WE DEFEND INCREDIBLY BRAVE WRITERS WHO RISK EVERYTHING FOR THE TRUTH. Jennifer Clement is an American-Mexican author whose novels have been translated into 30 languages.  In 2015 she was elected the first woman President of PEN International (PEN stands for Poets, Essayists, Novelists), a worldwide association of writers founded in London in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere.

How did PEN come about?

PEN was founded after the First World War when writers were examining how they had been themselves instruments in creating xenophobias and hatreds and promoting nationalisms.  They asked: If there were a network of writers in the world could we help to create a world of greater peace and understanding?  That’s the foundation of PEN.  In 2021 PEN International and English PEN will be 100 years old and the celebration will be at Oxford. 

Which famous writers were involved with PEN at the beginning?

H.G. Wells and Galsworthy were early Presidents.  PEN International and English PEN were founded at the same time and very quickly other countries joined and soon they too will be a hundred years old.  When you look at the history of PEN it is the history of crisis.

Where is the archive?

The PEN archive is at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, where the PEN papers are now being digitised.  There they also have the papers of James Joyce, William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez.

How do poets, essayists and novelists become a PEN member?

Now it’s also bloggers and videographers who just join and accept the Charter as something you believe in and will stand by.  It begins with the words: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.” 

How did you become the President of PEN International?

It’s a democratic election by the membership of the whole world.  It’s a great honour, and up until now there has been no woman President in 100 years.  I am the first.

Is PEN International the ‘holding company’ of all the PENs?

PEN is a membership organisation.  The dues come to PEN International and we organise the campaigns.  PEN Centres lobby for writers in dangerous situations all the time.  Now we have ten Turkish cases in front of the European Court of Human Rights.  We defend freedom of expression. 

“Writers are still very powerful.”

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, blesses Jennifer Clement in Dharamshala, India.

Do you have a board?

We have a board and a secretariat.  On the board we have exceptional writers like Dr Ma Thida, who was Aung San Suu Kyi’s doctor in Myanmar.  She was jailed for five years and eight months and she won the first annual “Disturbing the Peace” award by the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation in New York.  Another board member is a Kurdish Turk, Burhan Sönmez, a lawyer who also has the Havel Prize and wrote, Istanbul Istanbul (2015).  He was badly tortured and had to do rehabilitation for torture in London for five years.  They are some of the exceptional people who I am with every day of my life. 

Who is the President of English PEN?

Philippe Sands, a lawyer at the court of human rights in Strasbourg who wrote East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity (2016)

How does PEN work?

PEN is a vocational organisation where everybody works pro bono.  We have a team of lawyers, and we work with writers in jail, including literary writers, not just journalists.  Joseph Brodsky was a big PEN case for example, and the Charlie Hebdo lawyers work for us.  They are very knowledgeable people and we need experts on the area, because even before we take the case we have to get permission for the writer to become a PEN case to be able to advocate for them

Where are writers in jail?

In Saudi Arabia the poet Ashraf Fayadh, who was sentenced to death for writing poems that the state considered against the religion.  Turkey is the largest jail for journalists in the world, at least 160.  In Mexico we don’t have journalists in jail, we have over 100 journalists in graves.  Just this last month we have had 3 killed.

What other PEN cases are ongoing?

Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist who uncovered the Panama Papers and that the Maltese government was selling EU passports for a million dollars.  She was blown up by a bomb in her car, but they still have not caught the mastermind behind the assassination.

Now they have cut the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi into pieces in Turkey?

Dictators hate freedom of expression and have very little sense of humour.  We call them illiberal democracies; pseudo democracies where core values that we have upheld are in question.

Is the freedom of the press threatened?

Everywhere you look.  PEN America is suing President Trump for his attack on journalists to stop him from using the machinery of government to retaliate or threaten reprisals against journalists and media outlets for coverage he dislikes. 

Is the freedom of the press in actual danger in the US, or is it impossible because of the Constitution?

It is impossible, but in America in the very antagonistic mood that Trump has created what is upholding democracy is the press.  It is corrosive in society to say that about the Press, and to see journalists verbally attacked.  It’s everywhere, and seems to be on the rise.  Trump has emboldened all these horrible leaders.

“We defend freedom of expression.”

Do you also believe that in the European countries where there are now legitimised far right governments the freedom of the press and freedom of expression is in danger?

