Six PEN Members Decline Gala After Award for Charlie Hebdo
The decision by PEN American Center to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has prompted six writers to withdraw as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5, adding a new twist to the continuing debate over the publication’s status as a martyr for free speech.
The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s editor in chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a Charlie Hebdo staff member who arrived late for work on Jan. 7 and missed the attack by Islamic extremists that killed 12 people, are scheduled to accept the award.
In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.
Mr. Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.
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.”
Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, said on Sunday that the six writers were the only ones that he knew of among the dinner’s several dozen literary hosts who had reconsidered their participation in the gala, which occurs during the group’s annual World Voices Festival, a weeklong event that brings dozens of writers from around the globe to New York City.
Mr. Solomon said he knew the award to Charlie Hebdo might be controversial, but added he was surprised less by the criticism itself than by the vehemence of some of it, as well by the timing — less than two weeks before the gala, a major fund-raiser that draws a star-studded crowd of more than 800 writers, publishers and supporters.
“We all knew this was in some ways a controversial choice,” he said. “But I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors.”
The withdrawals reflect the debate over Charlie Hebdo that erupted immediately after the attack, with some questioning whether casting the victims as free-speech heroes ignored what some saw as the magazine’s particular glee in beating up on France’s vulnerable Muslim minority.
In an essay for The New Yorker’s website after the attack, Mr. Cole noted that the magazine claimed to offend all parties, but in fact in recent years “has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.” (Mr. Cole declined to comment for this article.)
This month, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau drew criticism from a number of news-media commentators for saying in a speech that “by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.”
But Mr. Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the group’s executive director, said in a letter sent to the PEN board on Sunday morning that it was not necessary to agree with Charlie Hebdo in order to “affirm the principles” for which the magazine stands.
“There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable,” the letter said.
The group’s leadership, Mr. Solomon said, had heard little negative reaction from its membership since the award was announced on March 17. Mr. Carey had contacted him with concerns, he said, and “we had a pleasant interaction and I thought it had been resolved.”
Similarly, Mr. Solomon said, the group’s statement in support of Charlie Hebdo in the immediate aftermath of the attacks had led to a surge in new memberships.
“We heard from people who said they had been meaning to join PEN for a few years, and the tragedy was a catalyst,” he said.
Mr. Carey, in the email interview, said that he had first contacted Peter Godwin, Mr. Solomon’s predecessor as PEN’s president, in mid-March, and then emailed Mr. Solomon on Friday to withdraw, after returning from a long stretch of travel.
“I wrote to Andrew to say that I did not wish to have my name, without my knowledge or prior approval, publicly linked to a political position I did not hold,” he said. (The other five withdrew in separate letters, he added.)
Some PEN members not involved with the gala agreed. The short story writer Deborah Eisenberg said via email yesterday that she had written in late March to Ms. Nossel to criticize the award.
“What I question is what PEN is hoping to convey by awarding a magazine that has become famous both for the horrible murder of staff members by Muslim extremists and for its denigrating portrayals of Muslims,” she said. “Charlie Hebdo’s symbolic significance is unclear here.”
But Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president who lived in hiding for years after a fatwa in response to his novel “The Satanic Verses,” said the issues were perfectly clear. Mr. Ondaatje and Mr. Carey were old friends of his, he said, but they are “horribly wrong.”
“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”