PEN Artists Make Powerful Protests in Solidarity With Gaza

More than thirty authors and translators have withdrawn from PEN America’s upcoming events, cancelling PEN’s prestigious Literary Awards.

Book Culture Book News
A woman holding an award on stage.

PEN America, one of the United States’ largest non-profit organizations fighting for free expression, just announced the cancellation of their annual PEN America Literary Awards. This announcement comes after dozens of authors, writers, and translators withdrew from the events due to the organization’s stance on the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Known as one of the organizations fighting the nationwide increase in book bans, PEN America has been vocal about the importance of free speech and an individual’s freedom to express themselves for decades. Many artists found PEN America’s lack of comments on the plight Palestinian writers are currently facing in Gaza upsetting, prompting them to protest the organization. After months of protesting and demanding action, PEN America finally acknowledges the artists’ concerns.

Two people exchanging a card at a ceremony.

Solidarity Over Presteige

The PEN Awards is one of the most significant literary events of the year, with the winners receiving prestige as well as a monetary prize. However, the mass withdrawals from the ceremony left many categories with only one nominee, making the selection process null and void. PEN America’s Jean Stein Book Award was rendered impossible to award after nine of the ten nominated artists withdrew their names for nomination, including writer and poet Camonghne Felix. The award, worth $75,000, instead of going to a winner, will be donated to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.

A woman writing "Gaza" in English and Arabic on a wall.

Overall, more than 30 authors and translators out of the 87 nominated withdrew from their respective awards categories. These resigned nominees wrote an open letter addressed to the PEN America Board and Trustees earlier this week, stating their reason for pulling out of the ceremony. According to the letter, they “wholeheartedly reject PEN America and its failure to confront the genocide in Gaza.” The letter went on to call for the resignations of the organization’s CEO, Suzanne Nossel, PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan, and the entire PEN America Executive Committee.

This recent open letter is the latest action in a chain of protests against PEN America since the beginning of this year. The first open letter came on February 8th, when over 600 writers, including notable writers like Roxane Gaye, Jesmyn Ward, and Akwaeke Emezi, implored PEN America to release a statement on the war in Gaza. 

We demand PEN find the same zeal and passion that they have for banned books in the US to speak out about actual human beings in Palestine.

A protest in support of Palestine happening on a city street.

A month later, on March 14th, several prominent authors announced in another open letter to PEN America that they would not participate in this year’s World Voices Festival. In this letter, the authors cited the organization’s refusal to speak for Palestinian writers and creatives during this crucial time in Gaza as their reason for pulling out of the festival. The signees found PEN America failing to uphold the mission of their organization and called on it to speak up:

The PEN charter, adopted in 1948, states that it is the duty of PEN members to “to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.” Unfortunately, it has become painfully clear that, for PEN America, Palestine continues to be an exception to this ideal. Palestine’s poets, scholars, novelists and journalists and essayists have risked everything, including their lives and the lives of their families, to share their words with the world.

Taking Accountability

In response to the latest open letter, PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan released a statement announcing plans to investigate the organization’s actions for the last decade, saying, “I view this criticism as an opportunity, and I am grateful to the dissenting authors for their passion and for the urgency of their request,” Boylan wrote, continuing to say that the executive board had formed a group of authors and scholars to review PEN America’s actions over the last ten years to make sure they aligned with the organization’s value and mission. Boylan expressed hope that this group would bring a positive change to the organization:

This group, consisting of individuals both inside and outside of PEN America, (including a representative with some experience at PEN International,) will spend the next several months doing a deep dive into our work, and will make recommendations which will form, I hope, the basis of a clearer, better-understood approach to our work on free expression in conflict that is consistent and true to PEN America and the writers whom we represent.

Although the awards ceremony is canceled, the PEN America Literary Gala will still take place in New York City on May 16th. PEN’s World Voices Festival, despite a quickly decreasing attendance list, is still scheduled to happen from May 8th to May 11th in New York and May 11th to May 18th in Los Angeles. It remains unclear if PEN America will eventually cancel or modify these events in response to the artists’ protests.

To find out more about literary awards happening this year, click here

To learn more about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, click here.