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PEN at 100: new president and a centenary history

by | Sep 28, 2021 | News

PEN International, the global organisation which works for writers worldwide, has marked its centenary with the election of Turkish writer Burhan Sönmez as its new president and the publication of PEN International: an Illustrated History.

Sönmez, who is represented by Istanbul’s Kalem Agency, was elected at PEN’s ‘Century Anniversary Congress and now joins a distinguished list of former presidents, among them H. G. Wells, Arthur Miller, and Heinrich Böll.  PEN’s current vice presidents include Margaret Atwood, Svetlana Alexievich, Orhan Pamuk, and J. M. Coetzee.

Sönmez is published in 42 languages, including Arabic in which he is published by Sharjah’s Rewayat in the UAE.  In his acceptance speech, he said: “PEN International is an advocate of free expression and a haven for writers at risk. It is a home for all writers, including young writers, women writers, writers from minority and oppressed communities.”

PEN International: an Illustrated History, looks at PEN’s journey and work on the promotion of literature and the protection of freedom of expression over the last 100 years. Published in nine languages to date, it includes photographs, letters, posters and maps.  It celebrates writers, members and supporters, and all those who, since its foundation in 1921, ‘have spoken truth to power and urged governments to uphold the right to freedom of expression’. It also provides a window to the reality of PEN’s work today.

Jennifer Clement, PEN International President says: “The PEN book tells the extraordinary story of writers from all over the world who, for one hundred years, have worked to protect freedom of expression and uphold the unique revolutionary value of literature in the transformation of individual lives and societies.”

PEN was created in 1921 by the British poet, novelist, feminist and internationalist Catharine Amy Dawson Scott.  It was established as a London club where both female and male writers could meet.  No such club existed at that time. Within four years there were 25 PEN Centres in Europe, and by 1931 there were several Centres in South America and China.

Since its early days, PEN International embodied the mission to defend writers who were imprisoned for their use of the written word, with Federico García Lorca and Arthur Koestler being among the first writers in prison for whom PEN campaigned.

Other key moments include the creation of PEN’s Committees, such as Writers in Prison (1960), Writers for Peace (1984), and Women Writers(1991), with each committee approving several declarations and manifestos which define PEN’s mission, including the Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto (2019), and the establishment of the PEN Emergency Fund (1971) which introduced support for writers in exile or those seeking asylum.

The organisation says: ‘These milestones have enabled PEN to successfully connect writers, human rights defenders and community groups, celebrate literature, defend freedom of expression and linguistic diversity, and protect writers at risk, most recently imprisoned writers Sedigeh Vasmaghi (Iran), Paola Ugaz (Peru), Osman Kavala (Turkey), and Kakwenza Rukirabashaija(Uganda) in 2020.

PEN’s Centenary Director Carles Torner concludes: “150 PEN centres in 115 countries are celebrating 100 years of delivering a common mission. The book is a crossroads of narratives, building again and again the unity of PEN’s presence in all cultural fronts where freedom of expression is at stake. Because, from its founding to the present day, PEN’s goal remains the same: to foster tolerance and dialogue across cultures, languages and political affiliations, within and between nations”

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