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.
INTRO: This installment of Celebrating the PEN Centennial was first published in May 2012. What it addresses in regard to writers’ relationships with language as well as such issues as immigration and genocide are as irrefutably relevant now as then. Possibly even more so. To read part 1 of this series please click here. Part 2 begins now:
Whether language is shyly uttered, fiercely written, or fearfully thought, it creates an inherent rhythm which invites the soul to dance to such intoxicating melodies as truth, anger, inspiration, fear, and love.
Human beings most often accept that invitation to dance in many different ways. Sometimes we do so by following the lead of an initial small or large realization until it whirls voluptuously into an unyielding idea that persuades us to take a certain action or cautions us against another.
Sometimes other pronouncements, spoken or un-, follow the first. But in languages of different kinds. They spring back and forth between diverse grammars and revelations of universal symbols or archetypes, as strangely enthralling formulations and poetic constructions creating what many might recognize as: a song of some kind. The music is not always beautiful and the dance it inspires may appear more macabre than graceful. As much as we might prefer to choreograph our lives to hip-hop ballads of genuine democracy, various populations throughout the world community endure their existence instead to the soundtrack of something closer to a nonfiction nightmare dystopia.
Ours is an age in which thousands are driven daily from their homelands by the unforgiving brutalities of war, terrorism, political oppression, starvation, disease, economic piracy, and the relentless suffocation of that singular breath which makes human beings individuals. In the United States, Latinos once secure in their identities as Americans discover they are in fact something referred to as “illegal aliens.” They then have to make their way south across the Mexican border and reestablish their lives to the tune of conditions and customs which previously had been little more than the subject of tales shared by grandparents and other interesting relatives.
Leaving Somalia, refugees struggle to reach neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia or, increasingly, to cross the Atlantic to the United States to escape rape, mutilation, and genocide. People indigenously at home in rain forests and other native locales find themselves driven out by the encroaching demands of commercialism [and climate change]. In each of these scenarios human beings have to adapt to choices made by someone other than themselves and dance frantically, as it were, to a beat not their own. The forced nature of these cultural migrations burden language with a vocabulary of tears steeped in grief and desperation. And they challenge writers to retrieve out of these everyday tragedies any beauty worth singing–– without glamorizing the horrors involved or betraying the lives so despicably at risk.
The Pattern of Dynamics
An author accepting language’s invitation to dance steps onto the floor of his or her sensibility-charged consciousness and begins to move instinctively––even if with much dread––in ways which synchronize images, ideas, emotions, sounds, smells, ignorance, and knowledge. Subtle energies crackle insistently along intersecting horizontal and vertical lines to occupy each other repeatedly and compose a vision which at some point may be called a story, a poem, an essay, or a play. The pattern of dynamics might alter where different authors are concerned but the nature of this paradigm dancing remains essentially the same. Such is the culture, if you will, of the dance shared between vernacular and writers that others––passionate readers, curious friends, fellow authors, tribes on the run––are always encouraged to join them. Many, in fact, will say the dance is not a true one until they do.
If a reporter were to ask how I ended up returning home with the 19th/20th century French painter Paul Cezanne this past weekend after traveling to downtown Savannah for a very different purpose, that would be a more-than-fair question. I actually made the trip to get some quick photos of the Lafayette Square area for a project related to my book, Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. The encounter with Cezanne, notwithstanding the fact he physically departed the world in 1906, was not one I could have anticipated. The first big surprise which greeted me was the discovery #COVID19 had not stopped throngs of tourists from visiting during this cooler more hospitable October time of the year. Many of the events for which a lot of people travel to the city this time of year would, after all, be scaled down to one degree or another if not completely canceled by the pandemic. Clearly, however, the city itself was enough for them. I was awed to see so many, some wearing masks, some not, taking photos of the sites and obviously very happy to be out and about in our coronavirus-challenged world.
Something Unusual and Unexpected
The second big surprise came while I stood at Abercorn Street and East Liberty Street Lane taking my own photographs of the majestic Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. As I clicked away, something to the left started tugging at my attention. I took quick note that, a short distance down the lane, a number of art canvases appeared to be arranged next to an open door. Then I gave in to the urge to investigate further and started walking down the lane.
The closer I got to the canvases, the more I saw how exceptional they were in terms of the subjects, the artist’s technical skill, and applied individual style. The gleaming lustrous medium of choice appeared to be oil. One portrait struck me as reminiscent of the Mona Lisa and another made me think of the classic busts of Greek gods. If somebody’s throwing these away, I thought, they must be crazy because these are absolutely superb. My astonishment was growing stronger when a man casually appeared in the doorway and said hello. It turned out he was the painter of the artworks speaking to me in their own intensified language of visual style and philosophical concerns, and he certainly was not throwing them away.
Being ever mindful of today’s social-distance protocol, even though I was wearing a mask, when he took a few steps out I took a few steps back. The space behind him looked like a small car port or open driveway beneath a carriage house. A couple of trees were visible just past the far end and air flowed freely through the passageway. With the kind of ingenuity for which artists are well-known, it had been outfitted to function as a studio gallery and was filled with more art pieces. Would it be okay, I asked, to take a closer look? “Sure, come on in.”
