This third installment of Bright Skylark Literary Productions’ observation of the PEN International and PEN America Centennial is a condensed version of an article previously published by AXS Entertainment. It addresses the arrest of Ethiopian journalist and publisher Eskinder Nega, the history of PEN’s stance against racism, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
From Journalist to Founder of Political Party
Since the 1990s, Eskinder Nega has been arrested at least a dozen times on charges generally denounced by the world community as false. They have ranged from inciting riots and attempts to overthrow the government to participation in a murder. He and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, were both jailed on charges of treason charges for their writings on government suppression of protests questioning the validity of parliamentary elections.
After his arrest in 2012 for editorials criticizing government policies and supporting the rights of citizens to protest them, PEN joined with Amnesty International and other organizations to advocate on Nega’s behalf. He was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on May 1, 2012. He received the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 69th World Press Freedom Hero award on May 18, 2017. Nega has modeled his style of advocacy and activism on the example of Nelson Mandela and once said, “Like my hero Nelson Mandela, my soul is unconquered, my spirit unbroken, my head unbowed, and my heart unafraid.” True to Mandela’s model of political activism and persistence, he served nearly seven years at Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa. In addition, he experienced subsequent arrests and assaults before going on to establish the Balderas for Genuine Democracy Party in January 2020.
Nega once offered the following critique of his government and citizens of Ethiopia: “This being Ethiopia, though, leaders seldom enjoy the privilege of honest advice from subordinates... By the power tradition, leaders are told what they want to hear and not what they should… The rule in this world is simple: Thrive with opportunism and sophistry. Perish with honesty and integrity.” His growing popularity may be an indication he has found a functional balance between the divisive extremes.
The One Constant
As history has demonstrated many times over, change may arrive slowly or quickly but it is the one constant, in one form or another, on which we can all count. A lasting shining example of positive change in action is PEN America itself.
Front cover of book "Mrs SAPPHO The Life of C.A. Dawson Scott 'Mother of International P.E.N." by Marjorie Watts.
In her biography of PEN co-founder Catherine A. Dawson Scott, Marjorie Watts (her daughter) observed that both Dawson Scott and PEN president John Galsworthy had a “dislike” of “racial prejudice.” Yet the PEN American Center in 1943 was all of two decades old when Harlem Renaissance authors Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps exchanged letters about the absence of any African-Americans in the organization. Responding to query from Hughes, Bontemps wrote on September 24, 1943:
“…You are right. No Negroes are members. I know of two attempts. It was rumored in Chicago that Dick (Richard Wright) was suggested for membership in N.Y. shortly after Native Son became a best seller but something came up and the idea was dropped.”
Still, three years later Wright was a guest at PEN centers throughout Europe. Ten years after that, Ralph Ellison, esteemed author of Invisible Man, was invited to join the American Center. And the rest, as “they say,” is now an unparalleled portrait of triumphant diversity.
However, the more important point in 2021 is that because it chose to embrace change for the betterment of all humanity at a time when many opted to resist it, PEN America can now celebrate 100 years as part of the world’s oldest human rights and literary advocacy organization. In other words, someone had to embrace positive beginnings before anyone could celebrate successful conclusions or continuations.
The Challenge of Making Change Work
wo of the most interesting comments regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2012 came from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. himself when he stated: “It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.” And: “…it is not our role to forbid it or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
Some commentators have extended interpretations of those statements, plus additional comments, as Chief Justice Roberts’ way of saying his job in this ruling “was to find a way to make the Affordable Care Act work.” How unprecedented and extraordinary is that? (Since the historic ruling, former US President Donald Trump initiated policies aimed at restricting access to the program but current President Joe Biden, upon his election, reversed Trump’s actions and expanded access.)
It is fully possible that the Affordable Care Act (popularly referred to as “Obamacare” after former U.S. President Barack H. Obama) and the movement toward humane applications of immigration laws are the beginnings of a potentially golden age for democracy. It is also possible that Eskinder Nega and the other journalists calling for greater freedom of expression in Ethiopia are heroes whose courage eventually will help elevate even more than concepts of freedom in their homeland. First steps are always the hardest but until they are taken the notion of progress remains only a notion and not an achievement.
"The Amazing Sustainable Power of the PEN" artwork by Aberjhani C2021)
INTRODUCTION: I first began looking forward to celebrating PEN International’s and American PEN’s centennial while observing their back-to-back 90th anniversaries 10 years ago. I did so with a series of articles titled Paradigm Dancing. The AXS Entertainment and previous PEN website pages which once hosted those articles are no longer accessible so it is my joyful honor to periodically republish different articles from the series in Visionary Vibes and to also create a complete page in support of PEN’s efforts on behalf of writers around the world.
