PEN Signs Off With a Flourish of Feminist Wrath

Times Staff Writer

Not with a whimper but a bang, the 48th International Congress of PEN came to a noisy, if somewhat exhausted, end here last week. Four straight days of dawn-to-dusk talk were capped by a fifth, but this time the talk turned angry, impassioned, fervent.

“I would like to speak,” poet/novelist Erica Jong said, approaching a middle-of-the-aisle microphone, “just so that as usual, a man would not have the last word.

‘Issue of Invisibility’

“The issue here is the issue of invisibility,” Jong said. “We have written and written and written, from the time of Sappho, all the way up to Jane Austen and the present. And yet we remain, at some level, invisible.

“Our question is, why do you look at us and not see?”

To which PEN American Center chairman Norman Mailer fired back, “I would say that Erica Jong is the last woman in the world who could claim invisibility.”

The remark drew boos and hisses, and even a steady stream of female walkouts, an indication of the broiling dissatisfaction that many of the women attending this gathering of about 800 novelists, poets, essayists, editors, biographers, documentarians and translators from around the planet had come to feel. Nearly half the delegates to the PEN congress were women, and yet among 117 panelists, they complained in a formal statement drafted during a heated meeting the day before, only 16 were women. Of 51 “honored guests,” just eight were female.


“Sixteen out of 117 is about 14%,” Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood told the last-day meeting. “That’s about the same as in the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse, which begins in the 11th Century. This is the 20th.”

Speaking on behalf of her female colleagues in a 20-minute slot allotted to the women protesters reminded her, Atwood said, “of when I was at Harvard Graduate School"--she glared sharply at conference chairman Mailer. Just the day before, Mailer had attributed the paucity of female panelists in part to the fact that “there are not that many women . . . who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second. More men are intellectuals first, so there was a certain natural tendency to pick more men than women.”

With an ironic smile, Atwood explained that she had thrown in the reference to Harvard “to demonstrate the fact that I have at least a smear of intellectualism.”

Standing there as a spokesperson for her gender, Atwood said an ad hoc women’s caucus had asked her to speak because “we need someone who will be equal to a man.”

“Which man and how many at a time, I wondered,” Atwood said. “Four out of five men is all right, but 117 is a pretty tall order.”

‘Amazement, Perplexity’

As novelist Grace Paley observed, the absence of women panelists was a fact that more or less crept up on female delegates. “By Wednesday,” she said, “many women had begun to talk to each other--first in absolute amazement, perplexity and with the stunned feeling of what year this is.

“I think we didn’t want to believe it,” Paley said. “We kept thinking it would be better tomorrow.”

Then, reading the statement of protest to a standing-room-only audience, Paley added, “As much as I came to tire of the continuous drone of grown-up male voices, so did we miss dark colors. We want to include in this the failure to include enough people of color.”

For his part, Mailer defended the skewed ratio of women to men by explaining that “from the beginning, the notion was to get the very best writers we could.” And, he went on, “there are some countries where there are no good writers who were women.”

Chastised by Mailer

When comments and catcalls were leveled at him from the floor, Mailer chastised his audience. “We have a great many press people here who love theater,” he said. “If you would like to make this organization look like the backside of a horse instead of the front, then keep it up.”

Without offering a comparable list of men who had declined PEN’s invitation to attend the conference, Mailer rattled off a list of 24 distinguished female writers and poets “who chose not to come.” With that in mind, Mailer said, “I will take responsibility for the fact that we didn’t keep searching for more and more women.”

After all, Mailer said, “We didn’t want a congress that would establish a political point at the expense of considerable mediocrity.”

At that remark, another large exodus of women from the room began.

“Those women who would like to leave,” Mailer said, “may do so with the surrogate literary pope’s blessing.”

In any case, Mailer said, “These matters are simple. We don’t have to get upset about them.”

“We are not upset,” a woman leaving the room called out. “We are deeply insulted.”

Sitting in the second row of the crowded room, the jaw of PEN Los Angeles Center member Phyllis F. Gebauer, a Pasadena novelist, dropped open in amazement.

