Authors Withdraw From PEN World Voices Festival Over Its Response to Gaza War

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A group of prominent authors announced that they have withdrawn from this year’s PEN World Voices Festival over what they described as PEN America’s inadequate response to the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In an open letter dated Wednesday that has drawn more than a dozen signatures, writers called on PEN America, the free speech organization hosting the event, to do more to address civilian casualties and the deaths of journalists and writers in Gaza.

“We have concluded that attending this year’s festival would only serve to contribute to the illusion that PEN America is truly devoted to ‘the defense of free speech at the center of humanity’s struggle against repression,’ as it has claimed,” the letter says. “In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere.”

The letter, signed by a group that includes novelists, poets and nonfiction writers, among them Lorrie Moore, Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander, Hisham Matar, Isabella Hammad, Maaza Mengiste and Zaina Arafat, is the latest example of growing divisions in the literary world over the war in Gaza, as literary journals, book fairs and festivals have wrestled with how to navigate tensions around the conflict.

The PEN World Voices Festival, which is scheduled to take place in May in New York City and Los Angeles, typically draws hundreds of American and international authors. The event was launched some 20 years ago, with the aim of generating dialogue between writers from around the world to counter isolationism and xenophobia in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. In previous years, the festival has held panels on issues such as gender and power, political unrest and resistance, online harassment and threats to privacy and free speech.

In their letter, the writers who have decided not to participate this year criticized PEN America for not doing enough to highlight “the scale and scope of the attacks on writers in Gaza, or on Palestinian speech and culture more broadly,” and drew a contrast with the organization’s forceful condemnation of the war in Ukraine. In 2022, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, PEN added a “Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers” to its World Voices Festival to address the conflict and discuss how authors can encourage dialogue and protect free speech in times of war.

In a statement addressing the withdrawals from its festival, PEN America said that members of the organization are “aghast witnessing the brutal toll of human suffering,” and acknowledged the challenges that literary and cultural institutions are facing in their efforts to address the conflict.

“As an organization with a mission to unite writers across divides, we are enduring the same shock waves coursing through so many colleague institutions,” the statement said. “We are talking to many writers about how we can be true to our varied constituencies, and to our principles and mission. We are deeply focused on how, in this moment of escalating polarization, we can fulfill the promise of an organization whose mission, for over a century, has been to elevate writers and literature as a bridge across deep divides.”

PEN said the schedule for this year’s festival has not been finalized, and that it couldn’t provide details on whether or how the crisis in Gaza will be addressed at the event.

The conflict in Israel and Gaza has become a polarizing issue in the literary world.

In the fall, the organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair faced a backlash after the cancellation of an event honoring a Palestinian author. The 92NY, one of New York’s leading cultural institutions, found itself mired in controversy over its decision to call off an appearance by the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen after he signed an open letter criticizing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

More recently, Guernica, an online literary magazine, faced outside criticism and a staff rebellion after publishing — and then retracting — a personal essay about coexistence and war in the Middle East by Joanna Chen, an Israeli writer and a translator of Hebrew and Arabic poetry and prose. Following the essay’s publication, multiple members of the magazine’s volunteer staff resigned in protest; after its removal, the magazine faced fresh criticism for deleting it.

PEN America, which has taken stances against book banning, censorship and cancel culture, has already drawn criticism from writers who are urging the organization to show more support for Palestinian writers and civilians. In February, hundreds of authors signed a letter demanding that PEN “respond to the extraordinary threat that Israel’s genocide of Palestinians represents for the lives of writers in Palestine and to freedom of expression everywhere.”

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