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PEN America Town Hall Meeting: Writers on Self-Censorship

We live in a new age of government censorship and societal censoriousness. Legislatures and school boards are banning books and curricula from schools. Bookstores and libraries are under pressure to exclude certain narratives and perspectives. Social media posts, videos, and writings can become the basis of weaponized opprobrium. Certain subjects and ideas are nearly impossible to discuss without triggering outrage and risking reputational and professional repercussions.

PEN America’s town hall, “Writers on Self-Censorship” on Wednesday, December 8, was a deep dive into self-censorship from the perspective of the writer. Attendees heard from a panel of exceptional writers who explored questions including where the boundaries lie between conscientiousness, discretion, self-restraint, and self-censorship and whether those redlines have shifted; what ideas, perspectives, subjects, and discussions are being lost to self-censorship; whether and when self-censorship seeps from constraints on speech to constraints on thought; and how to counter self-censorship and create more space for discussion on uncomfortable subjects.

2021 PEN America Town Hall: Writers on Self-Censorship

The discussion commenced with remarks from Ayad Akhtar, PEN America’s president and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author of the recent autofiction Homeland Elegies. Afterward, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel moderated the panel that includes: author and playwright Wajahat Ali, transgender activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, award-winning memoirist and short story writer Carmen Maria Machado, and author and linguist John McWhorter.

This event was a part of the Annual General Meeting of PEN America Members.


The event adhered to protocols developed in accordance with New York State regulations and in consultation with medical professionals for the safety of our panelists, audience, and staff. All attendees had to provide proof of vaccination and wore masks at all times.

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Suzanne Nossel headshotSuzanne Nossel is Chief Executive Officer at PEN America and author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All. Prior to joining PEN America, she served as the Chief Operating Officer of Human Rights Watch and as Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. She has served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, leading US engagement in the UN and multilateral institutions on human right issues, and in the Clinton Administration as Deputy to the US Ambassador for UN Management and Reform. Nossel coined the term “Smart Power,” which was the title of a 2004 article she published in Foreign Affairs Magazine and later became the theme of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure in office. She is a featured columnist for Foreign Policy magazine and has published op-eds in The New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times, as well as scholarly articles in Foreign Affairs, Dissent, and Democracy, among others. Nossel serves on the Board of Directors of the Tides Foundation. She is a former senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Nossel is a magna cum laude graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Law School.


Ayad Akhtar headshotAyad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright. His work has been published and performed in over two dozen languages. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Akhtar is the author of Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown & Co.), which The Washington Post called “a tour de force” and The New York Times called “a beautiful novel…that had echoes of The Great Gatsby and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life.” His first novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown & Co.), was published in over 20 languages. As a playwright, he has written Junk (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Kennedy Prize for American Drama, Tony nomination); Disgraced (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony nomination); The Who & The What (Lincoln Center); and The Invisible Hand (NYTW; Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award, Olivier, and Evening Standard nominations). 

Among other honors, Akhtar is the recipient of the Steinberg Playwrighting Award, the Nestroy Award, the Erwin Piscator Award, as well as fellowships from the American Academy in Rome, MacDowell, the Sundance Institute, and Yaddo, where he serves as a Board Director. Additionally, Ayad is a Board Trustee at New York Theatre Workshop, and PEN America, where he serves as President. In 2021, Akhtar was named the New York State Author, succeeding Colson Whitehead, by the New York State Writers Institute.

Wajahat Ali headshotWajahat Ali is the author of the forthcoming book Go Back To Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American (January 25, Norton). He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and a former New York Times contributing op-ed writer. His play, The Domestic Crusaders, one of the first major plays about the post 9-11 Muslim American experience, was re-released by McSweeney’s in the Fall of 2021. He is the lead researcher and author of the report Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America published by the Center for American Progress. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Western States Center and Auburn Seminary.

Jennifer Finney Boylan headshotJennifer Finney Boylan is the author of 15 books and the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer-in-Residence at Barnard College. Her column appears on the opinion page of The New York Times on alternate Wednesdays. She served on the Board of Directors of GLAAD from 2011 to 2018, and as co-chair from 2013 to 2017. She also served on the Board of Trustees of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction from 2012-16. She was a cast member on I Am Cait, the reality series on E!, and served as an advisor to the Amazon series Transparent. Her latest novel Long Black Veil was published in April 2017. Her 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders, was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. Boylan has made numerous television appearances and also been the subject of documentaries on CBS News’ 48 Hours and The History Channel. She served on the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival curatorial committee. She joined the PEN America board in 2018.

Carmen Maria Machado headshotCarmen Maria Machado is the author of the bestselling memoir In the Dream House and the award-winning short story collection Her Body and Other Parties. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, among others. Her essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Granta, Vogue, This American Life, The Believer, Guernica, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.

John McWhorter headshotJohn McWhorter is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, contributing editor at The Atlantic, and host of Slate‘s language podcast “Lexicon Valley.” He is the author of over 20 books, most recently Words on the Move, The Creole Debate, Nine Nasty Words, and The Elect. He has also authored five audiovisual sets on language for The Great Courses.