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Writers Withdraw From Gala After PEN Honors Charlie Hebdo

Six writers have withdrawn from PEN American Center's annual gala after the organization decided to give an award to satirical French news magazine Charlie Hebdo. UPDATE: Twenty-six other writers have also joined the protest, signing a letter criticizing PEN's decision.

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Updated on

Twenty-six other writers, including Junot Díaz and Joyce Carol Oates, have joined the protest, signing a letter criticizing PEN's decision to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo. PEN has opened a public forum on their website in addition to organizing a public event at NYU on May 5 for discussion of the controversy.

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PEN American Center, an organization defending freedom of expression in literature, has decided to give its annual Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to satirical French news magazine Charlie Hebdo.


At the 2015 PEN Literary Gala, Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo will be honored with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

"It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all. In paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory."

The decision was based in part on the January attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks dealt a blow to the bedrock principle that no act of expression, no matter how provocative or offensive, can justify violence.

However, PEN's decision prompted six writers to withdraw as literary hosts from the annual PEN Literary Gala on May 5:


The novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo's editor in chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a Charlie Hebdo staff member who arrived late for work on Jan. 7 and missed the attack by Islamic extremists that killed 12 people, are scheduled to accept the award.

The six writers — Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi — cited objections to Charlie Hebdo's portrayal of Muslims.


In an email to PEN's leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine's "cultural intolerance" and promotion of "a kind of forced secular view," opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.

Salman Rushdie, a previous winner of the award and former PEN president, has criticized the six for withdrawing from the gala:


"This is a clear cut issue," he wrote. "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 honour their sacrifice and condemn their murder without these disgusting 'buts'."

PEN released a statement yesterday addressing these concerns, stating that the award does not necessarily endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons, but rather the publication's principles of free speech.


The rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of any permitted speech concern us; we defend free speech above its contents. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons in order to affirm the importance of the medium of satire, or to applaud the staff's bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats. There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.

The 2015 PEN Literary Gala will take place on May 5 at the American Museum of Natural History.

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