No nation can be called developed unless it has a storehouse of good literature written by writers of its own soil. And these writers should be supported by the nation, for ‘ability is of little account without opportunity’. -Shanti Mishra
PEN is a world association of writers who promote literature, writers’ rights and freedom of expression. Some of the world’s best known writers are members, with many Nobel, Booker and Pulitzer prize winners among them. Nepal hosts one of International PEN’s national centers, to which many of Nepal’s own prize-winning writers belong. PEN recognizes that producing and reading literature openly and conscientiously is essential to understand and engage with others around the world. As someone has said – If you can’t hear the voice of another culture how can you understand it?
The Origins and Purpose of PEN
International PEN was first envisioned by the Cornish writer, playwright and poet Catherine A. Dawson (sometimes called the ‘Mother of International PEN’). John Galsworthy, author of Forsyte Saga, assisted her and became the first PEN president when it was founded in London in 1921. The organization has three objectives: to promote intellectual co-operation and understanding among writers, to create a world community of writers emphasizing the central role of literature in the development of world culture, and to defend literature against the many threats to its survival which the modern world poses.
Membership is open to all published writers who subscribe to the PEN Charter, regardless of nationality, gender, language, race, or religion.
PEN encourages writers to play a crucial role in the development and support of civil society. It does this by promoting literature, sponsoring international campaigns on issues such as translation and freedom of expression, and by improving access to literature at all levels, international, regional, national and local.
PEN quickly spread to writers in North America where the PEN American Center was established in 1922, and to Canada a few years later. Soon other writers in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia began to join; today there are nearly 150 PEN centers worldwide. The acronym P.E.N. originally referred to Poets, Essayists and Novelists, but today it also embraces non-fiction writers, historians, editors, translators, lyricists, travel writers, and others involved in disseminating the word in its many forms. Some also say: “The PEN is mightier than the sword.”
From the beginning, PEN has attracted both famous and lesser known writers. Among the earliest European members were the renowned Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, historian and author H.G. Wells, essayist, poet, novelist and critic G.K. Chesterson, Polish-born short story writer and novelist Joseph Conrad, and journalist, literary critic and travel writer Dame Rebecca West who was acclaimed in 1947 by Time magazine as “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer.” Famous American members have included such luminaries as the poet Robert Frost, playwright Arthur Miller, and novelist Toni Morrison, and from Canada the Hong Kong-born Adrienne Louise Clarkson (former Governor General of Canada), and novelists Margaret Atwood and Spanish-born Yann Martel best known for his Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi.
Literary prizes are frequent among the members. For example, each of these past PEN presidents is a Nobel Laureate: John Galsworthy, Heinrich Böll, Arthur Miller, Mario Vargas Llosa, Per Wastberg, and Gyorgy Konrad.
Not all PEN members are so famous, of course, nor are all of them European or American. Members include the Bengali poet and essayist Annada Shankar Ray; India’s Jewish poet, playwright, editor and art critic Nissim Ezekiel; the Mumbai-based poet, art theorist and editor Ranjit Hoskote; the South African writers J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer; the Lebanese author Amin Maalouf; and Chinese writers including the poet and literary critic Yang Lian and the Internet political essayist Du Daobin.
PEN Nepal (‘PENN’ for short) has a roster of nearly 40 members, with almost equal representation by women and men. Over the years they have included such local writers as Sushma Acharya, Bhuvan Dhungana, Archana Karki, Shanti Mishra, Ram Kumar Pandey, Prakash Poudel (‘Maila’), Prakash A. Raj, Ram Dayal Rakesh, Greta Rana, Prakash Sayami, Megh Raj Sharma (‘Manjul’), Usha Sherchan, and Maya Thakuri (to name a few).
