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Writers’ PEN Protest Reignites Charlie Hebdo Debate

Valentina Calà (CC BY 2.0)

In a move that’s sparked renewed debate over Charlie Hebdo, six novelists have withdrawn as hosts of a PEN American Center event, saying they took the action to protest against PEN’s annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award being given to the controversial French publication.

PEN announced Sunday that the writers, who include Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje and Francine Prose, were offended by the French satirical newspaper’s depictions of Muslims and “the disenfranchised generally.” Quoted in The New York Times, Carey said in reference to the January shootings at the Hebdo office in Paris that killed 12: “A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

He added, “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.”

Prose, a former PEN American president, told The Associated Press, “I was quite upset as soon as I heard about” the award. Stating that she “deplored” the January shootings and affirming her support for “freedom of speech without limitations,” she added that the award represents “admiration and respect” for the honoree’s work. “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo,” Prose said.

In turn, past PEN award recipient Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding from a fatwa, has reacted fiercely on Twitter by declaring, “The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.

“If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures,” he continued, “then frankly the organization is not worth the name. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

The authors’ withdrawal from the May 5 gala at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan was apparently prompted by correspondence between writer Deborah Eisenberg and PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, which has been published in full by The Intercept.

–Posted by Roisin Davis

Roisin Davis
Róisín Davis is a literary agent, writer, and editor based in New…
Roisin Davis

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