Writers from more than 100 countries elected Canadian John Ralston Saul president of the International PEN organization Wednesday.
"It's quite humbling when you see the list of writers who have been president of PEN, and you know some of the things they've done," Saul said in an interview from Linz, Austria, site of PEN's 75th annual congress. "There's a pressure to do the very best you can."
The first Canadian to be elected president of the prestigious organization, Saul follows Czech writer Jiri Grusa, a leading dissident during the Soviet era. Other former PEN presidents include U.S. playwright Arthur Miller and Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.
Saul's novels, essays and journalism have been translated into 22 languages. His last book, the non-fiction bestseller A Fair Country , was released last year. His honours include Chile's Pablo Neruda medal, Italy's Premio Letterario Internazionale and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres de France.
He enjoys the additional distinction of being married to former Canadian governor-general and author Adrienne Clarkson.
Saul said he won the approval of the international delegates, drawn from 140 local chapters around the world, with a novel plea for PEN to defend endangered languages as well as the "old-fashioned stuff" of defending imprisoned writers and journalists.
"Languages and cultures are disappearing at an enormously fast rate, and many of them are in Canada," he said. "These are extreme examples of removal of freedom of expression - to actually lose a language and the ability to express that culture."
Founded in 1921, International PEN works to promote co-operation among writers around the world and to defend freedom of expression.