The most popular writings genres among them are the short story and poetry, followed by non-fiction, novels, travel writing and other forms of wordsmithing. Some members excel in more than one form, and they write in several languages including Nepali, Newari, English, Hindi, and Maithili. Some of their writings have been translated into European languages including German and French. Some members write on historical themes, others on contemporary issues. Prakash A. Raj, for example, was one of the first to be published by Lonely Planet with his travelers’ guidebooks on Nepal and India. But, he has also written on Nepal’s Democracy Movement, the royal massacre, and issues of political interest and crisis of identity. The breadth of talent, the languages represented, and variety of expression within this group are noteworthy.
The founding of a PEN Nepal Center was first formally encouraged by International PEN in a letter to a small group of interested Nepalese writers in September 1988, shortly after the 52nd PEN World Congress in Seoul, Korea. An executive committee was quickly constituted, and the first meeting was held in February 1989 at the British Council in Kathmandu. PEN Nepal was officially registered by the government of Nepal immediately following the successful 1990 Democracy Movement (Jana Andolan) that ended the Panchayat era. The prime minister at the time, K.P. Bhattarai, was very supportive. The time was right.
PEN Nepal’s first president (1989-91) was Shanti Mishra, one of a handful of Nepalese who first pursued the possibility of joining PEN International during the 1980s. Mishra was a librarian at Tribhuvan University at the time, as well as a translator and writer. She was especially attracted to PEN for “its stand not to be involved in state or party affairs, strongly believing that writers, as writers, should be above politics.” In Voice of Truth (1994), she praises PEN for its collaboration with UNESCO “to promote the translation works by writers in lesser-known languages and its international congresses to bring together writers from different nations of the world” and for its support to “refugee writers and writers imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”
Two of PEN Nepal’s most dedicated and active founders were the first vice president Druva Chandra Gautam, and first secretary Greta Rana. Gautam is a well known novelist, short story writer and dramatist. He has been acclaimed as a writer who’s “colossal output and ceaseless experimentation to come up with something new each time has placed him in the center stage of Nepali fiction” for his several novels and his part in developing the short story in Nepali. Michael Hutt, a literary scholar, also calls him a prolific writer who “deals almost exclusively with contemporary social issues” with “a unique narrative style.” Among his novels are Antyapachhi (After the End), Baluwamathi (On Sand), and Alikhit (Unwritten) for which Gautam received Nepal’s coveted Madan Puraskar award.
Greta Rana is well known as a poet, novelist, short story writer and playwright. Her interest in PEN arose in 1986, when she attended the First World Conference of Women Writers, in Israel. There she met Angelika Mechtel, vice president of the West German PEN Center at the time. Mechtel suggested that Nepal should seek to become a PEN affiliate. Greta and others in Nepal were interested. This was a time when writers were being harassed all over the world for speaking out in print – in eastern Europe, South America and, not least, in Nepal under the Panchayat government (1960-1990). (When are writers not being harassed for their writings, somewhere in the world?)
While Rana, Gautam, Mishra and a few others such as Archana Karki were working to establish a PEN Nepal Center, the country was going through an especially onerous period of suppression of the arts and literature. As someone put it, “The Panchayat era was a glum time for writers. There was government censorship. Newspapers were closed down. Presses were smashed. Editors went to jail.” Older writers could also remember even more severe constraints during the previous century of autocracy, up to 1951.
Personally, Greta Rana hesitated to pursue the idea at first, for two reasons. For one, she knew the difficulties endured by writers in Nepal and was reluctant to push too hard. For another, as a resident expatriate (English, from Yorkshire, married to Madhukar Rana, a Nepalese economist), she felt shunned as an outsider by some of the more insular Nepalese. (This penchant for insularity, or “groupism”, is discussed in Shanti Mishra’s book, Voice of Truth.) Nonetheless, within two years, Greta was well into founding the Nepal Center.
PEN Nepal began ‘on a shoestring’, as the saying goes. Local writers were enthusiastic, and while the association had few resources, they made do. Each year they have tried to sponsor at least one delegate to the PEN World Conference. The first to attend was Druva Chandra Gautam. Participation in world conferences often relies on finding outside sources of help, and a few have paid their own way. PEN world conferences provide a forum to promote local writers, to catch up on global interests and concerns, and to meet some of the world’s most well known authors.
