PEN America cancels literary festival, citing pressure on writers


The literary and free-speech nonprofit PEN America has canceled its annual World Voices Festival less than two weeks before it was to begin, after mounting pressure from critics who say the organization has inadequately responded to the suppression of pro-Palestinian speech and to Israel’s actions in the war in Gaza.

This is the second major event that the organization has called off in less than a week. On Monday, it announced that the ceremony for its annual literary awards would not go forward, after nearly half the nominees withdrew in protest.

The World Voices Festival was due to take place in New York and Los Angeles starting May 8. The first signs of trouble came in March, when prominent authors, including honorary festival co-chair Naomi Klein, publicly withdrew. In a letter explaining their decision, they wrote, “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.” An initial lineup for the festival was rolled out on April 9, with organizers touting a full complement of 35 readings and panels, featuring nearly 100 writers from around the world. But as more writers dropped out, their names and events quietly disappeared from the online calendar.

“Many writers explained their withdrawal from the event as an expression of protest directed toward PEN America’s response to the war in Gaza,” PEN America said in a statement. “However, we have also heard from dozens of writers who have had to endure harsh attacks on social media and heavy demands to distance themselves from PEN America.” In such a climate, the statement said, the festival had become untenable.

The statement also expressed regret that “a central feature of the planned festival” involving “multiple Palestinian writers” would not go forward, but it wasn’t clear from earlier information posted about the festival online who or what that featured event entailed.

PEN America chief executive Suzanne Nossel said in the statement that while the organization was listening to its critics, “we now face a campaign that casts our struggle to reflect complexity, uphold our identity as a big tent organization, and show fealty to our principles as a moral abdication. The perspective that engaging with those who hold a different point of view constitutes an impermissible act of legitimization negates the very possibility of dialogue.”

This raft of cancellations calls into question whether PEN America’s annual fundraising gala, slated to feature singer Paul Simon and late-night talk show host Seth Meyers on May 16, will go forward. “We’re taking it day by day,” Nossel told the New York Times.

PEN America did announce that it would host a new event: a town hall for members and former festival participants.

The town hall will be a way to “wrestle with the issues gripping the literary community and our own organization,” Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America’s chief officer of literary programming, said in a statement. No date for the event has been announced.

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