In defense of writers: PEN International turns 100

  • Catalan poet and writer Carles Torner will speak on Nov. 16 at the book launch for “PEN International: An Illustrated History.” Photo by Juan Angel de Corral/courtesy Michel Moushabeck

  • The new book on PEN International’s history has been published in nine different languages.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/12/2021 3:54:31 PM

In October 1921 in London, male and female writers sat down for dinner to discuss a broad plan: forming an organization that would promote friendship and cooperation among all writers, while also defending literature from censorship and fellow writers from political harassment and threats.

It was the beginning of PEN, an acronym that initially stood for “Poets, Essayists, Novelists,” but since then has broadened to represent “Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists,” while also including journalists and historians.

PEN International is now 100 years old and has individual chapters all over the world. The goals in all these groups remain the same: defending writers and their ability to express themselves.

Among the many writers PEN has defended in modern times are Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner once held in his country as a political prisoner; Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born novelist threatened with death by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran; and Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist murdered in 2006 for her reporting on Russia’s wars with Chechnya.

Interlink Publishing of Northampton, in cooperation with a number of other publishing houses, has just released a richly illustrated history of the organization that testifies to PEN’s continual work to defend free speech against what Interlink founder Michel Moushabeck calls “very disturbing trends” of authoritarian governments worldwide.

“The threats against writers are getting worse and worse,” said Moushabeck, a longtime PEN member himself.

To launch the book and discuss PEN’s history and work, Interlink has scheduled a forum for Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Integrated Learning Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The free event is co-sponsored by The Massachusetts Review and several UMass departments, including the MFA Program for Poets & Writers.

Two of the book’s authors, Jennifer Clement and Carles Torner, will discuss PEN’s story and showcase pictures, handwritten letters of prisoners, and other crucial PEN documents. Clement is president emerita of PEN International and the only woman ever to lead the organization. Toner is a Catalan poet and writer and a former executive director of PEN International.

Proof of COVID vaccination is required to attend the event, as is wearing a face mask.


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