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“During the Spanish Civil War, English PEN helped Catalan writers by sending us paper, so we could keep publishing books and journals”

Interview with Jaume Subirana. This Story belongs to Catalan PEN.

By Ginevra Avalle

London, 4th April 2019

Jaume Subirana is a Catalan writer, translator and scholar. Doctor in Catalan Philology, he has been a member of the Catalan PEN since the 1980s and is now the Vice-President of the Centre. He has been part of the steering committee of the organisation for more than 20 years. He has researched about the history of Catalan PEN and looked for the files that were lost during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Francoist dictatorship (1939-1975).

G.A. How did you first hear about PEN International and when did you join?

J.S. That is a very good question. I probably heard about it through other writers, as an international organisation for writers. It was also a chance for Catalan literature to be in touch with other literatures. At that time, and still today, we had a Catalan writers’ organisation (AELC), but it was local, only for writers dealing with what have to do with our language and professional issues. This organisation had no link with the outer world. PEN looked like a good alternative, even though I was just over 20 years old when I joint. As a matter of fact, like most of the members of Catalan PEN, I was also a member of the AELC.

At that time, I was basically writing poetry and was very close to winning a very well-known poetry prize. It was instead awarded to a very close friend of mine, Carles Torner, who happens to be now the Executive Director of PEN International. I finally won this prize when I was 26 or 27, at the end of the 1980s.

As I was saying, PEN had this aura of being the link with other countries and a means to represent the Catalan culture abroad. It was also understood as a conservative organisation, not a left-wing one. This refrained me from getting involved with it at the beginning. It really was not that conservative, though. Now I know that indeed in the mid-1960s-70s, during the Cold War, there was an organisation of Marxist writers that was run and paid by the USSR. And there were some organisations created to go against this, or that already existed but received funding from the CIA, the USA. So there might have been some truth in the perception I had about PEN. Anyway, at the end of the 1980s, when I joined it, this was not at all like that anymore.

G.A. When was the Catalan Centre created?

J.S. In 1922. We are very proud of it, because we were one of the first PEN Centres. We don’t know exactly if we were the third one, or the forth, but we were there from the very beginning.

G.A. What led to its creation?

J.S. The first two decades of the twentieth century, until the dictatorship began in Spain in 1923, were an exciting time for Catalan culture and politics. It was clear that both literature and culture were crucial for our country. We are a country were identity and nationhood has a lot to do with language, and of course literature is essential for language. These people were clever enough to think that it was not only important to work inside, and to be writers in Catalan in Catalonia, but to become members of the international core of nations and languages. And this is something that has always been in the Catalan mind. Our culture has had a lot of problems and limitations, but from the very beginning we have been open to the world. Catalonia is a cross-road, a place where a lot of people has been going around for centuries. Our identity is not based on race or blood but on free-joining and free-accepting a number of things, one of which being literature. So, for this small group of youngsters, becoming a part of an international organisation was a must, a top-necessity in the 1920s.

At the beginning, members were not very active, but we have to think that there was a dictatorship from 1923 to 1928: Catalan was forbidden, a number of organisations were shut down, etc. PEN was not closed, but mainly because they were not that important. As soon as the dictatorship disappeared and the Republic was set in the early 1930s, they sent a proposal to London asking to hold an International Congress. They decided to do so in 1933, and it was finally held in 1935. What was important for them was to make the world know that Catalan literature existed.

There were lots of difficulties. Pompeu Fabra, who was the President of the Centre, was put in jail because of political problems in Spain together with most of the Catalan Government’s Ministers in 1934. There are some nice letters from Herman Ould 1934 asking if they were okay, if everything was being prepared for the Congress. They knew the political situation was unstable.

I think we, Catalan PEN, learnt the hard way that international solidarity was very important. During the Spanish Civil War, English PEN sent some material to help Catalan writers. They received food, but also paper. They wanted to keep publishing books and journals. It also helped to increase the sensibility for the need of freedom of expression and freedom of circulation; the importance of exiled literatures and cultures. During the dictatorship by Franco, that longed 40 years, from 1939 to 1975, the Catalan Centre was in exile for a while. Then it was re-founded in Catalonia in 1973.

During the dictatorship, and still in 1973, it was forbidden for people to meet in groups of more than four or five people. If you wanted to meet with more people you had to ask for permission. Police members or the youth fascist organisation had permission, for example. People in PEN didn’t have it, but wanted to re-found the Catalan PEN in Catalonia. They came up with an idea. They hired a bus to go to have a meal, officially for a family celebration. They went to l’Espluga de Francolí, which is like 40 miles away from Barcelona. They made sure the driver was friendly and they hold the assembly and the votes during the journey from Barcelona to l’Espluga de Francolí. When they got there, they acted as if they were celebrating something, and on the way back to the city they kept on discussing issues related to the re-foundation. This is the way the Catalan Centre in Catalonia was re-created. We have been especially sensible to what has to do with limitations of rights: the rights for women writers, the rights for exiled writers, etc. Apart from promoting Catalan literature, this is probably one of the most important things for us throughout our history.

G.A. How many members has the Centre today?

J.S. We have 400 members now. I don’t know if that is a lot or not, compared to other PEN Centres.

G.A. Are they all active?

