Emma Cleave – Supporting migrant women writers


Emma is a passionate girl who works for English Pen, a human rights organisation which promotes writers all over the world. For many years Pen has also been a great promoter for women writers and has supported migrant women with different projects. In this conversation with Emma we would like to share with you not only her professionalism, but also a lot of information she gave us for all the migrant women who still have aspirations for writing or translating.


You work for a well-known organisation, which is Pen. What is the space you offer there for women writers?

English PEN is one of the oldest human rights organisations in the world, and was founded by the poet and novelist Amy Dawson Scott in 1921. Her vision was one of an international network of writers working together towards greater understanding and peace between nations. PEN has now grown into a global human rights body with members in more than 100 countries worldwide, and our network has expanded to include translators, editors, and bloggers, as well as readers, or ‘friends’ of English PEN.

Over the past 90 years we have campaigned on behalf of hundreds of women writers who have found themselves persecuted or at risk for something they have written. PEN aims to create a space for literature and free expression from writers all over the world, and there have been several particularly interesting cases that we’ve been involved with over the years. One case I’d flag up is that of Cameroonian playwright Lydia Besong, who we supported throughout her application for asylum, which was finally granted in May 2012. Members of our Rapid Action Network wrote countless letters to the UK Border Agency on Lydia’s behalf and two English PEN members donated money towards Lydia’s legal bills. We also worked with other organisations, such as Women for Refugee Women, to lobby the Home Secretary and raise awareness of the case. Lydia spoke to the PEN team about how she began writing as a way of coming to terms with her ordeal in Cameroon, and how powerful the written word can be when faced with extraordinarily difficult and traumatic situations.

Together with organisations like the Jesuit Refugee Service in London, and Bristol Refugee Rights, English PEN runs workshops for refugees and recently arrived migrants around the UK. We offer mixed workshops, but often find that our sessions are attended by a larger number of women than men. We’ve also recently had small groups of women from Mongolia and the DRC that have attended our workshops, led by writer-facilitators like Malika Booker and Zena Edwards. Women attending these workshops often make progress with their English language learning, and have the confidence to come by themselves to the workshops.

In terms of our translation programme, we are very aware of a distinct imbalance not only in the amount of books and articles by women that are published in the UK (you can find out more about this by taking a look at the VIDA count), but also the amount of work by women writers that is translated into English from other languages. We organised a panel discussion at the London Book Fair 2014 to talk through this issue with poet and activist Sophie Mayer, translator Alison Anderson, writer Krys Lee and founder of For Books Sake Jane Bradley. The panel discussed the fact that the VIDA count has consistently found that women writers account for around 25% of books reviewed by the mainstream media in the UK. They also commented on the fact that a woman has never won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize since its inception in 1990 and only 13 women have won the Nobel Prize for literature since it began in 1901. Despite this, a large majority of translators are women – so why the imbalance? There is anecdotal evidence that suggests a consensus amongst editors and publishers that women writers don’t sell, and there is also a feeling that national bodies of literature tend to promote an overwhelming majority of men writers. At PEN we create a space for these sorts of discussions, and seek to redress the balance of the number of women writers from around the world that are translated and read in English.


A lot of women have had a dream to write and become writers – what happens with those that lose their desire because of migration? Do you have projects for migrant women writers?

As I have mentioned, we run a regular series of workshops for refugees around the UK for both men and women. We are currently running a series of workshops to tie in with the publication of one of our award-winning titles in translation, Syria Speaks, a collection of new work by established and emerging Syrian writers and artists featuring essays, short stories, poems and songs, as well as photographs, cartoons, drawings and illustrations. The collection features the work of several women writers who are currently at risk or who have been displaced. We think it is incredibly important to support brave and inspiring works such as this in order to give a platform for voices that might otherwise remain unheard. During the promotional tour for this book, Syrian writers will run workshops for mixed groups, including young people, which will combine awareness-raising and writing sessions. All of our workshops are designed to allow a space for creativity and for writers to find their voice. You can find out more about our communities work online.


You do outreach, campaign, and translation – how do you find talented migrant women and how do you help them to make their aspirations come true?

In terms of our outreach work, we tend to work with local partners who are already embedded in communities and who have built relationships with groups of refugees and migrants. If there are women that are particularly keen to develop their writing skills, or who show exceptional talent, we are part of a network of writers’ organisations that can offer further mentoring opportunities and suggest routes to publication.

At the moment we’re also developing our ‘PEN Samples’ scheme, a grants programme which aims to support the translation of work from non-mainstream European and minority languages. We are keen to open this scheme up to publishers, as well as translators, agents and editors, so they can apply for PEN to fund a readers report and sample translation. We’re keen to work with organisations like Literature Across Frontiers and Words without Borders to assess which languages are not readily translated or represented in the UK literary market. Women writers that are keen to apply to this programme should do so in partnership with an editor or translator, as we can’t accept submissions directly from authors.


What is your experience of working with writers from different nationalities?

Each year, we fund promotional tours for around 10-15 international writers who visit the UK and take part in various events with their translators and other writers. At PEN we support publishers to programme events at key literary festivals and venues around the country, including with our Student PEN centres. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible writers from all over the world, from places as diverse as Albania, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Iraq, Syria and Kenya. The joy of this work is the overwhelming diversity of voices and above all else the fascinating stories that these writers have to tell, quite often stories of incredible resistance and hope against all odds.

As part of our outreach work we also run creative writing workshops in prisons and often work with groups of foreign nationals at Holloway Prison, for example, where almost a quarter of the women are from abroad. The women in these sessions tend to respond very well to visiting writers, especially when those writers speak their language and there is an opportunity to share writing and stories in both English and their mother tongues.


What have you found to be the most interesting stories of migrant women? Can you mention an interesting case or story? 

Quite often the migrant women writers that we work with are in exile or fleeing violent regimes, and they have incredible stories to tell. One of the most striking stories of resistance that I’ve heard is that of exiled Syrian writer and journalist Samar Yazbek, who’s personal account of the revolution in Syria meant she had to flee the country. In 2012, English PEN supported the publication of the English translation of Yazbek’s book, Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, which details the writer’s opposition to the Assad regime.

Samar Yazbek also received the 2012 PEN Pinter international writer of courage award, which she shares with poet Carol Ann Duffy, who nominated Samar for the award. This award goes to a writer who, in the words of playwright Harold Pinter, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.’

Samar was detained several times by security forces and had to move from home to home with her daughter to ensure her safety. Despite the ongoing danger to the writer, Samar refused to back-down and continued to interview Syrian people and protestors about their experiences until she was forced into exile.


What are the future projects that Pen has for women?

Our workshop programmes will continue to be open to both men and women, and we will continue our work with aspiring writers in various settings, so do keep an eye on the communities page of our website if you’re interested in finding out about these opportunities. We also advise publishers to read more about our grant schemes for translation and to look out for great writing by women from around the world that UK readers should have access to.


Who is Emma Cleave?

Emma Cleave graduated from Leeds University in 2007 and went on to work as an English language teacher in Spain. She subsequently trained as a teacher of Modern Foreign Languages in the UK. In 2010, Emma worked at Bootstrap Company in Hackney, where she helped pilot a creative literacy project for young people, the Hackney Pirates. Emma joined the free speech and literature charity English PEN in December 2010, where she now manages the Writers in Translation programme. Day to day, Emma works with a wide range of writers, translators and literary professionals, and is passionate about reading – and ensuring access to – brilliant literature from around the world. She is also a Trustee of the Hackney Pirates, which is now established as an educational charity.