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    Withdrawals and protests are roiling the PEN America Literary Awards.

    Dan Sheehan

    April 10, 2024, 4:37pm

    Less than a month out from the 20th incarnation of its flagship World Voices Festival, the protests against PEN America’s response to the war on Gaza are continuing to mount.

    In just the last few days, several authors have withdrawn their books from PEN awards consideration; esteemed translator Esther Allen, who co-founded the PEN World Voices Festival in 2005, has declined the 2024 PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation; and the judges of the 2024 PEN Translation Prize have publicly chastised the organization.


    These developments are the latest in a recent series of reputational blows for PEN America:

    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.

    On February 9, 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, Carmen Maria Machado, Solmaz Sharif, Tommy Pico, Laura van den Berg, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.)

    On March 14, a number of high profile authors—including Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander, and Lorrie Moore—announced their decision not to participate in this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, stating their belief that “PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all.”

    On March 27, the PEN America Union, PEN America United (PAU), accused the free expression organization of attempting to “chill the free expression of its own workers” by proposing language that would see PAU members disciplined for engaging in off-duty political activity (PEN America has strongly refuted this accusation).


    With regard to this week’s award nominee withdrawls, Katy Hershberger of Publishers Lunch provided an overview of the situation earlier today:

    Camonghne Felix shared on social media that her book DYSCALCULIA was set to be longlisted for the PEN/Jean Stein award. She declined before the announcement was made on April 8, she said, so DYSCALCULIA is not named among the longlisters. “I’m disappointed that PEN’s ongoing betrayal has taken away from an accomplishment that I would’ve appreciated, but I don’t want to be aligned with an org that insists on being on the wrong side of history,” she wrote. Christina Sharpe has also withdrawn from consideration for the Jean Stein award for ORDINARY NOTES, an FSG spokesperson confirmed to PL.

    Eugenia Leigh’s book BIANCA was named to the longlist for the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, but Leigh announced on Tuesday that she has withdrawn it from consideration. “I made this choice in keeping with the boycott sustained against [PEN America], and in solidarity with Palestine.”

    Among other announcements, Ghassan Zeineddine withdrew from consideration for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection for DEARBORN, and Márcia Barbieri and translator Adrian Minckley declined to be considered for the translation prize for THE WHORE.

    Additionally, translator Esther Allen announced that she had been awarded the 2024 PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation, which is given every three years in recognition of a translator’s body of work, but declined the prize. Allen told PL that the decision was also based on the organization’s response to the war, as well as her own history with PEN America.

    In an April 1 letter to PEN in response to the award notification, she noted longtime concerns over the handling of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, and explained that she was forced to resign from the PEN America board after raising the issues. She also says that she was a co-founder and co-director of the PEN World Voices Festival in its first two seasons, but was “erased, written out of the official Festival history” for ten years.

    She wrote, “to accept such an award constitutes a tacit endorsement of the organization that presents it. I am unable to endorse PEN America.”

    Her letter continued, “I concluded long ago that PEN America is an unreliable narrator, not committed to the things it claims to be committed to, and PEN America keeps finding shocking new ways of demonstrating how correct that conclusion was.”


    In addition to the above, two young short story writers have declined the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers:

    On April 4, Nick Mandernach announced on X (formerly Twitter) that he had turned down the PEN/Dau prize, “In solidarity with 1300+ protesting authors.”

    This afternoon, Kelly X. Hui also announced on X (formerly Twitter) that she, too, has turned down the prize, “in solidarity with Palestine + the protest against Pen America’s refusal to take a clear, principled stance on the Israeli genocide against the Palestinian people.”


    Finally, the four judges of this year’s PEN Translation Prize—Larissa Kyzer, Hanna Leliv, Parisa Saranj, and Jenna Tang—today released a forceful statement declaring that while they were proud of the “affirming, engaging, and uplifting” work they did in selecting titles for the prize, they were “not, however, proud to be associated with PEN America at this time.”:

    we cannot conscience the way an organization specifically dedicated to free speech and freedom of expression, to the right of writers of and journalists to live and work in safety, has continuously withheld meaningful comment, has stifled dissent both within its ranks and at its events, and has attempted to sweep criticism and critique under the rug instead of participating in a good-faith dialogue about ways to meaningfully redress its wrongs and take a new path going forward.

