Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and at least four other writers have withdrawn from the PEN American Center gala on May 5, citing objections to the literary and human rights organization’s honoring the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
PEN announced recently the writers were upset by Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of Muslims and “the disenfranchised generally.” The Paris-based magazine, where 12 people were killed in a January attack at its offices, is to receive a Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the event in Manhattan. Much of the literary community rallied behind Charlie Hebdo after the shootings, but some have expressed unhappiness with its scathing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and other Muslims.
“I was quite upset as soon as I heard,” said Prose, a former PEN American president. She said she was in favor of “freedom of speech without limitations” and that she “deplored” the January shootings, but added that giving an award signified “admiration and respect” for the honoree’s work. “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo,” Prose said.
The gala is the highlight of PEN’s annual, week-long World Voices Festival and is intended as a celebration of artistic achievement and expression, with past award winners including Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth. Besides Charlie Hebdo, which will be represented by editor-in-chief Gerard Biard and critic and essayist Jean-Baptiste Thoret, others receiving awards include playwright Tom Stoppard, Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle.
Prose and Ondaatje were among more than 60 writers scheduled to serve as hosts. The other hosts who decided not to attend were Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and Peter Carey.
In a letter sent to PEN trustees, current PEN American president Andrew Solomon acknowledged several people were offended by some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but added PEN believed strongly in the “appropriateness” of the award. “It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims, as their cartoons offended members of the many other groups they targeted,” Solomon wrote. “But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression. We do not believe any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.”
Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president, defended PEN’s plans to honor the magazine, saying the decision of six writers to skip the PEN gala in protest will encourage intimidation.
Rushdie said, “The Charlie Hebdo artists were executed in cold blood for drawing satirical cartoons, which is an entirely legitimate activity. It is quite right that PEN should honor their sacrifice and condemn their murder,” Rushdie wrote.
The Charlie Hebdo protest is the biggest controversy for the PEN American Center in recent memory. In 1986, Norman Mailer infuriated many writers when he invited then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz to address the annual Congress of International PEN. E.L. Doctorow complained at the time that Mailer, the PEN American president, was turning the gathering into “a forum for the Reagan administration.”
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