For a student active within one of English PEN’s Student PEN Centres, participating in the 79th PEN International Congress gave me a unique insight into the organisation of PEN as a whole, as well as the work of the different centres scattered around the world. The week’s schedule was packed with meetings in the main assembly, committee sessions and centre training workshops. The programme also included the Reykjavik Literary Festival in collaboration with PEN International’s Free the Word—with events like readings by internationally renowned authors and panel discussions on subjects ranging from the relevance of linguistic rights to freedom of speech online.
Being part of a Student PEN Centre is one of the few opportunities for a young person at university to become involved with PEN’s work on freedom of expression issues. Taking part in the work of the University of York’s English PEN Centre, or York PEN as we call the group, has been one of the highlights of my time at university. It was therefore with great pleasure that I was able to go to Iceland and attend the congress—it has been an immensely rewarding time and I am very much looking forward to sharing as much as possible of the experience with my fellow students.
The congress allowed me to meet the people behind the amazing work being done by centres around the world, such as PEN Sierra Leone’s school club programme addressing low literacy rates and PEN Haiti’s Young Author Residence Programme promoting the creative work of young writers. It also allowed me to witness and personally participate in the debate on the freedom of expression issues shaping our time. The congress discussed and adopted resolutions on different issues, such as one submitted by the American and English PEN Centres on surveillance, as well as one on the new laws challenging freedom of expression in Russia. On the second day of the congress, the entire assembly unanimously voted to pass the resolution on the Russian Federation and walked together across Reykjavik to present it to the Russian Ambassador. It has been a truly inspiring week that has filled my head with ideas to bring back to the work we do on our campus, as well as a strong wish to continue working with PEN long into the future.
As a student I was also happy to note that this year’s congress marked a clear movement towards the further inclusion and promotion of young voices. It presented the inaugural ceremony of the PEN International/New Voices Award, which has been set up to encourage young and unpublished writers from diverse linguistic regions and communities. This year the prize was awarded to MasandeNtshanga for his work ‘Space’, nominated by South African PEN.
As the only – and as I understand it also the first – student to attend the congress, I was happy and honoured to be asked to introduce the Student Centre Programme to members of other centres together with Jo Glanville in a workshop. I cannot emphasise too strongly my enthusiasm for the Student PEN programme, and hope for the future that more students will have the opportunity to participate in the work of PEN Centres in their respective countries.
Returning home with only a couple of weeks left before the start of another academic year, I would like to thank the staff at PEN International for being so welcoming, and everyone at the congress for the interest shown in York PEN. I hope that in future years there will be support to invite more students to share the great experience that is the PEN Congress.
Alice E. Olsson studies English and Related Literature at the University of York and is the Chair of the University of York’s PEN Centre for the academic year of 13/14. She became active within the organisation during her first year at university.