PEN American Center is the largest of the 141 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. International PEN was founded in 1921 to dispel national, ethnic, and racial hatreds and to promote understanding among all countries. PEN American Center, founded a year later, works to advance literature, to defend free expression, and to foster international literary fellowship. The Center has a membership of 2,900 distinguished writers, editors, and translators. In addition to defending writers in prison or in danger of imprisonment for their work, PEN American Center sponsors public literary programs and forums on current issues, sends prominent authors to inner-city schools to encourage reading and writing, administers literary prizes, promotes international literature that might otherwise go unread in the United States, and offers grants and loans to writers facing financial or medical emergencies. In carrying out this work, PEN American Center builds upon the achievements of such dedicated past members as W. H. Auden, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Arthur Miller, Marianne Moore, Susan Sontag, and John Steinbeck.The line about PEN offering grants and loans to writers facing financial or medical emergencies is especially meaningful to me--I received one of those grants in 1993. I was pregnant with my daughter at the time; our insurance (through the state) covered most of my midwifery care, but not all of it, and we had no idea how we were going to pay the rest of the balance, which amounted to several hundred dollars. My husband was in school, and we were barely scraping by, living on student loans. I applied for a PEN emergency grant, even though I knew they normally went to established writers and I only had a few bylines, a small number of awards, to my name. When I received the generous letter of support (along with a similarly generous check), I couldn't stop crying. I vowed that I would find a way to give back to PEN some day. And now I can.
On another writers-helping-writers note, I found out that my friend Martha O'Connor (author of the fabulous Bitch Posse) and her family were flooded out of their home in Marin. Backspace, an online writers collective (one I've been meaning to join), has set up a relief fund for Martha and her family. I am very grateful for a way to help across the miles.