Report on the PEN International World Congress 2021

The Centenary World Congress of PEN was held via Zoom from 20-24 September, with the four Committee meetings held in the previous week. For those who have not seen it, the programme is attached; a little awkwardly for us it began each day at 9pm our time. The Congress presented many notable speakers and was impressively chaired by Carles Torner, Director of the Secretariat in London and chief organiser of the Centenary Book. Carles is a native Spanish speaker but is very fluent in French and English also; he spoke from PEN’s offices in London and had a very organised Secretariat. A Zoom meeting delivered all over the world can be extremely difficult and there was one technical hitch at their end and one in Australia but on the whole the technology was handled very well.

The Centenary Book is a historical study but also includes the PEN Charter and other key documents. It is published in the three PEN languages (in different editions) and Dan has ordered a copy for us. For the Centenary a Centenary Archive was also created, and we contributed material to it; the archives of PEN are held at the Harry Ransom Center, in Austin at the University of Texas. Monday was given over to welcoming and other addresses (which are worthy but of course are preaching to the converted) and the launch of the Centenary Book.

Tuesday was devoted to the Presidency of PEN, with talks by past Presidents, some of whom recounted interesting experiences they had while President – visiting prisons and national leaders, sometimes gaining early release for the writers imprisoned there. I found most interesting John Ralston Saul (President 2009-2015, a Canadian), who said that he met the question of whether PEN is a literary organisation or a freedom of expression organisation, and insisted that it is both. He pointed out that it is not an NGO but an international democratic organisation, like the UN but with less money! He also stressed his work on saving indigenous languages. Homero Aridjis (President 1997-2003, a Mexican) highlighted that he had worked on: reorganisation of the Executive so that decisions were more democratic, involving members throughout the world; recognition of cultural diversity; and the need for a committee on Writers and the Environment. Such a committee still doesn’t exist but there was a lot of discussion about writers and the climate crisis.

These presidential talks were dramatically interrupted by verbal statements from Carles and written signs on the screen that what was to follow was absolutely confidential. We were then told that we had a speaker who had just arrived in Europe; this turned out to be Samay Hamed, President of PEN Afghanistan; he has published 500 books and organised some 2,000 cultural events, and nurtured many writers, including creative writing by women. His talk was brief but nevertheless incredibly moving.

This was followed by talks by the three candidates for President, all of whom spoke well, but I thought that Burhan Sömnez, who spoke last was best. He is the candidate we had resolved to vote for; he has been a writer in prison and is a human rights lawyer as well as a writer, who divides his time between Istanbul and London. Gioconda Belli, despite her Italian surname, is a Nicaraguan who is now living in exile for the second time; she had Italian flair and would be only the second woman President PEN has had. (The retiring Jennifer Clement is the first!) Ben Okri is the best known for his writing and although he mentioned the whole world, he gave me the definite impression that he would turn PEN’s attention very much towards Africa. He and Sömnez seemed the most practical, talking about finances as well as ideological issues. They all spoke in English.  In the last year the PEN Emergency Fund showed a surplus of €19,073 but PEN’s main account had a deficit of £75,417.

The first two days had speakers in the three PEN languages with translations appearing on screen. Wednesday provided talks in Spanish first and then one in French. Although the French and Spanish were reasonably intelligible to me on the first two days I decided to have a break and skipped logging in on this night. Wednesday night marked the deadline for voting.

