PEN International

PEN International – a writers’ association with offices in more than 100 countries – was founded in London in 1921, originally simply as PEN, an acronym for Poets, Essayists, Novelists. It was formed by Catherine Amy Dawson Scott to enable writers to meet and share thoughts and ideas in the wake of the trauma of the First World War. PEN clubs sprung up in other European cities as writers travelled, and 11 branches came together for the first PEN Congress in 1923.

PEN was originally conceived as a non-political organisation, but as tensions rose in Europe in the early 1930s, PEN chairman HG Wells led a campaign to stop book burning in Germany. Later in the decade, PEN vigorously fought against the imprisonment of dissident writers and  the execution of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

After the Second World War, PEN expanded internationally and formed a committee to campaign on behalf of writers imprisoned or persecuted for their work. This role remains central to the organisation’s ethos, a notable example being their support for the writer Salman Rushdie when he was issued with a fatwa in 1989 as a result of his book ‘The Satanic Verses’.

The British Library has enjoyed a long-shared history with English PEN. The Library’s Sound Archive holds hundreds of recordings documenting their activities and live events such as readings, debates and campaigning. The majority of these were recorded by PEN themselves, and have been donated to the Library in small batches over the years. Dating back to the 1950s, the recordings are on a variety of formats including tape, cassette, minidisc, DAT and Betamax, all of which have been digitised to preserve the audio content. These include recordings of writers such as Martin Amis, Alan Bennett, Anita Desai, Carol Ann Duffy, Hilary Mantel, Paul Muldoon, Annie Proulx, Salman Rushdie, Will Self, Zadie Smith, Wole Soyinka and Tom Stoppard.

Since 2009, the PEN Pinter Prize has been awarded in honour of playwright Harold Pinter with winners including Margaret Atwood, Lemn Sissay and Linton Kwesi Johnson. The prize ceremonies are held at the British Library and speeches and readings recorded for the archive. A sculpture by Antony Gormley of an empty chair, a symbol used by PEN to represent imprisoned writers around the world, has been installed on the piazza of the British Library.

This year sees the centenary of PEN and their anniversary events will be recorded and added to the digitised historic recordings already held in the British Library collection. They will join thousands of others being made available online as part of the Library’s Save Our Sounds programme.

For more about Save Our Sounds visit

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