All over the world, writers live in fear as they defy oppressive regimes. International PEN works tirelessly to help them. This non-political organisation, with a membership of published writers, exists to serve writers, and literature, worldwide. Its aims are to foster the role of literature to promote peace and collaboration among different nations, religions, cultures and genders, overcoming the barriers to understanding through translation, and to support the fight for freedom of expression wherever it is needed.
Originally set up in the UK in 1921, it is now a force to be reckoned with, consulted by the United Nations and UNESCO. This association of writers from around the globe has 145 centres in 104 countries. In 2007, it achieved UK charitable status after new human rights legislation was passed.
A galaxy of the great and the good in the writing world has supported the organisation. John Galsworthy was its first President. In England, he was followed by H G Wells and then J B Priestley.
Checking the websites of different centres demonstrates that although countries share common themes and aims, they also have their own priorities and projects. English PEN has a unique project called Readers and Writers, in which books are donated, and authors visit schools and communities to encourage reading and find out what people like to read and want to read.
English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee organises ‘minders’ who are assigned to incarcerated writers. They try to make and maintain contact with their charges, make friends with them and with their families, raise awareness of what has happened to them, and lobby for their better treatment and release. The writers who are imprisoned, or may just be awaiting trial, are made Honorary Members.
The centre has Honorary Members in 10 other countries. These include Myanmar (formerly Burma) where a recent addition is poet, Saw Wei, who was arrested in January for writing a poem about Valentine’s Day. His poem is said to contain a coded message discrediting General Than Shwe, the head of his country’s military junta.
The English PEN centre organises various events in the UK. They will be at the London Book Fair from 14-16 April, at Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, Warwick Road, London, SW5 9TA.
The English PEN website states that the fair will get together 23,000 members of the global publishing community, so it will be a great opportunity for international networking. As part of the Book Fair, English PEN will be holding their own events, in their Literary Café, to promote literature and freedom of speech and to celebrate their achievements so far.