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Expanding PEN Marks Another Year of Activism


Back in the 1960s, the story goes, when Arthur Miller was president of PEN International he was asked to write a letter to then-dictator Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to try to get Wole Soyinka out of prison in Nigeria. "Arthur Miller?" the dictator asked an aide as he read the letter. "Isn't he the guy who was married to Marilyn Monroe?" Soyinka was released in a matter of days.

"You never know what will work," says Sherrill Britton, who stepped down earlier this year after eight years as the executive director of the PEN Center USA West in Los Angeles. (PEN stands for Poets, Essayists and Novelists.) She will be honored tonight along with the 10 winners of the group's annual literary awards, two winners of the Freedom to Write Awards and the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Arthur Golden, author of "Memoirs of a Geisha," will host the event. Homero Aridjis, Mexican poet and president of PEN International, will be the distinguished guest.

"Ten years ago," Eric Lax, who has been the president of PEN West for the last eight years, says, "we gave these awards out in the back of a Chinese restaurant. Now we've moved to the front of the Biltmore."

PEN West, founded in 1952, has grown in the last decade to become the third largest of the 130 PEN offices around the world. There are 1,000 members and an annual budget of $450,000. Their offices are in the Granada Building, a Raymond Chandler-esque edifice on the corner of South Lafayette and Wilshire.

When the international organization was founded in 1921 by D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy and George Bernard Shaw, among others, its mission was to fight censorship internationally. In our time, writers like Susan Sontag and Gunter Grass have campaigned vigorously to force governments to free writers imprisoned for their writing.

Larry Siems, a poet and journalist, runs the local Freedom to Write program that is the backbone of PEN. Siems started off in 1994 with his campaign to free Nigerian writer Ken Saro-wiwa, who was executed the following year. Tony Cohan, author of "On Mexican Time," who lives in Mexico, knows a journalist who keeps a card in his wallet with Siems' phone number in case he's arrested.

In 1993, Gen. Jose Francisco Gallardo Rodriguez published an article in a Mexican magazine that argued that a civilian office should be established to oversee human rights offenses in the military. He was arrested a week later and eventually sentenced to 28 years in prison. In March, PEN West sent a delegation to Mexico to meet in prison with Gen. Gallardo, who refuses to accept his captors offers of liberty in exchange for an admission of guilt.

Tonight's other Freedom to Write Award winner, Bei Ling, a young poet, visited the U.S. in 1988 as part of a literary exchange with a Chinese-language newspaper. After the violence in Tiananmen Square the following year, he was not allowed to return home. Exiled in Boston, he started a literary magazine called Tendency, showcasing young underground Chinese writers. As the magazine's readership grew, Bei Ling began making trips to Beijing to bring issues and find new writers. Last August, he and his brother were arrested and faced prosecution for "illegal and unlicensed publications," a charge that carries a three-year prison term. International reaction was immediate, and the two were released on Aug. 25.

PEN also runs a mentorship program called Emerging Voices, in which younger writers pair up with experienced authors such as Mona Simpson or Carolyn See to work on their writing.

But many members say the PEN in the Classroom project is their favorite. This program brings writers into 27 high schools for weekly workshops. Journalist David Ulin has been teaching 10th-graders at Santa Monica High School. "Every time I go in, I'm 16 again," Ulin says. "The jocks are intimidating, and the really cool girls are just as scary as they ever were. . . . It usually takes them four or five weeks to open up and write about their lives. They're dealing with all the same stuff we did, in a culture that vilifies them."

April Smith, a novelist and television writer, thinks that PEN should expand its outreach to recruit more screenplay and teleplay writers in Southern California. PEN West is the only center that includes a screenwriting category in its annual awards. "Writers are writers, no matter what media they work in. They have the same neuroses, the same pain and ambition," she notes. Smith participates in the Public Literary Events program and readings at local libraries. She is also on the board.

"It should be like having a driver's license," Smith says of PEN membership. "Accomplished writers should feel they must belong. In New York, where publishing is the indigenous industry, there's a lot more ego involved in PEN, something like the Writers Guild here. For me, PEN is an oasis from Hollywood."

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