From 1992 to 1998, Druva Chandra Gautam was president, followed for two years by Greta Rana. In 1991, Bhuvan Dhungana was elected the fourth president of PEN Nepal. Dhungana is a short story writer, poet, literary translator, and academician. Her most poignant and well known short story is ‘The Thousand Rupee Note.’ She also writes frequently in national newspapers. Over time she has become a well known spokesperson for Nepalese women writers. In 2001, at the end of her term as PEN Nepal president, she was described in the press as a respected and “independent-minded intellectual.”
Currently, PEN Nepal is headed by Raj Kumar Pandey, its fifth president. Panday is a noted Haiku poet and author. The secretary is Prakash A. Raj, a non-fiction and travel writer, and vice president of the Nepal Council of World Affairs. Murari Sigdel, a poet and stationary store owner, is treasurer. Greta Rana, along with Maya Thakuri, a short story writer, and Prakash Sayami, a poet, radio broadcaster and music analyst, are also on the executive board. As an example of the literary talents on this team, Maya Thakuri has received high praise for her short story ‘The Trap’, about girl-trafficking. This story has been translated and published in Secret Places: New Writing from Nepal (1989; an anthology from the University of Hawaii edited by Samrat Upadhyaya and Manjushree Thapa) and in Manjushree Thapa’s recently published The Country is Yours (2009).
Back in 1989, the founders of PEN Nepal made six promises: to act and speak with a collective voice for writers; to improve relations among writers; encourage, stimulate and foster the production of translations of Nepalese works into main European languages; to honor Nepalese writers and give them international exposure; to help eminent Nepalese writers to publish their unpublished works; and to support International PEN’s goal of promoting the ideal of universality both in the field of international intellectual cooperation and the defense of freedom of expression. The organization continues to pursue these goals, and as active members of PEN’s Women Writers Committee and Writers in Prison Committee they are actively addressing some of the major issues that writers face today.
Women Writers Committee
The first Women Writers Committee (WWC) was started by members of the PEN American Center in 1986. It was led by the short fiction writer and poet Grace Paley and novelist Meredith Tax. When the idea of elevating it to formal status within the larger organization was raised, however, it was met with skepticism by some of the conservative (male) members of International PEN. Feminism annoyed them, especially mottoes of the time like this one attributed to Grace Paley – “Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world!”
Regardless, a few years later a resolution to establish a Women Writers Committee at the international level was adopted at the 1991 PEN World Conference in Vienna, Austria. In her speech to the conference delegates, Meredith Tax described WWC as part of the greater Women’s Liberation Movement. With intentional irony she told them: “This whole movement is the fault of teaching women to read. When people begin to read, they begin to think more clearly. When they begin to think more clearly, they begin to write their thoughts down, and from then on you have nothing but trouble...”
Nepal’s Greta Rana was present in Vienna that year, and remembers it well. After the women’s committee resolution was approved, Meredith Tax was elected as the first international WWC chair person. In 1994, Greta was elected to the next two-year term as chairperson. It was a great moment for PEN Nepal members to see one of their own recognized and achieve such an honor.
International PEN has said that “Women face particular challenges to engaging with reading and writing; from unequal access to resources, to caring responsibilities, to the fact that there are some countries in which a book by a woman author has never been published. [PEN] aims to support the development of women writers and encourages the participation of its members across all areas of International PEN’s work...” In addition, representatives of the WWC are involved with the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and with human rights cases involving women writers worldwide.
PEN Nepal’s involvement in the women’s writers movement was encouraged by a speech Greta Rana gave in 1991 at Vienna on the subject of Mondialism, the ‘New World Order’ movement. Then, in 1995, Greta Rana and Manju Kanchuli attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. There, together with representatives from Bangladesh and Mexico, they presented a resolution promoting special measures to protect women writers who are under specific threat for what they have written. It was enthusiastically adopted by the delegates. But, as Greta notes, discouragingly, “Look what’s happened to Ang Sang Suu Kii.” Besides her role in Burmese politics and her long years under house arrest, Ang Sang Suu Kii has written almost a dozen books, including Nepal (1985) in the ‘Let’s Visit’ guidebook series.
