Writ­ers snub PEN gala over Char­lie Hebdo


Michael On­daatje, Francine Prose and at least four other writ­ers have with­drawn from next month’s PEN Amer­i­can Cen­ter gala, cit­ing ob­jec­tions to the lit­er­ary and hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion’s hon­or­ing the French satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Char­lie Hebdo.

PEN an­nounced Sun­day that the writ­ers were up­set by Char­lie Hebdo’s por­tray­als of Mus­lims and “the dis­en­fran­chised gen­er­ally.” The Paris-based mag­a­zine, where 12 peo­ple were killed in a Jan­uary attack at its of­fices, is to re­ceive a Free­dom of Ex­pres­sion Courage Award at the May 5 event in Man­hat­tan. Much of the lit­er­ary com­mu­nity ral­lied be­hind Char­lie Hebdo af­ter the shoot­ings, but some have ex­pressed un­hap­pi­ness with its scathing car­toons of the Prophet Muham­mad and other Mus­lims.

“I was quite up­set as soon as I heard about (the award),” Prose, a for­mer PEN Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, told The As­so­ci­ated Press dur­ing a tele­phone in­ter­view Sun­day night. Prose said she was in fa­vor of “free­dom of speech with­out lim­i­ta­tions” and that she “de­plored” the Jan­uary shoot­ings, but added that giv­ing an award sig­ni­fied “ad­mi­ra­tion and re- spect” for the hon­oree’s work.

“I couldn’t imag­ine be­ing in the au­di­ence when they have a stand­ing ova­tion for Char­lie Hebdo,” Prose said.

The gala is the high­light of PEN’s an­nual, week-long World Voices Fes­ti­val and is in­tended as a cel­e­bra­tion of artis­tic achieve­ment and ex­pres­sion, with past award win­ners in­clud­ing On­daatje, Sal­man Rushdie and Philip Roth. Be­sides Char­lie Hebdo, which will be rep­re­sented by edi­tor in chief Ger­ard Biard and critic and es­say­ist Jean-Bap­tiste Thoret, oth­ers re­ceiv­ing awards in­clude play­wright Tom Stop­pard, Azer­bai­jani jour­nal­ist Khadija Is­may­ilova and Pen­guin Ran­dom House CEO Markus Dohle.

Prose and On­daatje were among more than 60 writ­ers sched­uled to serve as hosts. Ac­cord­ing to PEN, the other hosts who de­cided not to at­tend were Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Se­lasi and Peter Carey.

In a let­ter sent ear­lier Sun­day to PEN trustees, cur­rent PEN Amer­i­can pres­i­dent An­drew Solomon ac­knowl­edged that sev­eral peo­ple were of­fended by some of Char­lie Hebdo’s car­toons, but added that PEN be­lieved strongly in the “ap­pro­pri­ate­ness” of the award.

“It is un­doubt­edly true that in ad- di­tion to pro­vok­ing vi­o­lent threats from ex­trem­ists, the Hebdo car­toons of­fended some other Mus­lims, as their car­toons of­fended mem­bers of the many other groups they tar­geted,” Solomon wrote.

“But, based on their own state­ments, we be­lieve that Char­lie Hebdo’s in­tent was not to os­tra­cize or in­sult Mus­lims, but rather to re­ject force­fully the ef­forts of a small mi­nor­ity to place broad cat­e­gories of speech off lim­its, no mat­ter the pur­pose, in­tent or im­port of the ex­pres­sion,” he said. “We do not be­lieve that any of us must en­dorse the con­tents of Char­lie Hebdo’s car­toons in or­der to af­firm the prin­ci­ples for which they stand, or ap­plaud the staff’s brav­ery in hold­ing fast to those val­ues in the face of life and death threats.”

The Char­lie Hebdo protest is the big­gest con­tro­versy for the PEN Amer­i­can Cen­ter in re­cent mem­ory. In 1986, Nor­man Mailer in­fu­ri­ated many writ­ers when he in­vited thenSec­re­tary of State Ge­orge P. Shultz to ad­dress the an­nual Congress of In­ter­na­tional PEN. E.L. Doc­torow com­plained at the time that Mailer, the PEN Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, was turn­ing the gath­er­ing into “a fo­rum for the (for­mer U.S. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald) Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

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