PEN International Marks a Century

Gila Lyons
From the November/December 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

This year PEN International, the global organization that defends and champions free expression for writers worldwide, turns one hundred. British poet, playwright, and peace activist Catharine Amy Dawson Scott founded PEN in London in 1921 to unite writers after the devastation of World War I. PEN vice president emerita Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (a former member of the board of Poets & Writers, the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine) explains that “Dawson Scott felt that if writers could know and read each other, they could help break down nationalism and the barriers between countries.” That’s exactly what PEN has been doing for a century: Today PEN International boasts around one hundred fifty global chapters in over one hundred countries that help to support writers in exile, fight for writers facing censorship and imprisonment, bring writers together from all parts of the world for the exchange of ideas, and preserve literature in Indigenous languages and oral traditions. 

PEN describes itself as “one of the world’s first nongovernmental organizations and amongst the first international bodies advocating for human rights.” It is also unique as the only literary organization that formally serves as a consultant to UNESCO. PEN originally stood for Poets, Essayists, Novelists, but the writers the organization supports has since expanded to include journalists, academics, publishers, translators, bloggers, biographers, playwrights—really anyone, PEN states in its mission, “involved with the written or spoken word.” A 2015–2019 report offers a snapshot of its ongoing work: In those years alone, PEN campaigned for and protected 283 writers whose rights were under threat, granted 143 writers emergency funds, supported 60 writers through the asylum process, and led 26 third-party interventions before the European Court of Human Rights. In addition, PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee advocates on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide, monitoring between 700 and 900 individual cases annually. 

PEN International president Jennifer Clement says the most significant work undertaken during her tenure includes the establishment of the first Indigenous-language PEN center in Chiapas, Mexico. She also points to the creation of the Women’s Manifesto, which recognizes the need to fight for and defend global women’s rights to free speech, reading, writing, and safety and the right to “roam physically, socially, and intellectually” and has been adopted by both UN Women and UNESCO as an important part of their gender work, and the Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, which states, “One of the most treacherous forms of censorship is self-censorship—where walls are built around the imagination and often raised from fear of attack. … PEN also stands for, and believes in, the freedom of the empathetic imagination. … We know attempts to control the imagination may lead to xenophobia, hatred, and division.”

Of prime import to Clement right now? “PEN is facing the challenges of hate speech, often amplified by social media, where propaganda and lies fester,” she says. “We are also addressing extreme surveillance, loss of privacy, and the risks to writers and journalists who bravely cover the destruction of our planet.” Above all, she says, the most important principle PEN stands for is “the idea that human rights are above and greater than politics and the understanding that literature and storytelling can transform an individual and a society.”

To mark and celebrate its centennial, in October the organization published PEN International: An Illustrated History (Interlink Books), a 320-page book with over five hundred pictures, letters, and documents from PEN’s first hundred years. Centenary director Carles Torner says that in addition to the book, PEN will open the PEN Centenary Archives Collection, a public online database of stories, pictures, documents, and letters from ninety PEN centers around the world. 

PEN will also hold a Centenary Congress, which was originally planned to take place in Oxford at the end of September but has since moved online. The digital congress will be composed of a weeklong series of events, including a dialogue between Salman Rushdie—who PEN has protected and defended since a fatwa was issued against him by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989—and Carolin Emcke, who received Germany’s prestigious Peace Prize for her journalism and her books about hate speech and the distortions of the extreme right. In the coming year, in-person celebrations of PEN’s “centenary +1” will take place in New York City, Sweden, and other locations around the world, where chapters will mark their own one hundredth anniversaries. 

Leedom-Ackerman, whose forthcoming book, PEN Journey: Memoir of Literature on the Line (Shearsman Books, January 2022), chronicles her thirty years working with PEN, compares the organization to “one of those sturdy nets you put on a hillside to keep the land from falling down” as it works to guard against the erosion of writers’ freedoms. “That voice needs to protect writers who are under threat, give voice to their work if they can’t get it out because they’re a woman or in prison or facing a natural disaster.” It’s only through the protection of writers that literature itself can flourish, that a culture can “keep that crucial element of a society protected, vibrant, and, sometimes, alive.” 


Gila Lyons’s writing on mental health and social justice has appeared in the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; Cosmopolitan; and other publications.