    The judges also expressed solidarity with Sublunary Editions, the Seattle-based independent publisher that has decided “not to accept multiple nominations for this year’s PEN literary awards.”

    Here is the PEN Translation Prize judges’ statement in its entirety:

    April 9, 2024

    On Monday, April 8th this year, after much delay and little advance communication, PEN America announced the long lists for its 2024 literary awards. This included the PEN Translation Prize, for which we, Larissa Kyzer, Hanna Leliv, Parisa Saranj, and Jenna Tang, were judges. At the time we were nominated for the judging committee, we were proud to have the opportunity to serve the literary translation community in this way and excited for the chance to read so many fantastic translations by so many talented colleagues. There aren’t, after all, many high-profile venues in which literary translation is honored.

    We judges are still proud of our work together, which was affirming, engaging, and uplifting. We are incredibly proud of our long and shortlists. The books we selected were translated by true craftspeople who enliven our profession and our art with their work. Our lists celebrate fresh voices, exciting aesthetics, bold translation choices, and courageous narratives. These stories stand as witness to the cruelties that people have, throughout time, visited on their fellow beings, as well as the possibilities of rebellion within suppressive social structures and of finding joy and meaningful connection in the everyday.

    We are not, however, proud to be associated with PEN America at this time. Larissa Kyzer is a former PEN America Translation Committee co-chair and found much-needed community, mentorship, and support amongst the translators she met while volunteering with PEN. Parisa Saranj has worked with the PEN America Writers at Risk program on several occasions to highlight the plight of Iranian writers and political dissidents. Jenna Tang was involved with the PEN Translation Committee for two years and helped organize translation-related events. Hanna is a new member of PEN hailing from Ukraine and, through her involvement, hoped to do more to raise the visibility of the lesser translated literature like her very own. But we cannot conscience the way an organization specifically dedicated to free speech and freedom of expression, to the right of writers of and journalists to live and work in safety, has continuously withheld meaningful comment, has stifled dissent both within its ranks and at its events, and has attempted to sweep criticism and critique under the rug instead of participating in a good-faith dialogue about ways to meaningfully redress its wrongs and take a new path going forward.

    While we wholeheartedly celebrate and honor the nominees for this year’s literary awards, we also want to honor the stance taken by Sublunary Editions in choosing not to accept multiple nominations for this year’s PEN literary awards. (See the press’ full statement here.) We were delighted to read the Sublunary titles we selected for inclusion on this year’s long list, but we stand in solidarity with the publisher and the translators’ decision to withdraw from the award.

    We hope that by adding our voices to those of the activists, organizers, writers, and translators who have already called upon PEN to live up to its mission to “unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible,” we can collectively continue to push the organization toward a more robust engagement with its membership, a more respectful acknowledgment of and engagement with dissenting staff, and a more courageous fulfillment of its core values.

    –Larissa Kyzer, Hanna Leliv, Parisa Saranj, and Jenna Tang


    When reached for comment, a representative from PEN America responded with the following statement:

    The PEN America awards team have been contacted by individual writers and editors on behalf of their own authors, including Camonghne Felix and Eugenia Leigh. They requested to be removed from the longlist and/or to be removed from consideration for the award. We acknowledged and accepted their requests by email and told each individual that the longlist published on the website would be amended according to their wishes. We fully respect the authors’ decision and hope to celebrate their wonderful work at some future point. We thank them for taking the time to share what led to their decision.

    Esther Allen received an invitation to accept the 2024 PEN/Ralph Manheim Award, which she declined. We communicated to Esther that our priority remained to fulfill our original commitment to literature in translation and to move forward with the conferral of the 2024 PEN/Ralph Manheim Award. She acknowledged our decision to confer the award and wrote to us she was “glad that the committee would extend the award to another translator and looked forward to congratulating that person.” The winner will be announced publicly in the next few days.

    We respect all those who have communicated with us, publicly and privately, about the current Gaza war, and recognize the profound stakes and pain involved. We will also continue to support writers in Gaza and the West Bank, as we explained in a recent letter to the community.

    PEN American also directed us to a March 20 Letter to the Community from PEN America, which speaks to many of the concerns raised in recent months.


    [This post was updated to include Nick Mandernach’s April 4 announcement]

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