Reflecting on PEN America’s Storied Past, Staunch Advocates of the Freedom to Write Address Dire Threats to Free Expression and What They Mean for the Future

(New York, NY) — PEN America presents Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom, and the Future, an afternoon of urgent public conversation on the issues that drive the world’s leading free expression advocacy organization in this dire moment. Led by PEN America President Ayad Akhtar and CEO Suzanne Nossel, the event, a highlight of the organization’s 100th anniversary year, gathers renowned authors who are at the forefront of fighting for truth, open discourse and unfettered storytelling: Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Dave Eggers, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom, and the Future takes place on Monday, September 12, from 4-7pm in the Robert H. Smith Auditorium of the New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West). The museum is currently hosting the special installation PEN America at 100: a Century of Defending the Written Word, featuring artifacts, photos and letters from PEN America’s decades in defense of free speech.

Originally set to feature Salman Rushdie, Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom, and the Future has taken on new significance in light of the barbarous attack on the author. Rushdie became a worldwide exemplar of the persecution of writers when his 1988 masterpiece The Satanic Verses was banned in numerous countries and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini ordered a fatwa mandating his murder, forcing him into nearly a decade in hiding. He emerged to become the President of PEN America and co-found the PEN World Voices Festival as a counterweight to post-9/11 cultural isolationism. He was stabbed August 12 at the Chautauqua Institution, where he was set to deliver a talk about exiled writers seeking safety in America. PEN America is working with those closest to Salman Rushdie to determine how the Symposium can best honor his work and voice as he recovers from severe injuries in an attack chillingly linked to the themes of this event and PEN America’s work.

PEN America is at the forefront of pressing battles for free speech, addressing book bans, educational gag orders, free speech on campus and in the media, disinformation, online harassment and hate, self-censorship, rising authoritarianism, and the persecution of writers worldwide. Writers participating in the September 12 symposium will discuss how PEN America’s history of mobilizing writers, activists, and public intellectuals to defend open discourse can inform the fight for our freedoms today and into the future. 

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel says, “The murderous attack on Salman Rushdie marks a watershed moment for our organization. Coming in the middle of our 100th anniversary year, it is a clarion call that while some threats to free expression confront us daily, others lie in wait. This moment of unparalleled threats to truth and open discourse demand a doubling down in our vigilant defense of the fundamental freedoms that underpin an open society.  At a time when free speech is dismissed, misunderstood, bastardized and wrongfully blamed, the Symposium will offer a galvanizing rallying point to remind us what we are defending when we defend free speech and why these intensifying fights must be waged and can be won.  We are buoyed by the extraordinary response to a Symposium that will unite generations of writers, journalists, publishers, editors, readers, philanthropists and opinion leaders to face the uncertain future of free speech, and renew their collective vow to defend it.”

PEN America President and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ayad Akhtar says, “As we mark and celebrate PEN America’s centenary, and do so in the wake of the attack on Salman Rushdie, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the challenges to free speech ahead. In our day-long symposium, Words on Fire, some of our most respected literary minds will take a deep look into this daunting moment for freedom of thought and freedom of the imagination. What it means to speak in a time when fear of opprobrium, exclusion, and violence, is on the rise, and when the stakes for speaking truth to power have never been higher, or more complicated.”

The visionary thinkers participating in Words on Fire—in their literature, advocacy, lives, and vital contributions to our culture—have had an outsized impact on discussions of freedom of expression and those who trammel it. Margaret Atwood’s writing is so prescient, and offers such keen depictions of the sweep of authoritarianism, that its imagery is frequently invoked as her dystopian vision seems to seep into reality. A longtime PEN America supporter, she was seen in a viral May 2022 video wielding a giant blow-torch, spewing flames at The Unburnable Book, a one-of-a-kind version of The Handmaid’s Tale printed with fireproof materials and auctioned by Sotheby’s to raise funds for the organization’s work. 

Dave Eggers, who founded Voice of Witness—using oral histories to sound the alarm on human rights issues—writes incisively about erosion of basic freedoms in The Circle and The Every. Like Atwood, his near-futures offer uneasy glimpses of imminent risks we face. When a South Dakota school district banned and destroyed books it deemed inappropriate earlier this year, he countered by providing students with free copies of The Circle and other targeted titles. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, recipient of the 2018 PEN Pinter Prize, in 2015 delivered the PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, warning against the dangers of various forms of censorship. She has written trenchantly about cultural shifts that shut down the exchange of ideas, as well as about threats to democracy both in the U.S. and globally.  Her ringing warnings about the dangers of a single story have reshaped public discourse and broadened our collective conversation.

Acclaimed author of 18 books, former New York Times Opinion columnist, human rights advocate, and PEN America Trustee Jennifer Finney Boylan has in numerous writings decried the systemic silencing and marginalizing of trans people and boldly delved into some of today’s thorniest issues. For PEN America, she has found striking nuance in polarizing debates about authorship,  self-censorship, and who has the “right” to tell certain stories.

Curated by PEN America Trustee Bridget Colman and Lisa Kolosek, the special installation PEN America at 100: a Century of Defending the Written Word traces the evolution of a dining club formed by a handful of well-known writers into the foremost organization defending the fundamental freedoms to write, read, and speak. It includes letters, photographs, posters, awards, and other artifacts dating from 1922 to the present and is on view through October 9.

About the Host

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America, the foremost organization working to protect and advance human rights, free expression, and literature. As CEO, Nossel has led campaigns for free expression in Hong Kong and China, Myanmar, Russia, Eurasia, and the United States. Her career has spanned government service and leadership roles in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Nossel has also served as the chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch and as executive director of Amnesty International USA. She also held senior State Department positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Nossel frequently writes op-eds for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications, as well as a regular column for Foreign Policy.

About the Participants

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named one of The New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2013. A story from her collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, was awarded the O Henry Prize. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. Adichie divides her time between the United States and Nigeria, where she leads an annual creative writing workshop.

Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright, and has served as PEN America’s president since 2021. 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, Akhtar is a Board Trustee at New York Theatre Workshop, and was named the New York State Author, succeeding Colson Whitehead, by the New York State Writers Institute.

Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in more than 45 countries, is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels. Burning Questions, a collection of essays from 2004–2021 was published in March 2022.  Dearly, her first collection of poetry in over a decade, was published November 2020.  Her latest novel, The Testaments, is a co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize.  It is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, now an award-winning TV series. Her other works of fiction include Cat’s Eye, finalist for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; The MaddAddam Trilogy; and Hag-Seed. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize, the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award. She lives in Toronto.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is the author of 18 books and a trustee of PEN America. She is the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College; in 2022-23 she is a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study. Her next book is Mad Honey (Ballantine), co-authored with Jodi Picoult.

Dave Eggers is the author of many books, including The Every; our Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets? Do They Live Forever, shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award; A Hologram for the King, a finalist for the National Book Award; and What Is the What, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of France’s Prix Médicis Etranger. He is the founder of McSweeney’s Publishing and cofounder of Voice of Witness, a book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises. In 2002 he co-founded 826 Valencia, a youth writing center with a pirate-supply storefront, which has inspired similar literacy programs around the world. He is a winner of the Daytona Literary Peace Prize and the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, and is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters.

Salman Rushdie is the Booker Prize-winning author of 15 works of fiction—his 16th, Victory City, will be published in February 2023—and of five nonfiction works. He is a past president of PEN America and has received the PEN/Allen Literary Service Award (in the US) as well as the Pen Pinter Prize (in the UK). He is a Fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York. 

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

About New-York Historical Society

Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new annex housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.

Press Contacts

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