Winter 2015 Update From PEN America
December 17, 2015
As the year draws to a close, we at PEN America are looking back at a packed and challenging year and looking ahead to objectives for 2016. As we prepare for the holidays, we are ever mindful of those writers and thinkers who sit in jail, paying the ultimate price for rights that we exercise freely. Just yesterday we sent a letter of leading writers to President Barack Obama asking him to belatedly urge Saudi King Salman to pardon Raif Badawi, who has just been transferred to a new prison, and poet Ashraf Fayadh, who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy. The letter received coverage in this morning’s New York Times. The two cases are so egregious that silence from the White House cannot be justified any longer. We are also hard at work on programming for 2016 that will take on issues including fostering a reasoned dialogue on hate speech and the use of social media for incitement, speech on campuses, and online trolling.
At PEN, we focus not just on traditional violations of free expression by governments, but also on creating conditions that allow all individuals and groups to participate in public discourse. In recent months we have shined a spotlight on the steps necessary to foster a greater breadth of voices in American publishing. Equity in Publishing is an initiative we launched in October with an online discussion asking editors from U.S. presses, magazines, and journals to weigh in on what can be done differently by an industry in which one survey shows 89 percent of those working are white. Later in October, PEN also convened Reimagining the Mainstream, an event with CUNY in honor of 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner Gregory Pardlo, author of Digest and a PEN Trustee. Along with Robert Fitzgerald Reid-Pharr, Saeed Jones, Cate Marvin, and Willie Perdomo, Pardlo discussed how to diversify literary culture and support a wide range of voices. We will continue to probe this important and multi-faceted topic. If you want to take part in or support this effort, let us know.
The 80 entries on the PEN Literary Awards Longlist were announced in early December, months earlier than usual, helping make our awards more timely and potent. We’ve assembled a prestigious and diverse slate of judges and will pay out more than $200,000 for awards that recognize established and emerging writers. Prizes include the PEN Open Book Award for an exceptional book-length work of literature by an author of color published in 2015, judged by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Celeste Ng, and Héctor Tobar; the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Founded by Barbara Kingsolver, awarded to an author of an unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice, judged by Laila Lalami, Kathy Pories, and Brando Skyhorse; and the PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize for a promising young writer under the age of 35 for an unpublished work of nonfiction that addresses a global and/or multicultural issue, judged by Marie Arana, Manuel Gonzales, and Johnny Temple.
Planning is in high gear for the 2016 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, on April 25-May 1, 2016. The year’s festival will include a regional turn to Mexico and its diaspora. Last May’s festival, with its focus on African writers, attracted a larger and more diverse audience than ever before, bringing PEN to Harlem and the Bronx for the first time. This year’s program will be unveiled in early February, so please sign up for e-mail updates.
Celebrating literature on a lighter note, we were thrilled to re-boot Lit Crawl NYC; in October, turning the Housing Works Bookstore Café into a carnival of fun for book-lovers. More than 350 guests worked their way through an array of wordy games (think Literary Pictionary and Latino Literary Scramble Board) to live music from the Farrar, Straus & Giroux band The Savage Detectives. Buzzfeed’s Isaac Fitzgerald and author and graphic storyteller Mira Jacob hosted. PEN will now be the organization home for Lit Crawl NYC, New York’s funnest and funkiest roving literary event.
This year, we’ve used the PEN website to share a kaleidoscope of contemporary work. Current editors of the weekly PEN Ten interview series include the Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar; Nicole Sealey, programs director of Cave Canem; Ken Chen, director of Asian American Writers Workshop; Alex Segura, a Latino comic book writer and mystery novelist; and Natalie Diaz, a Native American poet. For more PEN literary content online, check out the PEN Poetry Series, the PEN/Guernica Flash Series, and The Illustrated PEN.
Defending Free Expression
Our case work on behalf of writers in grave danger has picked up speed in recent months. In Iran, poets Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi were sentenced to long prison terms on charges including insulting the sacred and condemned to 99 lashes each for the crime of shaking hands with unrelated members of the opposite sex. PEN mobilized their fellow poets worldwide behind a letter to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, signed by 116 prominent bards including Robert Pinsky and Claudia Rankine. Wide coverage of the letter in the New York Times and elsewhere has made theirs into an international case. In Bangladesh, secular bloggers and publishers are in mortal danger; in 2015 alone, five bloggers and publishers have been murdered and many others named on a hit list. As part of PEN’s ongoing advocacy on this issue, PEN’s Free Expression Programs Director Karin Karlekar joined writer Rafida Bonya Ahmed, whose husband Avijit Roy was murdered by machete-wielding attackers as they rode a rickshaw home from a book fair in Dhaka, before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission earlier this month. Karin’s full testimony to the Congressional panel is available here. PEN also is working with other advocacy organizations to create a network of assistance for the imperiled writers and publishers, including relocation if necessary. For the Palestinian artist and poet Ashraf Fayadh, who faces a death sentence in Saudi Arabia, PEN America joined with more than 60 PEN Centers in a joint protest letter to Saudi authorities. An accompanying public letter circulated to members was signed by more than 1,000 poets and writers from around the world.
Our ongoing work with PEN Myanmar took on added significance with the historic November multi-party elections that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) sweeping into position to form a new government. I traveled to Yangon in December to release a PEN report, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, that spells out necessary steps to safeguard free expression as a fortifying pillar of Myanmar’s nascent democracy as the NLD prepares to take office. Our assessment received media coverage both locally and internationally, and we discussed the key points in meetings with writers and journalists, human rights activists, and government officials including Information Minister Ye Htut just a day after he participated in President Thein Sein’s first post-election meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. A highpoint of our trip was PEN Myanmar’s second annual Congress, where I joined more than 125 delegates to hear about the remarkable progress made since the center’s founding in 2013 by Dr. Ma Thida and Nay Phone Latt. These two former political prisoners and winners of our PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award had vowed to form a PEN center if conditions in their country ever allowed. Today, Ma Thida is a respected voice for free expression and transparency, and Nay Phone Latt has just been elected to parliament. PEN Myanmar has more than 250 paying members and an impressive range of advocacy initiatives and literature events, including efforts to promote writing in the country’s many ethnic languages.
We also continued our strong record of advocacy for free expression at home in the United States this fall with a ground-breaking report on national security whistleblowers entitled Secret Sources. It revealed massive holes in the laws and regulations covering whistleblowing by national security workers, particularly when they seek to expose systemic misconduct such as the CIA’s torture program or NSA mass surveillance. The report offers clear recommendations to improve protections for whistleblowers and the public’s right to know. PEN launched the report in Washington at an event in the Newseum that brought together a panel of experts including NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack of ExposeFacts’ Whistleblower & Source Protection Program, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen, and moderator Susan Glasser of POLITICO to debate the impact of the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of national security leaks on freedom of expression and press freedom. Following their discussion, I had the chance to spar with Edward Snowden, via live video feed from Russia, on whistleblowing and questions of conscience. You can catch up with this challenging conversation here.
PEN America Membership
As we wrap up 2015, the membership of PEN America now exceeds 4,300. We welcomed more than 675 new professional members over the last year, greater than any previous annual total. As the initiatives I’ve written to you about here and over the course of the year illustrate, the power of PEN is in this broad and diverse membership—the writers and advocate members whose intellect and creativity make our programs so meaningful and whose commitment is vital for counterparts globally whose free expression rights are under attack. We very much appreciate your continuing support, wish you all the best for the New Year, and look forward to continuing to share PEN’s expanding range of activities as 2016 unfolds.