J.S. It depends on what being active means. They are paying their dues, which is one way to know they are willing to contribute to the organisation. Then we have a steering committee, made of around 10 people, which is very active. We have three committees, made of 10 more active people. And then there are some members who are active when we ask them for help. For example, when we send letters asking for the release of an imprisoned writer or when we need them to take part in readings like the ones on the International Poetry Day. People will participate in these activities. In our National Meeting Day we have 50 to 60 people, no more than that.

G.A. What are the challenges of your Centre today?

J.S. This is not easy to answer. I think that words and literature today are still crucial for society, but they have slowly lost their central role. One of the missions of a writers association should be to vindicate or underline this role of literature and words at the centre of a culture and a country. Another mission we have is to promote freedom of speech and freedom of opinion. We have been working on this for years in other countries, but unfortunately these freedoms are being threatened in Spain and Catalonia today. Sometimes you think you are working for others, but when you work for others in fact you are always working for yourself.

G.A. What can you tell me about your archives?

J. S. I am a scholar and work in the university. I have always been interested in Catalan literature and have been a member of PEN. For years I had the intuition that there was research to do on PEN, but I did not know exactly how to work on that. As I had this interest, I started looking for the archives, the documents regarding our history. But I found out there were no documents. In January 1939, when PEN members left Barcelona to go on exile, they burned all the documents. Anna Murià, whose picture is in Ateneu Barcelonès ­­– where the office of Catalan PEN is based –, was working as an assistant, both in PEN and Institució de les Lletres Catalanes, an agency that had been created by the Catalan Autonomous Government to promote literature. Both organisations were working together. In her memories, she explains she burned all the documents with the help of someone else.

While on exile, they probably archived some files, but we do not know who had these. At some point, Palau i Fabre, who was the President of the Centre in the 1970s, said he had all the documents under his bed, in Barcelona. No one has ever seen these documents; we don’t know if he destroyed them or hid them somewhere. None of these have arrived to us.

From the re-foundation of Catalan PEN in 1973-75 on, we have some documents. At some point, we decided that is was safer to keep the documents away from our tiny office but somewhere else, in the Catalan National Library (Biblioteca de Catalunya). They are safe and open to researchers.

How would we find what had been produced before 1973-78? After some time, we got lucky. We thought everything they had had been burned, but if they were corresponding to PEN International, maybe they would have these. We wrote to PEN International and they answered that they had sold the archive to an American university. They told us it was in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I wrote to them, saying I was researching about the Catalan PEN Centre. The archive wasn’t digitised, but they had 70 boxes of files. All they could tell me is that there was a folder tagged as “Catalan Centre”. I went there and I had a big surprise that confirmed my idea: there were a number of copies of letters sent by the Catalan Centre to PEN International. This is how we found our lost archive. We made copies of these files and saved them in the Catalan National Library. Today you can make research from Barcelona with these copies.

G.A. What would you like to see archived with the Exhibition of the PEN Centenary Archive for your Centre?

J.S. I need to tell you about my way to act as a scholar. I studied literature. It is hard for me to separate literature from culture and society. It is difficult for me to segregate one literature, or one society, from the others. I am one of those who think that communities, cultures, literatures, languages, are more alike than we think, even if they are different, because obviously everyone is different in the end. In order to study Catalan literature, it is good to know what happens with other literatures around it. And in order to study Catalan PEN, it is great to know what happens with other PEN Centres. I think that having this international archive will be great for those who are interested in how Catalan literature has tried to become international and what has come from this belonging to an international organisation, knowing not only what happened with Catalan writers but with other writers who were related to them.

G.A. What is the relationship with other PEN Centres?

J.S. Instead of working hand in hand with other Centres, we have worked internationally through the PEN. For example, we have been active members of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. A number of people from our Centre has been working hard there. At some point in history, we stablished some other links. For instance, when I was working at the Harry Ransom Center, I got a message from a lecturer now in Santiago de Chile. He is a Catalan who was writing his PHD on Francesc Trabal, a Catalan writer and PEN member, who was a delegate with Mercè Rodoreda in the 16th International PEN Congress in Prague, 1938.

Trabal went to exile and happened to end up in Chile. When he got there, he tried to re-build things as they used to be. He had been a member of the Catalan PEN and Institució de les Lletres Catalanes, so he looked for similar institutions in Santiago. There was a Chilean Centre of PEN, of which he became a member. He actually was part of its steering committee. Since he had been in two International PEN Congresses, in Prague and I think in Paris, he knew Herman Ould. He became the international link with him.

I happened to find some documents regarding the Chilean Centre in Austin. We as Catalan PEN gave these documents to the Chilean PEN. Reading these 14-15 documents of which four or five were letters by Francesc Trabal was very beautiful to me. In one of those, he asks Herman Ould if he knows what has happened to Benjamin Crémieux. He had met him in Paris and Prague and got along well together. During the war, there was a rumour saying something had happened to Crémieux, but it was unclear. He was taken in France and sent to a concentration camp in Germany, because he was a jew. They discovered he had been killed. For me this is magic: a Catalan exiled writer, who travels to Chile, and corresponding with Herman Ould from England asks what has happened to Benjamin Crémieux, a French critic, and learns that he has been sent to Germany, where he died. This is how literature works for me.