PEN SA Centre Co-Ordinator Visits PEN America

04 May 2017
PEN SA Centre Co-Ordinator Visits PEN America

PEN SA Centre Co-ordinator Myolisi Sikupela visited the PEN America centre in New York in April 2017:

There are three ways to get to New York from Washington D.C., a flight, bus or train. The train option is far more interesting and so I take the train. Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood , which was originaly published in 1964, has a lot to do with my decision. In it, Capote writes, “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Though I am nowhere near Kansas, a part of me hopes that much of the open fields that Capote is writing about are present on the journey to New York too. And they are, I realise an hour into the journey. The cityscapes are relegated to only become background sites.

I arrive in New York only in the evening, on a Thursday, my journey having been delayed by Amtrak. In that week of my arrival, Amtrak had problems with its lines, causing delays to its usual schedule.

On the Friday, having spent the night in a hotel on 26th Street, I make my way to the PEN America office. As I file out of the hotel, I decide against walking, a decision inspired by the feeling of the slight cold wind and that my mind was yet to remap, replacing Cape Town streets with that of New York’s. It is easy get lost in the maze that is New York.

I arrive at the PEN America office by ten in the morning. First, the layout of the office leaves a good impression. It is not that it is luxurious, rather it has a sense of purpose, that everyone here is working hard to ensure that the task of holding governments and private organisations responsible for the repression of the freedom of expression and freedom of the press is done with efficiency.

My day at PEN America is an exploration of the processes there, from its funding, publications, advocacy and functionality, to how it manages its membership, and how to best implement those at PEN SA. We, PEN SA, of course operate at a much more smaller scale but the principles that have gotten PEN America to where it is today are important to us as PEN SA.

I find all this eye opening and meeting the lovely staff there, learning the structure of PEN America from the lovely Karin D. Karlekar, who on the day hardly got any work done, instead spent her day showing me around and treating me to a lovely lunch, was a learning process, not only for me as an individual but for PEN SA as an organisation.

What left the strongest impression on me are the numerous ways in which PEN America goes about setting up its board, making sure that it is impactful, and the different ways in which it goes about sourcing funding. For organisations of this nature, funding is always an issue. With Donald Trump, the US president, cutting funding to the arts, funding has become the most important issue for an organisation like PEN America.

For a long time here at PEN SA we have been spending time rethinking our membership process, not only the criteria of the members but what their involvement is. After my time at PEN America, the PEN SA membership will begin to see changes, more so in how much PEN SA members can participate in assisting PEN SA make more impact in its mandate to uphold high standards in the field of freedom of expression. It has become much more important that the conversations extends further than our own doorsteps and that our members are actively steering these rigorous debates.

(Image courtesy of PEN America)