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BOOKS : PEN West Honors Bold Writers

October 19, 1995|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grenades fell like rain for four years in Sarajevo, systematically destroying the house where Goran Simic sat under his writing table--at work in spite of the challenge.

Those who have never been there may not comprehend Simic's loyalty to the city under siege--especially since his decision to stay was considered traitorous to many fellow Serbs.

"It was a question of pride," says the acclaimed Bosnian-born playwright and poet.

"Sarajevo was a [wonderful] city, like London or Paris. It was famous for its ancient bridges, for its multiethnic and multicultural diversity"--until the ethnic cleansing began.

Simic, 43, says he stayed to fight by writing--and to keep open the doors of the Serbian Cultural Center in Sarajevo. He joined with other remaining writers to found the Bosnian PEN Center, whose first meeting was held in 1992, under intense enemy shelling.

Simic, his wife and two children recently moved to Italy, where they do not have to risk their lives each day just to find food and water.

This Saturday, Simic will accept the Freedom to Write Award given by PEN Center USA West, the Los Angeles branch of an international writers organization created in 1921 to foster understanding among the world's writers.

The award ceremony will take place during the annual Pen Literary Festival, in the Alfred Hitchcock Theatre in Universal City.

Chinese writer Bei Dao will also receive a Freedom to Write Award. Born in Beijing just two months before the birth of the People's Republic in 1949, Bei's early enthusiasm for the cultural revolution soon turned to disappointment.

His poetry of dissent was often suppressed, as were most of the attempted anti-government demonstrations. In 1976, Bei's poems were read in a mass demonstration in Tian An Men Square. He later co-founded the influential underground literary journal Jintian (Today).

His writing increased in popularity throughout the 1980s, and toward the end of the decade it was featured on protest banners in Beijing. The writer's wife and daughter are still in China, and Bei has been denied entry to the country to visit them. He has lived in exile since 1989 and teaches at UC Davis.

Bei has become the leading voice of Chinese writers in exile and has been an international advocate for those imprisoned by the Chinese government for expressing their ideas.

Other PEN West awards will go to playwright Neil Simon, for Lifetime Achievement in drama, and to 10 writers who produced outstanding work in 1994. They are: Julia Frey (nonfiction), Robert Boswell (fiction), Jack Gilbert (poetry), John E. Woods (translation), Gerald McDermott (children's literature), Justin Tanner (drama), Susan Black and Lance Gentile (teleplay), Frank Darabont (screenplay), Ann Louise Bardach (journalism) and Manny Farber (criticism).

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