“I’m in Disneyland!” she exclaimed. “This can’t be happening.”

On the other hand, Gebauer and the nine or so other West Coast PEN members who had made the trek to New York found themselves registered as a foreign delegation. Los Angeles, it seemed, was regarded in much the same exotic, obscure way as, say, Mali, Chad or Afghanistan. To PEN Los Angeles Center president Malcolm Boyd, the scene was equally bizarre.

“I thought Norman was having a nervous breakdown in public,” Boyd said later.

The entire brouhaha, Boyd said, “suggests there was a real breakdown of communication between writers.” Here they were, coming together under one worldwide banner of creativity, Boyd said, “and yet there was no feeling of community.”

Beyond the question of sexual representation, Boyd said, the conference broke down into strata of famous writers--the big-name crowd--and less well-known but perhaps equally hard-toiling scribes.

“I think we shouldn’t get into the Oscar awards and movie glitz for writers,” Boyd said. “And I think we did.

“I mean, I know young writers who’ve come up to me and said ‘I want to be on the cover of Newsweek,’ and I’ve said why don’t you try writing a book first?”

Eroding Integrity

The elitist slant and a series of petty and not-so-petty disputes put a pall on the conference, Boyd said: “Basically, I think the integrity of writing was eroded. I was quite disappointed.”

Praising such panelists as South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, or Sipho Sepamla, a black South African writer who is less well-known to Western audiences, Boyd lauded those writers “who feel we must become involved as writers with social issues,” those writers “who put their energy into trying to change systems of injustice.

“To me,” Boyd said, “the focus of PEN should be the writer sitting in a jail somewhere, the writer who has been tortured.

“Did you know,” he asked, “that more than 400 journalists and writers are in jail at this very moment? Those are the ones who have been tracked. Who knows how many others have been tortured, kidnaped or who have simply disappeared?”

Boyd’s entreaty might have come straight out of an earlier PEN panel on writers “in opposition” to particular political systems.

“Our writers cannot remain silent,” novelist Isabel Allende, daughter of slain Chilean president Salvador Allende, said at that panel session. “They have a duty to oppose barbarism and to defend the best values of man.”

Naturally Opposed

In her own case, Allende said, “I am naturally in opposition. Being a Chilean, I oppose the military government of my country. Being a woman, I oppose the male chauvinist society to which I belong.”

Shrugging, Allende added that “I didn’t plan it this way, but this is what happens.”

To express his opposition, Allende said, “a writer will need all his imagination just to understand what is going on.” In Chile, she said, “Pinochet has invented something called totalitarian democracy. It looks and works like something created by (Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel) Garcia Marquez.”

South Africa’s Sepamla said his mere existence, never mind his writing, was a statement of opposition. “I am not English, as you can see,” Sepamla said. “I am black. I am a product of the colonization of my fatherland. I speak a language of the foreigner. I use English now, but at home I use about eight languages. I do not consider myself a writer because I don’t have the kind of audience that a writer has to have to write. If I write, I am writing for a largely white audience, an audience that I stand opposed to.”

Leading into his own talk about opposition writing, panel chair and California writer Ishmael Reed said archly, “If you haven’t seen me at any of the parties this week, it’s because I’ve been in my room, trying to tone down my remarks.”

Repression Unbounded

Cultural repression knows no boundaries, national or otherwise, Reed said: “The literary-industrial complex of publishers, critics, writers and slow-poke academia can only see cultural repression when it happens in other states. They can’t see it when it happens in their own state, the literary state.”

Along with racial, ethnic, sexual and cultural bias, said Reed, there is “regional prejudice.” Said Reed: “We are a multiculture in California, where I come from, and yet we are depicted as Lotus Eaters, a place where one fixes a redwood toilet with a coke spoon.”

Reed excoriated the “white male” culture that leaves so little room for any variation. “How can they know or understand foreign culture,” Reed asked, “when they know or understand so little about us?”

And then, echoing the disgruntlement of female PEN members, Reed said, “We are merely requesting that this organization, as well as the literary-industrial complex of which it is a member, face up to the important changes that have occurred in American literature since the 1960s.”

