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PEN America cancels prestigious literary awards after authors withdraw in protest over Gaza response

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PEN America, a free-speech advocacy watchdog that advocates for literary expression and human rights, has canceled its annual Literary Award ceremony in the aftermath of a months-long campaign objecting to the organization’s response to the war in Gaza. Last week, in the most recent and prominent protest, over two dozen authors and all but one author longlisted for the awards’ top honor, the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, withdrew from consideration for the prize. 

“We greatly respect that writers have followed their consciences, whether they chose to remain as nominees in their respective categories or not,” Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America’s literary programming chief officer wrote in a Monday statement. “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.” 

The statement reaffirmed that PEN is committed to freedom of expression and said the five finalists and winning titles for each award — yet to be publicly announced — were selected before authors withdrew from consideration. Those who did not take themselves out of the running will receive their awards. Of 61 authors and translators nominated, 28 withdrew, PEN said.

Jean Stein’s estate said in a statement that its namesake, an author and editor, “was a passionate advocate for Palestinian rights who published, supported, and celebrated Palestinian writers and visual artists.”

Representatives for the estate said that Stein “would have respected the stance and sacrifice of the writers who have withdrawn from contention this year.”

Instead of being awarded this year, the estate directed PEN to donate the $75,000 prize to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. The allocations of winnings that could not be awarded will be decided on a case-by-case basis, according to the award contract and the wishes of the award underwriters.

Before PEN’s announcement, a flurry of open letters, from authors like Naomi Klein and Roxane Gay, alleged that PEN was failing to protect writers. Although the organization has previously made statements about the war in Gaza, and called for a ceasefire in March, such authors expressed a belief that the calls were not strident enough, writing in an April 17 letter that, by not responding to the war earlier, “PEN America’s leadership has eroded our confidence in its mission.” They also took issue with PEN America not calling the war a genocide.

Among the pre-announced honorees who will not be feted as planned is playwright Tony Kushner, who won the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award. (Kushner has himself been critical of Israel, signing N+1’s open letter from Jewish writers arguing against calling criticism of Israel antisemitic.) The Literary Awards were scheduled for April 29, and were to be held at The Town Hall in New York.

On April 18, Camille T. Dungy, the sole author who did not withdraw her nomination for the Jean Stein award, wrote in a statement to The Forward that her decision to not withdraw her memoir was made in the context of increasing book bans.

“Such bans are putting young people at risk, particularly Black, Brown, queer, and trans youths who can’t access books that represent and affirm who they are and who they need and want to be,” Dungy wrote. “PEN America has fought such book bans for years, and it is because of this fundamental mission that I continue to support the organization.”

The post PEN America cancels prestigious literary awards after authors withdraw in protest over Gaza response appeared first on The Forward.

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