worth mentioning some informative numbers with the actions of PEN and the impact it has worldwide, from 2015 to 2019:
- Improved the lives of 283 writers at risk through solidarity, campaigning and advocacy
- Strengthen the voices of 21 writers who are being persecuted for their views by national and regional structures
- Supported more than 451 teachers with the skills and resources to teach literature locally and nationally
- Supported 143 authors financially
- More than 20,000 members worldwide have pressured governments by writing letters of solidarity and staging protests.
- 32 emergency grants were given to writers who were in immediate danger, supporting 10 authors for medical care, 5 for accommodation and living expenses and another 17 for relocation
- There have been 26 interventions at the European Court of Human Rights on issues such as Turkey, Hungary and the case of Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan). PEN had positive crises in 2 cases as it led to the release of Turkish writers Mehmet Altan and Sahin Alpay.
- The writing and critical thinking skills of more than 2,036 girls and 2,081 boys under the age of 16 have been improved with the Civil Society Program (CSP).
- In Lebanon and Uganda, he works in marginalized communities in terms of literature and language, to promote literacy as essential to a healthy, vibrant and representative civil society.
You can read more about PEN International on its official website.