24 September 2021: Award-winning Turkish Kurdish novelist and human rights lawyer Burhan Sönmez is elected President of PEN International as Mexican-American writer Jennifer Clement, the first woman President to lead the organization, steps down.
PEN International’s Assembly of Delegates has elected Burhan Sönmez as the new President of the organization, during today’s closing ceremony of PEN’s Centenary Congress.
Upon his election, Sönmez said: “I thank my fellow PEN members for entrusting me with PEN’s future - an honour and a responsibility that I recognise and will keep in my mind and heart as I fill the role of President of our noble organisation. As the new President of PEN International I feel proud to have been in the line of great people of literature and freedom like Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, Jennifer Clement, Per Wastberg, John Ralston Saul, H.G. Wells, Arthur Miller and Heinrich Böll.” Burhan Sönmez, PEN International President
Born in Turkey, Burhan Sönmez studied law in the years following the 1980 military coup. He was arrested and interrogated at the Istanbul Gayrettepe Police Headquarters, a notorious torture centre, for organising the first student action during martial law. As a lawyer working on human rights cases, he became the target of police harassment and the centre of court cases, which led him to go into exile in the United Kingdom, where he received long-term treatment with the help of the British organization Freedom from Torture.
During this time, Sönmez started writing novels, inspired by the traditional stories he heard while growing up in a remote village in central Turkey. His acclaimed works North (Kuzey, 2009), Sins & Innocents (Masumlar, 2011), Istanbul Istanbul (2015), Labyrinth (Labirent, 2018), and Stone and Shadow (Taş ve Gölge, 2021), have been translated into forty-two languages.
Sönmez is the recipient of the EBRD Literature Prize (2018), the Disturbing the Peace Award (2017), the BUYAZ Best Story Honour Prize (2015), the Sedat Simavi Literature Prize (2011), and the Izmir St. Joseph Best Novel Award (2011).
He was lecturer in Literature and Novel at the University of METU, a member of the judging panel for the 2014 Cevdet Kudret Literature Prize and for the 2020 Geneva International Film Festival.
The founder of TAKSAV, the Foundation for Social Research, Culture and Art, Sönmez is a member of English PEN, Kurdish PEN and PEN Turkey, and a former member of the board of directors of PEN International.
“Warm congratulations to our new President, Burhan Sönmez. I and my team look forward to working closely with you to deliver PEN’s important mission and to address the barriers to freedom of expression across the world...Thank you to Jennifer Clement, for the tireless service over the last 6 years of your presidency. We all know, I hope, about Jennifer’s important achievements, such as the creation of the Women’s Manifesto, the Imagination Manifesto, and of course being – so far – the only female President of PEN International.” Romana Cacchioli, PEN International Executive Director
Jennifer Clement hands over the post of President today with the heartfelt thanks from the entire PEN movement. Her leadership over the last six years of PEN International’s first centenary, and during the difficult times resulting from the current COVID-19 pandemic, has taken the organization through incredible changes, growth and milestones. Leaving her office, Clement said: “As we look to the future, PEN will continue to have many challenges and, while we might all share the wish that there be no need for PEN in our world, we know that a world without PEN would be more hopeless, and even unbearable.”
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