‘The M Word’ Gives Muslim-American Writers the Mic to Tell Their Stories, Their Way

NEW YORK—Amid a presidential campaign cycle infused with anti-Muslim sentiment and high profile hate crimes, PEN America is launching a groundbreaking program to elevate, amplify, and celebrate the voices of Muslim Americans in popular discourse.

The M Word,’ a new series of public events launching this fall, will provide a platform for Muslim-American writers and cultural figures to address audiences on their own terms—highlighting the art forms, narratives, and identities that influence their work—and to challenge the prevailing narrow representations of highly diverse Muslim communities comprised of more than three million Americans. The series is underwritten by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program.

Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied cultural landscape, but their voices have often been marginalized through ignorance, isolation, and violence. Many Muslim-American writers and artists today are increasingly pigeon-holed by editors, journalists, producers, and audiences into explaining or defending their faith and its followers, rather than recognized for their own creativity and unique contributions to American culture.

“With the speech of Khizr Khan at the Democratic National Convention and his subsequent battle of words with presidential candidate Donald Trump, a Muslim-American father took center stage in American political and cultural discourse,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “Through this series PEN America hopes to deepen and amplify an essential dialogue affording a range of important Muslim-American thinkers and creators the chance to be seen, heard, and understood more widely.”  

Over the next two years, PEN America will bring together some of the most bracing and original voices from both Muslim and non-Muslim communities in conversation on the challenges of self-identification and self-expression in today’s social and political climate. Events in New York, Boston, and Washington will each center on a different genre of writing—including fiction, comedy, script-writing, punditry, and more.

The series launches September 21 with comedians in conversation at Joe’s Pub, the beloved dinner club at the Public Theater. ‘The M Word: Muslims Comedians on the Right to Joke’ will feature Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show and Homecoming KingNegin Farsad, documentary director of The Muslims Are Coming and author of How To Make White People Laugh; and Mo Amer of the Muslim comedy troupe Allah Made Me Funny, joined by 2 Dope QueensPhoebe Robinson, whose memoir You Can’t Touch My Hair is forthcoming this October. Award-winning playwright, New York Times contributor, and television host ‎Wajahat Ali will moderate.

Ali is one of several prominent writers and artists advising PEN America on the project, also including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, “Ms. Marvel: Kamala Khan” creator Sana Amanat, author Zia Haider Rahman, and religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan.

“So many Americans have been denied the right to self-identify and the opportunity to tell their own stories based solely on their skin color, their faith, their dress, even the sound of their names,” said Ali. “PEN has a strong track record of using art and literature to combat stereotypes and celebrate the diversity that strengthens our cultural landscape. In giving marginalized writers the mic to speak for themselves, I think ‘The M Word’ will prove a forceful catalyst for change.” 


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.

The Building Bridges Program is the grant-making arm of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA), which is an extension of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF). Based in New York, the Building Bridges Program supports national efforts to advance relationships, increase understanding, and reduce bias between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. For more information, please visit www.ddcf.org/what-we-fund/building-bridges.

Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director for Communications: sedkins@pen.org, +1.646.779.4830
Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, Deputy Director of Public Programs: clarisse@pen.org, +1.646.779.4831