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  About the Organisation


The organisation known today as PEN International began in London, UK, in 1921, as simply PEN. Within four years there were 25 PEN Centres in Europe, and by 1931 there were several Centres in South America as well as China.

As the world grew darker just before the outbreak of war in 1939, PEN member Centres included Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Palestine, Uruguay, the US and others. All the Scandinavian countries were accounted for in the membership, as well as several countries in Eastern Europe. Basque, Catalan and Yiddish Centres were represented, too.

For over eight decades, then, we have been a genuinely international organisation, encompassing a wide array of cultures and languages, and today the overwhelming majority of PEN International’s 145 Centres come from outside Europe.

PEN was one of the world’s first non-governmental organisations and amongst the first international bodies advocating for human rights. Certainly, we were the first worldwide association of writers, and the first organisation to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable – a principle we continue to champion today and which is expressed in our Charter, a signature document 22 years in the making from its origins in 1926 and ratification at the 1948 Congress in Copenhagen.

PEN has grappled with the challenges to literature and freedom for nearly one troubled century, beginning just after World War I to the buildup and eruption of World War II, then throughout the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union and into today’s more nuanced climate worldwide. It has responded to modern history’s most dramatic turns, and its heroes have included the most celebrated intellectuals of each era as well as countless tireless and dedicated members fighting to ensure that the right to write, speak, read and publish is forever at the heart of world culture.

‘PEN’: What’s in a Name?
Our name was conceived as an acronym: ‘Poets, Essayists, Novelists’ (later broadened to ‘Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists’). Following World War Two, as the notion of an executive developed (see below), PEN became known as International PEN, comprising a growing number of Centres around the world. Over time, as our membership expanded to include a more diverse range of people involved with words and freedom of expression, the aforementioned categories no longer exclusively defined who could join. Today, PEN is simply PEN. In 2010, as part of a general rebranding, the organisation was renamed PEN International.


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