PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.
In the aftermath of the devastating 1928 earthquake in Bulgaria, John Galsworthy, English PEN’s first President, appealed to our membership ‘to come with their eloquence […] in this dark hour’. Wearied by such a crisis, we might ask: What can eloquence serve amidst disaster? Well, as Galsworthy had it: ‘Writers can best voice universal sympathy […] and stir that helpful sense of fellowship’.
The PEN family, across the world, has always proceeded from the value of international fellowship – from the belief that the transmission of literature across borders is a sustaining force, and a right. In 1928, Galsworthy’s appeal centred the conveyance of literature to a space in need of it, from a space outside the causal crisis. In 2020, there are no such differentiations: whilst differing in our severity of experience, the international community is sharing in a crisis.
It is amidst this crisis that we today announce that PEN Transmissions will be increasing our output, publishing new work by international writers every week.
Coronavirus – a word that one senses will become short-hand for an era – grips all spaces. It drives us indoors, towards screens, away from convention; it deprives us of normality, of hard-won freedoms. Such deprivation, however, is in the service of good: this deprivation protects the most vulnerable, and those marginalised in myriad ways who are disproportionately affected by pandemic. One hopes the virtues it is forging – of community, compassion, intergenerational support, kindness to ecology – might even prevail when some version of normality returns. But in pursuit of good, a further level of necessary concerns emerges: of livelihood, particularly that of the self-employed, as many writers and literary professionals are; of loneliness, and how we might continue digitally to meet and converse; of joy, and by what means we might still be able to find it.
The need for ‘eloquence’, now, is manifold: as a palliative to isolation, when its self-imposition is vital; as an outlet for experience, and a way of sharing it; as an imaginative escape from confinement; as a liberty, when liberties must be curtailed. This is why, for the duration of quarantine, lock-down, self-isolation – all those metonyms for our moment – PEN Transmissions is doubling its efforts. Last week, we shared Dima Mikhayel Matta’s extraordinary ‘How to Quarantine a Revolution’, an essay on how pandemic, revolution, and queer identity relate in Lebanon. Tomorrow, we publish an interview with Jason Ng and Joshua Wong, authors of Unfree Speech and pioneers in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement.
Alongside more regular interviews and personal essays from international writers, PEN Transmissions will also feature digital discussions that English PEN had hoped to hold through our live events programme. We will also be publishing more work related to our advocacy for writers-at-risk, whose circumstances we particularly consider at this time. Alongside other new initiatives across our areas of work, we hope these dispatches do something to sustain you, and to sustain the importance of the transmission of words and ideas across borders.
Crises breed weighty literature – and often it’s more humane and benevolent than we might presume. From the literature of the Trojan war, we learnt not about conflict, but about the human condition – a discourse of compassion. Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, PEN’s pioneering founder, believed that ‘out of social intercourse comes understanding; and that if the great writers of the world met in friendship and exchanged ideas, a nascent kindliness would deepen’. Social, cultural, and literary intercourse are more difficult in this time, but there are ways, and they are vital. We hope PEN Transmissions can be one.
– Will Forrester, Editor.