Writing and Rights: How the Writers of PEN International are Shaping the Future 

May 3rd, 2018toDecember 3rd, 2019

by Ellie Rosa (Stanford University)

Freedom of expression. The very right that I am exercising now as I write this article. A right that is at the very foundation of all other democratic values. What changes when freedom of expression is taken away? On April 20, 2018 the Palazzo Strozzi partnered with La Pietra Dialogues from New York University to bring the writers, lawyers, and leaders from PEN International to discuss the contemporary need to protect the journalistic and literary rights of writers across the globe. PEN International is a worldwide association of writers, dedicated to promoting friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere. The association has autonomous International PEN centers in over 100 countries. The international group of writers and activists present brought conversation about some of the darkest aspects of working in human rights writing, but also hope for the future through the energy and commitment of the writers already present.

The conversation began with the gripping imprisonment story of Dr. Ma Thida. Dr. Thida was imprisoned in Myanmar for 5 years because of her political commentary on the military regime. She spoke with pride and honesty about her years behind bars, calling the writers in the audience to action to make sure that they took a stand for other writers, so that when it was their turn to face the prisons there would be others to fight for them. The next speaker was Burhan Sönmez, a novelist and lawyer from Turkey, Sönmez spoke about his time in exile from Turkey because of his writing. He spurred the audience to action speaking of Turkish writers who have been sentenced to a lives in prison because of their work. He urged the members of PEN and the non-members of PEN to stand up for a woman and mother who has been imprisoned with her 6 month old child. She was taken to jail because she called into a television show peacefully to express her discontent with the political system. Sönmez explained how this mother and child joins some of 600 such pairings in the Turkish prion system. His passion and commitment to helping those writers and advocates wronged by the Turkish system left the room charged with determination.

After Sönmez spoke, the audience was introduced to Jenifer Clement, the first female president of PEN International. She spoke on the new PEN Women’s Manifesto. During her powerful explanation of the manifesto she brought to light the importance of women writers in a context where writers globally are being subjugated to intense persecution. The women’s manifesto highlights the crucial nature of keeping women writing so that all voices are heard. Clement emphasized one of the most striking lines in the manifesto, that “there are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.” The original woman to walk alone would have been a prostitute, she explained, and now women writers are seen in the same vein in countries and systems where they are oppressed. The women writers of PEN supported Clement through comments on the importance of supporting women who seek their own strength through writing. Keeping women’s writing strong, they argued, ensures the future of all writers and the freedom of those for whom they write. The PEN Women’s Manifesto, which was presented to the UN this year, is one step of many in the fight for writer’s equality.

The event ended with a recognition of the empty chair at the panel, the chair that stands for all the writers who should be at the event but are missing because they are in jail for their activism. Despite the sobering ending, and the intensity of the discussions, the audience left the event full of hope. The vibrancy of the stories told by these authors, and the enthusiasm they showed for the future of writing, allowed for an understanding of the pressing nature of the subject, as well as for optimism in the face of the unfolding times.

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