In 1995, Nepal hosted a regional women’s conference at Bhaktapur. Some of Nepal’s work with WWC overlaps with PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee initiatives.
Writers in Prison Committee
In 1960, International PEN established the Writers in Prison Committee (WPC) to address increasing attempts to silence the voices of persecuted writers around the world. Today, the international committee monitors almost a thousand cases of writers who have been threatened, attacked, imprisoned, tortured, disappeared or killed for practicing their profession. At the heart of the PEN charter is Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The WPC is one of PEN’s most active and well known initiatives and, over time, many writers whose cases they monitor have been given honorary membership in International PEN.
In the early 1990s, PEN Nepal’s local committee took up the cause of the Bangladesh physician, writer and activist, Taslima Nasreen, who wrote the book Shame detailing the ill-treatment of Hindus during the Bangladesh emergency. For her writing, Nasreen was accused of blasphemy, a fatwa was issued against her by a fundamentalist group, and she was forced to go underground. She eventually fled to Europe.
In 2000, PEN Nepal hosted the international WPC World Conference in a resort at Godavari, outside of Kathmandu.
Seven years later PEN Nepal and other national PEN centers raised worldwide attention to the local case of Birendra Shah, a Nepalese journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in November 2007. For purposes of impartiality, it is common for a PEN center of one nation to monitor the affairs of another. During the Nepal insurgency, for example, Danish PEN was especially active on behalf of discrimination against writers in Nepal. At the time, Birendra Shah was investigating a report on illegal sandalwood smuggling in the Terai. The campaign protesting his murder was also backed up internationally by Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Federation of Journalists, and locally by the Federation of Nepalese Journalists.
National and international recognition
Given PEN Nepal’s goals to honor Nepalese writers and provide them international exposure, it is significant that PEN Nepal is one of only two Nepalese organizations requested each year to submit nominations to the Swedish Nobel Prize committee (the other is the Nepal Academy). While no Nepalese have won a Nobel Prize it is nonetheless noteworthy how many other international and national literary and scholarly awards, honors, gold medals, fellowships, and similar recognition there are among PEN Nepal members. Past and current executive committee members are prominent among the award winners. But so are many other members. Many have earned recognition from several organizations; Maya Thakuri tops the list with 16, and Usha Sherchan and Sushma Acharya each have at least eight. And, when you google ‘Greta Rana’ on the Internet, she comes up with over 7,200 hits, reflecting how well she and her work are known.
Many Nepalese literary awards and honors are named in honor and the memory of prominent past litterateurs (e.g., Siddhicharan Shrestha, Bhupi Sherchan, Dharnidhar Koirala, Kedarman Byathit, Rudra Raj Pandey, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, and others). Some are national level awards (e.g., Rastriya Partibha Puraskar, National Talent Award). Some, like the Madan Puruskar, are quite prestigious. A few, such as the Lokpriya Puraskar (from Nepal’s Literary Journalists Association), have been won by several PEN members over the years. Some are for poetry (e.g., the Kavita Mahatsav Medal and the Siddhicharan Poetry Award), short stories (e.g., Mainali Katha Puraskar), humor (Luitel Humor Award), and there are many for books and general literature.
