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Chair’s Notebook #1 November 30, 2009
Because writers speak their minds

Fifty years after the formation of the Writers in Prison Committee, I am deeply honoured to be elected as its chair, and I will do my utmost to work with the centres, the board, and the exceptional WiPC staff, in the spirit of  the committee’s original mandate.

In July, 1960, at a PEN Congress held in Rio, General Secretary David Carver reported that a committee of three people had been empowered at a previous meeting to research and produce a list of imprisoned writers. The lists he circulated to delegates at that meeting named seven writers imprisoned in Albania, 25 in Czechoslovakia, 13 in Hungary, two in France  and nine in Romania.

Mr. Carver proposed that where PEN centres existed, in “a country where writers had been imprisoned because they spoke or wrote their minds,” those centres should take all possible steps to improve  the situation and to report to PEN, and in countries where there were no centres, PEN International should act through the Writers in Prison Committee.

The creation of a Writers in Prison Committee formalized concerns about freedom of expression and the persecution of writers that had been an aspect of PEN’s work from the beginning.  As early as 1932 at the Hungarian Congress, a resolution was passed unanimously opposing the suppression of literature. In 1935 formal resolutions were passed on specific cases—two German writers, Ludwig Ronn and Carl Ossietzky, and the Haitian writer, Jacques Roumain. In 1959, telegrams were sent by many PEN centres to the Soviet Union about the “rumours concerning Pasternak.”

The Committee of Three individuals is now a Committee of more than 70 PEN centres. The case list, tragically now contains the names of almost 900 writers encarçelados, perseguidos, desapareçidos o asesinados por que han hablado o escrito lo que pensaban. The nature of the persecution, and the nature of  the work of the committee over those fifty years (and in the years leading up to the formation of the actual committee), has changed in unfathomable ways.

Imbedded in the history of PEN’s “compassionate solidarity with persecuted writers” is a focus on the plight of the individual. We have always named names.  Nous avons toujours travaillé avec acharnement depuis le moment de l’imprisonnement jusqu’au moment de  la liberation ou jusqu’au décès, et souvent delà, des collègues opprimés parce ce’qu’ils ont ecrit ou declaré ce qu’ils pensaient.
Parce que plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Burning books and blocking blogs are one and the same. Quite simply, as our brave Chinese colleagues exhort in Charter 08, We must stop the practice of viewing words as crimes.

During the celebration of the WiPC’s 50th anniversary next year, we will look back at the work we’ve done, by highlighting fifty cases that illustrate where and how and why we have worked. We’ll examine how that work has changed, how the nature of persecution has changed. And we’ll look to the future, to see how the WiPC must evolve and adapt to meet these new challenges. Because writers must speak their minds.

Link to all the PEN notebook entries.