Why PEN
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - September 30, 2019 - 12:00am

International PEN is a global organization of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists. This week, around 200 members from some 120 PEN Centers will convene in Manila for the annual PEN Congress to discuss the future of minority languages and the condition of writers and literature today. In focusing on minority languages, the conference emphasizes their importance and their plight. In our own country, several languages, among them Zambal, Pangasinan, and Kapampangan, will probably die in the next century. It is important that a record of the literature in these languages is made, a study, too, of their cultural attributes. 

This year’s Congress is hosted by the Philippine Center, which I organized in 1957. It came about this way. In New Haven, Connecticut, in 1955, I met Malcolm Cowley, the poet and editor of Viking, a major publisher. He saw my novel, Tree, and wanted it published in the Spring of 1956. Why I did not let him is another story. He asked if there was an organization of writers in Manila. When I said there wasn’t and since I was going home via Europe, he told me to stop in London and see David Carver, who was then PEN’s International Secretary.

I met Mr. Carver in London and upon arriving in Manila, I set up the Philippine Center immediately. The following year, the Philippine Center held the first National PEN Conference in Baguio. Alfredo T. Morales was the first PEN Chairman, Virginia Moreno was the Treasurer, and I was the National Secretary. President Carlos Garcia opened the conference, and Senator Claro M. Recto delivered the first Jose Rizal lecture, which has become the main feature of PEN annual conferences. 

Our foremost writers, including Leon Ma. Guerrero, Teodoro Locsin, and Nick Joaquin, have delivered that lecture. At one time, the famous Spanish writer, Salvador de Madariaga (I met him in Berlin in 1960) delivered the lecture, too, and he said, a country need not be colonized by a foreign power, it can be colonized by its own leaders. Chief Justice Hilario Davide from Cebu has also delivered the lecture. This year’s Jose Rizal lecture will be delivered by the historian, Resil Mojares, also from Cebu and the newest National Artist for Literature. 

The economic insecurity of Filipino writers persists; no one can live on their writing. Still many young writers persist; and they are our fond hope for the future of our literature, particularly if they recognize their roots, and belong to a community much larger than themselves.

The first years of the Philippine PEN were really difficult. Hardly any Philippine writer at the time could afford to pay the annual dues. Every so often, I had to pay the dues for some members to keep the status of our Center. The Philippine Center also hosted two Asian writers conferences and published an Asian PEN anthology that included the foremost writers of the region. 

Our darkest days came when President Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972. Some of our members were imprisoned, and several publications, including my journal Solidarity, and radio stations were closed. I myself was harassed and prevented from traveling for four years. 

At the time, when we felt so helpless and in despair, International PEN did not forget us. The international secretary, David Carver, the English writer, Kathleen Nott, and PEN President Mario Vargas Llosa came to Manila to ask Marcos to release the imprisoned writers. It was during this time, when we were so despondent, that I realized how important PEN is as a beacon not only to preserve freedom but also to assist writers in prison.

The Martial Law regime was, in a sense, the moment of truth for so many of us. It illustrated clearly where so many of our writers stood. It was indeed a time when courage, as well as integrity, were clearly defined. Some writers who were with Marcos oppressed their fellow writers and even made fortunes for themselves shouting hosanna for Marcos and his wife. Marcos was, of course, very deliberate. He censored movies and newspapers, but not the stage and he allowed literature, knowing as he did that Filipinos do not read novels or appreciate poetry.

PEN gave a reception for Norman Mailer when he visited during the Marcos years. He declared how much he appreciated the writers who opposed dictators, particularly the Russians because if he were in the Soviet Union, he would have conformed. He liked his comforts, he said.

PEN Chairman, the writer Salvador P. Lopez who was also President of the State University declared it is better to be silenced than be silent. He was fired from his job.

Writers are solitary workers, sometimes, so immersed in themselves and their work that they seem detached from society itself and from all its tensions. They often cannot appreciate the group, the community, and the nation that nourishes them. They forget that, as writers, they are the staunch and traditional keepers of memory, without which no nation can exist.

Writers often thrive best in the most difficult times. There is that old saying, bad times create good literature. But who are those who really desire the worst of times except masochists?

But then, perhaps, there is a bit of masochism in us, for which reason there is even a nostalgia now for the dictatorship of Marcos. If writers are the staunchest keepers of memory, then we have not succeeded in making our country remember.

In citing all these, I hope that not just our writers in the region but all writers elsewhere are bonded together to comfort and assist one another in times of stress and distress. But most of all, to uphold freedom not just for us writers but for all.

INTERNATIONAL PEN PEN CONGRESS
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