Seven PEN Nepal members have won international recognition. They are Sushma Acharya (India’s Dulichand Gold Medal 1971, a Japan Foundation Fellowship 2000-01, and the International Nepali Literary Society of Washington DC’s Utkristha Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2009); Bhuvan Dhungana (South Asian Literary Recordings Project Fellowship, US Library of Congress, New Delhi office, 2007); Druva Chandra Gautam (the Russian Jaya Prithvi Ivan Minayev Honor 2009 from the association of Non-Resident Nepalese and Free Nepal Dot Com); Sulochana Manandhar (nominated for Zebra International Poetry Awards Festival 2004 in Germany, and a movie derived from her Newari language short story ‘Tutaan’, or ‘Walking-Stick’); Prakash A. Raj (Thomas Cook Best Guidebook Award 1982); Ram Dayal Rakesh (Japan’s Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize 2004); and Greta Rana (Germany’s Arnsberger International Kurzprosa Award 1991, along with an honorable mention from the North Carolina Poetry Workshop). In a word, this is an honorable list of member accomplishments.
All PEN centers are autonomous organizations that manage their own program of activities and work to promote the guiding principles of the PEN Charter. Local activities include public recitations of creative writing; book talks, literary conferences, seminars, symposia and workshops; publication of the journal PEN Points; a newsletter and occasional papers; and public announcement of writers’ awards and honors.
Most recently, PEN Nepal Center established the Laxmi Prasad Devkota Award, honoring Nepal’s Maha Kabi, ‘Great Poet’. In September 2009 the first ceremony commemorating the centenary of Devkota’s birth was held at which six Nepalese were honored for various works focused on Devkota’s life and legacy.
Since 2007, PEN Nepal has held several book talks featuring internationally renowned writers. One was the American writer Kai Bird, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (the man who built the first atomic bomb). Popular historian Charles Allen was also featured, discussing his well-received biography Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1900. The association also co-hosted, with the Nepal Council of World Affairs, a seminar with the Nepalese novelist Samrat Upadhyay, author of internationally acclaimed Arresting God in Kathmandu, The Guru of Love and The Royal Ghosts. A special program has also been held on Haiku in Nepal, with recitations by 15 poets, chaired by prize-winning local Haiku specialist, Raj Kumar Pandey.
PEN Nepal also holds periodic interaction programs celebrating the literary accomplishments of its members. Past interactions have featured Sulochana Manandhar, Ram Kumar Pandey, Gyanu Walker Paudel, Prakash A. Raj, Ram Dayal Rakesh, Diamond Shamsher Rana, Greta Rana, Megh Raj Sharma, Bhagirathi Shrestha, and Maya Thakuri.
Ask Greta Rana what drives a writer.
“You don’t write for fame, glory or profit”, she says. “You write for posterity, basically. You write because you have to write, because you are living in a certain time and observe certain things that have to come out. For some people they come out as rebelliousness, and other ways; but for a writer they come out as writing. You do it because there’s a story inside you that you want to tell... and not because you think you are going to get rich.”
“For human beings,” Greta concludes, “there’s magic in the written word, a magic that goes back to our very origins.”
PEN NEPAL may be contacted in Kathmandu at email@example.com (Ram Kumar Pandey, President), phone 98414.78.213), or at firstname.lastname@example.org (Prakash A. Raj, Secretary), phone 426.2471.
The founding of International PEN is told in ‘International PEN: Its creation and development to bring the world’s culture under one umbrella’ by Arthur Smith (ezinearticles.com).
The description of Gautam’s “colossal output...” as a writer is from ‘Contemporary Nepali literature’ by Michael Hutt (postcolonialweb.org/southasia/nepal/dahal3.html); see also Hutt’s Himalayan Voices: An Introduction to Modern Nepali Literature (1995).
The description of Bhuwan Dhungana as an “independent-minded intellectual” is by Manjushree Thapa in the Nepali Times (Nov. 9, 2001).
Meredith Tax’s speech with the ironical comment about teaching women to read is archived at www.wworld.org; see also ipwwc.org.
For more about the Writers in Prison Committee see pen.org, internationalpen.org, englishpen.org, and pensweden.org/Svenska_rapid.htm.
The author (a member of PEN Nepal) may be contacted at email@example.com. He thanks members of PEN Nepal Center executive leadership for their help with this article.
Photo: Pramod Neupane-WWF Nepal From red pandas swaying on branches in the eastern Himalayas...