PEN America cancels literary awards ceremony amid Gaza fallout

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PEN America cancels literary awards ceremony amid Gaza fallout
Kal Penn hosts the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards at Town Hall in New York, March 2, 2023. The free expression group PEN America has canceled its 2024 literary awards ceremony following months of escalating protests over the organization’s response to the war in Gaza, which has been criticized as overly sympathetic to Israel and led nearly half of the prize nominees to withdraw. (Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- Free expression group PEN America has canceled its 2024 literary awards ceremony following months of escalating protests over the organization’s response to the war in the Gaza Strip, which has been criticized as overly sympathetic to Israel and led nearly half of the prize nominees to withdraw.

The event was set to take place April 29 at Town Hall in Manhattan. But in a news release Monday, the group announced that although the prizes would still be conferred, the ceremony would not take place.

“We greatly respect that writers have followed their consciences, whether they chose to remain as nominees in their respective categories or not,” the group’s chief officer for literary programming, Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, said in the release.

“We regret that this unprecedented situation has taken away the spotlight from the extraordinary work selected by esteemed, insightful and hardworking judges across all categories. As an organization dedicated to freedom of expression and writers, our commitment to recognizing and honoring outstanding authors and the literary community is steadfast.”

In recent months, PEN America has faced intensifying public criticism of its response to the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel, which killed roughly 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities, and Israel’s military response in Gaza, which has left about 34,000 people dead, according to health officials there.

In a series of open letters, writers have demanded that PEN America support an immediate cease-fire, as its global parent organization, PEN International, and other national chapters have done.

In March, a group of prominent writers, including Naomi Klein, Lorrie Moore, Michelle Alexander and Hisham Matar, announced that they were pulling out of next month’s World Voices Festival, one of PEN America’s signature events. And over the past several weeks, growing numbers of nominees for the literary awards, including Camonghne Felix, Christina Sharpe and Esther Allen, announced that they were withdrawing their books from consideration.

In a letter that PEN America leadership received last week, 30 of the 87 nominated writers and translators (including nine of the 10 nominees for one prize) criticized the group’s “disgraceful inaction” on the situation in Gaza, accusing it of “clinging to a disingenuous facade of neutrality while parroting” what the letter characterized as Israeli government propaganda. The letter also called for the resignation of the group’s longtime CEO, Suzanne Nossel, and its president, novelist Jennifer Finney Boylan, along with that of the group’s executive committee.

“PEN America states that ‘the core’ of its mission is to ‘support the right to disagree,’” the nominees stated. “But among writers of conscience, there is no disagreement. There is fact and fiction. The fact is that Israel is leading a genocide of the Palestinian people.”

That letter drew a brief but forceful response last week in which the organization described the war in Gaza as “horrific” but challenged what it said was the letter’s “alarming language and characterizations.”

“The perspective that ‘there is no disagreement’ and that there are among us final arbiters of ‘fact and fiction’ reads to us as a demand to foreclose dialogue in the name of intellectual conformity, and one at odds with the PEN Charter and what we stand for as an organization,” the organization said in a statement.

The awards ceremony is not as high profile as PEN’s star-studded annual gala at the American Museum of Natural History, set for May 16. But the cancellation of the awards event also raises questions about whether the organization will go ahead with the World Voices Festival, set to take place in New York from May 8 to 11, with additional events in Los Angeles the following week.

Last month, some panelists, including participants on a panel about challenges to free expression for Palestinians, announced they were pulling out. Since then, additional writers have withdrawn, some of them quietly.

On Monday, Nossel, who has led PEN America since 2013, said the festival, which currently includes more than 80 participants at dozens of events, would go forward.

“We have been clear we are open to dialogue and conversation,” Nossel said. “That’s our lifeblood as an organization.”

“In our minds,” she added, “it’s how you move forward.”

The fallout from the Oct. 7 attack has riven many cultural and literary organizations (including 92NY and Artforum), which have faced strong criticism and sometimes internal upheaval for their response. PEN America, which has more than 4,500 members, has often weighed in with statements urging organizations not to cancel events or speakers, and calling for maximal space for expression of criticism and debate.

In responses to its own critics, PEN has often referred to its “big tent” approach and the reality that membership includes people with a wide variety of opinions on the current Israel-Hamas war and the broader subject of Israel and the Palestinians. But it has also moved closer to the position of some of its critics. On March 20, in a statement following the withdrawals from the World Voices Festival, it called for “an immediate cease-fire and release of hostages.”

This month, a letter signed by Salman Rushdie, Ayad Akhtar, Jennifer Egan and six other former PEN presidents urged writers and PEN members to “keep faith” in the community PEN has built, however fractious.

“The festival was conceived amid conflict to draw together diverse authors and thinkers at a time of deepening and deadly geopolitical tension after 9/11,” the letter said. “In the ensuing decades as vitriolic and violence has surged, the visionary purpose behind the festival has only grown more urgent.”

In a separate statement last week, Boylan, the group’s president, announced that PEN America would be undertaking a broad review of all of its work over the past decade “to ensure we are aligned with our mission and make recommendations about how we respond to future conflicts.”

Boylan, who took over as PEN president last year, said she had heard from “many, many authors who do not agree with those withdrawing from PEN events, and who do not wish to withdraw from our events themselves, but are afraid of the consequences if they speak up.”

In an email Monday, Boylan said that while the cancellation of the awards was painful, “I deeply respect all of these writers for their passion and their advocacy.”

PEN America said in its statement Monday that winners who had not withdrawn would still receive their prize money. It also said that the estate of Jean Stein, a writer and philanthropist who died in 2017, had directed that the $75,000 cash award for the prize named in her honor be sent to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.

The group also said it would still honor the lifetime achievement winners, including playwright Tony Kushner and novelist Maryse Condé. Kushner, a longtime critic of Israeli policy toward Palestinians, has in recent months spoken up in defense of artists who have criticized Israel and the war in Gaza.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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