10 Things You Have to See from the New PEN Digital Archive

We scoured PEN’s incredible new digital archive for these gems.

Today, PEN America launched its long-awaited Digital Archive, a collection of more than 1,500 hours of audio and visual material available for free online. The project, which took five years to compile, spans more than 50 years of PEN cultural programming aimed at exploring the intersection of literature and freedom of expression. The Archive features speeches, discussions, and panels from some the world’s most renowned artists and intellectuals, covering a range of subjects from religion to free speech to the dangers and possibilities of new technology. Below is a list of ten items you shouldn’t miss from this exciting new resource.

1. Toni Morrison Discusses Freedom of Expression and the Writer’s Role

Toni Morrison receives the 2008 PEN/Borders Literary Service Award and discusses important topics including oppression, conflict, freedom of thought — and how writers fit into it all.

2. PEN World Voices: Writing the Story of Life in Fact & Fiction

A panel discussion, part of the 2008 PEN World Voices Festival, explores the increasingly hazy distinction between fiction and memoir. Speakers address how authors decide what information to reveal and what to withhold, when to be specific and when to keep it broad.

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3. New York Writers: Writing Through One’s Cultural Background

Six authors, including Cynthia Ozick and Fay Chiang, talk about whether and how their cultural backgrounds affect their work. They discuss the weight of the term “ethnic subculture” and the realities of marginalization and division.

4. Gabriel García Márquez: Everyday Magic

A tribute to the Spanish writer who popularized magical realism, this event includes Paul Auster reading excerpts of Márquez’s short story “Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane” and Salman Rushdie discussing his notable writing style in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The night ends with a message from Márquez, read to the audience by Patricia Cepeda.

5. An Evening of Forbidden Writing, 1986

Joseph Brodsky, Toni Morrison, Edward Said and others read the banned, forbidden, and exiled works of writers such as Osip Mandelstam, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Mila D. Aguilar. They delve into a discussion about political imprisonment, freedom of expression, and the immeasurable power of words.

6. 48th PEN International Congress — Opening Ceremony

This 1986 event stirred up quite a bit of buzz. The recording begins with introductory remarks from then-president of PEN International, Per Wästberg, and then-president of U.S. PEN, Norman Mailer. Later, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz speaks, ending his remarks with the line, “Don’t be surprised by the fact that Ronald Reagan and I are on your side.” At the end, Mailer explains his controversial decision to invite Shultz.

7. Writers in Support of Salman Rushdie

A number of writers including Joan Didion and Norman Mailer show their support of Salman Rushdie and read from his book The Satanic Verses, which at the time (1989) had been pulled from shelves by three major booksellers. Speakers discuss the hazards of political leaders making judgements about books and the value of freedom of expression.

8. 1966 PEN International Congress — The Writer as Public Figure

Noteworthy cultural and literary figures, including Arthur Miller and Pablo Neruda, talk about how writers fit into the public eye. They question why people read classics — because their lessons and characters are universal, or because of their authors’ historical role? They ponder how technology and media effect the public personas of writers.

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9. Making It In The Mainstream: Writers Who Reached a Larger Audience, and How They Did It

This is the sixth annual PEN-AAP symposium, in which five writers and their publishers/editors discuss what components are necessary to create a successful book and how to reach an expanded audience. The audio recording features Dominick Dunne and Terry McMillan, among others.

10. Thirty Years of Feminism: Literature and the Movement. Taboos — Striking Them Down and Striking Back

“Thirty Years of Feminism” was a multi-part event in 1992 about the influence of female writers. In this segment, participants discuss a writer’s relationship to taboos, gender discrimination, and how women can fight back against societal stigmas.

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