• Naomi Klein, Hisham Matar, Maaza Mengiste and More Have Withdrawn From the PEN World Voices Festival

    “In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all.”

    Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander, Hisham Matar, Isabella Hammad, Maaza Mengiste, Zaina Arafat, and Susan Muaddi Darraj are among the writers who have signed a damning open letter to PEN America in which they announce their decision not to participate in this year’s PEN World Voices Festival due to the organization’s inadequate response to the unfolding genocide in Gaza.

    “In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza,” the letter reads, “we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere.” The letter goes on to detail the various ways in which PEN America has failed Palestinian writers and journalists—as well as their allies in the United States—since the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza, and take the organization to task for declining “to join other leading human rights organizations and United Nations officials in the demands for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.”

    One of the world’s most high profile literary events, and the centerpiece of PEN America’s annual programming, the PEN World Voices Festival is a weeklong celebration of international literature which has taken place in New York and Los Angeles each April/May since 2005. Its 20th incarnation is likely to be the rockiest on record, however, as the past three months have seen the 102-year-old free expression organization mired in controversy.

    In January, two prominent novelists cut ties with PEN America over its decision to platform controversial actor and outspoken ceasefire opponent Mayim Bialik at a PEN Out Loud event in Los Angeles. Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar was then forcibly removed from said event on January 31. One week later, a group of 600 writers and poets signed an open letter condemning PEN’s relative silence on Gaza. That letter has now been signed by more than 1300 writers, including Roxane Gay, Lauren Groff, Marie-Helene Bertino, Kiese Laymon, Saeed Jones, Carmen Maria Machado, Solmaz Sharif, Tommy Pico, Laura van den Berg, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

    The authors of this latest open letter wish to explain their decision not to participate in the 2024 PEN World Voices Festival in order to hold PEN America to account, and to encourage others in the literary world to speak out.


    Here is the letter in full:

    March 13, 2024

    Each of us was invited to take part in this year’s PEN World Voices festival in New York City, as speakers, moderators and as an honorary co-chair. We have decided not to participate. This letter explains why our conscience leaves us no other choice.

    We would have welcomed the prospect of gathering with our colleagues from around the world to share insights and combine our strengths, which was why most of us accepted the invitation to participate in the PEN World Voices Festival when it was initially extended. While aware that PEN America has often been missing-in-action when Palestinian speech was under attack, we held out hope that this was changing.

    Yet in the months since that initial invitation, we have concluded that attending this year’s festival would only serve to contribute to the illusion that PEN America is truly devoted to “the defence of free speech at the center of humanity’s struggle against repression,” as it has claimed. In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere.

    The PEN charter, adopted in 1948, states that it is the duty of PEN members to “to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.” Unfortunately, it has become painfully clear that, for PEN America, Palestine continues to be an exception to this ideal. Palestine’s poets, scholars, novelists and journalists and essayists have risked everything, including their lives and the lives of their families, to share their words with the world. Yet PEN America appears unwilling to stand with them firmly against the powers that have oppressed and dispossessed them for the last 75 years.

    As you know, an unrelenting genocidal campaign is currently being waged against Palestinians in Gaza, a horror that has been filmed daily and streamed live around the world. More than 100,000 people have been injured, and more than 30,000 killed, including over 12,000 children. More than 70 percent of the homes in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, leaving more than a million people homeless in a land where nowhere is safe from Israel’s drones, missiles, bombs, and bullets, in part paid for and supplied by the United States government.

    In January, the International Court of Justice found it plausible that Israel’s siege on Gaza could amount to genocide and ordered “immediate and effective measures” to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories by ensuring sufficient humanitarian assistance and enabling basic services. Thousands more Palestinian adults and children have been killed since the ICJ ruling; not only has Israel refused to facilitate adequate aid, it has actually hindered it.  Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of famine, and a growing number of children and elderly people are dying of malnutrition and dehydration even after they survive the bombing of their homes. Despite all this, PEN America has declined to join other leading human rights organizations and United Nations officials in the demands for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.

    This failure is particularly striking in light of the extraordinary toll this catastrophe has taken in the cultural sphere. Israel has killed, and at times deliberately targeted and assassinated journalists, poets, novelists, and writers of all kinds. It has destroyed almost all forms of cultural infrastructure that support the practice of literature, art, intellectual exchange, and free speech through the bombing and demolition of universities, cultural centers, museums, libraries, and printing presses. By disrupting access to digital communication, Israel has also been blocking Palestinians from sharing what they have witnessed and experienced and telling the truth of what is happening to them. Everyone who uses the power of the pen and free speech to appeal to the conscience of the world is at risk.

    In less than five months, Israel has killed nearly one hundred journalists and media workers, more than in the two-decade war in Afghanistan, and more than in the deadliest year of the Iraq War. Israel has also killed nearly one hundred academics and writers. If organizations like PEN America cling to the illusion of political neutrality in the face of a clear effort to destroy Palestinian lives and culture, one can only wonder whether there will be any writers left in Gaza to tell the story of their apocalypse, or to trust words and speech, when the killing finally ends. Or any record left of the history they have lived.

    Scholars are increasingly reaching for novel words to describe the scope of Israel’s cultural genocide. Words like “scholasticide” are invoked to describe the elimination of systems of education and “epistemicide” to describe the erasure of systems of knowledge. In contrast, PEN America, took four and half months to utter the word “ceasefire,” then only with a vague “hope” for one that is “mutually agreed,” rather than a clear call. We expect more from an organization that exists for the express purpose of protecting freedom of speech and thought, and advancing a vision of our common humanity.