American Censorship

One aspect of American literature that PEN did choose to address was the touchy matter of censorship in America. Sitting in for Norman Lear, the producer and founder of People for the American Way, that organization’s Barbara Parker said censorship had been an increasingly urgent issue in recent years. Said Parker, wryly, “Someone said that the urge to censor is second only to the sex drive. Certainly that was the case in the last school year.”

In a study of school censorship last year, Parker said her organization had found censorship attempts in 48 out of 50 states, the same figure the group uncovered in 1982.

“Last year,” Parker said, “about 40% of the attempts did result in material being removed, or being moved to a restricted area.”

Those topics and authors banned, said Parker, included “all the old standbys--everything by the author Judy Blume; ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ once again called the filthiest book ever written; John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men'--it was called inappropriate and profane; ‘The Diary of Anne Frank'--its references to sexuality puts it on everybody’s lists, but last year it was called ‘depressing and a real downer’; ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ attacked because of its exploration of bigotry and prejudice.”

Added to that list, Parker said, were 400 lines removed from all high school textbook versions of “Romeo and Juliet.” The questionable lines from that Shakespeare play, Parker said, were faulted because “they are sexually explicit and would cause embarrassing situations in the classroom if ninth- and 10th-graders were allowed to read them aloud.”

‘Tolerance Day’

And then last year in Maine, said Parker, “a Tolerance Day program was canceled because of the inclusion of a homosexual.”

But looking at things optimistically, said novelist Kurt Vonnegut, “the same communities in America that are now burning books, when I was a boy were burning human beings. So I feel we have made some progress.”

In America, said poet Rose Styron, the phenomenon called censorship “on the one hand wants to establish its righteousness, while on the other, attempting to conceal its existence.”

After all, said Canada’s Atwood, America is the same country that denied entry to Canadian writer Farley Mowat.

“On the way to the United States to do publicity on behalf of his pro-animal book, ‘Sea of Slaughter,’ ” Mowat was stopped at the border, “unlike his luggage,” Atwood said.

“Maybe they were alarmed at Mr. Mowat’s kilt, as he has a reputation for kilt-flipping when festive. Either that, or they thought (Mowat’s) whales and sea lions were communistic.” (In April of last year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service excluded Mowat because, it said, he had past associations with communists, anarchists and subversives.)

Finally, as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, a Hungarian essayist and playwright in exile near Washington, D.C., complained, the discussion of American censorship was entirely too narrow. “At the same time,” he said, “we have Hungarian writers in Transylvania who are being persecuted, and they are not discussed.”

But nationalism, the notion of national identity in writing, was addressed.

Deep Personal Identity

“My identity with the state is very deep and very personal,” Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai declared. “To understand this kind of attitude, I would say it would be as if you had people in America in all fields of life in their late 50s and 60s--professors, doctors, lawyers--who still remembered being a soldier in George Washington’s army.”

Addressing the same topic, Canadian novelist Robertson Davies had a very different idea. “I adjure you,” he told his fellow writers, “forget about politics and politicians. Take the advice of John Kenneth Galbraith--a fellow Canadian, by the way--and turn ridicule upon them. They have no armor against it.

“My word to you,” Davies said in a fiery tone, “is get back to those ivory towers! If occasionally you want to throw spitballs at them, so be it, but do not make that your primary task. A week of collegial fraternity is quite enough. So on Saturday, back to your ivory towers!”

Preparing to return not to a tower, but to his pulpit, Episcopal priest Boyd said the congress had filled him with a new sense of urgency for the mission of PEN’s Los Angeles center.

“We are not a small club of writers having tea parties in nice houses,” Boyd said. “We aren’t that comfortable, not even in Lotus Land. We need a deeper sense of conscience, a deeper sense of commitment.”

Next year’s PEN congress will be held in Germany. Two years later, in 1989, the group will meet in Canada. As president of the anglophone section of Canadian PEN, Margaret Atwood left this congress with a vow: “I promise you now our congress will not only be bilingual, but also bisexual.”

The comment was met with a resounding cheer.

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