Reflection on the PEN International 81st Congress and a Visit to PEN America

12 Nov 2015
Danie Marais, Eden Eyasu Gebrekidan, Frank Mackay Anim-Appiah and Lindsay Callaghan

Pictured: Danie Marais (PEN Afrikaans), Eden Eyasu Gebrekidan (PEN Canada – Writers in Exile), Frank Mackay Anim-Appiah (PEN Ghana) and Lindsay Callaghan (PEN South Africa).

Read Raymond Louw’s article on the Resolutions passed at Congress here and his wife Jean’s impressions of the Congress here.

By Lindsay Callaghan

The 81st PEN International Congress was held in Quebec City, Canada from October 13 – 16. It was a busy week of committee meetings; voting in of resolutions, board members and a new president; as well as a series of fascinating discussions and literary events. As PEN’s new(ish) centre co-ordinator I was lucky enough to get the chance to attend, followed by a visit to the PEN America Centre in New York.

There were three “empty chairs” chosen for Congress, which were displayed in the nearby historical square, Place d’Youville, featuring the cases of Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia), Amanuel Asrat (Eritrea) and Juan Carlos Argenal Medina (Honduras). Each morning that Congress was in session a group gathered for a moment of silence for each of the writers respectively, with that same case then being presented at Congress that day. These three cases are also among the featured cases for this year’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer. PEN SA will be holding an event at Kalk Bay Books in Cape Town to commemorate the occasion. Master of ceremonies Finuala Dowling will be joined by Claire Robertson, Jim Pascual Agustin and Sindiwe Magona, as well as musicians Emma Rycroft and Nielan Prinsloo, who will be performing freedom songs. Click here for details.

Two new centres in Mali and Mauritania were voted in at the Congress. Sadly PEN Mauritania’s president Djibril Ly fell ill as he arrived in Canada and passed away later that week. He was a writer, poet and playwright who had been jailed for a manifesto he wrote about human rights abuses in his country. Former PEN International President John Ralston Saul describes him as being “a wonderful voice of literature and a man willing to suffer the worst of prison in order to defend the principles we all share”. Read tributes to Ly on PEN International’s website.

PEN South Africa submitted two resolutions to the Congress, both of which were accepted unanimously. The first, on criminal defamation laws, was submitted with PEN Ghana and the second addresses the Draft Online Regulation Bill proposed by the Film and Publications Board. PEN South Africa Vice President Raymond Louw also attended the Congress and has written about the Congress and the resolutions here.

PEN SA had nominated Mexican-American writer Jennifer Clement (Mexican PEN) as a candidate for PEN International President, so we were especially pleased to see her voted in as the first female president in PEN International’s nearly 100 year history. We were likewise happy that Salil Tripathi (English PEN) was voted in as the Writers in Prison Committee Chair and Regula Venske (German PEN) as a member of the board. The PEN International office also announced that it has been restructuring, which will include appointing a Regional Programme Coordinator for Africa.

A particular highlight of the week was meeting the delegates from other African PEN Centres and hearing about what’s going on in their countries and what projects their Centres have been working on. Another was hearing about the work being done elsewhere in the world – Swedish PEN’s Dissident Blog and PEN International’s OutWrite project are two that stood out. A literary (and life) highlight for me was hearing Margaret Atwood speak – I was especially interested to hear about the Future Library project that she took part in.

After the Congress I spent a few days in New York at the PEN America Centre. The funding from the Jerome L Green Foundation, which comes through PEN America, has made it possible for us to expand the work that we’re doing at PEN SA so it was a welcome opportunity to discuss what we’ve been working on and what our plans are for the future. I spent three days speaking to the different departments at PEN America and learning about how they’ve managed to grow into the very impressive Centre that they now are. It was a truly valuable learning experience and will help to inform the work I do at PEN SA.

(Image courtesy of Frank Mackay Anim-Appiah, PEN Ghana)