PEN International, with 155 centers in more than 100 countries, celebrates its centennial this year with writers around the world who share a commitment to freedom of expression, to literature and the written word, and to each other. Its younger cousin Words Without Borders, launched in 2003, has translated into English and published over 2700 writers from 140 countries, translated from 126 languages.
Both organizations were founded in the wake of cataclysmic global events. PEN emerged in 1921 after the slaughter of World War I. Its founders included Catherine Amy Dawson Scott; PEN International’s first president, John Galsworthy; and other writers who acted on a simple notion—that if writers from different nations could meet and know each other, perhaps the nationalism that spawned the war could be reduced, and friendship among men and women of ideas could have a beneficial effect on their societies (and could also be fun).
PEN Clubs quickly emerged in Europe and North America and soon after in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Australia. The mission expanded from simply a social club into one of the first human rights organizations of the twentieth century. PEN members today not only gather for literary events in their home countries and internationally but also defend writers and the freedom to write worldwide. United by a charter that asserts literature knows no frontiers and should be shared freely, PEN also acts to protect languages and translation, to assist writers in exile, and to expand the space for writers in developing areas of the world. Galsworthy hoped PEN could become a “League of Nations for Men and Women of Letters.” Today PEN is the only literary organization with consultative status at the United Nations.
In 2003, soon after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Words Without Borders launched with a mission to translate literature from around the globe into English so that ideas could be shared and cultural understanding expanded. The Words Without Borders archive leads the field with the most literature translated into English, which it makes available for school classrooms through WWB Campus.
PEN and Words Without Borders, through their missions, members, and fellow writers, share a love for language, literature, and a connection to the world. Both celebrate the universal and the specific, the global and the local, with storytelling as the connecting membrane. Writers, readers, and citizens get to know each other through one another’s fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction, for stories evoke the empathy that binds us together as a planet.
Words Without Borders is dedicating part of this edition of its monthly magazine to the celebration of PEN International’s centenary. WWB has translated and is publishing here three works from three different regions of the world by writers who have a connection to both organizations.
Kettly Mars, president of PEN Haiti, notes, “Being part of the PEN family is a privilege, especially in these extremely troubled times in Latin America and the Caribbean. Speech is in danger, human dignity is in danger. The solidarity that connects us is essential for the struggle of writers, journalists, bloggers, and artists around the world who speak and testify for the voiceless.” She adds, “I found Words Without Borders a wonderful space for exchanging and connecting words. Our fellow (wo)man is within reach of words. The diversity of voices that the organization promotes opens the world’s literature to the world, in all its diversity, complexity, and beauty.”
Kettly Mars shares here an excerpt from her novel I Am Alive, translated from French by Nathan Dize. After the major earthquake in Haiti and the outbreak of cholera, an upper-class Haitian family must accept the return of their schizophrenic oldest son from an institution where he has been living for the past forty years. The shock, the silence, the buried emotions all must be faced by family members who in turn narrate the story, some in first person, others in close third. This excerpt focuses on Alexandre’s return home. The closely narrated family story speaks to the heartache felt by so many Haitians in the wake of the earthquake.
Turkish writer Nazlı Karabıyıkoğlu had to leave Turkey because of her outspoken writing. A feminist activist, Nazlı founded the #MeToo movement within the Turkish publishing community. Her controversial gender and political stands resulted in threats, and she moved first to Georgia and then to Germany and now lives on a Writers-in-Exile scholarship from German PEN for 2021–2023.
“In 2020, WWB published an excerpt from my novel, Elfiye, and my life forever changed,” she says. “Mina Hamedi of Janklow & Nesbit Associates reached out and became my agent. Simultaneously, the incredible translator I began working with for the excerpt, Ralph Hubbell, agreed to translate the entirety of my novel. Now, thanks to a partnership between WWB and PEN, yet another excerpt from Elfiye will be published soon. Not only have WWB and PEN supported me throughout this last year, but their efforts have also led to new, lifelong friendships in my life.”
Elfiye depicts the life of the lesbian title character from her teen years, when her outraged family arranges an exorcism, to her relationships in adulthood. In the excerpt here, “Tribades,” translated from Turkish by Ralph Hubbell, Elfiye reencounters a former lover who has transitioned to male.
Mohammed (Med) Magani, who for a period lived in exile, has served as president of PEN Algeria and has also served two terms on PEN International’s board. He says, “Undeniably, owing to its long-standing commitment to publish world literature in translation, Words Without Borders shares with PEN International the same and ineradicable principle in defense of the double mission to protect freedom of expression and to create a world community of writers in all circumstances. Persecuted writers have found a keen sense of solidarity in PEN International that feeds on the deep-seated conviction to freeing stifled voices. As a writer in exile, with the help of PEN International, I enlarged my vision and experience of writing beyond national and local boundaries in conflicted times. Inasmuch as Words Without Borders offered me and other writers the precious opportunity to have our works translated and published in English, it multiplied the voices of literature in translation by spreading the words of the freedom of expression and of the right to creative freedom.”
Med’s “Treasures,” translated from French by Edward Gauvin, is an excerpt from his novel Un Étrange Chagrin. In the section featured here, a young bridegroom suddenly cancels his wedding just a few days before it is to take place, challenging the bride’s family position and the bride-to-be’s sense of herself and her own identity in society.
All three stories, set in different locations with different histories, explore the tender and troubled pathways of the heart as characters fall in and out of love and are bound to, then separated from, family. Intensely personal, the stories also reflect the social mores and anxieties of the societies in which the characters live.
© 2021 by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. All rights reserved.
Published as part of PEN International’s centenary celebrations, PEN International: An Illustrated History is available now from PEN and from the publisher, Interlink Books.