An Interview with Michael Scammell
Antonio Aiello: You’ve been involved with PEN, both PEN International and American PEN, for over forty years. What initially sparked your interest?
Michael Scammell: I was always very interested in both politics and literature, so the combination took me to PEN very early on. I started out as a translator when I was in graduate school at Columbia in the early ’60s, and sometime later took note of the dissident movement in Russia and started translating work by such writers as Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sinyavsky. Censorship has always been a huge issue for me, and the idea of any writer being silenced is to my mind heinous and unacceptable. But my relationship with PEN has often been stormy. Shortly after joining in the ’60s, I resigned again when they refused to take up a particular case. I forget what it was now, but I later realized that PEN was too small in those days to do more than a few cases at a time. In fact I soon had proof of it. In 1972 I started the magazine Index on Censorship, which was a perfect outlet for me. It had a clarity to its goal of opposing censorship that could be expressed in a literary form, and it also allowed me to take my translation in new directions. As a result of my work with Index, I published a lot of literary work as well as protest letters by Solzhenitsyn, and just before he was expelled, and at his request, I published his Letter to the Soviet leaders, an appeal to the Soviet government to cease its censorship and to pull back from the persecution of intellectuals and writers. That’s when I had the idea of writing a biography of Solzhenitsyn.
Aiello: And when did you become involved with the Writers in Prison Committee or International PEN?
Scammell: It began in 1976, and was directly connected with my magazine. I was invited to a meeting of the Writers in Prison Committee at the London Congress that year and the only two people present were the International Secretary, Peter Elstob, and the Swedish writer Per Wästberg, who was the International PEN president. I looked around at the empty room and they said, “We’ve invited you here because we want you to try to re-start the Writers in Prison Committee.” There was no one else left. There had never been more than three or four other members anyway, so I set to work to build the committee from scratch into a real, worldwide committee representing many centers. One result was that I became the absolute bête noire of the East European centers. I had repeated clashes with them because I knew Russian fluently, and also Serbo-Croatian, and I understood Bulgarian and a little Polish. I had also written about writers from Russia and the satellite countries as editor of Index in some detail, and knew the situation there very well.
Aiello: Going through PEN’s history, I noticed that the Russian PEN Center rarely attended international congresses.
Scammell: Yes. It was only after Perestroika that the Russians began sending a delegation to PEN congresses. But there were a bunch of East European centers, which had survived from the pre-Cold War days when they had not been part of the Communist Bloc. Bulgaria had one, Romania had one, Hungary had one, East Germany had one—as a result there were both East and West German centers. There was also a Polish Center and a Czech Center. They all defended the Soviet Union and they usually spoke and acted as a bloc, so Russia was always a ghostly presence in the wings.
The Hungarian Center had an interesting role in all this. Its delegation was invariably led by Ivan Boldizsar, a poet in his youth and a holdover from the pre-war days; he spoke English well and had several old friends in western PEN centers. The Hungarians were the permitted “dissidents.” They often differed from the party line, and acted as intermediaries in trying to come up with compromises that would please both sides. I suspected then, and I have learned since, that Boldizsar was reporting back not only to the Hungarian police and government but also to the Soviets. He was a consummate diplomat and had very gentlemanly manners.
Aiello: How about cases outside the Eastern Bloc?
Scammell: One that caused the greatest scandal was when I refused to make Nelson Mandela a PEN prisoner of conscience. I was always something of a purist in this regard. My argument was, rightly or wrongly, that he was not a writer. He may have produced a few political statements, but there were plenty of South African writers in trouble or in jail who needed our assistance more. We made our point, but of course Mandela was a hugely popular international figure and everyone wanted to be in on the action. Besides, the entire Eastern Bloc was up in arms because South Africa was one of those black sheep associated with the west that helped them justify their own regimes.
Much later, when South American military regimes came to power in Brazil, Argentina, Chile in particular, and Peru to a certain extent, I certainly was as critical about their censorship and treatment of writers as I was on the Eastern Bloc regimes, and then we had the curious position where I was on the same side as the Hungarians, Bulgarians, and East Germans, because we all agreed that these dictatorships were responsible for hundreds of deaths and for putting writers in jail, whereas some of the western centers were less concerned. This mixing of allies is common whenever the Writers in Prison Committee has been active enough.
Aiello: How did you end up coming to the United States? And how did you become president of PEN American Center?
Scammell: In 1980, I resigned from Index to work full time on my biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and in 1981, after receiving grants from Columbia University and the Ford Foundation, I came to the U.S to work on the book. I also conducted a seminar on censorship at NYU, and ran the first student exchange program between NYU and Hungary and Romania, started by George Soros. I continued as chair of the Writers in Prison Committee for a couple of years and then I resigned. I felt that the chair of the committee should be in London, which was the international headquarters.
In 1986 I was offered a job at Cornell as a professor of Russian and started work on the authorized biography of Arthur Koestler, the author of Darkness at Noon and another celebrated fighter for freedom and freedom of expression. In 1994 I moved to Columbia to teach nonfiction creative writing and translation. I had many friends at PEN, including Karen Kennerly, the then Executive Director, and I had played a part in the 1986 Congress in New York, so I was on familiar territory. I joined PEN American Center’s version of the Writers in Prison Committee, the Freedom to Write Committee. When I went to a couple of PEN board meetings, it was clear that the board was riven in two factions. One faction felt the board was too large, too unwieldy, and was not really accomplishing very much in the way of work, while the other wished to continue as before.
