An open letter from writers and literary professionals to PEN America calling on the organisation to take a stronger stance on the Israel-Gaza war has reached more than 500 signatories, including writers Roxane Gay, Maaza Mengiste and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.
The letter, dated 3 February but still open to signatures, condemns PEN America for being “silent” about “Palestinian journalists, writers, and poets murdered by Israel” outside of “press releases buried on its website”.
Four days later, on 7 February, PEN America published a press release stating it was “anguished about the direct impact of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas on writers, artists, culture”.
“We hope that the multinational negotiations now under way will lead to a mutually agreed upon ceasefire, ending deadly airstrikes, and that a resolution can be reached that will save lives in the region, preserve rich and varied cultures, and pave the way toward a lasting peace that enables freedom and creativity for all,” it added. However, several authors responded critically to the statement. “Don’t “hope” for a ceasefire, PEN America, CALL for one like other PEN Centers have done,” wrote novelist Eman Quotah in a post on X.
The 3 February letter, cosigned by writers including Jamel Brinkley, Saeed Jones and Laura van den Berg, called on PEN America to “wake up from its own silent, tepid, neither-here-nor-there, self-congratulatory middle of the road and take an actual stand against an actual genocide”. It added that PEN America should “find the same zeal and passion” as it has for banned books to speak out “about actual human beings” in Palestine.
The letter said that PEN America should “disband” if it “cannot live up to its mission of protecting, platforming, and amplifying those writers made most marginalised by nefarious forces”. It also criticised the organisation for hosting an event featuring Mayim Bialik, who has opposed calls for Israel to agree to a ceasefire, and asked for PEN America to apologise to Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar, who was dragged out of the event for protesting. “While most protesters left after expressing themselves, one declined and was removed by security. We regret that this step had to be taken in order for the event to proceed,” PEN America wrote in a statement.
PEN America also refutes the fact that it has been “silent” on the war. “Since Oct 7, PEN America has responded to the crisis in Israel and Gaza with nearly two dozen statements on the crisis itself and the resulting fallout for free expression and free speech in response to the conflict”, a spokesperson told the Guardian.
The open letter has coincided with #BooksforGaza, a fundraising sale of signed books donated by authors including Salman Rushdie, Sally Rooney, Ali Smith and Kamila Shamsie. The auction, which ends on Monday evening, has raised over £55,000 for The Ghassan Abu Sittah Children’s Fund, an organisation that helps transport injured Gazan children to Lebanon for medical and social treatment and care.
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