The politics of PEN

For what began as a strictly nonpolitical organization 68 years ago, PEN International has become a highly visible lobbying group. PEN is known for its letter-writing campaigns for imprisoned writers worldwide, but in recent years, it has come under some criticism.

During the 1989 Canadian congress, PEN faced accusations of being a racist organization comprised of upper and middle class Europeans and North Americans. A group called Vision 21 accused PEN of having little or no relevance to writers of colour and of developing nations.

Graeme Gibson, president of Canadian PEN at the time, called Vision 21’s charges untrue, noting that tha Canadian guests represented a cross section of the nations, groups and regions. But only five of the 51 Canadian guests were people of colour or of “ethnic” backgrounds. Three “ethnic” Canadian writers had been approached to serve on the PEN board but they declined because of busy work schedules.

PEN board members Margaret Atwood and John Ralston Saul said that the organizers had worked hard to make the Canadian congress more representative than the PEN congresses of the past.

In the 1986 New York congress, less than 10 per cent of the participants had been women. Atwood vowed that at least 50 per cent of the participants in the Canadian congress would be women. In fact, over half the participants last year were women.

Atwood and Saul also pointed out that Canadian PEN actively recruited and paid the ways for young writers from developing countries. Many of these writers participated in the new panel The Next Generation.

A new addition to the standard fare of PEN congresses, The Next Generation proved to be its most exciting forum including participants such as Arturo Arias who wrote the screenplay for El Norte, Adriana Batista, a Mexican feminist who publishes adult comic books, Maoiri novelist Roma Potiki and Inuit short-story writer Alootook Ipellie.

The writers in The Next Generation attacked issues that weren’t discussed in the majority of the other panels, dealing with the politics of literature and publication, and of the PEN organization itself.

The Next Generation opened critical discussion of PEN which will hopefully be explored in future congresses. Participants at the Montreal centre recommended that it be established as a permanent part of the PEN congresses and that all programs be expanded. They also recommended that PEN reconsider its membership criteria to include countries where publication is nonexistent and that PEN recognize the language rights of indigenous people. In addition, they recommended that future PEN congresses seek the participation of gays, lesbians, natives, people of colour, and women.

Canadian PEN wields its way into U of T

PEN International is opening its doors and welcoming new student members at the University of Toronto. U of T’s chapter of PEN was started this fall, and it promises to be an exciting year for its student members who are challenged to take an active stand for justice and equality.

PEN International is an organization of writers (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors, Novelists, Translators and Journalists) committed to defending writers who are imprisoned for their work or opinions. It was founded in London in 1921 by Catherine Amy Dawson-Scott and now has 101 centres in 70 countries.

The first Canadian Centre was opened in Montreal in 1926 as a bilingual centre. In 1982 the Centre divided into French-speaking and English-speaking parties, the French centre was renamed Le Centre Quebecois and the English-speaking Canadian Centre was opened in Toronto. Last year, Toronto and Montreal hosted the 54th International PEN World Congress.

PEN campaigns for the release of writers who are prisoners of conscience. Organized into two main committees, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) and the Censorship Committee, PEN conducts letter-writing and postcard campaigns addressed to heads of state on behalf of imprisoned writers.

Members of PEN are committed to fighting against censorship and discrimination related to class, race, nationality, or political ideology. And ongoing research project, Censorwatch, is building a comprehensive electronic database on censorship and national and international law. It will be a resource centre for lawyers, educators and human rights activists.

The English-speaking Canadian Centre of PEN focuses its energies on the WiPC. Aside from working on problems affecting Canadian writer, including censorship and Aboriginal cultural rights, PEN Canada has ‘adopted’ 14 imprisoned writers. The prisoners come from such countries as Vietname, Israel, Egypt, Singapore, Iran, the Philippines, the U.S.S.R., Burma, Yugoslavia, Malawi, Taiwan and Turkey.

Letter-writing campaigns are, for the most part, a frustrating experience. The minder for each prisoner can spend years sending letters to different heads of state, only to come up against hearts of stone and untroubled consciences. PEN members also try to establish a personal correspondence with the prisoner. This is an equally frustrating experience — if not more so — because it is extremely difficult for the prisoner to receive letters.

However, every once in a while, there is a success story. The most recent success for PEN has been the release of Martha Kumsa in September of 1989. Kumsa is an Ethiopean journalist who was imprisoned for 10 years without charge or trial. PEN International became involved in an intensive letter-writing campaign to get her out of jail. As a result, Kumsa is now out of jail and a close friendship has developed between her and Jan Bauer, executive-director of the English-speaking Canadian Centre of PEN and one of the minders of the Kumsa case.

The U of T chapter of PEN has currently adopted Gitobu Imanyara, a Kenyan journalist, lawyer and editor of the Nairobi Law Monthly. Imanyara wrote articles demanding freedom of the press and fair government elections. He was arrested on July 5, 1990 during a coup attempt in Kenya and charged with sedition. He is currently out on bail but can be re-arrested at any time.

Authoritarian governments of many nations silence dissenting voices by imprisonment or even execution. These leaders usually try to keep the majority of the population uneducated and illiterate, since the less people understand the workings of the system of government, the greater the acceptance of their leader and, consequently, the stronger hold he or she has on the nation.

When dissenting voices speak out, these governments resort to extreme measures to eliminate them. Common methods are: detention without charge or trial, an infinite stretch of time in prison which includes almost compete isolation from family and friends; excruciatingly cruel and painful tortures; and the most common method of silencing a protesting voice, execution.

In noting these facts about oppressive governments, we must not avert our eyes from the government of Canada who ‘won’ a battle with the Mohawk tribe in Oka, Qubec, by use of military force. Discrimination against Native Canadians, the legitimate owners of this large expanse of land, has been going on for too long.

However, if we manage to life a corner of the veil which has covered most of the Earth, we see a ray of light reaching out through the darkness. PEN International is part of this light.

See sidebar: The politics of PEN