At one of the meetings, during a question and answer period, I made quite a long statement saying something to the effect of, “Well it is clear to me that this is dysfunctional and that is dysfunctional. There are too many of you. You need to reorganize the board; you need to reorganize the committees and have people take responsibility.” It was very hard to pin down who was carrying responsibility for what, and so a lot of things that needed to be done were left undone.
After the meeting I didn’t give it much more thought. That was just me speaking out, as I often do. Perhaps there was another meeting, I don’t remember. What I do remember is Paul Berman calling me and saying, “A group of us want you to stand as president,” which was a huge surprise. In a way, I felt that I didn’t have the stature or the status—I was essentially a British immigrant, though I was here to stay at that point, and not at all well known, let alone famous. But they were serious. And so I agreed and was elected president.
Aiello: And as incoming president, what did you have in mind for PEN?
Scammell: One of the most interesting and fascinating things to me was the way American PEN had grown since my early days as director of the Writers in Prison Committee. I don’t know that I can put a beginning date on it, but the 1986 Congress had a lot to do with that growth. It was an interesting parallel to American power generally. American military and industrial power was felt in the world earlier than its intellectual power. In the context of PEN, it’s important to remember that American writers and intellectuals were very sensitive to American imperial power; they did not want to be part of it, they did not want to exercise it, they did not want to be compromised by it. The 1986 Congress was a way of showing that, in effect, American writers and intellectuals, American contributions to cultural life, and certainly American money, were welcomed by other nations. In the context of PEN, the American Center began to move into a leadership role, and that’s when I think it began to expand its range of activities.
By 1997 it was readily apparent to me that the organization’s old structure couldn’t meet a growing set of responsibilities, and was still preoccupied with parochial American concerns. The board still consisted of around forty [people], a number I considered much too large to be efficient. As President one hopes for a board that is actually going to do some work, but with so many members on the board, there were too many opportunities to pass work off to someone else, who all too often didn’t do it. With fewer people, everyone can fit in the same room and it’s easy to tell who is pulling their weight and who is simply passing the buck.
Part of my remit when I was elected President was to re-organize the board and to make it smaller. I formed a committee from members representing various constituencies to draw up a new constitution and there was a clear majority in favor of reform so we were able to cut the size of the board drastically.
We also came to the conclusion that we needed a new Executive Director. Karen Kennerly was a personal friend of mine and had been director for twenty years. I knew that she very much wanted to write a book and that she wanted to cross over from being an organizer and administrator to being a writer herself, and this was her opportunity to do that. We settled on Michael Roberts as her replacement, who came to us from the administration of Harvard. It was an unusual choice, but one of the good things about him was that, as far as I knew, he did not fancy himself as a writer. He was a manager, an organizer, and he was intuitively aware of our international responsibilities and the need to use our financial resources in a tactful way. He did an excellent job of putting our new plans into effect. American PEN accepted a leadership role internationally, and took an active role in helping weaker PEN Centers to get established – which was a total departure for us – while we also strengthened our organization at home.
Aiello: Did you make any friendships during your time with PEN that have been key to your life as a writer?
Scammell: My friendships, for the most part, were not with writers I emulated, though one who came close was the South African novelist, Nadine Gordimer, who was also a president of PEN International.
The president who probably influenced me the most was the Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, and we have remained friends. The best PEN International presidents are the ones who can turn the focus of PEN somewhere new, and Mario was perfect for the task. He himself was in exile from Peru, and he helped us understand the plight of Latin American writers facing repressive (and often military) regimes in Latin America and gave us a bridgehead for strengthening PEN centers there and finding ways to assist them. I would say that he single-handedly established PEN as a major presence in that continent.
Aiello: How do you feel about where PEN is headed these days?
Scammell: One inevitable result of PEN having gotten so large is a certain degree of impersonality creeping into its operations. What I tend to resist—which is typical I think of my (that is, the older) generation—is what I would call bureaucratization. Certain protocols seemed to have been established at the last couple of congresses I attended, that strongly resembled the proceedings of the United Nations and other governmental bodies to me. For instance, the PEN resolutions I saw were composed of the most incredible legalistic gobbledygook I’ve ever come across in my life! I mean for a bunch of writers to be saying “whereas” and “insofar as” and going on for paragraphs at a time strikes me as making a mockery of our profession. It distresses me, particularly when it comes to Writers in Prison Resolutions, to see statements and resolutions wrapped in so much verbiage that you can’t decipher what’s really being said.
The other impression I get—obviously I’m in touch with people like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc.— is increasingly of several different rights organizations chasing the same cases and expanding their definitions of their mission. Maybe it’s a good thing if you have three or five or eight human rights organizations promoting the same case, and maybe it’s going to have more impact than if a writers’ group alone does it, but there are more than enough injustices committed against writers, journalists, lawyers, etc., for each rights group to stick to its own turf. My mind is probably too tidy, but I sense a certain opportunism in the way advocacy groups are stretching their definitions.
On the other hand, I’m delighted to see that PEN has more influence in the world than in the old days. Human rights have come into their own as a value that needs to be defended and also reckoned with. The causes espoused by PEN and other groups are better documented and better publicized than they used to be.
Today, PEN is a different organization than when I first became involved in it, much larger and much better organized. If this comes at the cost of some impersonality and bureaucratization, so be it. PEN has an impact, a real voice. Meanwhile, American PEN has taken a really positive leadership role in international PEN, and since America, for all its faults, is in its essence an inherently democratic country, it is able to have great influence on developing democratic practices elsewhere in the world.