Monday, February 7, 2011

International PEN Newsletter January 2011

International PEN Newsletter January 2011

Best wishes to all members around the world for the year to come, and to those of you for whom New Year's Day still lies ahead.

For our members in Belarus, the year ended badly, with violence and imprisonment. Belarus is one of those difficult cases where an old-fashioned dictator simply doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks - at least, not so far. But you never know when and where pressure might be felt, so please take up the Writers in Prison Committee's call to speak out against the events in that country.

The year also ended with the bittersweet awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to our member Liu Xiaobo, former President of the Independent Chinese Pen Centre. Some twenty of you from five PEN Centres were present with me at the ceremony in Oslo. It was a moment of great honour for Liu, for PEN International and for literature and freedom of expression. Yes, Liu is still in prison, but with this award the universal principles of free expression were placed at the very centre of world affairs - where they belong - in the context of writing and language. The empty chair symbolising Liu spoke to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

A few days before Oslo, I had been in Cairo for a meeting of the Pan-African Network (PAN) hosted by Egyptian PEN and Egypt's Council of Culture. It was a fascinating gathering. I learned a great deal, and it was wonderful to see the energy in PAN and the desire to push its programmes forward.

While there I met with Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, and with his advisors. We talked at length about PEN's work and the essential role of free expression. The following week I called on Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, to explore how PEN and UNESCO can deepen their relationship. I also had a very positive meeting with Abdou Diouf, Secretary-General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. In this way, we must continue carrying the message of literature and free expression to the core of public affairs.

My last engagement of the year was to give a talk to 12,000 Muslims at an annual conference in Toronto; it was exciting to be able to bring our message of free expression to such a large and interested audience.

This year will be key for PEN International. One sign of greater outreach will be our new website, due this spring and designed to be a flexible and accurate reflection of PEN.

Perhaps most importantly of all, we have begun to search for a new Executive Director. All the information about the position will be available on our current website this month, and will be also be sent to all Centres. Please look at it and think about possible candidates: you may be able to suggest the person we are looking for.

John Ralston Saul
International President

Since my appointment in autumn 2010 as International Secretary, I have been concerned with the question of determining the most urgent matters facing PEN International.

There is certainly no shortage of compelling and competing ideas. At the start of this new year, however, I believe one activity can be considered most deserving of our attention: the promotion of exchanges between writers from among the various PEN families, with literary translation as a priority.

The widespread translation of foreign texts is not the norm in most countries. There are some exceptions; a notable one is Japan, where 40 per cent of all published books are translations from foreign literature. Unfortunately, the preoccupation with terrorism and security over the past decade has altered cultural paradigms in every respect, everywhere, and opportunities for exchange have been steadily shrinking. Fewer foreign students are able to obtain visas to study abroad, for example, even in developed countries - which, as a result, are becoming backward-looking, increasingly concerned only about protecting their own cultural domains. If this trend continues, the resulting lack of exposure to ideas from abroad will become a danger not only to developed countries but to the entire world.

The exchange of world literatures is a cause for which writers everywhere must mobilise, not only well-known, established writers but also newer and younger ones. Multilateral events, among other responses, can play a critical role, and PEN International is a logical leader in the promotion of a renewed global translation/exchange effort reaching every corner of the world.

Takeaki Hori
International Secretary

PEN International counts two more Nobel Laureates among its members

Several PEN members, including Nadine Gordimer, Harold Pinter and J. M. Coetzee, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recent years. In 2010, the prize went to Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist and journalist who served as PEN International's President from 1976-9. In his Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm on 9 December, Vargas Llosa said: ‘Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs and prejudices that separate us.' This sentiment seems to reach into the very heart of what PEN stands for.

This year too, for the first time ever, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a PEN member: Chinese academic, writer and poet Liu Xiaobo. Liu, a founding president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), was unable to receive his prize because of his continuing imprisonment in China. PEN International has worked alongside Liu in campaigning for free expression in China for more than two decades. PEN representatives present in Oslo on 10 December 2010, where the prize was due to be awarded to Liu, included ICPC President Tienchi Liao, President John Ralston Saul and co-Interim Executive Director Sara Whyatt of PEN International, Writers in Prison Committee Chair Marian Botsford Fraser and PEN American Center's International Programs Director Larry Siems.

PEN International has used this occasion to focus attention on Liu's case, call for his release and raise awareness of the dozens of other Chinese writers, bloggers and journalists (including members of the ICPC) who experienced house arrest, banning orders and other forms of state harassment in the weeks after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced. John Ralston Saul commented at the time: ‘It is the Chinese Constitution that commits [China's] government to civil and political rights. Liu Xiaobo is a model of the serious citizen who embraces his full legal rights. He should be admired for this, not imprisoned. China needs citizens like Liu Xiaobo.'


