At PEN America, a complicated centennial for free speech

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At PEN America, a complicated centennial for free speech
Guests during a centenary celebration for PEN America at the New-York Historical Society in New York on Sept. 12, 2022. Literary luminaries gathered in Manhattan to celebrate the centenary of PEN America, at a moment that many see support for free speech eroding across the political spectrum. Timothy O'Connell/The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- At a sold-out event Monday in New York City celebrating the centenary of the free expression group PEN America, there were as many literary luminaries in the audience as there were onstage.

Before intermission, Margaret Atwood, dressed in metallic sneakers and a bright pink shirt, had engaged in some salty, friendly needling of Dave Eggers over whose dystopian novels were more prescient. At the break, Tom Stoppard and Neil Gaiman were spotted in a floppy-haired tête-à-tête, while Robert Caro and Paul Auster passed nearby.

But over the three-hour event at the New-York Historical Society, talk kept circling back to a man who wasn’t there.

Soon after taking the stage, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought up the brutal attack on Salman Rushdie, who was stabbed onstage last month at a literary event in upstate New York.

“After the attack on Salman Rushdie, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said, going on to imagine “the brutal and barbaric intimacy of someone standing inches from you and forcefully plunging a knife into your flesh,” simply “because you wrote.”

Novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar, the president of PEN America, was supposed to have interviewed Rushdie onstage about the 1989 fatwa in response to his novel “The Satanic Verses.”

Instead, he delivered a tribute to his friend, and recalled his furtive, almost guilty reading of a novel everyone in his conservative Muslim American community in Milwaukee, Akhtar said, regarded as blasphemy deserving of punishment.

“It was my first encounter with the sheer force of literature, and the trouble it could get me into,” he said.

The centenary falls at a complicated moment for PEN America, and the increasingly embattled principle of free speech it defends. The group is enjoying a rising profile, as it has moved beyond its traditional focus on literary writers to address a wide variety of new threats to open discourse, including online harassment, misinformation and digital surveillance.

Long known for international activism, it has also emerged as a leading voice on threats to free expression in the United States, issuing a series of widely cited recent reports on the spread of educational gag orders — a term it coined to describe efforts by Republican-dominated state legislatures to restrict teaching on race and gender.

But Suzanne Nossel, the group’s CEO since 2013, also lamented what she said was the erosion of free speech as a cultural value — including among its traditional defenders on the left (and in the publishing industry, where some employees have organized pressure campaigns to drop books by conservatives).

“We’re at a dangerous precipice,” Nossel said in an interview. “Young people have been alienated from the idea of free speech, and see it as a smoke screen for hatred and bigotry. At the same time, there are those who may call themselves standard-bearers for free speech, but if you look at what they’re doing, they’re banning books, gagging curriculum, eviscerating free speech in our schools and universities.”

The attack on Rushdie, she said, was “a jolting reminder of why we do what we do, and how pervasive the threats are,” she said. “This is a very personal catalyst to step it up.”

The attempted public assassination of a novelist in America may have scarcely been imagined at the group’s founding in 1922, which is documented in an exhibition on view at the historical society through Oct. 9. (From Wednesday through Sunday, it will be joined by a flashier display, “Speech Itself,” a large light-projection by artist Jenny Holzer that will splash quotes from more than 60 authors across three buildings at Rockefeller Center each evening from 8 to 10.)

The first meeting of the PEN Club (as the group was originally called) took place at the Coffee House Club in Manhattan, with some 40 original members including Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill and Robert Frost.

From the beginning, it took an international approach, in keeping with the spirit of PEN International, the parent group formed in 1921. In 1939, PEN America organized an emergency congress in New York in response to rising fascism in Europe. During the war, it raised money to help impoverished writers in Europe.

The exhibition also highlights its advocacy for imperiled writers around the world, like environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995) and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who died in 2017.

And it doesn’t gloss over upheavals in its own ranks, including the 2015 protest about the group’s award for “freedom of expression courage” to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which some PEN members saw as rewarding what they considered racist and Islamophobic cartoons.

Today’s organization, Nossel said, is “not your grandfather’s PEN,” which long had what she called a “crusty-fusty reputation,” deserved or not. For one thing, it’s bigger, with a membership of more than 7,000 (up from 3,500 in 2012), and a staff of more than 70. (Under Nossel, the budget has grown to $15 million, up from $2.3 million.)

It has also worked to diversify, while also increasingly emphasizing that free speech is not just a matter of defending the right to speak, but dismantling the barriers that prevent marginalized people from being heard.

“We are not free speech absolutists,” Nossel said. “We take what I think is an enlightened approach,” attuned to the interplay of “competing values.”

The onstage discussion reflected those tensions, as well as less savory aspects of PEN America’s history. Novelist Jennifer Finney Boylan, her voice vibrating with emotion, read a lacerating 1987 letter from Larry Kramer to Susan Sontag, then president, blasting the group’s “intolerable attitude toward anything gay,” and its failure to “say Boo about AIDS.”

“Thanks, Larry!” Boylan, who is transgender, said, to loud applause. “I hope it’s fair to say that all these years later, PEN does a better job” defending LGBTQ writers, whom she described as “the most threatened in this country.”

During an audience Q&A, Boylan said she was of two minds about the fraught question of who gets to tell what stories. On the one hand, she said, PEN stands for artistic freedom. But on the other, she said, trans stories need trans writers.

“My argument is not about censorship,” she said. “My argument is that we can tell our own stories better.”

Adichie said that, as a person from a continent that was often misrepresented, she largely agreed. But Nossel brought up the controversy over “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins’ novel about Mexican migrants, which was embraced by some Mexican and Mexican American writers, but assailed by others as white “trauma porn.”

It’s easy to say work should be good, she said. “But who decides?”

Akhtar took a blunter line, decrying the rise of so-called sensitivity readers, whom publishers hire to flag potentially offensive depictions relating to race, ethnicity, gender, religion and other subjects. “If there had been sensitivity readers early in my career, I wouldn’t have a career,” he said.

“It’s tricky,” he said. “I joke, I feel like we are potentially entering an era of socialist realism without the genocide.”

And he again brought up Rushdie, whose absolutist, full-throated stance on free speech is looked at askance by many in literary circles.

“I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said, ‘Don’t get too close to Salman, because you’ll lose credibility,’” Akhtar said.

At a reception after the event, there were canapés, “Centenary Sidecars” and jokes about the verbosity of writers.

Gaiman stood chatting with cartoonist Art Spiegelman. “Art was just saying, ‘That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be!’” he said.

Atwood, between posing for photographs with admirers, said PEN was “relevant now.”

“When things are going fine, people say, ‘Free speech, yeah yeah,’” she said. “It gets boring. But in an age of censorship and persecution, it matters again.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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