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Oxford Student PEN Launch

April Pierce

Oxford Student PEN launch
15 June
English Faculty, Oxford


PEN has a long, prestigious history as a community of authors and activists, but the official launch of its Oxford branch was an inspiring chapter in the story of its development. Marking the founding of Oxford Student PEN, the event offered a unique opportunity for writers and thinkers of Oxford to engage with PEN for the first time, and to envision future prospects for the newest student branch. With speakers from diverse political and literary backgrounds, the afternoon highlighted some of PEN’s driving motivations.

The launch event opened with a panel discussion chaired by Professor Elleke Boehmer. Professor Peter McDonald posed the question: why literature and protest? How, he wondered, can PEN and Oxford students address the connection between writing and activism? Rachel Potter read from the PEN charter, and narrated PEN’s long-standing tradition of fostering intellectual freedom. She detailed PEN’s early exchanges with Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, among others, and recalled the reshaping of the society under the guidance of H.G. Wells, who envisioned PEN as a “world commonwealth” of writers.

Ellie Mae O’Hagan delivered a humorous, thought-provoking discussion on activism and literature. She gave examples of the intimate link between storytelling and political activism, including the London riots’ manifestations of Shakespearian tropes, and her own grandmother’s literary descriptions of grievances with the NHS. O’Hagan remarked that “activists must make their own literature… Activism is literature; it’s the literature of life”. James Currey agreed, describing the ways in which the messages of activists have changed the lives of writers in prison. He urged the new Oxford community to take their collaboration with PEN seriously, since “news does get through prison walls”. Though time was limited for discussion, the panel closed by addressing the question of PEN’s contemporary political and literary challenges.

Complementing the panel discussion, student representatives from the newly formed committee announced the decision of Oxford Student PEN to join the campaign on behalf of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer, activist and Nobel laureate. Professor Patrick McGuinness then chaired a translation showcase, featuring readings from translated and original work by Ketaki Kushri Dyson, a Bengali poet and translator; Ros Schwartz, a translator of French fiction and non-fiction; and Jamie McKendrick, poet and translator of Italian literature, whose translation of Valerio Magrelli, The Embrace, won the 2010 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. In addition to reading from their work, the panel members participated in a lively debate on topics ranging from the status of original languages in translated works to “Bibliodiversity” and the decline of independent publishers in the publishing industry.

In her keynote address, “The Power of Campaigning and PEN’s Influence, Reach and Impact”, Heather Norman Söderlind, acting director of PEN, expressed her enthusiasm for the newest student branch of PEN, and for the future of student campaigns. Welcoming students to the ninety-year-old community of writers, she described current issues and concerns. She also outlined future PEN actions, which will focus on libel reform, privacy in the context of new media, and literacy as it relates to human rights. The event was well attended and signalled a promising future for the new student chapter.

April Pierce is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She specializes in modernist literature and literary philosophies.