Six writers have excused themselves as literary hosts of the annual PEN American Center Literary Gala because this year’s Freedom of Expression Courage award will be presented to Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose office and staff were attacked in January.
PEN America is the U.S. branch of the international literary and human rights organization “working to bring down barriers to free expression worldwide.” PEN originally stood for “poets, essayists, novelists,” but now encompasses a broader range of writers.
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” Australian novelist and twice winner of the Booker Prize, Peter Carey, wrote to The New York Times in an email interview Saturday. “All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
He added that he had told Andrew Solomon, who became PEN American Center’s president in in March, that he “did not wish to have my name, without my knowledge or prior approval, publicly linked to a political position I did not hold.” Carey’s agent told Newsweek Monday that the novelist had no further comment.
Separately, Carey’s fellow writers Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi also withdrew from the gala, which will be held on the evening of May 5 at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. The gala is part of the PEN World Voices Festival, which runs from May 4 to 10 and is co-curated this year by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, with the theme “On Africa.”
As literary hosts, the writers would have been seated each at a table of guests paying $1,250 a ticket, says Sarah Edkins, communications manager at PEN American Center, to share anecdotes from their careers as writers, how they approach their work, and more. Though these six writers will no longer attend the gala and serve in this role for the evening, Edkin says they will continue their work with PEN.
Ondaatje’s agent told Newsweek the writer was not granting interviews on the matter, and the remaining writers could not immediately be reached for comment. However, the Times reported that Kushner attributed her decision to her uneasiness with Charlie Hebdo’s “cultural intolerance” and “a kind of forced secular view.”
The six have drawn swift and cutting criticism from writer Salman Rushdie for their decision to withdraw from the event. “If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Rushdie told The New York Times, calling the six writers’ decisions “horribly wrong.”
“What I would say to both Peter [Carey] and Michael [Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.” Rushdie himself became the target of a fatwa, or edict, sentencing him to death, which Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued against him in 1989. Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses was met with a slew of violence that targeted bookshops, publishers and translators.
On Monday, Rushdie tweeted an even more stringent statement about the writers, though he later explained his word choice and said he should have reconsidered it:
Re: pussies. The word was in a tweet to which I replied. I shouldn't have reused it. Miaowing or not, they distract from the matter in hand.â€” Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) April 27, 2015
When the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked, several PEN branches released a statement, saying that “There can never be any justification for using violence to silence or intimidate those who speak out, no matter how offensive their views. In the face of such violence, it is incumbent on all governments and religious leaders to strengthen their commitment to press freedom and to safeguard freedom of expression as a fundamental human right.”
In a post published on PEN America’s website on Sunday, the organization said that “Charlie Hebdo has positioned itself in the firing line…refusing to accept the curtailment of lawful speech by those who meet it with violence.” The post was adapted from a letter Solomon and executive director Suzanne Nossel sent Sunday to PEN’s Board of Trustees and other literary hosts, according to Edkins. The abbreviated version published online continues:
It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims and members of the many other groups they targeted… But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo's intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits—no matter the purpose, intent, or import of the expression.
In the aftermath of the Hebdo attacks, we saw a spike in PEN new memberships from writers, many of whom wrote eloquently about being inspired by the attacks to defend free speech more intently. Charlie Hebdo's refusal to retreat when confronted with these threats, coupled with their magnanimity in the face of tragedy, have similarly motivated us to present them with the 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the PEN Literary Gala on May 5.
We recognize that these issues are complex, and that there are good faith differences of opinion within our community. At PEN, we never shy away from controversy nor demand uniformity of opinion across our ranks. We will be sorry not to see those who have opted out of the gala, but we respect them for their convictions. We feel very privileged to live in an environment where strong and diverse views on complex issues such as these can take place both respectfully and safely.