PEN: mixing with the glitterati but speaking for writers' rights with a strong, steady voice
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Some members of PEN's board - among them author E.L. Doctorow and the book editor Ted Solotaroff (who resigned) - question the sudden growth of the organization and its association with the New York glitterati scene. Many observers, among them the editor of a prominent New York magazine, contend that what PEN is all about is society-page headlines and social climbing.Skip to next paragraph
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``What PEN is about,'' counters writer Susan Sontag, the current president, ``is eight or 10 people in an office in downtown Manhattan doing marvelous work. You don't hear about the telegrams we send to Pinochet.'' In addition, she mentions past PEN missions to Turkey and South Korea - as well as its continued attention to repressive regimes throughout South America and the Middle East.
She argues that, in the heart of the publicity whirlwind, the candle that lit Irina Ratushinskaya's darkness still burns.
``Nobody sees the organization as a source of profit,'' Joseph Brodsky says. ``It's an association of writers who congregate in the name of literature and in the service of literature. That's enough.'' It's enough too, apparently, for Norman Mailer, who has followed his highly visible presidency with low-profile committee work.
``Maybe what it comes down to,'' he mused in a recent telephone interview, ``is that writers are usually so self-absorbed. Our factory is in ourselves. Through PEN, we are obligated to concern ourselves with others. And I think that refreshes us. It takes care of that residual guilt that comes from being so self-absorbed. It gives us a sense of community we don't get at our desks.'' The epicenter of this ``community'' is PEN's spacious but not lavish, loft-style offices in downtown Manhattan. There, in an afternoon of conversations with staff members, one could see the world of trouble literature can get into. Two sheets of paper with numbers scribbled on them indicate how many prisoners of conscience or disappeared writers there have been from year to year around the world. The numbers have seesawed between 286 and 473 and back to 338 since 1981 - with no sign of a positive trend. Since this work goes on almost entirely in the dark - letters are confiscated, communications are shut off - PEN catches fragmentary but encouraging evidence that what it does makes a difference.
``When somebody like Irina Ratushinskaya says that PEN helped so much,'' American PEN's executive director, Karen Kennerly, muses, ``or when we get a letter saying, `I just got out of jail' or `I just got better conditions, you can't imagine how much PEN helped,' you think, I don't deserve that. What did I go through?''
``After I was sent to the labor camp,'' Ratushinskaya recalls, ``I learned that some American people were supporting me. My husband told me a lot of PEN members sent letters to him. The KGB wants people to think no one is struggling for them.
``But I knew very well that they were.''
Which may be why Joseph Brodsky joined the organization. Because of what comes out of all the heat and energy in this gathering of writers and citizens. ``It's a beacon,'' he says, ``one that shines an affirming light.''