    Equally concerning is PEN America’s history of condemning authors who choose to honor the Palestinian call for a cultural and academic boycott of Israeli institutions complicit in their oppression, accusing them of impeding “the free flow of ideas.” It seems to us that this violates several principles at the heart of PEN’s mission. To begin with, the idea that BDS, which does not boycott individual writers or scholars, can impede the “free flow of ideas” in Israel-Palestine assumes that such a thing exists there. In fact, it is a cruel fantasy so long as Palestinians live under a rule reliant on racial segregation and the implementation of ethnic hierarchies, siege and collective punishment, the very conditions BDS seeks to end.

    Second, condemning authors who choose to support BDS contradicts PEN’s own mandate to protect freedom of expression, as it contributes to a neo-McCarthyite environment in North America and Europe, in which the growing support for BDS is increasingly criminalized. Third, opposition to BDS overlooks the long and proud history of the boycott as an effective, nonviolent tool of collective liberation. Just as boycott was a principal tool used to successfully end political apartheid in South Africa, so it should be accepted that some are free to adopt it as a vital tool in the nonviolent resistance movement against Israeli impunity today.

    We are aware that PEN America has posted a series of statements expressing concern about various incidents in Gaza. We have also followed the organization’s attempts to quell a wave of criticism from hundreds of outraged writers by issuing a statement hoping for peace. While we object to the ahistoricism and false equivalencies in PEN’s portrayal of the war and its causes, our overarching question is this: Where are the actions that flow from these stated concerns?

    PEN America has not launched any substantial coordinated support or issued any reports highlighting the scale and scope of the attacks on writers in Gaza, or on Palestinian speech and culture more broadly. PEN America has done very little to mobilize or inspire its many members—quite unlike recent PEN America campaigns opposing the war in Ukraine and its impact on culture, or PEN International’s “Day of the Dead” honouring journalists killed in Latin America.

    We know that some will claim that by choosing to not take part in PEN World Voices Festival, we obstruct free speech, or that we think that PEN should only platform writers with whom we agree. Nothing could be further from the truth. We ask only that PEN America abide by its own principles and charter with consistency and live up to its core mandate to clearly and courageously defend the writers most at risk from repression and threat of being murdered. When the organization fails to do so, other writers will inevitably organize to fill its silences—including in ways that disrupt PEN itself. When those moments occur, it is morally vacuous to wag fingers at those who are speaking truth to power in a disruptive fashion. We are dismayed that there has been no apology to the Palestinian writer Randa Jarrar for the shocking act of dragging her out of an event featuring an anti-Palestinian and pro-war Hollywood actor as Jarrar read out the names of murdered Palestinian writers.

    The global network of PEN chapters and PEN International has a long history of providing a safe haven for artists under siege. It has not only saved individual lives by evacuating writers from danger zones (including from Gaza) but has created gatherings where writers under attack can experience the warmth of genuine solidarity from the global literary community. Palestinian writers deserve that kind of respite. Instead, many have found themselves in the insulting position of having to fight PEN America to loudly call for the U.S.-funded bombs to stop falling. They have been forced to point out, over and over again, that if the current onslaught was directed against any other people, there would have been clear condemnations of the crimes, as well as support for all forms of nonviolent resistance against oppression, alongside events focused on the artists who are the most vulnerable in the world.

    We have seen that PEN America can be open to criticism and has responded by adding new pages to its website and issuing new statements. This is welcome but still not enough, and sadly too late for this year’s PEN World Voices Festival to live up to this critical historical moment. We hope that our decision not to participate will add to existing efforts to yield concrete and lasting change at a time that calls for moral courage from us all.

    Michelle Alexander, author The New Jim Crow
    Zaina Arafat, author You Exist Too Much
    Kristen Arnett, author With Teeth
    Jazmina Barrera, author Cross-Stitch
    Ruha Benjamin, author Imagination: A Manifesto [withdrawing from LA World Voices Festival]
    Simone Browne, author Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness
    Michael Elias, author You Can Go Home Now
    Kay Gabriel, editorial director The Poetry Project
    Isabella Hammad, author Enter Ghost
    Rula Jebreal, journalist, author Miral
    Balsam Karam, author The Singularity
    Dima Khalidi, director Palestine Legal
    Naomi Klein, author Doppelganger
    Hari Kunzru, author Red Pill
    Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author The Evening Hero
    Hisham Matar, author My Friends
    Maaza Mengiste, author The Shadow King
    Lorrie Moore, author I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home
    Susan Muaddi Darraj, author A Curious Land
    Neel Mukherjee, author The Lives of Others
    Morgan Parker, author You Get What You Pay For
    Thelma Seto, poet
    Ani Kayode Somtochukwu, author And Then He Sang a Lullaby
    Kayla Upadhyaya, author Helen House
    Emily Wilson, author and translator The Iliad
    Kate Zambreno, author of The Light Room
    The members of the Worker Writers School
    Anonymous (due to concerns of being persecuted by the Israeli authorities)


    If you are an author who has been invited to take part in this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and you would like to add your name to this letter, please email 2024voices4gaza@gmail.com


    Updated: 4/17/2024

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