In November 2010, the Wikileaks controversy hit the press and PEN International entered the debate, issuing a statement that saw the unfolding event as ‘a significant turning point in the evolution of the media and the sometimes conflicting principles of freedom of expression and privacy and security concerns'. It goes on to raise concerns about threats made to the head of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, as well as for websites that have been closed and by the attitudes of some employers. PEN International will be monitoring the issue and taking action as appropriate. (Read the full text of the statement can be found at:

International Programmes

In 2010, the International Programmes team worked closely with PEN Centres in the Asia Pacific region to develop education programmes. Two Centres, Nepal PEN and Philippines PEN, are to launch projects that aim to promote a culture of reading and literature through a combination of teacher-training sessions, reading workshops for students and public literary sessions. The Asia Pacific Regional Programme has also enabled the Tibetan Writers Abroad PEN Centre to develop its links with the Tibetan community through its monthly journal - of which 4,000 copies are circulated per month, reaching more than 8,000 Tibetans - and through creative-writing workshops in schools. A meeting is also currently being planned to strengthen the network of PEN Centres in the region. This will involve seven Centres from Asia Pacific coming together in Lahore, Pakistan, in February 2011, to take part in training sessions dedicated to all aspects of Centre planning and development.

In Central Asia, the International Programmes team has focused on supporting the Ural Altay Language Solidarity Network and its development of a human-rights project in the region, targeting teachers and students alike. In Africa, Sierra Leone PEN, Uganda PEN, Guinea PEN, Ghana PEN, Malawi PEN and Zambia PEN continue their work in schools and in local communities to encourage reading, creative writing and awareness of human rights.

Free the Word!

PEN International's website now has up-to-date information about the aims and progress of the Free the Word! international network of literary events and festivals see (

PEN International is working with PEN Centres around the world to develop and expand the. Free the Word! network, which celebrates the best in contemporary writing from around the world. Each Free the Word! festival is rooted in its local culture, but is international in outlook

The aims of Free the Word! are:

  • to bring writers together to share ideas and experiences across cultures;
  • to explore and debate a range of issues connected with literature and freedom of expression;
  • to generate conversations about how literature can transform, influence and excite;
  • to contribute to the flow of literature around the world, through translation and the promotion of writing;
  • to introduce readers to both established and emerging voices;
  • to provide space for debate and dialogue between readers and writers.

Participating countries currently include Austria, Colombia, the Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Galicia, Georgia, Jamaica, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa and Turkey. You can find out more about their plans on the website.

The Free the Word! international network is supported by the Culture Programme of the European Union and the Prince Claus Foundation.

All PEN Centres are welcome to join the network and organise their own Free the Word! events. The links below will take you to a section that describes how to become involved, what is expected of a participating Centre and what kind of support PEN International can offer.


If you are interested in knowing more, please contact:

Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee

There are two important related items of note to bring to the attention of PEN International's members with regard to both the recent past and future plans of the TaLRC:

1. After the ordinary meeting of the Committee, held in Barcelona on 16-18 June 2010, the Committee met again in Tokyo during the 76th International PEN Congress. The general debate turned on the ‘impact of new technologies on reading habits and on culture'. An exchange of concerns, opinions and projects followed. The Committee came to an agreement to prepare, as one of its main tasks for the near future, an update of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (adopted in Barcelona in 1996).

2. The update of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights is already underway, with the view that the text must be at once brief and clear; it should not simply repeat or reword the previous document. It should, rather, take the form of a manifesto or proclamation. A first draft will be submitted for discussion to the members of the Committee before the beginning of our next meeting, which will take place in Girona (near Barcelona) on 12-13May 2011. (This date will be confirmed to all delegates in due course.)

Writers for Peace Committee

The committee met at the 2010 Tokyo Congress and re-elected Edvard Kova? of Slovenia as chairman, a position he will serve for three more years.

Writers in Prison Committee

The WiPC's 50th Anniversary
As PEN International's members undoubtedly know, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2010 with a year-long campaign, ‘Because Writers Speak Their Minds'. The WiPC published a list of fifty emblematic cases from the last fifty years to highlight the breadth of the committee's campaigning. PEN Centres all over the world hosted events, awarded prizes, wrote articles and published new works to commemorate the work of the WiPC over this dramatic half-century. All these activities coalesced around the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November 2010, which saw a huge number of PEN activities starting in New Zealand and Japan and then following the course of the rising and setting sun throughout the day. Although there was some sadness in acknowledging that many of the writers the WiPC has supported over the years are no longer alive (the most recent passing being that of Cameroon's Pius Njawe), we were also thrilled that two of our highest-profile cases received good news: Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma, and Liu Xiaobo of China was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile, the day-to-day work of the WiPC continues unabated, with regular action alerts, quiet advocacy and support for writers under threat all over the globe, from Azerbaijan to Mexico to Tunisia.

