The PEN World series showcases the important work of the more than 140 centers that form PEN International. Each PEN center sets its own priorities, but they are united by their commitment to advocate for imperiled writers, promote literature from all cultures and in all languages, and advance the right of every individual to speak freely. In this series, PEN America interviews the leaders of different PEN centers from the global network to offer a window into the literary accomplishments and free expression challenges of their respective countries.

This month we feature German PEN. We spoke to Regula Venske, General Secretary of German PEN.

What is a project that German PEN has been working on in recent months?

Our staff, along with Vice-President Franziska Sperr, who is in charge of our Writers in Exile Program (which is being sponsored by the German government), have been very busy taking care of our eight guests, who at present include two writers from Syria and one each from China, Vietnam, Georgia, Tunisia, Colombia, and Cameroon. Applications for this program are doubling and tripling due to wars and the inhibitions on freedom of speech in so many countries.

As for myself, my colleagues Sascha Feuchert (vice-president, chair of the Writers in Prison program), Hans Thill (member of the board, Writers for Peace), and I have been putting together an anthology on Writers in Prison/Writers at Risk, including essays and poems by or about many international colleagues, including Ekbal Baraka, Gioconda Belli, Can Dündar, Ashraf Fayadh, Solomon Hailemariam, Chelsea Manning, Enoh Meyomesse, John Ralston Saul, Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, and Liao Yiwu.

This past weekend, we presented this book at the Leipzig Book Fair at various events with members of German PEN and our guest of honor, Egyptian publisher Mohamed Hashem (see picture). 

What is a key free expression challenge facing Germany?

With the influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and various North African and Middle Eastern countries, German society faces the biggest challenge of integration since Reunification. Unfortunately, many citizens are responding with fear, both rational as well as irrational fear. So one of the main challenges will be how to deal with ugly hate speech as well as how to pacify outbursts of intolerable violence.

Would you share with us something that interests you about the literary traditions in Germany?

It’s difficult to decide what to talk about since there are so many traditions throughout history and at present, too. Let me just point out that I would rather speak about German-language literature than about German literature or literature in Germany. Until 1871, there was no “Germany” as a unified state, but certainly there was wonderful German-language literature.

In this context, it may be interesting for Americans to know that it was Martin Luther who “invented” a united written German language by translating the Bible from Greek into German while in hiding at Wartburg Castle in September 1521. (Until then, there had been translations of the Bible only in various German dialects). Thus, Luther not only made the Scripture available to “ordinary” people but also created “High German,” which we still use nowadays in a modernized form. In 2017, when German Protestants celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses, of course, we will be critical of the antisemitism in his writings. However, we will still honor his achievements and remember that he, who was considered a heretic and banned as an outlaw, is one of our most famous writers at risk.

Would you update us on something new in the literary world of Germany today?

Some of the finest contemporary writers writing in the German language are either kids of immigrants or have emigrated themselves, such as Adel Karasholi (b. 1936 in Damascus, Syria), Rafik Schami (b. 1946 in Damascus, Syria), Said (b. 1947 in Tehran, former president of German PEN), Nobel-laureate Herta Müller (b. 1953 in Nitchidorf, Romania), Najem Wali (b. 1956 in Basra, Iraq), Olga Martynova (b. 1962 in Dudinka, Russia), Feridun Zaimoglu (b. 1964 in Bolu, Turkey), Navid Kermani (b. 1967 in Siegen, Germany), Terézia Mora (b. 1971 in Sopron, Hungary), or Alina Bronsky (b. 1978 in Yekaterinburg, Russia).

Who is a writer from Germany that we in the United States might not yet know about? Would you introduce us?

In general, American and English-language readers don’t seem as eager to read the literature of other countries as German readers do. I’m afraid many fine writers whom I would like to recommend have not been translated into English yet. One of my must-reads is a novel that has been turned into a fine movie, too, in case you can’t get hold of an English translation. It’s Die Wand (The Wall) by Austrian novelist Marlen Haushofer (1920-1970). The novel was first published in 1963, and the movie, directed by Austrian director Julian Pölsler, starring Martina Gedeck, is from 2012. It’s about a woman spending a holiday at her friends’ summer house in the Austrian Alps, and awakening one morning, finding that she is the only woman left on earth, with a glass wall separating her valley from the rest of the world. You can read it with a philosophical mind, as a dystopian novel, through a feminist lens, understand it all on a psychological level, or just enjoy a good story.