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History of the USA West Centre

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

For 75 years PEN Center USA West (originally called PEN Los Angeles Center and later PEN USA) operated as an independent center of PEN International. The PEN Center USA West was one of two PEN centers in the United States, the other being PEN America based in New York City.

Founded in 1943, and accepted officially by PEN International’s Assembly of Delegates in 1952, PEN Los Angeles Center changed its name at the 1988 PEN International Congress to PEN Center USA West and focused on a membership of writers living west of the Mississippi River. 

PEN Center USA West’s mission was to “to stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.” Members included novelists, playwrights, poets, journalists, children’s book authors, and screenwriters. Over time, PEN Center USA West grew to become one of the largest centers of PEN International, with chapters in California, Texas, and New Mexico.  

In 1989, a year that included the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in China, PEN Center USA West membership almost doubled. Members protested both events and were active in freedom to write work.  PEN USA West Center took a leadership role in a number of cases, particularly in working for the release of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.  

PEN Center USA West members were active in the advocacy work of PEN International and in literary programs throughout the western United States. PEN Center USA West hosted an annual Literary Awards gala honoring the best writing in 11 categories, including fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction children’s literature, translation, journalism, screenwriting, along with a First Amendment Award for the United States and a Freedom to Write Award for an international writer who had fought for freedom of expression. 

Programs developed by PEN Center USA West included the Emerging Voices Fellowship. The program grew out of PEN America Los Angeles’s forum “Writing the Immigrant Experience,” held at the Los Angeles Central Library in March 1994, which explored the experiences of first- and second-generation immigrant writers. In 1996, PEN Center USA West launched Emerging Voices as a mentorship program designed to provide professional resources to writers seeking financial and creative support to pursue their craft professionally. Other PEN Center USA West programs included PEN in the Community, which delivered writing residencies and workshops to students and communities throughout the region. 

In 2018 PEN Center USA West members voted to join PEN America and unify under the PEN America banner, becoming the Los Angeles office of PEN America.

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