Did you know that PEN – that venerable group that fights for freedom of expression worldwide – is an acronym for Poets, Essayists, and Novelists? I didn’t, until I attended the PEN Center USA Literary Awards Dinner last night in Beverly Hills (swanky hotel, delicious dinner.)
Way back in 1921, the founders of the world’s oldest international literary society acknowledged us nonfiction writers. Today PEN also includes historians, screenwriters, playwrights, graphic writers, journalists, editors, and translators. But somehow PENHSPGJET doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue, so PEN it remains.
Founded in London, PEN’s first president was John Galsworthy, followed by H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestley. In the wake of World War I, its first members hoped that “if the writers of the world could learn to stretch out their hands to each other, the nations of the world could learn in time to do the same.” If only……
PEN American Center was born a year later in 1922 in New York, and PEN Center USA (for writers west of the Mississippi) set up shop in Los Angeles in 1943. Today PEN is active in more than 100 countries.
Though PEN began as a dinner club for literati, it became overtly political in the 1930s, and for decades has lobbied for release of writers imprisoned for speaking their minds. Lives have been saved and prisoners released thanks to PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.
An empty chair has been a PEN symbol for oppressed writer for decades now, and in 2011, to mark the 90th anniversary of PEN, Witness, a sculpture by Anthony Gormley, was installed at the British Library plaza in London. Its simple lines speak volumes.
In addition to its human rights mission, PEN gives out literary awards every year and that’s what took me to Beverly Hills. I was a finalist for the PEN Literary Award for Children’s Literature (for my novel, All the World’s A Stage: A Novel in Five Acts,) and sat with the winner, Matthew Kirby (for Icefall.) Yes, fiction nabbed all the honors for children’s literature, but I was pleased to see that six of the twelve awards went to nonfiction writers: graphic literature, creative nonfiction, research nonfiction, journalism, poetry, and first book award.
Children’s books are sometimes removed from shelves in U.S. schools and libraries, or not purchased at all. Self-censorship – by writers and publishers – of controversial issues has been discussed here and elsewhere. But we haven’t been thrown into prison, tortured, or killed. (I see on the PEN website that just last week, down the road in Tijuana, another journalist was murdered.)
PEN recognizes our work. I’d like to encourage my literary community to join PEN in their worthy work.