The organisation known today as PEN International began in London, UK, in 1921, simply as PEN. Catharine Amy Dawson-Scott, a British writer and peace activist, founded PEN to unite writers after World War One.
PEN International advocates at national, regional and international levels for freedom of expression, defending writers everywhere who are at risk from unlawful imprisonment and persecution in all forms, including silencing and death. Supporting writers in exile, writers seeking to be heard in their indigenous language, Freedom of the press and advocating for all forms of literature … all are part of its work. PEN International is a genuinely international organisation, with the overwhelming majority of its 146 Centres outside Europe.
Does it work?
This year, PEN International, alongside PEN Myanmar, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The current President, Burhan Sonmez, writes that PEN International has saved 101 authors and their family members from Afghanistan. Urgent work continues to free writers continues in countries such as Nicaragua, Belarus, Turkey, Rwanda, Myanmar and elsewhere. Writers are citizens of a nation called humanity, our homeland is the whole world, he says. Letters sent by authors in support of writers can contain many signatures. But sometimes the names of a hundred authors are not enough to save a single poet.
At Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, PEN International published a statement signed by more than a thousand authors, including Nobel laureate voices such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Svetlana Alexievich and Orhan Pamuk. It calls for peace and an end to the propaganda fuelling the violence. PEN International also states that the Russian Branch of the International PEN Club is not in any way affiliated with PEN International.
How to help
- NZ PEN, active in New Zealand since 1934, can be accessed direct through PEN International or through the NZ Society of Authors (NZSA) websites.
- Supporting PEN International can take many forms, with circles for writers, readers, publishers and stage-and-screen.
- PEN International hosts awards, events, international days and campaigns.
- PEN International’s Writers In Prison Committee produces an annual case list (covering the previous year) of individuals around the world detained or persecuted for their peaceful political activities or for the practice of their profession.
Facing 99 lashes and years in prison, poets Fatemeh Ekhtesari & Mehdi Mousavi fled Iran for Turkey in late 2015. In March 2017 they arrived in Lillehammer City of Refuge with the ICORN residency programme.
The International City of Refuge Network (ICORN) has long been one of PEN International’s most important partners. ICORN member cities offer long term but temporary shelter to those at risk as a direct consequence of their creative activities. ICORN is an independent organisation of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk, advancing freedom of expression, defending democratic values and promoting international solidarity. The Protection team at PEN International’s headquarters in London collaborate closely with ICORN on their work with writers applying to join the programme.