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President of PEN International, Burhan Sönmez's Acceptance Speech: 100th Anniversary of PEN International

I am greeting you all with the beautiful sounds of different languages of the world:

Good morning

Buenos dias

Bonjour

Zaoshang hao

Bon dia

Sabah alkhayr

Boker Tov

Günaydın

Rojbaş

In the name of countries currently in trouble like Afghanistan, Myanmar and Belarus, I’m grateful to all PEN centres for their work in solidarity. We are a great forest of writers in one-hundred-and-fifty countries.

I would like to thank my fellow candidates Gioconda Belli and Ben Okri for their energy and intelligence they put into the work of PEN. We will keep working together. I believe, united we are stronger.

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 names of literature and freedom like Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, Jennifer Clement, Per Wastberg, John Ralston Saul, H.G. Wells, Arthur Miller and Heinrich Böll.

While the whole world confronts the Covid-19 epidemic, another epidemic called authoritarianism has been spreading. Freedom of expression and human creativity are under grave attack.

Today PEN International is needed more than ever.

A hundred years ago, in his words at the first PEN dinner, our first president John Galsworthy said: “We writers are some sort trustees for human nature, if we are narrow and prejudiced, we harm the human race.”

I reaffirm today, one hundred years later, this founding commitment.

PEN International is a defender of free expression, and a refuge for writers at risk. It is a place of hospitality for all writers without exception; young writers, women writers, and those writers coming from minority and oppressed communities.

We work for the unity of letters through dialogue and translation. We stand apart from politics and political regimes with the mission of defending freedom of expression, linguistic rights and equality.

We reaffirm today that our duty is to bridge the gap among countries in conflict through dialogue, justice and exchange —as we are doing today between writers from Russia and Ukraine, Kurdish population and Turkey or Tibetan and Chinese writers— and we retain literature as common currency between nations.

We believe that in all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.

We stand for a free press and oppose arbitrary censorship in any form. We believe that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order renders free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative.

As nature is being killed today, the nature of human freedom is also being targeted. We act for the well-being of our colleagues at risk. Authorities should know that we are watching and we will never leave writers alone wherever they are in prison. We will not step back under the oppression of surveillance, fake news or hate speech.

We know that “Big Brother” is watching us 24 hours a day. There is no longer such a thing as a truly private life. Everything is in the data centers of corporations, and our every word is targeted by the censorship guards of nations.

Today, at the threshold of our second century, we unite to raise the power of words and freedom of expression across the world.

Our history has guided us through a hundred years of friendship, exile, struggles and intellectual debate. We are fully aware that literature knows no frontiers, including the frontiers of time.

We continue our journey with the hope and determination of our founders. Together, in the face of enormous challenges, we are a great family of hope.

My last words are from a poem by Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, our founding mother:

And thou, where art thou ?

Waiting in the Great Silence

for the hour

of a re-birth...”

Yes, the beginning of our new century is the time of a re-birth.

Thank you.