Thursday was given over to the opening address from the Toronto Writers Festival. This was a discussion, only in English, between Margaret Atwood and Omar El Akkad on “Hope in Strange Paradises: Dystopias and Their Bright Spots”. This was the first Graeme Gibson Lecture; he was a Canadian novelist, the first President of PEN Canada and lifelong partner of Margaret Atwood. (The topic is different to the advertised one and El Akkad said that he was a Qatar-born Canadian, whereas the programme describes him as Egyptian-Canadian.) It was an intelligent discussion with Atwood arguing that people have a double consciousness most of the time and this is very apparent with the disaster of climate change. She argued that story takes you into feeling about an issue and until that happens people don’t act. El Akkad said that there was a disconnection between psychology and reality; people don’t think beyond the life of a mortgage, about 30 years, and politicians in democratic countries don’t have to. Apropos of the Covid pandemic, Atwood pointed out that people can’t deal with unrelenting bad news, and El Akkad that we laugh at disaster as a defence. Unfortunately, my internet connection was “very unstable” and after it had dropped out for about the tenth time I gave up, but this was near the end.

Friday began with announcement of the election results; not surprisingly the four proposed resolutions were passed – one on Belarus, one on Myanmar, one about Israel (which is fairly even-handed), one on Nicaragua – and candidates for the various committee positions where the number of candidates equalled the number of positions were elected. This included Zoë Rodriguez of Sydney PEN, renewed as Chair of the Women Writers Committee. (I have sent her our congratulations.) The Minutes for last year’s Congress and the Financial Report were also passed; I voted on our behalf for all these except for the Minutes on which I abstained since I hadn’t attended. Two proposed new PEN Centres, in Malta and Quechua, Bolivia, were approved. Finally, Burhan Sömnez was announced as the clear winner for International President; he gave a gracious speech in which he expressed hope that Gioconda and Ben would work closely with him. It was all very civilised and conducted in a good spirit. William Nygaard from Norway takes over as Vice-President and he spoke before Burhan.

What followed were tributes to Jennifer Clement as outgoing President and Testimonials to PEN from John Coetzee (introduced as South African, not Australian); Ma Thida, who takes over as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee (Chris has been having contact with her and from our point of view she is a pleasing appointment); and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in exile in the USA. There was then a very interesting conversation between Salman Rushdie and Carolin Emcke, a German journalist; the topic was the limits, if any, on free speech and it was chaired well by Salil Tripathi, outgoing Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee. The discussion covered issues we have in mind for our Patron’s Lecture. Rushdie argued that the internet has changed the world because there is no editorial factor, but editorship had never been thought of as a restriction of free speech. He implied that it was an element of expertise that was now lacking. Emcke claimed that the media was now intent on presenting a pro and con on every subject; we have a flurry of commentators but few reporters. They agreed that Amazon, Facebook and the other tech giants were, as Rushdie said, the new emperors of the world and Emcke pointed out that they refuse any editorial role, and used an argument about free speech in the interest of economics. Rushdie argued that anonymous whispers can now have more power than experts, and Western democracies now live in a world where information is controlled by algorithms. Authoritarian leaders know the role of writers which is why they move against them. The question always is who controls the narrative. On the optimistic side he pointed out that Osip Mandelstam’s life was destroyed by Stalin but Mandelstam’s poetry has outlived the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Rushdie thinks that the current media erodes people’s belief in the very concept of truth.

There were three final testimonials, from Can Dündar, in exile in Germany, Dareen Tatour in exile in Sweden, and Eugene Schoulgin, past International Vice-President, Secretary, and Writers in Prison chair. Dündar emphasised, as wa Thiong’o had, that he was empowered by international solidarity when he was alone in a cell. The Congress ended with Carles introducing the staff who had enabled the event to happen and raising a glass of champagne, but I went to bed without champagne. There was a Saturday talk from the Göteborg Book Fair but I didn’t attend that.

On the whole it was a rewarding event; although some of it was predictable and I think there is still very much a European orientation, the renewed sense of solidarity was worthwhile. For me the best element was the nightly greetings on the side, very warm greetings from PEN Centres all over the world who are in pursuit of a valuable ideal. They seemed thoroughly genuine and made writing and PEN activities undeniably important, as well as thoroughly human, sometimes in the face of inhumane power.

I can pass on the full Congress Agenda and Delegates’ Pack if anyone is interested. (They are very long!)

—Dennis Haskell

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