Since 1921, we have played an active part in promoting freedom of expression and literature around the world. In 1933 PEN’s president H. G. Wells led a campaign against the burning of books in Germany at a time when critical comments were still scarce from the international community about the actions of the Nazi Party. In the 1960s, PEN writers joined to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the treatment of writers in Nigeria, especially the imprisonment of Wole Soyinka. We played a prominent role in the late 1980s and 1990s, calling for the rescinding of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers. In 2006 and 2007, after the murders of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor Hrant Dink, we campaigned tirelessly for answers from Russian and Turkish authorities as to why and how such crimes could happen, and for justice to be brought to these writers and their families.
Today, PEN International continues to campaign on behalf of writers across the globe who are persecuted, harassed and attacked for what they have written or simply for being a writer. We also run programmes and events celebrating the bond between literature and freedom of expression, believing that one cannot exist meaningfully without the other.
In 2009, nearly 20,000 children took part in education projects run by PEN Centres in Africa – for example, Ugandan PEN provided intensive training to over 50 teachers through its mentoring network. Through partnerships with local governments, Zambian PEN’s community libraries have influenced the country’s entire library system. Guinean PEN’s capsule libraries in 40 rural schools provided over 10,000 families with free access to textbooks. Such stories echo across the world in countries such as Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Begun in 2008, the Free the Word! festival is now a global celebration of contemporary world literature, with events taking place in Austria, Galicia, Jamaica, Mexico, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in the festival’s inaugural city, London. Writers such as Nobel Prize laureates Derek Walcott and Nadine Gordimer, plus Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Richard Ford and many other established writers. Equally important has been the opportunity to introduce new voices such as Petina Gappah, Kamila Shamsie, Tahmima Anam, Easterine Kire Iralu, Nii Ayikwei Parkes and many others.
Whatever we do and wherever it takes place, we aim to connect the individual to the international, and to connect cultures and languages to readers and writers wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.