PEN American Center Receives the NBCC’s Ivan Sandrof Life Achievement Award

By Eric Banks

In this time of global connectedness, of strong interest in reading literature in translation and expanding the perspectives from which Americans view the world, the NBCC has named PEN American Center as the 2008 recipient of its Ivan Sandrof Life Achievement Award. Since its founding in 1922, PEN has been committed to fostering international literary fellowship. Its charter states, “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.” PEN has maintained this legacy, twinned with a commitment to freedom of speech.

NBCC Sandrof Committee chair Geeta Sharma Jensen notes that PEN American Center is the largest of the 141 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. International PEN was founded in 1921 to dispel national, ethnic, and racial hatreds and to promote understanding among all countries.

PEN American Center, founded a year later, works to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship. In addition to defending writers in prison or in danger of imprisonment for their work, PEN American Center sponsors public literary programs and forums on current issues, sends prominent authors to inner-city schools to encourage reading and writing, administers literary prizes, promotes international literature that might otherwise go unread in the United States, and offers grants and loans to writers facing financial or medical emergencies.

Among the PEN initiatives that make it worthy of the Sandrof Award is PEN World Voices, the international literary festival founded in the spring of 2005. PEN World Voices was created to highlight the international nature of literature, the way in which it crosses frontiers, and to deal with the dearth of world literature being translated in the United States. PEN World Voices (and its dissemination of programming on the Internet) has brought under one “tent” a wide range of writers, from its first year onward. PEN has also encouraged translation through its awards and grants and championed the freedom of expression of writers around the world—work that has rarely been recognized.