Yes, I do.  That is what we are seeing.  It’s not something that I personally believe, it’s a truth.

What does PEN do about this?

We do the advocacy work before the European Court of Human Rights.  We also do a lot to get writers and journalists at risk out of their terrible situations.  We have about 100 cases a year with ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network)

Where do you work from?

The main PEN office is in London, where there is a staff and about 30 top notch researchers.  My personal office is in Mexico City and there are many things I can do from there.  There are PEN Centres in about 180 countries, and then there are the centres in exile, like PEN Eritrea and the Tibetans in exile.  Exile is a big theme within PEN.  When I was with the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala I said to him, “Thanks for all the good you do in the world, and you are always talking about the altruism in the world.  I know you know PEN well, but do you know we all work vocationally?”  When I told him that he held my hand for the next 40 minutes, he got so excited.  He didn’t know that PEN was an altruistic organisation. 

Do writers still have a role today?

They have a huge role to play.  There are more literate people in the world than ever.  In PEN we sustain that books and novels can change the world, and we have incredible examples in history like Oliver Twist, Germinal, Les Misérables, and To Kill a Mockingbird to name a few.  I believe in literature as a great force.

Isn’t the figure of the writer less powerful than it used to be?

To this day writers are really threatening and dangerous.  They have just killed one in Turkey.  Imagine the danger that they must have felt to kill him.  Writers are still very powerful.  Every day I am in touch with these heroic, amazing people who risk their lives, their homeland, their families, their economic safety, to tell the truth.  That’s my life.  I live that every day, very intensely. 

Where does great writing come from?

Every writer who has been in jail will tell you that one of the reasons they survived was thanks to the imagination.  I believe deeply in the imagination.  The land of the imagination is a great place, where empathy is born and we can be anything we want to be.  I disagree with the fashion now that you can only write about what you experience.  That is turning your back on the imagination, where one can be everybody.

Presenting HRH Princess Nandi Zulu of the Zulu Royal House with the PEN International Women’s Manifesto in South Africa. Photo: Mattias Axelsson

Jennifer Clement with Ms. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women.

Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International.  Photo: Omar Meneses

Jennifer Clement with Dareen Tatour, the Israeli Arab poet convicted of incitement for writing a poem.

‘Gun Love’ by Jennifer Clement is a New York Times Editor’s Choice longlisted for the 2018 National Book Awards.

“I believe deeply in the imagination.”

Are PEN involved with films and serials where a lot of today’s writing takes place?

PEN does have the stage and screen circle.  Arthur Miller was a President of PEN, we have had many playwrights, Harold Pinter and Alberto Moravia; and in recent times Mario Vargas Llosa and Per Wästberg.

What do you think about women’s movements?

They are important civil movements.  The PEN International Women’s Manifesto, which I launched this year, is a beautiful document that lays out a set of principles which aim to protect free expression for women by combating and eliminating the silencing of women worldwide, whether through censorship, harassment, or violence.  We have a lot to do for women still.

The advance in technology and AI brings massive change, also in politics?

At our last congress, which was in Lviv, Ukraine, and called “Regaining Truth from Propaganda”, I spoke about Othello, where Shakespeare shows how a lie can eat you up, and even if you find out later that it wasn’t true you continue to be eaten up.  You can’t properly erase a lie.  The good side of technology is that you can be in such easy communication, and in terms of emergencies it means we can help writers in peril a lot quicker.

Your book Widow Basquiat is a memoir that features Jean-Michel Basquiat’s muse and lover Suzanne Mallouk.  Who are your muses when you write fiction?

In Mexico I was raised by nannies and servants, so a lot of them are very important people to me that I have written about.  My last novel called Gun Love is about the pervasive gun culture of the US and on guns going to Mexico.  Some 20,000 guns cross the border from America to Mexico every single day.  On the US side of the Mexican border there are hundreds of gun shops.  You hear about the drugs and the immigrants going to the States, but not about the guns going to Mexico. 

Do you have a specific message to convey?

There are two kinds of writers.  There are those who are afraid, and I respect their fear.  One never knows oneself if you will be brave or a coward.  It’s hard to know until you are tested.  In PEN we are dealing with the incredibly brave writers who risk everything for the truth. 


London 2018

Portrait of Jennifer Clement by Omar Nemeses