Suzanne Nossel headshot

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we spoke with Suzanne about the state of free expression in Iran, as well as the conditions facing Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi, our 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award honorees; a victory against book bans in York, PA and why book bans persist; and the power of images and the press to shape public opinion and public policy. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 13:51 mark).

On Our 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award Honorees

“This is one of our signature freedom to write initiatives every year. This award that we give out at our gala, it always goes to a writer or sometimes a small group of writers who are in prison, at the time of the gala, with the objective of spotlighting their case, making their names more widely known, engaging our constituency of writers and allies to campaign on their behalf, and it kicks off an ongoing effort to try to secure their freedom.

“Here at PEN, it’s as if we really get to know these individuals. We’re looking at their photos, we’re watching videos of them; we’re talking about them; oftentimes getting to know their closest associates, their friends, their families; tracking the ins and outs of what happens with their trial dates, the prosecution, their time in prison—and they become a part of our extended family. We think very hard about when and how we can apply pressure, depending on what government we’re dealing with, and we’ve done things like going to the United Nations; going to capitals around the world, where Washington can play a role. We’ve activated the U.S. government; mobilizing partner organizations, petitions; thinking about which writers have the greatest influence in that particular political environment, whose voices can be heard.

This year, choosing three Iranian writers—for us, their story is kind of emblematic of what I think about as really what we do at PEN, which is writer-to-writer solidarity. They had taken up the mantle of leadership within the Iranian Writers Association, which is a body created for the express purpose of countering censorship in one of the world’s most repressive environments. . . . And the specific thing they were accused of doing—going and celebrating at a graveyard some of the deceased writers in that lineage and tradition—bespeaks this effort to not just suppress today’s voices, but to stamp out a whole historical narrative that the independent writers of Iran have articulated and stood for for many years.”

On the Targets of Book Bans and the Rollback of a Ban in Pennsylvania

It’s an interesting case in York, Pennsylvania, where there had been a list of books that was created to help share resources on issues of diversity, racial justice, cultural awareness. And it got turned around, where instead of that list of books being used to help guide teachers and librarians about what to share or focus on in the classroom, it became a list of what to ban. It seemed almost as if, if you take them at their word, the officials of the school system really got confused and twisted up in this pitched national debate that we’re having over how to deal with subjects of racism and the history of racial exclusion in our country within the classroom.

“There is a feeling in some quarters—and I understand some of this—that if some materials go too far, that there are students who are being made to feel guilty and blameworthy for things that they had nothing to do with, that happened decades, centuries ago, and that some of the approaches that are taken to addressing these concepts are perhaps counterproductive, could boomerang and lead to students becoming even more entrenched in even racist or biogted ideas. That’s a legitimate debate, but what it’s translated into—which is so troubling—is this impulse to ban willy-nilly.”

On the Power of Images

“It’s a good illustration of the power of the press. Whether it’s a photograph that shocks people—and we can think of many of those over the year: the little Syrian boy, deceased, who washed up on a beach, or some of the horrific images of 9/11 that we all had a chance to revisit over the last few weeks—and the ways that they do shape our discourse, our understanding of issues, our political opinions, our collective memory, and a good news story can do the same thing, by bringing to light a side of a situation that people haven’t thought of, or a human dimension, or just a truth that has been out of view or kept from view. For us, at PEN, doing a lot of work on press freedom issues both in this country (especially over the last five years, when there was a campaign under President Trump to threaten and intimidate the press), and now, around the world, where we see a tightening climate of restrictions on media, it’s sort of a reminder of what we’re fighting for, and the power of the media, and why it’s so important, and why it’s so threatening as well, because of course that ability to, with the publication of a photo or a story, sway public opinion, change the political dynamics surrounding a given issue—that’s a lot of power, and governments find that threatening.”