In 2009 we published a series of short testimonies by prominent writers, responding to the question ‘What does PEN mean to you?’ As part of our weekly #MembershipMonday drive to encourage more of our supporters to join PEN, we are re-posting these statements on our new website. This week: Dame Margaret Drabble, who was presented with the Golden PEN Award in December 2011.
I joined PEN when I was a very young writer, because the living writers I respected (including Francis King and Angus Wilson) belonged to it and encouraged me to join. It stood against censorship, and pre-dated Amnesty, of which I also became a member. I remember, in early days, some convivial and chaotic social evenings, paying tribute to members who had died – evenings for Olivia Manning and J. B. Priestley in particular. Priestley’s memorial devolved into a dispute about whether he had preferred plain or milk chocolate, a discussion he would have enjoyed. I know he preferred milk, because he told me so, but he seems to have said otherwise to others. Writers cannot be trusted.
PEN’s more serious concerns have become more highly organised over the years. The outcome of the Saro-Wiwa affair was tragic, but it was some comfort to be able to stand in the street with PEN and make a memorable public protest. The Rushdie affair introduced yet more causes for concern. As one barrier (the Iron Curtain) falls, another, in the name of religion, is raised. I fear today the insidious power of self-censorship, and our well-meant but potentially disastrous timidity about accusations of cultural appropriation. PEN has recently been in the forefront of legal battles to protect freedom of speech and the rights of the imagination. It is a practical, campaigning, and effective body, with years of experience in international negotiation. We as writers are lucky that its staff and so many dedicated members are willing and able to give their time to it. They keep their eye on the ball, wherever it rolls. They work for all of us.
Why not join Margaret Drabble and hundreds of other writers, literary professionals and literature lovers by becoming a part of PEN. Membership is only £3.75 a month and you can sign-up online.
View the ‘What PEN Means to me‘ archive.