6 Writers Withdraw from Hosting PEN Gala to Protest Charlie Hebdo Award

By Qimmah Saafir Apr 27, 2015

Novelists Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn as literary hosts for PEN American Center’s annual gala happening May 5. They did so to protest the literary organization’s plan to give their Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical publication that lost 11 staffers in a January massacre by Al Qaeda members. 

The withdrawal of the writers is in direct correlation with a debate that began after the Hebdo attack, in which many identified the magazine’s actions as attacking France’s Muslim minority. 

Rachel Kushner stated in an e-mail to PEN that her withdrawal is due to Hebdo’s “cultural intolerance.” The five other writers agreed with Kushner’s sentiment.

Teju Cole wrote in an essay for The New Yorker that Hebdo has in recent years, “gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.” 

Peter Carey, in an interview with New York Times, stated that PEN is turning a blind eye to France’s shortcomings.

A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.

Even the Hebdo cartoonist Garry Trudeau is critical of the magazine’s decisions, stating this month that, “by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.”

Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, responded that he was aware the award would spark controversy but was surprised that the writers were the group to express it. Solomon also spoke on the post-attack subscriber increase. 

We heard from people who said they had been meaning to join PEN for a few years, and the tragedy was a catalyst.

The award will be presented to Charlie Hebdo editor in chief, Gerard Biard and staffer Jean-Baptiste Thoret. Both men missed the January 7 attack on the newspaper’s headquarters that left 11 of their coworkers dead and 11 wounded.  

Read more on the protest here