A Letter from Our CEO: How We’re Reinventing PEN America
At this exceptionally difficult time for all of us, I wanted to share how we at PEN America are responding to the COVID-19 crisis that has impacted every facet of our work and forced the transformation of our organization nearly overnight.
It is hard to believe that barely three weeks ago, nearly 1,500 of us gathered at New York City’s storied Town Hall to celebrate the 2020 Literary Awards. NBC Late Night host Seth Meyers helped us fete Tom Stoppard, Yiyun Li, Tanya Barfield, Rigoberto González and so many more. It was a full-on celebration: entertaining, moving and jubilant. And while we didn’t know it at the time, it was likely the last time that we’d all be together for many, many months.
Fast forward to today. We’ve been forced to cancel the 2020 PEN America World Voices Festival of International Literature and postpone our New York City Literary Gala. Our bustling spring schedule of programs and events and media literacy trainings in a dozen states were suddenly wiped off the calendar. All preparations for book expos, conferences, fairs, and symposia that we were planning on convening or participating in evaporated. We decided that Friday, March 13 would be the last day of work for our full-time staff of 50 in our SoHo, Los Angeles, and downtown Washington, D.C. offices.
Since then we have had to reinvent PEN America, as each of you are reinventing your lives and work to meet an unprecedented challenge.
PEN America’s role in this crisis is four-fold. First, we must mobilize to assist writers hard hit by the cancellation of events, closure of bookstores, and economic contraction, recognizing that many of their livelihoods were precarious to begin with. Second, knowing that books are the ultimate vessels for human connection across distance, we must foster community and bring the nurturing power of literature and writers to those thirsting for connection. Third, having mobilized in defense of fact-based discourse, we must stand up for the truth as a matter of life and death. And fourth, knowing that in crisis lies opportunity, we must ward off those who will try to use this calamity for ill, to enact lasting curbs to freedom of expression, access to information, and otherwise erode the underpinnings of a free society.
Starting last week, our staff decamped to home offices and couches and easy chairs and kitchen tables. I’ll be honest. I was skeptical we could keep our momentum going. But last Monday morning our senior staff assembled for a new, daily 9am meeting, and from that moment, we were off to the races. By Thursday, as our full monthly all-staff meeting began via video conference, an orderly grid lit up. Kids might’ve been roaming in the background or a cat might’ve knocked down a webcam, but PEN America is up and running.
Several priorities are at the foreground. We’re relaunching and expanding our Writers’ Emergency Fund, a longstanding, crucial lifeline for writers facing severe personal hardship. We’re collaborating with partner organizations and engaging with funders with the aim of making the fund as robust and responsive as it can be. Our Artists at Risk Connection has provided resources for struggling creative professionals and participated in a global conference of more than 150 professionals from around the world working to assist hard-hit artists. Our Washington, DC office has been at the forefront of efforts on Capitol Hill to urge that stimulus measures aimed to boost the arts sector include writers as beneficiaries.
At PEN America, we believe deeply in the power of literature as an antidote to feelings of isolation and atomization. We’ve launched a daily podcast, The PEN Pod, bringing you interviews with authors, journalists, activists, and experts each and every morning (available on Spotify, Apple, Stitcher, and many other platforms). Listen in to hear Jennifer Finney Boylan, Alexander Chee, Andrew Solomon and a line-up of amazing writers talk about craft and creativity amid the coronavirus. We’re crafting reading lists curated by writers and poets, staff, and friends to keep folks occupied during this uncertain time. And we’re working to unveil new digital platforms to host events and readings online, so that we can move our innovative public programming directly to you, our friends and supporters.
At times of crisis, the open flow of accurate information is essential. PEN America staff scheduled to lead sessions at international conferences and college campuses are taking to the virtual airwaves instead, providing essential expertise on how to protect free speech in the remote classroom and online. In recent weeks, I published two pieces in Foreign Policy—one on how disinformation has helped fuel the coronavirus pandemic, not just in authoritarian countries but here at home. Last week, I did a follow up focused on Beijing’s expulsion of journalists from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post as part of a dangerous campaign to tightly control its global image. Viktorya Vilk, director of digital safety and free expression programs, and I also provided recommendations for how and why local media should be included in government stimulus packages, as part of The Washington Post’s list of smart solutions to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus.
