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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

PEN America Scraps Literary Awards Gala Amid Gaza Conflict Backlash

PEN America, renowned for its advocacy of free expression, has made a significant decision to cancel its 2024 literary awards ceremony. The move comes after months of mounting protests and criticisms over the organization’s perceived stance on the conflict in Gaza, which many have deemed as overly sympathetic to Israel. The controversy reached a boiling point as nearly half of the nominated authors withdrew their participation from the event.

Originally scheduled to take place on April 29 at Town Hall in Manhattan, the awards ceremony will not proceed as planned. However, PEN America affirmed that the prizes themselves would still be awarded, even though the formal ceremony would not take place. Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the group’s chief officer for literary programming, expressed deep respect for writers who followed their consciences, whether they remained as nominees or chose to withdraw.

The decision to cancel the ceremony underscores the unprecedented nature of the situation and the impact it has had on the literary community. PEN America, dedicated to freedom of expression, emphasizes its commitment to recognizing and honoring outstanding authors despite the challenges posed by the current circumstances.

The controversy surrounding PEN America stems from its response to the conflict between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, which escalated in October. Criticism mounted as writers demanded that the organization support an immediate cease-fire, aligning with the stance taken by PEN International and other national chapters. This led to a series of open letters and protests from prominent writers, including Naomi Klein, Lorrie Moore, and Michelle Alexander.

In March, a group of writers announced their withdrawal from the upcoming World Voices Festival, a signature event organized by PEN America. Subsequently, nominees for the literary awards, such as Camonghne Felix and Christina Sharpe, followed suit, further amplifying the discontent within the literary community.

A letter received by PEN America’s leadership from 30 of the 87 nominated writers and translators criticized the organization’s perceived inaction on the situation in Gaza. The letter accused PEN America of clinging to a facade of neutrality while echoing what it characterized as Israeli government propaganda. Additionally, the letter called for the resignation of the organization’s leadership, including its chief executive, Suzanne Nossel, and its president, novelist Jennifer Finney Boylan.

In response, PEN America defended its position, acknowledging the horrific nature of the conflict in Gaza but challenging what it perceived as alarming language and characterizations in the letter. The organization reiterated its commitment to fostering dialogue and debate, emphasizing the importance of maintaining intellectual diversity within its membership.

The cancellation of the awards ceremony raises questions about the fate of other upcoming events organized by PEN America, including the World Voices Festival scheduled for May. Despite some withdrawals from panelists and participants, the organization remains committed to holding the festival as planned.

In the midst of the controversy, PEN America faces internal scrutiny and external pressure to address the concerns raised by its members and the broader literary community. The fallout from the conflict in Gaza has tested the organization’s principles and highlighted the challenges of navigating complex geopolitical issues while upholding its commitment to freedom of expression.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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