The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, we speak to Jennifer Clement. She is the president of PEN International and the first woman to be elected to the post since the organization was founded in 1921. Prior to that, Clement served as president of PEN Mexico and her work focused on the disappearance and killing of journalists.

Clement’s writing has focused on human rights issues, for which she has been recognized with numerous awards. The author of several books and collections of poetry, she spent over ten years researching the stealing of young girls in Mexico for her acclaimed novel Prayers for the Stolen. She lives in Mexico city.

Jennifer Clement will be participating in Mexico in Two Acts on April 27 and Mexico City: Place and Metaphor on May 1 at the PEN World Voices Festival.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

As soon as I could read, I began to write, and so being a writer has always been an integral part of my sense of self. I still have poems I wrote at the age of six.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

My children’s names on the birth certificate. At the time, it made me think of the task of Adam.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

I’m always in search of how the divine and profane coexist and how the powerless find ways to exercise power.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

I wouldn’t.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I don’t have a favorite place, but I do like to write before the sunrise in that pre-dawn stillness and quiet.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

I don’t believe a writer has a responsibility to the world or to any group. I’m disturbed by this trend of shielding readers (especially students) instead of generating debate. Within a personal code, I feel a responsibility to express my truth even if it might offend others.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

I do believe that writers should defend freedom of expression because it is equal to knowledge. I use the word “equal” because it is an equation.

I disagree with the notion that the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion. In Mexico, as one example, the public intellectual is still relevant. Just this month, several Mexican intellectuals, along with others, were asked to help draft the new constitution for Mexico City.

When, if ever, is censorship acceptable? 

It’s never acceptable. It is impossible to guarantee the integrity of those who decide what is to be censored or not.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?  

The line is a space between the two words, like the space between surrender and arrest or between interrogation and confession.