PEN Perth Chair Report 2020-2021

Image Credit: Leah Jing McIntosh

My Chair’s report for the year 2020-2021 is a little different. That is for two reasons, the first being organisational as it is the 100 year celebration of our international community, and the second being personal, because it is my final report as Chair. Let me say at the outset, that it is an honour and a privilege that PEN has had the courage, resilience, strength, flexibility, and resourcefulness to be here since its humble beginnings in London in 1921. And, to echo that, I am grateful to have served the local community in my role with this chapter since 2018. It feels a fitting if somewhat poignant moment to leave, if only because the party is halfway through. Save some champagne for me tomorrow morning, but for now, I have had my fill.

What have we done then? What makes PEN special? What makes Perth special? And what makes this year one to remember?

PEN International has long maintained its openness and support of a plurality of voices, of people that speak truth to power no matter the consequences. This extends from famous writers to poets in prison, from issues of media freedom to Indigenous language sovereignty. And, in this celebratory year, it is affirming to know that the organisation goes on regardless of the pandemic, stands tall in the face of authoritarianism, and remains supportive of peace and the responsible freedom of expression. That basic commitment to rights that are earned and valued has meant each chapter has a role to play in a global community, and we have been pleased to do our part.

In Perth over the last year, we have:

  • recognised specific prisoners including Nazanin Mohammednejad, who is the sister of local writer Elham Mohammednejad, and currently confined in Iran; Chau Van Kham who is an Australian democracy blogger still locked up in Vietnam; Yang Hengjun who is an Australian scholar still detained in China; and the Peacock Generation of poets in Myanmar. Our cause starts with them and Chris Lin’s Writers in Prison Report will speak to that.
  • run a 100 Days Campaign on social media where we are up to post 81 to celebrate and chronicle freedom of expression historically and into today.
  • raised $500 through a Bunnings voucher and more through fees and events to put us in a strong financial position despite paying international dues for the first time, which Dan Midalia’s financial report speaks to
  • hosted Sophie McNeil in October 2020 for our Patron’s Lecture with stories from her time as a foreign correspondent to the Middle East.
  • partnered with Voicebox in October 2020 with poetry readings in English and other languages with highlights being Noongar poet Alf Taylor and former Sudanese prisoner Afeif Ismail
  • had Chris Lin and Krishna Sen attend the 99th World Congress online in October 2020
  • held Human Writes at the Centre for Stories in December 2020 that brought people together to creatively reflect on writing today
  • supported Maria Ressa with PEN Melbourne and PEN Sydney in November 2020 to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer
  • attended rallies with MEAA and Amnesty International on censorship of local journalists and against the death penalty
  • held the Spotlight on Myanmar in July 2021 hosted by Chris Lin and the establishment of a Burma Sub-committee to support the democratic cause there
  • partnered with Voicebox once again in July 2021 for poetry readings on Myanmar, Vietnam and India

In reporting back to our members, I also want to highlight Kylie Moore-Gilbert. During her 800 day imprisonment in Iran between 2018 and 2020, PEN Perth wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters advocating for her release. We held events with her as an Empty Chair. We spoke her name at rallies and vigils. We remembered that we had a responsibility to advocate for her.

In our activism, the victories are often rare, elusive, qualified, fleeting, and, all too often forgotten. But, I want to take a moment to thank all of you, and to remember that this is good work done by good people, which has been seen by the freedom that Kylie enjoys today. That is worth celebrating no matter how cruel the world is, no matter the ongoing challenges before us.

And so, this particular year has been difficult, but the committee has been supportive and engaged throughout. That has been true throughout my tenure here, and I am especially thankful to Dennis Haskell and Caroline Wood, who have been there for the whole period. My thanks also to Dan Midalia, Chris Lin, Krishna Sen, Karen Escobar, Rebekah Craggs, and others who have joined us on this journey.

I am encouraged by the future of PEN Perth, which will grow in exciting new directions, maintain a commitment to the city, and continue to advocate for people who need it the most. Thank you once again and I will see you at the dawn of a new day.

—Robert Wood

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