PEN Center USA

PEN Center USA

PEN Center USA, founded in 1943, is one of two PEN centers in the United States and 145 centers in the world.[1] It was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1981.[1] PEN Center USA’s membership of more than 800 writers includes poets, playwrights, essayists, and novelists (for the original letters in the "PEN" acronym), as well as television and screenwriters, critics, historians, editors, journalists, translators, and booksellers.[1] Its activities include public literary events, fellowship and mentoring programs, literary awards, and international human rights campaigns on behalf of writers who are censored or imprisoned.

PEN Center USA is an affiliate of International PEN, which was founded in London in 1921.[2] It is located in Los Angeles and primarily serves writers living west of the Mississippi river.



The organisation was originally established in 1943. In 1952 PEN International granted it the right to become PEN Los Angeles Center, able to set up its own chapters. In 1981 it was incorporated as a nonprofit association. In 1988 it requested a name change, and eventually it was renamed to PEN USA Center West.[3]

Mission Statement

PEN Center USA’s mission is to stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.[1]

Along with other centers around the world, PEN Center USA advocates for the release of imprisoned writers and for the protection of writers who suffer political prosecution, persecution, and censorship. The organization also produces a variety of programming for the writing community, which includes emerging and existing writers, translators, editors, agents, publishers, booksellers, teachers, librarians, and students in the public school system.


Freedom to Write

Freedom to Write is PEN's worldwide, collaborative effort to support free speech and to defend writers whose civil and human rights have been violated. In 1948, International PEN members helped to craft Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression… and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”[4] PEN holds Category A status at UNESCO and consultative status with the United Nations.

As a member of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, PEN Center USA members visit their colleagues in prison in other parts of the world and deliver aid in the form of letters and financial assistance.[4] PEN Center USA’s Freedom to Write Committee, made up of more than 200 volunteer writers, investigates regional and country-specific problems. Past efforts include the Nigeria Initiative, aimed at publicizing the link between oil politics and the silencing of dissent in Nigeria, and a coordinated campaign to end violent attacks against journalists in Latin America.[4]

As a member of the Rapid Action Network of International PEN, the PEN USA Freedom to Write Committee receives and responds to reports of arrests, attacks, and threats to more than 900 writers currently at risk around the world. Alerts are issued from International PEN via email to committee members, who then write letters of appeal to appropriate officials.[4]

PEN in the Classroom

Started in 1995, PEN in the Classroom is a creative writing residency program for high school students in Southern California. PEN Center USA facilitates the residency, selecting a professional writer from its membership to design a curriculum and to instruct in-class writing workshops. The program publishes a student anthology and offers a PEN in the Classroom literary contest. The residency culminates in a public reading.[5]

Emerging Voices

Emerging Voices is PEN Center USA's literary fellowship program. Applicants are accepted into the program for fiction, poetry, or non-fiction. Throughout the year-long cycle, each Emerging Voices fellow participates in a professional mentorship; hosted Q & A evenings with local authors; a series of Master classes focused on genre; and two public readings. The fellowship includes a $1,000 stipend.[6] The program is directed towards new writers who lack access and writers from immigrant, minority, and other underserved communities.[6] In 2008, PEN Center USA published an anthology called Strange Cargo with work by the Emerging Voices fellows from that year.[7] Past Emerging Voices mentors have included Jerry Stahl, Mary Yukari Waters, Marisa Silver, Mary Otis, and Sherman Alexie.

The Mark

Emerging Voices alumni are invited to apply to a second fellowship program called The Mark. This program is designed to help writers prepare their manuscripts for publication. It consists of a project defense, an ongoing workshop, a mid-term review, and a final review.[8] Mark program instructors include Mary Otis, Diana Wagman, Anna Journey, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi.

Literary Awards

Established in 1982,[9] PEN Center USA holds an annual competition that recognizes literary excellence in eleven categories: fiction, creative nonfiction, research nonfiction, poetry, children’s literature, translation, journalism, drama, teleplay, screenplay, and graphic literature. Past award winners include Barbara Kingsolver, Maxine Hong Kingston, T.C. Boyle and Paul Thomas Anderson.[9]

2011 Literary Awards Festival

PEN Center USA has announced the winners of the 2011 Literary Awards competition in eleven categories. A panel of writers, editors, critics, and journalists chose the recipients of the Literary Awards. PEN Center USA also announced the Festival Honorees: Robert Pinsky will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award; Dave Eggers will receive the Award of Honor; and Charles Bowden will receive the prestigious First Amendment Award. The Literary Awards, which include a one thousand dollar cash prize and honor the best writing in the western states, will be presented at the 21st Annual Literary Awards Festival at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Tuesday, November 8, 2011.

Robert Pinsky, Lifetime Achievement Honoree, published Selected Poems in 2011. His recent anthology, with accompanying audio CD, is Essential Pleasures. His honors include the Harold Washington Award from the city of Chicago and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his translation, The Inferno of Dante. Videos from the Favorite Poem Project, an organization that he founded during his tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate, can be viewed at

Dave Eggers, Award of Honor Honoree, is the author of seven books, including Zeitoun, which has been awarded the American Book Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Distinguished Honor, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council's Media Award. His novel What Is the What was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of France's Prix Medici. His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Eggers is the founder and editor of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house, and the co-founder of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in San Francisco. Seven cities across the country have since opened 826 centers. In 2004, Eggers and Dr. Lola Vollen co-founded Voice of Witness, a series of books using oral history to illuminate human rights crises. He was named one of TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2005, and received the 2007 Heinz Award and the 2008 TED Prize. A native of Chicago, Eggers graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism.

Charles Bowden, First Amendment Award Honoree, is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction, the Sidney Hillman Prize, and a United States Artists Fellowship. He is the critically acclaimed author of many books, including Murder City, Down by the River, and A Shadow in the City, and co-editor of El Sicario. He is a contributing editor of GQ and Mother Jones magazine, and writes for other magazines, including Harper's and Aperture. Bowden lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.


PEN Center USA's membership comprises over eight hundred published authors (Full members), as well as a number of burgeoning writers (Associate members), students (Student members), and booksellers (Bookseller members). The annual dues of membership, which vary by type, provide significant financial support that allows members to carry out the work of PEN Center USA.

Literary Events

PEN Center USA produces a variety of events every year, including smaller staged readings, regular reading series, and large-scale special events for literary occasions, such as book releases. PEN Center USA will hold a reading of David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King, in Beverly Hills on April 28, 2011.[10]


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