Tunisia Update
PEN International is closely monitoring the situation in Tunisia in the wake of the widespread protests that led to the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January, and the subsequent establishment of an interim government to prepare for elections in the coming months. As events continue to develop on an almost hourly basis, it is of course far too early to say what impact the so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution' will have in the on freedom of expression and association, which have been so severely repressed for so many years. However, all political prisoners have already been released under a general amnesty, including journalist Fahem Boukaddous (jailed on trumped-up charges since July 2010), and interim President Fouad Mebazaa has promised media freedom and judicial independence.

PEN International expresses its solidarity with its Tunisian colleagues at this momentous time, in particular the Tunisian PEN Centre, and hopes that these changes will pave the way to greater freedom and democracy. It will continue to be active in the International Freedom of Expression Exchange's Tunisia Monitoring Group (IFEX-TMG), as it was throughout 2010.

Following PEN International's participation in the TMG's mission to Tunisia in April-May 2010 and subsequent meetings and a press conference at the European Parliament in Brussels in June, lobbying at the European Union remained high on the agenda in the latter part of 2010, with WiPC Africa researcher Tamsin Mitchell making two trips to Brussels in October. The purpose of the first trip was to present the TMG's mission report to a conference on the human rights situation in Tunisia and to accompany Sihem Bensedrine, Secretary General of Tunisian PEN, to meetings with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). During the second trip, Tamsin, Sihem and Tunisian rights lawyer and former WiPC case Mohamed Abbou, along with other TMG members, met with representatives of the European Commission and Parliament to highlight various concerns, including the plight of the aforementioned Fahem Boukaddous; a new law criminalising EU lobbying by Tunisian activists; and the lack of an independent judiciary in Tunisia. See:

In early December, Tamsin and TMG Chair Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship undertook a follow-up trip to Tunisia, where they met with a number of judges, lawyers and NGOs as well as with Tunisian PEN.

Women Writers Committee

PEN International's Women Writers Committee held two meetings at the 76th International PEN Congress in Tokyo, and women writers from Japan PEN were well represented. PEN International's President John Ralston Saul emphasised the support he was prepared to give the Women's Committee to ensure that it becomes a stronger network in the future. PEN International's co-Interim Executive Director Frank Geary and Mitchell Albert, representing the Communications Department, attended part of the meeting and contributed by describing features of the forthcoming new PEN International website and answering queries.

Representatives from Korean PEN also attended; Lee Gil-Won presented the possibility of holding a women's conference in South Korea following the 2012 Congress there. However, it was also pointed out that costs would be reduced considerably by holding the conference during Congress, at Seoul's Literature House.

One of the most important results of the meeting was the decision that before any major projects (outside the conference) are started, clear aims and objectives need to be discussed, adopted and followed by a strategic plan for the following three to five years.

It was also decided that previous chair Judith Buckrich will be moderating the ‘Our Voice' Facebook page, which will be used instead of the website. The website will be archived, however, so as not to lose the history of the Committee.

PEN International Magazine

The last issue of the magazine, volume 60, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2010), themed ‘Words, Words, Nothing but Words', was in fact the final issue in PEN International's many years of producing a biannual printed literary magazine. Beginning in spring 2011, concurrent with the launch of the new PEN International website, the magazine will appear entirely online, freed from the many limitations of print production.

Now called simply The Magazine / La Revue / La Revista, it will continue to publish poems, stories, essays, excerpts from longer works and comics in English, French and Spanish, as well as in translation. The new online format will, we anticipate, prove extremely versatile, and will create opportunities to take the magazine to new places (literally). For more details, be sure to visit the new website in the springtime.

The debut online issue will not be rigorously themed, though we are encouraging works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry that take rebirth, reinvention or renewal as their inspiration.

Please refer to the submission guidelines on the current website, at:

PEN Centre News

Macedonian PEN Centre
The 14th regional conference of Macedonian PEN will be held from 9-12 June 2011 in Ohrid, Macedonia.

Uyghur PEN Centre
Uyghur PEN is pleased to announce that multiple translations of Nurmuhemmet Yasin's short story ‘Wild Pigeon', for which the Xinjiang-based writer was sentenced to ten years in prison by Chinese authorities, are now available on the Centre's website. The story can be read in the original Uyghur as well as Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Hungarian and five other languages. Visit

PEN Centres: please send your news for inclusion to Emily Bromfield,

PEN celebrates literature and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 1921, our global community of writers now spans more than 100 countries. Our programmes, campaigns, events and publications aim to connect writers and readers wherever they are in the world.

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