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Mark Isaacs: Final President's Report

Having served three years as President of PEN Sydney, I have decided to step down from my role to focus on my writing and my family. I’d like to thank all the Committee members who have supported me over the years and to welcome Zoe Rodriguez and Dr Sandra Symons as the new Co-Presidents of the organisation.

Before I assumed this role at PEN Sydney, I had never been president of a cultural organisation. It was a steep learning curve. There was a number of administrative and financial tasks that needed to be completed (thanks to Aleesha Paz who devoted her time to assisting with this tedious work) and the organisation was rebuilding with many of the more experienced members, like the wonderful Debra Adelaide, stepping away from the Committee. Thankfully, we had people like Zoe Rodriguez, Dragana Zivancevic and Daniel Rowlands still involved who ensured the cultural knowledge of the organisation was not lost. The remaining members recruited a wide range of diverse people to the Committee, particularly focusing on attracting writers, and these new members brought new ideas. We were lucky to have Jenelle Dellar and, more recently, Annette Lin who brought a resurgence in the website and social media activity. PEN Sydney now boasts a beautiful logo, an Instagram handle (as well as functioning Facebook and Twitter accounts), podcast and Youtube channels.

Traditionally, PEN Sydney has invited prominent writers and thinkers to speak at our two annual events, the Free Voices lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and The Day of the Imprisoned Writer. During my time as President, we hosted Melissa Lucashenko, Behrouz Boochani via phone link from Manus Island, Julian Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, and Filipina journalist, Maria Ressa. Emily Banyard’s publicity and event management expertise greatly contributed to the success of these events. Robin de Crespigny’s efforts to organise Quentin Dempster’s interview of Jennifer Robinson, which was a sell-out event, must also be acknowledged. These important cultural events were financed by Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. Sadly, we missed Tim Costello addressing the concept of freedom of speech when the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival was cancelled due to the Covid-19 outbreak in Sydney; and, in 2021, Dan Oakes was going to speak about the Afghan Files until he was an unfortunate last-minute withdrawal. This year’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer event will support emerging writers and poets, a conscious shift in PEN Sydney’s usual approach to events, but one I hope will remain a part of the organisation’s philosophy. Apart from our major events, we arranged local social events, such as virtual poetry reading nights, to build a sense of community and solidarity in Sydney during Covid-19. When safe and possible, we moved Committee meetings from the offices of the Australian Society of Authors (thank you to Juliet Rogers and the ASA for their hospitality) to the Glebe Hotel so we could enjoy a drink, a meal and each other’s company while discussing serious Committee work. However, these efforts have often been hampered by the pandemic and its restrictions on public gatherings. 

Under the stewardship of Melissa Bruce and then James Ross, our magazine commissioned a wide variety of writers, both established and prominent, but also diverse, emerging voices. The latest magazine, which has been printed and is ready for distribution to members, includes many young First Nations poets. These latest commissions were funded by a Copyright Agency Cultural Fund grant which was secured in June 2020 and will last until June 2023. The magazine continues to be printed and distributed by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

In 2018, I was fortunate enough to join Zoe Rodriguez (the current chair of PEN International’s Women Writers Committee) at the PEN International global congress in Pune, India. I found it heart-warming to representatives from every continent in the world united in PEN’s work to support persecuted writers. I wrote back then that, “although prisoners may not know it, there are people all over the world agitating for their freedom.”

“When a writer goes to prison, their readers go to prison as well. And therefore, when our writers are persecuted, the global community should be active in their release.”

Thanks to members Claudia Taranto, Fatimah Abdulghafoor and Jennifer Mclean, our writers in prison subcommittee resumed advocacy and letter-writing campaigns for prominent Australian writers Kylie Moore-Gilbert (who was freed from Iran in November 2020) and Yang Hengjun (who remains in prison in China), as well as writers in Iran, Vietnam and China. On Monday 14 September 2020, PEN Sydney was joined by Liberal MP David Sharma in a vigil for Kylie Moore-Gilbert at Sydney’s Town Hall. Later that year, on Thursday 10 December, I joined a rally at Martin Place which was organised by Sydney’s Uyghur and Tibetan diaspora to commemorate International Human Rights Day. The writers-in-prison subcommittee collaborated on their campaigns with the Australian PEN centres in Melbourne and Perth, PEN International and other PEN centres globally, as well as organisations such as Amnesty International. One of the great joys of this work was developing a warm relationship with our sibling centres in Perth and Melbourne.

The focus on supporting vulnerable writers extended into a new initiative called The Writer’s Refuge, which was started by Committee member Suneeta Peres da Costa and is generously supported by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at UTS. Housed in PEN Sydney’s office in FASS, the Writer’s Refuge is a dedicated metropolitan workspace for writers in our community living with disadvantage and/or discrimination which restricts the pursuit of their work. PEN Sydney is now calling for applications for the 2021-22 Writer’s Refuge and encourages applications from First Nations writers, CALD writers, writers with disability, writers on temporary protection visas and any other writers who believe they would benefit from this opportunity. 

During my time as President, I’d like to think PEN Sydney fostered an organisational culture which put writers at the centre of its work, an organisation which supported writers through community action and advocacy. This is an approach that needs constant work and communication between its Committee members and with its membership base. These were not necessarily my goals when I first became President, but were a product of the values which Committee members brought to the organisation. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by intelligent, compassionate people and I listened to their advice. While the approach was not always perfect, I believe we strived to improve the way PEN Sydney supports writers, undertakes its core activities and fulfils its stated vision. 

— Mark Isaacs

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