London, 1921: Cornish novelist C.A. Dawson Scott and literary figure John Galsworthy found the first PEN organization, The PEN Club (an acronym for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists), in an effort to bring the writers of the world together. Mrs. Dawson Scott envisioned this as the first step toward cross-cultural understanding - a concern of especial significance in the years following the First World War. Nearly a century later, the PEN Charter's decree to keep literature a "common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals" continues to hold great importance.
One year after the 1921 founding of London's PEN Club, The PEN American Center was created in New York. The non-profit has since become the largest of the 141 centers of International PEN. The center's mission to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship currently takes many forms. Year-round, PEN works to defend writers in prison, sends literary advocates to inner-city schools, bestows literary prizes, offers grants and loans to writers facing financial or medical troubles, and organizes numerous public literary programs. Of particular note is the week-long PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, launched in 2005 by Salman Rushdie, PEN's president at the time. The festival brings to New York City new and established writers from all over the world for readings, conversations, and debates. The 2008 Festival, held April 28th through May 4th, counted nearly 200 participants from 45 different countries. The Festival's theme of Public Lives/Private Lives deliberately addressed contemporary issues: "How do we express identity in the face of cultural differences, political oppression, and war? When must we tell private stories for the public good? How, as readers, writers, and citizens, do we confront threats to our privacy? What can still be considered private in the Internet age?" These questions served as an umbrella for the Festival's jam-packed schedule of eighty events, among them "Crisis Darfur," a conversation with Mia Farrow and Bernard-Henri Lévy, "Open Letter" with Salman Rushdie & Umberto Eco, "Olympic Voices: A Celebration of New Literature from China," and conversations between Jeffrey Eugenides (U.S.) and Daniel Kehlmann (Austria/Germany), Péter Esterházy (Hungary) and Wayne Koestenbaum (U.S.)s, and Bernhard Schlink (Germany) and André Aciman (Egypt/U.S.). During each of these conversations, an empty chair sat beside the speakers as a solemn reminder of all those writers currently silenced through censure or imprisonment. Welcoming Festival participants, along with a letter signed by PEN World Voices Chair Salman Rushdie and PEN President Francine Prose, was a black box imprinted with the Festival's logo - inside, a custom, belly-banded Moleskine notebook awaited its recipients to put pen to paper. "Our intention," reads the letter, "is to have this notebook become a memento of your participation in this celebration of literature from around the globe."