Claiming Rights to an Honored Tradition
It was almost enough for me to simply join PEN America roughly a decade ago and, on its former site, set up a profile page without doing much else to qualify its existence. Such a page alone could allow me to relax inside the satisfaction of knowing I had remained true enough to my literary calling to place my name beside that of authors whose lives and craftsmanship had so often empowered my own. That idea, of course, faded very quickly as I further allowed myself to acknowledge something I have long known: you do not claim rights to an honored tradition just because a few books allowed you to bring them into the world or because you managed to cough up the obligatory dues. One claims a right to such traditions very much the way runners on a winning Olympic relay team each earn the distinction of wearing an individual medal––by running his or her segment of the race.
This blog represents one account of one author running his segment of the race. Except that as the title and the quote attributed to Nobel laureate and P.E.N. Club co-founder John Galsworthy indicate, I see it more as a kind of dance than a race. (The anacronym P.E.N. once stood for “Poets, Essayists, Novelists” but now is spelled simply as PEN to indicate dedicated writers of all kinds.)
("Dancing to the Jazz of Life" art by Aberjhani with text by PEN co-founder John Galsworthy.
Galsworthy’s words represented more than a witty aphorism to serve as needless proof for his much-celebrated genius. They could also describe the determination with which he year after year fired off letter after letter, traveled, and campaigned to increase the Club’s membership and secure international support for it. After more than a decade of serving as the organization’s president, he often (according to Harold V. Marrot writing in The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy) expressed his weariness and desire to step down from the position. Yet one thing he did not tire of was promoting PEN’s principles themselves or his belief as spelled out in a May 1924 address to members of the American Center in New York: “…What we feel today the world will feel tomorrow. In homely phrase: It is up to us to make a better world of it. We are the voices. Our Club exists to convert the wilderness we cry in to a green garden.” (J. Galsworthy)
Faced with such conviction and unwavering dedication, it becomes difficult to do nothing more than skillfully park on one’s semi-magnificent laurels. Therefore, the mission established for republishing this blog is to share in the dance of interactions between language and writers’ visions of literary possibilities, and, readers’ participation in that same relationship.
(“A Sigh Out of the Deeps” art by Aberjhani C2021. Quoted text by C.A. Dawson Scott)
Because this is described as a dance of notions, perspectives, and interpretations moving in out of days gone by and days yet to come, it will spin both forward and sideways at varying tempos. The material will include some articles previously posted elsewhere but most notably will feature entries that focus on principles and observations initially presented by John Galsworthy and Catherine A. Dawson Scott. It will also comprise takes on other authors and progressive thinkers inspired by PEN from the time of the original club’s founding in London in 1921, and that of PEN American Center in 1922, to the present. As Galsworthy and Dawson Scott saw for themselves, conversion of “the wilderness we cry in to a green garden” takes some serious labor which can absorb entire lifetimes. It’s a good thing they and those who answered their call in the twentieth century have given the rest of us who are tilling fields in the twenty-first century a 100-year head start.
This installment of Conversations with the World takes a new approach to the series by switching from well-known quotes to an additional excerpt from my “Thoughts Unspoken on Flannery O’Connor” lecture. The text will be followed by links to different articles and essays currently examining O’Connor’s depiction of race in her work and how racial bias possibly influenced her personal behavior or attitudes towards African Americans:
“My goal is not to offend but to encourage consideration. Anyone even slightly familiar with Flannery O'Connor’s work knows she was not a woman to bite her tongue. And I’m not talking just about the words she placed in her characters’ mouths. So I'm pretty sure that just like she did not bite her tongue in service to her vision, she would have preferred that, on this particular occasion, I not bite mine. In fact I’m not just pretty sure. I’m absolutely certain because of reasons which will become clearer when I read a couple of passages from Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind.
“This book about the literary cultures and histories we choose to sustain––and the ones which we either aggressively erase, or passively let vanish. In my examination of these ideas, I present three memoir narratives. The first is called ‘Days of Midnight Madness.’ It deals with some fun and not-so-fun times as a bookstore manager hosting book signings with John Berendt and Lady Chablis. The second narrative, titled ‘On Genius and Exile,’ focuses on writer James Alan McPherson’s relationship with his hometown. And the third narrative is the one I will be discussing and reading from today.
“When you read her letters and notice how strongly she defended her ideas, it becomes apparent that having Lupus did not stop her from being a fighter. That’s another way of saying she was a fierce communicator who tackled some very complex issues in ways women were not expected to deal with such topics in the 1950s and 1960s. We’re talking about such things as: the terror of one war after another, racial tensions in America and around the world, the impact of the industrial revolution on American values, the dynamics of intergenerational relationships, the evolving role of women in American society, and spiritual conflicts in a world, seemingly, more devoted to material and intellectual concerns. Those were huge issues which O’Connor tackled in bold innovative ways.” --(Excerpt from 2020 lecture by Aberjhani canceled by COVID-19)
Greeting Flannery O’Connor is now available at a variety of online booksellers, including: Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million. While it does share certain points of discussion with the noted in-progress conversations regarding O’Connor, it also reaches beyond those specific concerns. To learn more about one of the most significant discussions in contemporary letters of a major American author, please check out the following: