Brand America: 100 Years of PENs

By Esther AllenNovember 19, 2022

Brand America: 100 Years of PENs
THIS SPRING, I was invited to an Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers, convened in the Trusteeship Council Chamber at the New York headquarters of the United Nations to celebrate the centennial of PEN America. In the latter half of the 1990s, I worked on and off for the UN’s Verbatim Reporting Service, which translates and edits the daily record of speeches published in all six of the UN languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. A few years later, I chaired the PEN American Center Translation Committee, which — back then — made me a member with voting rights on the organization’s board of trustees. In that volunteer capacity, I cofounded the PEN World Voices Festival, the aegis under which the Emergency Congress was convened. It offered a rare overlap between what were, until then, very separate parts of my life. I had to go.

During the three-hour event, all 90 or so in attendance were repeatedly invited to speak, provided we limited our remarks to four minutes. Romana Cacchioli, current executive director of PEN International, seated at the presiding dais with various PEN America dignitaries, did not avail herself of the opportunity. Neither did I.

It was, as anticipated, quite strange to find myself back at the United Nations, again doing what I did all those years ago: listening to speeches. These were, for the most part, far better: impassioned, spontaneous, blissfully acronym-free, eloquent, and wide-ranging, yet succinct. We were worlds away from the bureaucrats droning on about “eradication of poverty and other development issues,” “building a peaceful and better world through sport,” or “les stocks de poisson chevauchants,” which translates to “straddling fish stocks” (always a favorite of the Verbatim English team — we entertained ourselves with ludicrous kitchen scenarios). Dull as the discourse on those and other standing UN General Assembly agenda items often was, the strides made since the 1990s towards, for example, eradicating global poverty have been quite spectacular. Though the fish stocks are also being eradicated.

The Emergency Congress purported to “evoke a similar event convened by PEN in 1939,” when writers gathered at the New York World’s Fair. Contemporary coverage in The New York Times describes the chief themes of that “World Congress of Writers,” held “under the auspices of the American Center of the international P.E.N. Club” as “[t]he responsibility of writers toward today’s world crisis and methods of preserving the freedoms essential to literary creation.” Times have changed. The agenda of this spring’s Emergency Congress consisted of two questions: (1) What are the threats that most warrant our concentrated focus? (2) What is the role of the writer in responding to the current crises?

This sort of assignment was familiar. The opening night event of the first World Voices Festival in 2005 asked writers to address the question “Does Writing Change Anything?” A subsequent event, “State of Emergency,” invited participants to speak out on the issues of torture, arbitrary detention, and extraordinary rendition, as practiced by the United States government. When an emergency is declared, specifics are usually provided, even in a writer’s organization. Prompts such as “What are the threats?” or “Does writing matter?” or “What is the role of the writer?” — as opposed to discussion of “methods” and “responsibilities” — may have the advantage of minimizing the chances that anyone might advocate some kind of action. Still, isn’t it somewhat odd to assemble a group of practitioners on an emergency basis only to ask them to describe or defend their profession?

This is not to say that the Emergency Congress served no purpose. There was a very clear point to the occasion. The PEN America banners on the walls and the giant screen behind the presiding dais trumpeted it, as did the lapel pins, table flags, folders, notebooks, pens, and other assorted paraphernalia bearing the slogan “Freedom to Write” that awaited each of us at our assigned seats. All of us there, renowned or obscure, delighted or dismayed, were voluntarily contributing our time and — for those who spoke — our content in support of the PEN America brand on the historic occasion of its 100th anniversary.

The rhetoric “hit a cruising altitude of about 30,000 feet quickly, and mostly stayed there” as The New York Times put it, but the flight went by without much atmospheric turbulence. Even so, some of what I was thinking was said out loud. Perhaps beset by a need for the gathering to do something, novelist Valeria Luiselli proposed the only motion put to the group, calling for an oral history project similar to those of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. (Perhaps we can consider the recording of the Emergency Congress that oral history.) Translator Allison Markin Powell — who currently represents the Translation Committee as an ex-officio member of the PEN America board — spoke up for multilingualism and translation and for PEN International, the London-based hub organization of all PEN Centers worldwide, whose silent executive director was briefly introduced by PEN America’s President Ayad Akhtar in his opening remarks. Memoirist Esmeralda Santiago critiqued the rubric under which we were convened. Novelist Patrice Nganang spoke about the perils of unilateralism and the politics of language, emphasizing that the imposition or rejection of a language carries political weight. Essayist Rana Dasgupta reminded us that “[o]ur primordial purpose as human beings is political creativity.”

Santiago’s point about the rubric jarred me the moment I walked in. During my time with Verbatim, I learned that no one in any official UN capacity uses the term America tout court to refer to the United States. Had any speech I was translating done so, it would have been my job to replace “America” with “the United States” or “the United States of America.” The distinction is so thoroughly grasped by everyone at the United Nations that I can’t recall ever having had to do that. “I’m a writer,” Santiago said to the Emergency Congress, “and I’m listening to words like ‘propaganda’ and ‘America,’ and I would like to suggest that you remember that we are in a hemisphere and that America is not a country.” Perhaps she was thinking of the blistering track “This Is Not America” released by rapper Residente a couple of months earlier — a history lesson for the United States that takes its title from a video installation by Alfredo Jaar that ran in Times Square in 1987. “América no es solo USA, papá,” bellows Residente: that’s like saying Africa is just Morocco. Or, as President Barack Obama put it in a historic 2014 speech, “Todos somos americanos.” Two years later the organization formerly known as PEN American Center rebranded itself. As its choice of venue for the Emergency Congress underscored, internationalism is a key element in its brand identity. Nevertheless, it chose a brand that uses “America” in a way widely perceived, in an international context, as a form of imperial erasure.

The political creativity that established the United Nations in the wake of World War II understood multilingualism as an essential component of international cooperation. With its long rows of glass-windowed interpreters’ booths overhead and earpieces next to the microphones at each seat, the very architecture of the grand chamber where the Emergency Congress was convened embodies that principle. To underscore its serious internationalism, several members of PEN Ukraine — including its president, novelist Andrey Kurkov — were in attendance. Yet the interpreters’ booths were dark and unstaffed, the earpieces useless. With the exception of Iya Kiva and Halyna Kruk, PEN Ukraine members whose words were consecutively interpreted by a PEN America staff member during the last hour of the session, everyone who spoke — whatever language they felt strongest or most comfortable in — had to have recourse to English. Lovely as it was when essayist Tanya Talaga uttered a greeting in Anishinaabe, the Congress was overwhelmingly monolingual.

The prescribed seating plan placed me next to Kurkov, who, later that same day, would deliver the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, an ongoing feature of the PEN World Voices Festival since its second iteration in 2006. Simply to be in the same room with Kurkov, much less at his side, was the honor of a lifetime. Fluent in six languages, Kurkov has until now composed his fiction in Russian, but says he no longer will. A writer of utmost empathy who conveys complex political situations in concrete human and animal terms, Kurkov has been an indispensable spokesperson for his country, never more so than during the terrible events of this year when he has worked through each day’s new grief to defend Ukraine’s people, language, culture, and history against Russian annihilation.

Perhaps I wasn’t the only person there who wondered — in light of PEN Ukraine’s presence among us — why the situation in that country wasn’t deemed significant enough to constitute the occasion for this Emergency Congress? The second clause of the PEN Charter, a copy of which was included in everyone’s packet, states that “[i]n all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art and libraries, the heritage of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.” Kurkov spoke of how the invading Russian forces have systematically destroyed the museum home of 18th-century Ukrainian poet and philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda and other cultural monuments. He pointed out that the Russian invasion of Ukraine involves and impacts issues of all kinds, including the global climate crisis and the threat of planetary extinction from the use of nuclear weapons.

He had a point. It’s not difficult to relate the war against Ukraine to most of the concerns raised during the Congress. Many writers did so when they spoke about childhood trauma, gender oppression, the assassination of journalists, the co-optation of media by rising fascist forces around the world, language politics, decolonization, cultural genocide, the need to decenter empire and reimagine the nation-state. Among those who spoke was Salman Rushdie, former president of PEN America, who has collaborated with PEN International in solidarity with Ukraine. Even so, Ukraine was not mentioned in the invitation to the Congress or in its agenda, and in her opening remarks, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel had no specific words of welcome for the writers who had traveled to join us from a nation under relentless military attack.


Kurkov’s wonderful 2018 novel Grey Bees came out in English in 2020 in a superb translation by Boris Dralyuk, and therein lies a connection to the inception of the World Voices Festival during which the Emergency Congress took place. Dralyuk was educated at UCLA, where he applied for the express purpose of studying with his literary hero, the late professor Michael Henry Heim, whose peerless political creativity led to the creation of PEN World Voices and has quietly had a significant and expanding impact within the English-speaking world ever since.

I first met Heim on the morning of February 28, 2003. He’d come straight off a red-eye flight to PEN American Center’s New York offices to announce that he and his wife Priscilla would be donating $734,000 — at that point the largest single donation in the organization’s history — in support of the translation of world literature into English. The money came from the cash benefit, invested and untouched for decades, that Heim’s mother received from the US government after his Hungarian émigré composer father enlisted in the US army during World War II, when Heim was an infant, and was killed. When I met him, Heim, who had just turned 60, was there to put his inheritance to this important purpose on the sole condition that he retain absolute anonymity.

Heim chose to donate the money to PEN American Center because he admired the long work of its all-volunteer Translation Committee and because he foresaw that the funding would most impact the US publishing industry if based in that industry’s favorite local charity. He worked with me and several others to craft the most effective possible grant-giving process to support the introduction of new translators and new writers in English translation, insisting, for example, that letters of recommendation not be required. He made sure that distinguished literary editors were always part of the selection committee, and as he anticipated, many ended up publishing one or another of the projects they reviewed in that capacity. He served diligently on the committee himself, doing far more work than any of the other volunteers involved. He died in 2012; only after his death was the donation’s source revealed.

The PEN/Heim Translation Fund has, to date, supported the translation of more than 200 literary works into English, including translations by Chris Andrews of Roberto Bolaño (2005), Sawako Nakayasu of Takashi Hiraide (2006), Annie Tucker of Eka Kurniawan (2013), Rajiv Mohabir of Lalbihari Sharma (2015), Jennifer Croft of Olga Tokarczuk (2015), and Aaron Robertson of Igiaba Scego (2018).

Heim created the fund because of his concern about the vast structural imbalance between the Anglophone sphere and the rest of the world. Writers in English are more likely than writers in any other language to have their work translated, while vanishingly little of what is written in other languages is translated into English — a situation a group of linguists has recently characterized as “epistemic exclusion.” When the Heims’ donation came in, PEN American Center was in the midst of a Mellon Foundation–funded planning exercise. The planning committee’s report took note of the “recent major endowment support for translation” and advocated the establishment of an international festival, emphasizing that “PEN should place translation and international cultural exchange higher on its programmatic and intellectual agenda.” The festival was, initially, an attempt to redress the Anglosphere’s tendency towards epistemic exclusion with an annual event whose brand identity — distinguishing it from the proliferation of similar festivals — would be a focus on writers working in languages other than English.

The event that, for me, best represents the possibilities this opened up was a conversation between the late novelist Robert Stone and novelist Dương Thu Hương, who fought in the North Vietnamese army and later spent decades in internal exile as an outspoken critic of Vietnam’s government. The city’s Vietnamese community turned up in full force at the New York Public Library on that 2006 evening, and while some of us in the audience had to wait for the interpreter to follow what Hương was saying, a significant part of the crowd laughed or otherwise reacted to her words as they were uttered.

A striking new receptivity to multilingualism has emerged within the United States since the Heims established the Translation Fund. Within the last few years, films in Korean, Japanese, and Mexican Spanish have been nominated by the Motion Picture Academy for Best Picture — and in 2020, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won. Last year the most-watched TV show in the United States was Korean, and even some shows made here, such as the popular new comedy-drama Mo, set in Houston and following a Palestinian refugee, are multilingual. A proliferation of small presses, websites, and related initiatives devoted to literature in translation has emerged in the Anglosphere, and new prizes and recognition for translated works are announced all the time, among them the International Booker, for which, since 2016, only books translated into English are eligible. This year, for the first time, a novel in translation from Hindi won: Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell — granddaughter of the artist Norman, whose imagery long served as an icon of midcentury US life. (In some contexts, brand USA would appear to be evolving.) Since 2014, the venerated Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference has been joined by a Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. The New York Times now regularly publishes a Globetrotting supplement offering a “sneak preview of books in translation.” More than 150 translators apply each year for the PEN/Heim grants; the translation-oriented initiatives that have emerged in the past couple of decades are immeasurably nourished by the energies that Michael Henry Heim’s political creativity unleashed, channeled, and sustained.

The one sphere where the Translation Fund’s impact has visibly diminished over time is PEN America. By 2012, Chad Post, founder of Open Letter Books, which has published a book about Michael Henry Heim, had already noted his growing dissatisfaction with World Voices, an “international festival” at which less than a third of the participants wrote in a language other than English. The tendency was already apparent in the first two festivals: again and again, agents, editors, and other interested parties would supply long lists of potential participants, writers from all over the globe, most or all of whom, upon closer inspection, wrote in English. A quick count of the participants in this spring’s festival indicates that the ratio of non-English language writers has at this point dropped well below 20 percent.

Here’s another way to tell the story: in keeping with the festival’s original concept, the writers who gave the first of the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lectures — Orhan Pamuk (2006), David Grossman (2007), Umberto Eco (2008), and Nawal El Saadawi (2009) — all work primarily in languages other than English. Since 2009, only one non-English-language writer has delivered it: Andrey Kurkov.

The lecture is named after Arthur Miller because, as president of PEN International from 1965 to 1969 (the first writer from the United States to hold that position), Miller carried forward the mission enunciated at the very first PEN gathering, a dinner at the Florence Restaurant in London on October 5, 1921. With a nod both to Shelley’s “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and the recently founded League of Nations, PEN’s first president, novelist John Galsworthy, proposed a toast that evening: “We writers are in some sort trustees for human nature,” he said, “and the better we know each other […] the greater the chance of human happiness in a world not, as yet, too happy.” The idea was that writers have their own special sort of political creativity — different from that of a government or a corporation — and that a bond among them, across linguistic, cultural, and national boundaries, would benefit the world.

“From the start, its members envisaged a club with PEN Centres in every city in the world,” according to PEN: An Illustrated History, a massive volume published last year in seven languages in honor of the centennial of that London dinner. Hailed in Publishers Weekly as “a fitting tribute to a crucial defender of the freedom of expression,” it was awarded the Kiran and Pramod Kappor Prize for Best Book of the Year by a group of 80 international publishers at the 2021 Frankfurt Book Fair. Its publication was accompanied by the launch of Unlocking the History of PEN International: A Digital Exhibition of PEN’s Archive Collection, which offers online access to a great deal more archival material than could be included in the book.


Over the course of the year that followed that first PEN dinner in 1921, additional PEN Centers were founded in Paris, New York, Brussels, Oslo, Barcelona, and Stockholm. “From the start,” the authors of PEN: An Illustrated History note, “the founding London club served as the hub around which each newly created Centre ‘goes as it pleases on terms of perfect equality.’” That “founding London club” soon became two separate organizations, both still based in London: PEN International, the hub of the worldwide organization, and English PEN, the Center for the United Kingdom. Both celebrated their centennials in 2021. The Center founded in New York City in 1922 launched its centennial celebration this year with the Emergency Congress. Festivities continued in September with an event at Rockefeller Center, onto whose facades the artist Jenny Holzer projected phrases by various writers. The PEN America centennial was also the subject of an exhibit at the New York Historical Society, which ran from July 22 to October 9.

The exhibit was quite instructive on the subject of PEN America’s current view of itself and its role within an international structure. The existence of PEN International as a separate entity, let alone the centennial volume put together over a number of years by six writers, two editors, and numerous archival researchers, was, well, unacknowledged. The “international community of friendship, generosity, and belonging” that is PEN America, at least according to the exhibit’s wall text, treated PEN International precisely as a corporation would treat a rival brand. If you’d had no awareness of the London-based organization currently presided over by Kurdish writer and translator Burhan Sönmez, you would have left the exhibit thinking there’s no separate entity at all, simply a “worldwide infrastructure of well over 125 centers that make up PEN International,” as the text put it. That’s a bit like saying the UN is the member states alone, with no secretary-general and no secretariat. Though the disparity between their respective budgets (PEN International has a staff of 17) makes the comparison laughable.

A large wall panel introduced the exhibit by juxtaposing the famous toast about writers being “trustees for human nature” offered by John Galsworthy at the founding 1921 London dinner with a quote from current PEN America president Ayad Akhtar. Remarkably, the date given for the Galsworthy quote was 1922, not 1921 — a blithe rewriting of history to imply that the Nobel Prize–winning Galsworthy rather than poor Booth Tarkington, first leader of the New York center, was PEN America’s first president. Writing, it turns out, can change things.

PEN America is, we learned from the exhibit, “the largest national center,” and, from its inception, “issues such as internationalism [and] translation” have been among its principal concerns. We were also informed that the Translation Committee was formed at a Conference on Literary Translation in New York in 1970 and “continues to be a resolute advocate for literary translators” — and that’s all we were told about that. A photo showed Margaret Atwood at the “Does Writing Change Anything?” event at the first World Voices Festival in 2005, founded by Rushdie, myself, and Michael Roberts. A large poster from 2009 featured the boldfaced words “These 224 characters earned Liu Xiaobo 11 years in prison” superimposed among lines of untranslated Chinese. (The design, which uses the characters as a kind of chinoiserie wallpaper, suggests that for anyone who doesn’t read Chinese, the meaning of Liu’s words is irrelevant.) We read that, in the 1960s, there were “financial connections between the CIA and P.E.N. American Center,” while in the 1980s funds were raised by a series of conversations between writers on Broadway. Heim, his donation, and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund were written out of the story the exhibit presented.

In its final display case, the PEN America CEO’s recent book Dare to Speak — its cover branded with the PEN America name, its copyright in her name — was featured side-by-side with a PEN volume edited by Toni Morrison. The Historical Society gift shop gave pride of place to Dare to Speak as well; it was on sale there alongside the Morrison book and works by Art Spiegelman, Howard Zinn, and Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Several dozen copies of the PEN International centennial volume were donated to PEN America in 2021, but it was nowhere to be seen at the New York Historical Society and did not appear even to have been consulted by the exhibit’s organizers. For an organization that famously combats the banning of books by state legislatures and school boards across the United States, the deliberate exclusion seemed remarkably off-brand.


It did not come as a surprise. In 2021, novelist Jennifer Clement, then PEN International’s president, and poet and essayist Carles Torner, then its executive director, contacted me — rather than the local Center with a shared name, a shared history, an annual budget in the neighborhood of $12 million, and a staff of 75 — for help with the New York launch of PEN: An Illustrated History, which, incidentally, is copyrighted to PEN International and the Motovun Group of International Publishers. A two-page spread in the volume’s lengthy central chapter on “Translation and Linguistic Rights” is devoted to Michael Henry Heim, my work with him, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, and the World Voices Festival. The book intersects with and touches on the history of PEN America in many other ways, as well. There are four pages of text and photos about the ways PEN Centers all over the world, particularly in the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, and the United States, have responded to the long threat to Salman Rushdie and his translators and publishers, which horrifyingly rematerialized in the stabbing attack on Rushdie this August.

After years of work by a team of writers and researchers organized by Clement, Torner, and co-editor Jan Martens, the launch of the PEN International volume was stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic. A symposium in which Margaret Atwood participated was to have taken place at Oxford University but had to be moved online, as did various other long-planned events. Another online occasion was the launch of a series of PEN Teaching Guides at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which holds the archives of PEN International and English PEN.

As it happens, on October 5, 2021 — precisely, to the day, 100 years after the 1921 dinner in London at which PEN itself was founded — hundreds of people gathered in person beneath the giant whale at the American Museum of Natural History for PEN America’s annual gala. At that gathering, no mention was made of the modest assembly at a London restaurant that founded PEN precisely a century earlier, of the PEN International centennial book and archive, or of the PEN International Centenary Congress that had taken place two weeks earlier.

The same pre-omicron lull in New York City COVID-19 levels last fall that allowed PEN America to hold an in-person gala also allowed, finally, for in-person celebration of the PEN International book. It happened in November at La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant on St. Mark’s Place owned by Jennifer Clement’s sister. The day before, Clement and Torner had presented an edition of the centennial book with a supplemental section in Tibetan at New York’s Tibet House. Earlier that evening, they participated in an online conversation hosted by the Center for the Humanities at the City University of New York Graduate Center and co-sponsored by Words Without Borders, the magazine of international writing and translation that published a special supplement in honor of PEN International — and whose editorial director, Susan Harris, moderated the conversation.

The celebration at La Palapa brought together — dare I say it? — an international community of friendship, generosity, and belonging. A varied group of writers, translators, activists, and publishers (probably only slightly larger than the original 1921 PEN gathering, which was attended by 40 people) — including Michael Scammell, founder of the Index on Censorship, and Michel Moushabeck of Interlink, the PEN International book’s US publisher — mingled and chatted with students from City University. I overheard zero discussion of whether writing changes anything or what the role of the writer should be. A lone PEN America staff member showed up halfway through the evening. A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who does not write in English was immersed in conversation at a table in the back. A CUNY grad student of Colombian origin who teaches in a French immersion program at a public elementary school in Brooklyn wrote me afterwards that he may have enjoyed a few too many of the mini-margaritas the bartenders were making free with.

When Clement and Torner briefly spoke about their multiyear research journey, Torner told the story of the May 1933 PEN International Congress in Dubrovnik (at that time part of Yugoslavia). With H. G. Wells presiding, a vote was taken on a resolution that, without naming Germany, condemned “all that threatens the rights of the spirit.” The motion passed with 10 in favor and two against; the majority of PEN Centers (14) abstained. (Perhaps the abstainers were eager to preserve the “equipoise in the attitude of the writer towards political phenomena” advocated by Mark Lilla during PEN America’s Emergency Congress.) In response, the German PEN delegates, along with those from Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands, walked out. The next day, Ernst Toller — who would later attend the 1939 Congress of Writers at the World’s Fair and die in New York shortly thereafter — read out the names of all German writers whose books had been burned by the Nazis. Six months later, under Wells’s leadership, PEN International passed a resolution specifically condemning the oppression of writers in Germany that caused the German PEN Center to withdraw from the organization.

During the party at La Palapa, copies of the hefty PEN International book were passed hand to hand as people leafed through and began to take in the “dense network of ideas, people, places, and cultures” that it embodies, in the words of a recent review in World Literature Today. The few extra copies on hand were given away. There were no banners or table flags, notebooks, lapel pins, embossed folders, leaflets, or logo-bearing pens. It was a charmed and unforgettable evening, and a hopelessly ineffective way to raise funds or consolidate a brand.


Esther Allen is a professor at City University of New York. Her translation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel Zama won the 2017 National Translation Award.


Featured image: Vasily Kandinsky. Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), 1913. The Art Institute of Chicago, Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection., CC0 1.0. Accessed October 12, 2022. 

LARB Contributor

Esther Allen is a professor at City University of New York. She edited, annotated, and translated the Penguin Classics anthology José Martí: Selected Writings. Her translation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel Zama won the 2017 National Translation Award.


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