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Celebrating English PEN at 100

Recently I attended online an award ceremony for the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga. She was being honoured at the British Library with the PEN Pinter Award for 2021. In turn she had nominated, as a writer of courage, Kakwenza Rukirabashiya, from Uganda, who read from his account of arrest and torture: Banana Republic: where writing is treasonous

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The event was moving, not only for the celebration of these brave writers facing opposition in their countries, but also because we were reminded that English PEN is 100 years old this year. Few international organisations in defence of human rights have lasted a full century. We should celebrate the work of the organisation, its purposes and those it supports.

A brief history

Founded in 1921 by novelist, poet and playwright Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, with John Gallsworthy as its first president, the organisation boasted from the beginning many well-known writers of the time: May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera BrittainEM Forster, WB Yeats, Joseph Conrad and HG Wells. It spread quickly to other countries.

In 1940 in wartime it issued it Appeal to the Conscience of the World, a plea for the protection of freedom of expression. The text was written by Storm Jameson and signed, among others, by Vita Sackville-West and Rebecca West. In 1948, in the wake of the Second World War, its Charter was agreed in Copenhagen

Its first principle is as appropriate now as it was more than 70 years ago:

Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

There are currently 145 PEN International centres, in over 100 countries. The current president of English PEN is Phillipe Sands. 

Activities

The phrase Common Currency, from the Charter, has been adopted as the name of a series of events this year to mark the centenary. See the website for details.

The PEN Pinter Prize has been awarded annually since 2009, in memory of the playwright Harold Pinter. The criteria for the award are taken from Pinter’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2005. It is presented to the artist who casts an

‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’.

As I said, this year it was Tsitsi Dangarembga. I reviewed her 1988 novel Nervous Conditions earlier this year, and I’m currently reading the second book in the trilogy, The Book of Not. The third novel, This Mournable Body, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

The Hessell-Tiltman Prize is awarded for non-fiction. Among the winners was David Olusoga for Black and British in 2017. I am currently reading this book too.

The PEN/Ackerley Prize is awarded annually for autobiography. 

English PEN also have several campaigns and other actions. There is the Writers at Risk programme, and a programme to support translators and translations: PEN Translates. An outcome is The World Bookshelf, a list of more than 100 translated titles. Bringing writing to new languages is an important part of sharing ideas and of free expression. 

Reflections

I notice, as I have included links from the posts on Bookword blog, how many of the early PEN supporters I have read and been impressed by. And how many prize winners I have read over the years.

I also notice how significant women writers have been from the start. Not only was English PEN founded by a woman, now renown more for this action than her writing, but many of the activists and presidents have been women, and this year’s PEN Pinter winner is a woman of colour. 

And since I enjoy the adventurousness of much writing in translation, I look forward to exploring The World Bookshelf. One volume of short stories is already on my tbr pile: a present from my daughter: Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). 

Sadly, I think that English PEN will be needed for the next 100 years, but this year let’s acknowledge and celebrate its achievements over its first hundred. 

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Filed under Books, translation, Women of Colour

Decades Projects 2019 and 2020

Eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January, all children’s fiction, all by women – that’s what the Decades Project has meant in 2019. I have so much enjoyed choosing, revisiting or discovering the books for 2019. In previous years I have looked at fiction and nonfiction by women in the same way, enjoying the historical perspective. Here is a review of the eleven choices of children’s fiction and a preview of the theme for 2020. 

The Decade Project in 2019

Some book choices were treats as I revisited pleasures and treasures from my childhood. I so much enjoyed Ballet Shoes, for example. And then had the pleasure of finding my original copy, now coverless, when later in the year I inherited my mother’s books. The Eagle of the Ninth is a book I have enjoyed as a child, a young history teacher and again in my mature years.

I had never read The Little White Horse, but it turned out to be a favourite read of many of Bookword’s followers. Goodnight Mr Tom was another book I was pleased to read for the first time.

From 2013

All these books were written by women. It is a very special kind of closeness to read to a young person, and I was reminded of my pleasure at reading to my daughter and more recently to my two grandsons. That one of my grandsons helped with the final post for 2019 was a happy bonus.

An early theme to emerge was the number of children in these stories who lacked parents. They were dead (The Secret Garden) or absent (Five Children and It) or plain incompetent (Goodnight, Mr Tom). The young people found themselves adopted (Ballet Shoes), or in boarding school (Joan’s Best Chum), or in care (The Story of Tracy Beaker), or in magical lands (The Little White HorseA Wizard of Earthsea).

The absence of parents allowed for freedom, discovery, growing up, the exercise of imagination and the development of a certain amount of self-confidence. Some children began as spoilt brats but all ended as reasonable human beings. Some children learned early to face hardships in life, being orphaned, being black in a racist society, physical abuse, abandonment, mortal danger.

And the young people in these stories met some very interesting characters: the Psammead, the archaeologist, a unicorn, wizards, old people, dragons.

The virtues that are encouraged by these stories have not changed much since 1900: resourcefulness, imagination, empathy, resilience, risk-taking. These are all good things and long may children’s fiction encourage them. 

Here are the links to the posts for the 11 choices in this year’s Decades Project:

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (2003)

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian (1983)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry  by Mildred D Taylor (1976)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (1968)

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes  by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It  by E Nesbit (1902)

The Decades Project in 2020: 

I have enjoyed each of the three historical projects so far undertaken, so I will continue with a new project in 2020. This year I will return to fiction and to my pleasures at rereading and discovering previously published novels. To shape my choices I am going to use the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago.

And I will start, as that collection does, with My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901).

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project