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Students from Freetown PEN Writing Club. At the back, from left to right: Nathaniel Pearce, Allieu Kamara, John Ralston Saul and Mohamed Sheriff. (C) Private

Students from Freetown PEN Writing Club. At the back, from left to right: Nathaniel Pearce, Allieu Kamara, JRS, and Mohamed Sheriff. (C) Private

December 13, 2011

Dear PEN Members, Dear Friends,

Over the last month I have been able to spend time with some twenty of our Centres in Africa and in Europe – a PEN African Network meeting in Dakar, four days in Sierra Leone with our PEN Centre there, a Forum of Freedom of Expression and Guest Writers in Stockholm, and finally in Milan I got together with Franca Tiberto of the Swiss Italian & Reto-Romansh PEN Centre and Sebastiano Grasso of PEN Italia.

Perhaps the most moving moments of this trip came during the days spent in Sierra Leone, a country pulling itself together after a terrible era of violence and destruction. We have a very strong PEN Centre in Freetown and they are deeply involved in school reading and creative writing programs (these are called PEN School Clubs) along with a number of other African PEN Centres. PEN Sierra Leone has 40 programs in schools all over the country.

I had always thought that these must be wonderful programs, but I admit that I tended to associate them as much with literacy as with literature. Now, I realize that they are really about literature, creativity, self-confidence, speaking out in public and freedom of expression. They are about the students writing creatively and reading literature. These are teenagers in secondary schools. They may be in neat school uniforms, but most of them are living in circumstances which would prevent them from moving on to college or university, let alone becoming writers or active citizens, speaking up with their ideas. PEN’s school programs give them an extra edge – the power and the dignity of imagination released in a formal way. This allows them to unleash their eagerness and to develop the strength to engage publically.

I went with Mohamed Sheriff (PEN Sierra Leone President), Nathaniel Pearce (Head of the reading program) and Allieu Kamara (PEN Sierra Leone Secretary) to a girls’ school, Our Lady of Guadalupe, several hours outside of Freetown. Hundreds of teenagers were literally jostling to perform their plays, read their poems and their stories. At two events in Freetown, I had long talks with some of the students and heard them reading poems on violence and life as a street kid.

All of this is PEN doing its job, on the ground, in the real world. Frankly, we could do with programs like these in most of our countries.

Yes, PEN has always been about established and leading writers as examples of literature and freedom of expression. But thousands of our members are important examples of freedom of expression without the protection of a big language or an established publishing system. Many of the writers we work to protect are unknown and unpublished for political or economic reasons. And beneath all of that lies the real basis of literature and free expression – an engaged citizenry, reading, writing and speaking out.

There were some ten Centres at the PAN meeting in Dakar where we were guests of PEN Senegal. It was a fascinating discussion over several days about how PAN should organize itself. Abdul-Rahman Harruna Attah was reconfirmed as Secretary General; Mohamed Magani, who had preceded him, came back as the chair of a new board of seven members. Some provisional organizational structures were proposed and Harruna is now busy with PAN members looking for a consensus.

After the PAN meeting a year ago in Cairo, this was another reminder of how strong our African Centres are. And there is a real desire to create more of them.

In Stockholm I was at a gathering organized by the Swedish Arts Council that involved all the Nordic PEN Centres, as well as ICORN and various local authorities. This was aimed at convincing more cities to create places for writers not able to live in their own countries. There was also a good discussion about how to work with these guest writers to help them build a viable life in a country which is not their own.

Swedish PEN also to put out a statement on the responsibilities of digital communications companies when it comes to selling technology to governments like those of Belarus and Syria. This fits in with the policy work being done by our Digital Rights Committee and I used the occasion of the meeting to talk about this growing problem.

While there I also had a chance to have a good discussion about PEN with our former International President, Per Wästberg, and separately with the former Chair of the WIPC, Thomas von Vegesack.

All best wishes for the Roman calendar New Year!


Read past letters from the International President here.