Johano Strasser: German P.E.N. Center – advocate for free speech

The German P.E.N., which has had its office in Darmstadt since 1951, is counted among the most active of the worldwide 140 existing P.E.N. centres. Their charter commits the authors associated under P.E.N. to stand up for the freedom of art and expression at all times, not only in their home country but also around the world. With its Writers-in-Prison programme, the German P.E.N. Center supports the cause of persecuted writers, journalists and publishers as well as their family members, attempts to make contact with them, and informs the public about their fate. Moreover, the centre organizes public campaigns in cooperation with other human rights organizations and applies diplomatic channels in order to assist colleagues who are harassed, detained, tortured or threatened with death and, if possible, to free them from the grasp of their oppressors.

However, precisely when that task has been successful and the persecuted writers have been able to flee to Germany, a new problem arises: how can the exiled authors survive as writers here? That is the reason why, in 1999, P.E.N. initiated a Writers-in-Exile programme with financial assistance from the federal government. At first, accommodations for exiled writers were provided in six cities. Foreign colleagues who make it into the programme receive a grant from the budget of the State Minister for Culture and the Media. It has a maximum term of three years.
Dwellings are paid for by either the host municipality or the Writers-in-Exile programme. In addition, the P.E.N. office in Darmstadt as well as volunteer P.E.N. members or affiliates help the grant holders overcome the various challenges of everyday life. They establish contacts with publishers, translators and editors as well as organize readings and discussion meetings for them.

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Meanwhile, the programme has been extended to accommodate a seventh grantee. Furthermore, several cities have taken the initiative to follow the lead of P.E.N., such as Darmstadt with the Elsbeth Wolffheim grant. The cooperation between P.E.N. and the city of Darmstadt and its cultural facilities has been exemplary from the beginning, in the 1950s, until now. That is reflected in not only the city’s organizational and financial support of P.E.N.’s work, but also joint events such as the yearly awarding of the Kesten prize in the Karolinensaal hall or, since last year, the state theatre.

Working for persecuted writers is arduous and, at times, frustrating. Yet: whoever is dedicated to that task is bound to experience a personal enrichment and satisfaction as a result of contributing to such an undeniably meaningful cause. Besides, we should be reminded that it is in our own interest when cultural energies are given full and free expression anywhere in the world. We have long been living in a global community, where the thoughts and actions of people from all cultures and continents are closely correlated. Wherever it is that free speech, art or culture are op­pressed, we are affected by it because it confines our realm of experience and curtails our human potential.

Last but not least – we contribute to securing peace, civility and the political culture of democracy at home by supporting those who are being persecuted and robbed of their dignity abroad. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in a democracy must take a stake in as expansive as possible a propagation of tolerance and respect of human rights because it also increases our and our children’s chances of living in enduring peace and freedom.

P.E.N._vonBrill_11Johano Strasser was born in Leeuwarden (the Netherlands) in 1939. In 1967, he obtained a doctorate in philosophy. In 1977, he habilitated in political sciences at the Freie Universität Berlin. The author was editor and co-publisher of the politico-literary magazine “L‘80” and has been an independent writer since 1983. Since 1995, he has been secretary general of the West German, then pan-German P.E.N. Since 2002, Johano Strasser has been president of the German P.E.N. Center. He has written numerous fact books, novels, audio dramas, plays and poems.