We are alert to the ways this crisis could be used to stifle free expression and the freedom to write over time. While desperate times demand desperate measures, it is the essential role of PEN America and colleague organizations to make sure that the pandemic does not become an excuse for a permanent retraction of our freedoms. If you haven’t already, bookmark our Community Amid Coronavirus page for real-time alerts and updates on threats to free expression both in the U.S. and globally.
Please, if you haven’t already, subscribe to DARE, our Daily Alert on Rights and Expression. It’s a quick midday read that sums up the latest developments in free speech and open discourse. This week, we’ll begin devoting a special section of the newsletter to the implications of coronavirus for free expression and related human rights. Click here to sign up now. I promise it won’t disappoint.
We’re girding for an uncertain future. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the incredible work that took place earlier this year, in what feels like another era. At our annual New Year New Books Party in January, we celebrated all those with forthcoming titles and welcomed an incredibly special guest: the 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award winner Oleg Sentsov. Released from a Russian prison after five years, the Ukrainian filmmaker also toured Washington to lobby for the release of political prisoners, and he joined me for a panel at Sundance.
While we had to end this spring’s PEN Out Loud season early, we were able to squeeze in several exceptional events in New York City with Saidiya Hartman and Leslie Jamison, Mitchell S. Jackson and Imani Perry, and Ken Liu and Andrew Marantz. In Los Angeles, our PEN Presents series featured novelist Charles Yu in conversation with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and a Pal-entine’s Day reading and party featuring poets Danez Smith and Fatimah Asghar at the California African American Museum.
The PEN America Writing For Justice Fellows met in Birmingham, Alabama this past February, where they visited the Equal Justice Initiative offices, workshopped their works-in-progress, and engaged in a public programs event hosted by PEN America chapter leaders. Hot on the heels of our pathbreaking local news report, we hosted stellar events in Denver, Detroit, and Durham to discuss how local news can be revived and why it’s critical to democratic and now public health.
We reacted quickly and forcefully to new attempts at book ban bills in state legislatures, and in February we filed a friend of the court brief urging a federal appeals court to uphold the First Amendment rights of a man arrested for reading a poem critical of ICE. For International Women’s Day, we rallied members of Congress to defend our 2019 Freedom to Write Honorees who continue to languish in Saudi prisons.
So what’s next? As we move much of our literary activity into the digital realm, we hope to expand our reach and deepen connections at a time when they are badly needed. We’ll continue our research and defense of writers persecuted both at home and abroad (keep your eyes peeled for a major digital report indexing all imprisoned writers and intellectuals, scheduled to launch later this spring). We’ll continue podcasting and livestreaming and emailing and tweeting and Instagramming and taking advantage of every conceivable channel to stay in touch and provide a bit of the PEN America magic in a time of social isolation (or as Alexander Chee calls it, social solidarity).
My fervent hope is that not only will we get through this calamity, but that we’ll emerge from it ready to build a stronger, more cohesive, more humane society. I can relate personally to the many PEN America writers whose book tours and launch events are in jeopardy. My own book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, (Harper Collins, Dey Street) is scheduled to come out in early May, with well-laid launch plans now clouded by uncertainty. The book centers on 20 principles for how we can live together in our diverse, digitized, and divided society without curbing free speech. As we emerge from this forced collective reset, I hope the book can offer some concrete ideas for how we can come back together again without lunging at one another’s throats. I look forward to discussing it with you.
We’re soldiering on at PEN America, but it isn’t easy. Your support right now will help us make the transformation necessary to sustain our unflinching advocacy for the written word. If you possibly can, consider making a gift today. Your generosity will directly contribute to our work supporting writers and readers at a traumatic time.
In virtual solidarity,