Several writers decline recognition from PEN America in protest over its Israel-Hamas war stance

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NEW YORK (AP) — Several authors have turned down awards and awards nominations from PEN America, citing unhappiness with the literary and free expression organization’s stance on the war in Gaza.

This week, PEN announced its long lists in categories ranging from the $75,000 Jean Stein Award for best book to the $10,000 PEN/Hemingway award for first novel. Authors who have asked for their names to be withdrawn include Jean Stein nominee Camonghne Felix, poetry finalist Eugenia Leigh and short story nominee Ghassan Zeineddine.

“I decided to decline this recognition and asked to be removed from the long list in solidarity with the ongoing protest of PEN’s continued normalization and denial of genocide,” Felix, author of the memoir “Dyscalculia,” wrote on X.

The awards are scheduled to be handed out during an April 29 ceremony in Manhattan, hosted by writer-comedian Jena Friedman. A PEN spokesperson said that nine out of 60 nominated authors had asked for their names to be withdrawn. PEN also confirmed that Esther Allen had declined the PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for translation and added that it would soon announce a new winner.

“We respect their decision and we will celebrate these writers in other ways,” said Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, who oversees PEN’s literary programming.

PEN’s response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza, following the deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, has been widely criticized by writers who believe the organization has failed to fully condemn the war that has left tens of thousands of Palestinians dead, including hundreds of writers, academics and journalists.

An open letter published in March and signed by Naomi Klein, Lorrie Moore and dozens of others contends that PEN had not “launched any substantial coordinated support” for Palestinians and was not upholding its mission to “dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.” The letter’s endorsers contrasted PEN’s forceful protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and alleged that PEN had done little to “mobilize” members against the Gaza war.

“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,” the letter reads in part. “Yet PEN America appears unwilling to stand with them firmly against the powers that have oppressed and dispossessed them for the last 75 years.”

A PEN spokesperson noted that the organization has issued numerous statements calling for a ceasefire and mourning the destruction of museums, libraries and mosques in Gaza, and has helped set up a $100,000 emergency fund for Palestinian writers. PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement that PEN shared with many the “sorrow and anguish at the horrific costs of the Israel-Hamas war, including for writers, poets, artists and journalists.

“We approach every conflict — Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Gaza — on its own terms, mindful of complexities, what we can contribute, our constituencies, our partners and our principles,” she added. “When we take positions, we do not align with states, armies or political groups but with freedom of expression and the preconditions to enable it.”

The criticisms come before PEN’s high-profile spring events, including the PEN literary awards and a key May 16 fund-raising gala at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Klein and the letter’s other signers have said they will be boycotting PEN’s “World Voices” festival next month in Los Angeles and New York, an international gathering featuring panel discussions and lectures.

PEN does continue to attract high-profile guests, including opponents of the war,

On Friday, PEN announced that playwright-screenwriter Tony Kushner was this year’s winner of the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award, previously given to Tina Fey, Kenneth Lonergan and Elaine May among others. Marcia Gay Harden, who starred in the 1993-94 Broadway production of Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America,” and Rachel Zegler, a Golden Globe winner for her performance as Maria in the 2021 Kushner-Steven Spielberg adaptation of “West Side Story,” will present the Nichols award during the April 29 event.

Nichols, who died in 2014, directed the acclaimed HBO “Angels in America” miniseries that was released in 2003.

“It’s intimidating enough that this honor is named after Mike Nichols, no one ever understood better than him the ways words can be made to perform. But then there’s the list of past recipients, each and every one a writer I adore,” Kushner said in a statement. “To say I feel unworthy is not to say I’m not gleefully accepting! I loved working with Mike; he was a magnificent artist and a dear friend.

“I’m always pleased to be associated with PEN, whose work promoting and protecting writers is even more vitally important in turbulent, troubled times like ours.”

Kushner, who is Jewish, has long criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and recently told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the country’s invasion of Gaza “looks like ethnic cleansing to me.” He added that the history of Jewish suffering should not be used “as an excuse for a project of dehumanizing or slaughtering other people.”

Tensions over the Gaza war have extended throughout the arts community. Kushner was among the defenders of last month’s Oscar acceptance speech by “Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer, who warned against “dehumanization” — as depicted in his Holocaust drama, winner for best international film — and stated, “Whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel, or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims, this dehumanization, how do we resist?”

Hundreds of Jews working in Hollywood condemned Glazer, writing in an open letter that “We refute our Jewishness being hijacked for the purpose of drawing a moral equivalence between a Nazi regime that sought to exterminate a race of people, and an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination.”

Kushner will not be the only war critic at the awards ceremony. PEN/Jean Stein finalist Aaliyah Bilal, who last fall as a National Book Awards nominee read a letter from the stage calling for an end to the war, said she will be attending the PEN event. The author of the debut story collection “Temple Folk” told The Associated Press that while she respected the decisions of those who dropped out, she was at odds with the central PEN America leadership and not those managing the awards.

“They’re two separate things,” she said.

Hillel Italie, The Associated Press

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