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Manila to host first ever PEN International Congress in Southeast Asia


By Kristofer Purnell

Since 1921, PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) International has vowed to promote literature, defend free expression, and foster mutual respect and harmony between countries and its peoples. These aims, as stated in the organization’s charter, are re-affirmed through the annual PEN International Congress, where participants exchange ideas, engage and debate on various topics, and pass resolutions relating to artistic freedom and human rights.

This year marks the 85th PEN International Congress, and it will be a special one, as the Philippine PEN Center—headed by National Artists F. Sionil José and Bienvenido Lumbera as founding chairman and chairman, respectively—will host the congress for the first time in Southeast Asia from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4 at De La Salle University (DLSU), with public events to be held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Museum of the Philippines.

The selected theme of the congress is “Speaking in Tongues: Literary Freedom and Indigenous Language,” in line with the United Nations’ declaration of 2019 as the International Year of the Indigenous Languages, and will focus on indigenous writing, linguistic diversity, and multiculturalism.

It is apt that the Philippines host this particular congress during the beginning of October, as in 2009 the month was declared National Indigenous People Month, to recognize “the importance of pluralistic culture in the country, calling for the conservation and promotion of its artistic and cultural products.”

The 85th PEN International Congress will have the following goals:

1. Promote literature and its expression in various languages and forms, including those of the indigenous people and cultural minorities;

2. Defend free speech, and promote expression and measures that address current concerns in societal environments, including peace, women’s rights, and linguistic diversity; and

3. Serve as a meeting-place for writers and readers from all over the world to exchange ideas and creative endeavors, and to increase understanding and international cooperation.

Speakers at the congress will include the Philippines’ very own Genevieve AsenjoMalou Jacob, Jaime A. Florcruz, Ricardo de Ungria, Charlson Ong, Karina Bolasco, Criselda Yabes, and National Artist for Literature Resil Mojares. International speakers include John H. McGlynn, Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Leila Chudori (all from Indonesia), Han Zaw (Myanmar), Ginny Tapley Takemori (Japan), Tammy Lai-Ming Ho (Hong Kong), Bina Sarkar Ellias (India), Lucina Kathmann (Mexico), and Ferdinand de Varennes of the United Nations.

The Philippine PEN Center was founded in December 1958 in Baguio City, with several distinguished literary people from across the globe in attendance. Founding members, alongside José and Lumbera, include other National Artists such as Francisco Arcellana, N.V.M. Gonzalez, Alejandro Roces, and Edith Tiempo. Distinguished members of PEN International include the likes of H.G. Wells, Robert Frost, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Anatole France, Joseph Conrad, and George Bernard Shaw.

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