PEN America cancels annual award ceremony after writers withdraw over Gaza war

PEN says 28 writers have withdrawn their books from consideration

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Tuesday 23 April 2024 09:41 BST
Related: Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital flattened after end of Israel’s latest siege

PEN America has cancelled its annual award ceremony after dozens of nominated writers withdrew their work in protest against Israel's six-month-long war in Gaza.

The literary group announced the cancellation on Tuesday after nine of the ten nominated writers for a PEN book award pulled out their books from consideration due to PEN's alleged lack of support for Palestinian writers.

The organisation, which is dedicated to protecting free expression, said of the 61 authors and translators nominated for a prize, 28 writers decided to withdraw their books from consideration.

The award ceremony was scheduled to take place on 29 April at the Town Hall in New York City. The event now stands cancelled, the group said in a statement.

At least 34,183 Palestinians have been killed and 77,143 injured in Israel's incessant retaliatory bombing of the Strip, the health ministry in Gaza said on Tuesday. Israel declared war on Hamas following the militant group’s 7 October attack in southern Israel where at least 1,200 civilians were killed and 253 abducted as hostages.

Authors who have asked for their names to be withdrawn include Jean Stein nominee Camonghne Felix, poetry finalist Eugenia Leigh and short story nominee Ghassan Zeineddine.

Authors including Naomi Klein and Michelle Alexander last month signed an open letter claiming PEN had not launched “any substantial coordinated support” for the writers in Gaza or Palestinian speech broadly.

The letter also said PEN had “betrayed the organisation’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere”.

PEN responded to the allegations, citing they “stand alongside the writers of Gaza”, had called for an immediate ceasefire and reiterated their expansion of support for Palestinian writers through a PEN emergency fund.

Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America’s literary programming chief officer, announced the "difficult decision", saying: "We greatly respect that writers have followed their consciences, whether they chose to remain as nominees in their respective categories or not.

“We regret that this unprecedented situation has taken away the spotlight from the extraordinary work selected by esteemed, insightful and hard-working judges across all categories.

"As an organisation dedicated to freedom of expression and writers, our commitment to recognizing and honoring outstanding authors and the literary community is steadfast.”

The estate of late US author Jean Stein also directed PEN America to donate the $75,000 (£61,000) prize for the award in her name to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund – to honour the nine out of 10 nominated writers who withdrew their work for the award.

In a statement, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Wendy Vanden Heuvel, and Bill Clegg, on behalf of the foundation and the literary estate of Jean Stein, said: “Jean Stein was a passionate advocate for Palestinian rights who published, supported, and celebrated Palestinian writers and visual artists.

“While she established the PEN America award in her name to bring attention to and provide meaningful support to writers of the highest literary achievement, we know she would have respected the stance and sacrifice of the writers who have withdrawn from contention this year.”

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