I stopped at the entrance this time not because of concerns over coronavirus but because of a large captivating image, perched on an easel, fusing elements of figure painting and abstract art. As I stood before it, the thoughts running through my head started diving off my tongue:
“When I look at this,” I said, “I see a combination of Atlas from Greek mythology holding the world on his shoulders and Rodin’s famous ‘The Thinker’ sculpture. Atlas really stands out for me because almost all of us these days feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders since the pandemic has made us more responsible for each other’s well-being than ever before. It’s not something we can be casual about anymore and have to think about all the time.”
“That is Atlas,” he said, “and also Hercules.”
An Atlas/Hercules mash-up. That made sense.
“One day I hope I can make you a respectable offer for this painting.”
After our shared revelations, my eyes wandered from canvas to canvas in which I thought I detected the influence of classic art masters interpreted through the lens of a sensibility which was both modern and something not-modern. There were genuine (as opposed to forced or artificial) reflections of the brushes of Picasso, Francis Bacon, El Greco maybe, and even da Vinci. Isn’t it just like the universe, I thought, to hide a talent of such immense potential beneath a carriage house in a lane in downtown Savannah. Amid the flashing realizations, an 18x24 portrait painted and etched on wood, and hanging near the end of the wall, caught my eye.
“This one reminds me of a friend I used to have but who’s passed now.” Looking at it actually made me think of several artist friends who are now deceased. It also reminded me of Walt Whitman. I was only a little surprised when he told me it was the French painter Paul Cezanne. The eyes on the painting seemed to be carefully reading my thoughts. Those parts of the portrait where scratches revealed deeper layers of the wood looked to me like stories from my life, or more likely from Cezanne’s, written in hieroglyphics. Or in coded algorithms.
The entire collection emanated such a powerful sense of human beauty intertwined with cosmic collisions that it might serve as an appropriate illustration of this passage from Andre Malraux’s overlooked survey of classic art, The Metamorphosis of the Gods: “…It is the relationship between the tidal rhythms of human life and a power that governs or transcends it that gives these forms their driving force and accent."
The Painter @YoungPablo1881
Having stayed downtown longer than intended and also feeling I had taken up too much of the artist’s time, I thanked him for indulging me, told him my name, and gave him one of my cards. He in turn told me his name is Rocky and gave me a sheet of paper with an abstract sketch on it. At the bottom of the paper was his Instagram handle: @YoungPablo1881. Beneath this was the name he’d just told me paired with another I could not quite make out: Rocky B________. I turned to leave and was halfway toward the cars and pedestrians still flowing up and down Abercorn Street on this late Saturday afternoon when, again, I turned around. Would it be okay, I asked the artist known as Rocky, if I took a couple of photographs of him standing among his paintings. While snapping away, I explained that I might use them with a blog or article. He thought that would be great and put up with me taking more than the couple of shots for which I had asked.
Aberjhani holding painting of Paul Cezanne by the Artist Known as Rocky a.k.a. @YoungPablo1881 on Instagram. (Photograph Bright Skylark Literary Productions C2020)
Although I had been mesmerized by the painting of Atlas/Hercules shouldering the agony of beauty’s battle against chaos in the world, it was, to my astonishment, the amazing portrait of Paul Cezanne tucked under my arm as I made my way through the glow of early twilight. I called a friend and asked if she felt up to a short social-distance visit so I could show her something fantastic. She said yes.
"Love is our most unifying & empowering common spiritual denominator" art graphic featuring quote by Aberjhani and visual art by Natasha Von Rosenschilde. (Shared on Facebook by The Power Within Us.)
The idea of Love as a valuable resource, or a powerful tool, is one some people find difficult to accept for various reasons. We can’t, after all, pay rent by smiling at landlords with hands over heart and then walking away, or purchase groceries by blowing a kiss to cashiers and waving goodbye. Nor can we hop on it like a bicycle and go riding through cities or the countryside. Yet we know it has tremendous value if only because so many of the most famous names in history, whose teachings and life-examples influence billions to this day, have testified to its transformational and life-enriching power. Some have even died to prove the point. So we know these things but the “ways of the world,” to paraphrase lyrics by Earth Wind & Fire, cause us to lose sight of its proven potential and its potentially world-healing abundance.
The new long-anticipated literary memoir by Aberjhani, GREETING FLANNERY O’CONNOR AT THE BACK DOOR OF MY MIND, features insightful essays on: Flannery O’Connor, James Alan McPherson, John Berendt, Antiracism, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Includes cover art by the author and a throw-back photo album. ISBN 978-1-71668-481-4.
-Admittedly, Love itself as expressed in the context of romantic relationships, family connections, friendships, and other situations carries certain amounts of built-in stress and discomfort. Those, however, rarely prove greater than Love’s capacity to recognize and self-correct its own shortcomings. If allowed time to do so. The #quotation used with the #art #graphic for this post is from my #book Journey through the Power of the Rainbow. Hopefully, it further reinforces the importance and effectiveness of a resource available worldwide during this time of the COVID19 pandemic crisis. The extremely fine visual art framing the words is by gifted visionary creative Natasha Von Rosenschilde.
In addition to being a long-time advocate for social justice and harmonious cooperation between diverse cultural groups, Aberjhani is a an award-winning author of history, poetry, fiction, and journalism. He is also the creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Artstyle.