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PEN Receives Letter from Members About Charlie Hebdo Award

On May 5, PEN received a letter from some of its Members regarding the Courage Award given to Charlie Hebdo, with an accompanying cover note from Teju Cole: 

Dear Suzanne,

On behalf of the 242 signatories below, Francine Prose and I are passing along this letter. We would be delighted if you would put the letter and signatories up on the PEN website as soon as is feasible, in recognition of the seriousness and moral commitment of its signatories, as well as their collective investment in the work of PEN. I imagine that this conciliatory gesture will satisfy the need, for most of the signatories, to be heard on this matter. I obviously can't make promises for anyone, but the honest sense I've gotten from the few people I've talked to is that a necessary dissent was expressed and it is time to move on.

On a personal note, I'd like to add that I very sincerely wish you a good, safe PEN Literary Gala tonight, as well as the same for this morning's panel. Some of the people I love most in the world will be at tonight's gala. My thoughts are with everyone who will be in that room tonight.

Francine and I admire PEN's work, we fully understand its irreplaceable value, and look forward to doing more for the organization in the future.

all best wishes,

Teju Cole

Distinguished Writer in Residence, Bard College

Photography Critic, The New York Times Magazine

---

April 26, 2015


In March it was announced that the PEN Literary Gala, to be held May 5th 2015, would honor the magazine Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in response to the January 7 attacks that claimed the lives of many members of its editorial staff.

It is clear and inarguable that the murder of a dozen people in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly, were used to make that decision.

We do not believe in censoring expression. An expression of views, however disagreeable, is certainly not to be answered by violence or murder.

However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and “equal opportunity offense,” and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.

Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

In our view, PEN America could have chosen to confer its PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award upon any of a number of journalists and whistleblowers who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom (and even their lives) in service of the greater good.

PEN is an essential organization in the global battle for freedom of expression. It is therefore disheartening to see that PEN America has chosen to honor the work and mission of Charlie Hebdo above those who not only exemplify the principles of free expression, but whose courage, even when provocative and discomfiting, has also been pointedly exercised for the good of humanity.

We the undersigned, as writers, thinkers, and members of PEN, therefore respectfully wish to disassociate ourselves from PEN America’s decision to give the 2015 Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.

Chris Abani

Hosam M. Aboul-Ela

Leslie Absher

Elizabeth Adams

Ali Jimale Ahmed

Lauren K. Alleyne

Sinan Antoon

Judith Appelbaum

Nicole Aragi

Michael Archer

Tony Ardizzone

Sarah Arvio

Gabeba Baderoon

Deborah Baker

Russell Banks

Susan Bell

Naomi Benaron

Helen Benedict

Christopher Benfey

Cara Benson

Charles Ramírez Berg

John Berger

Susan Bernofsky

Eric Bogosian

Robert Bononno

Barrie Jean Borich

Blanche McCrary Boyd

Catherine Brady

Adam Braver

Donald Breckenridge

Rita Nakashima Brock

Ami Sands Brodoff

Karen Brown Brooks

Edward Burlingame

Janet Burroway

Viola Canales

Helene Cardona

Peter Carey

John Casey

Bryn Chancellor

Myriam J. A. Chancy

Hayan Charara

Bell Gale Chevigny

Rita Zoey Chin

Angie Chuang

Catherine Chung

Jane Ciabattari

Carmela Ciuraru

Patricia Clark

Tony Cohan

Peter Cole

Teju Cole

Ted Conover

Ellen Cooney

Randall Couch

Gwyneth Cravens

Michael Cunningham

John D'Agata

Katherine Dalsimer

Emily M. Danforth

Tod Davies

Annabel Davis-Goff

Siddhartha Deb

Sonali Deraniyagala

Jason Diamond

Junot Díaz

Stephen Dobyns

Geoff Dyer

Erin Edmison

Brent Hayes Edwards

Brian T. Edwards

Marshall Efron

Deborah Eisenberg

Susan Eisenberg

Hedi El Kholti

Trey Ellis

Eve Ensler

Elizabeth Enslin

Barbara Epler

Jennifer Cody Epstein

Ali Eteraz

Percival Everett

Monica Ferrell

Joshua Ferris

Marlon L. Fick

Boris Fishman

Stona Fitch

Frances FitzGerald

Peter H. Fogtdal

Seánan Forbes

Ashley Ford

Aminatta Forna

Linda Nemec Foster

Lauren Francis-Sharma

Edwin Frank

Judith Frank

John Freeman

Ru Freeman

Nell Freudenberger

Molly Friedrich

Joshua Furst

Indira Ganesan

Forrest Gander

Suzanne Gardinier

Johanna Garfield

Mordicai Gerstein

Gretchen Gerzina

Keith Gessen

Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Cobina Gillitt

Francisco Goldman

Jorie Graham

John Guare

Conner Habib

Jessica Hagedorn

Brian Hall

Theodore Hamm

Lis Harris

Kathryn Harrison

JoAnn Hart

Jonathan T. Hine Jr.

Edward Hoagland

Jen Hofer

Adina Hoffman

Laura Hoffmann

Lucy Honig

Nancy Horan

Marya Hornbacher

Tracie Hotchner

Sandra Hunter

Megan Hustad

Vanessa Furse Jackson

Randa Jarrar

T. Geronimo Johnson

Paul Kane

John Keahey

Rick Kearns

Daniel J. Kevles

Uzma Aslam Khan

Eugenia Kim

Dave King

Gilbert King

Marshall N. Klimasewiski

Robert Spencer Knotts

Ruth Ellen Kocher

Ron Kolm

Nancy Kricorian

Tom Kuhn

Amitava Kumar

Rachel Kushner

Joy Ladin

Amy Lawless

Zachary Lazar

David Leavitt

Jonathan Lee

Katherine Leiner

Ben Lerner

Ted Lewin

Ed Lin

Michael Lindgren

Julie Livingston

Craig Lucas

Doug Magee

Ann Malaspina

Janet Malcolm

Charlotte Mandell

C. M. Mayo

Patrick McGrath

Clarissa McNair

Deena Metzger

Thais Miller

Vica Miller

Kyle Minor

Rick Moody

Skye Moody

Lorrie Moore

Dolan Morgan

James McGrath Morris

Bradford Morrow

Judith Nies

Idra Novey

Stephen O'Connor

Joyce Carol Oates

Alfa-Betty Olsen

Michael Ondaatje

Peter Orner

Duvall Osteen

Raj Patel

Chris Pavone

William Pierce

Francine Prose

Marcus Rediker

Adam Rex

Clay Risen

Roxana Robinson

David Roediger

Paul Rome

Mark Rotella

Jess Row

Gina Ruiz

Luc Sante

Steven Schroeder

Sarah Schulman

Taiye Selasi

Elissa Schappell

Danzy Senna

Vijay Seshadri

Kamila Shamsie

Jeff Sharlet

Wallace Shawn

Matthew Shenoda

Nancy Shiffrin

Charles J. Shields

Russell Shorto

Elisabeth Sifton

Charles Simic

Tom Sleigh

Holly Goldberg Sloan

Alexis M. Smith

Jill Smolowe

Linda Spalding

Scott Spencer

Betsy Sussler

Emily Gray Tedrowe

Roy A. Teel Jr.

Janne Teller

Michael Thomas

Ted Thompson

Kathleen Tolan

Pauls Toutonghi

Joanne Turnbull

Chase Twichell

Padma Venkatraman

Jasmine Dreame Wagner

Eliot Weinberger

Jon Wiener

Elizabeth Winthrop

Sung J. Woo

G. K. Wuori

Matvei Yankelevich

Irene Zabytko

Dave Zirin

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