April 28, 2015
6 writers withdraw from PEN America Gala; Salman Rushdie calls them “pussies”
by Taylor Sperry
Little more than a week before the PEN America Gala, six of the ceremony’s literary hosts–novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi—have withdrawn from the event, citing discomfort with the foundation’s decision to offer its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper where 12 people were killed when Islamic extremists opened fire during an editorial meeting at the weekly’s offices earlier this year.
The announcement led to an instantly polarizing debate over free speech–both in the US and abroad–and PEN’s role in protecting it.
Carey, and others who chose to comment, suggested that by portraying Charlie Hebdo as a martyr for freedom of expression, the foundation was implicitly condoning (if not championing) racism, religious intolerance, and the disenfranchisement of France’s vulnerable Muslim minority. In an exchange with PEN’s executive director Suzanne Nossel, the writer Deborah Eisenberg argued that by honoring Charlie Hebdo with this award, the board had blithely confused cruelty with courage, irresponsibility with freedom, and, even, victims with heroes:
On many or most points I’m in complete agreement with you. I agree unreservedly that an expression of views, whether satirical or not, and however disagreeable, is not to be answered by murder. I agree unreservedly that the free expression of views should not be banned. And I agree unreservedly that threats of violence let alone actual violence against people who express their views must be vigorously and vociferously opposed …
… But here is a point on which we differ. Or at least as I understand it, this is something that you and PEN are asserting: that people who are murdered for expressing themselves are automatically deserving of praise.
… What actually matters most in this instance, in my opinion, is what people believe is being awarded: What does PEN wish to convey by presenting this prestigious award to Charlie Hebdo? . . . Charlie Hebdo is undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction. But ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.
PEN’s position, which Nossel and the organization’s president, Andrew Solomon, articulated in a letter to the board on Sunday, is that agreeing with Charlie Hebdo’s editorial decisions is not necessarily the point; rather, “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.”
For Ricochet, Leigh Phillips writes:
“The last few days have been a humiliation for the anglophone left, showcasing to the world how poor our ability to translate is these days, as so many people have posted cartoons on social media that they found trawling Google Images as evidence of Charlie Hebdo’s ‘obvious racism,’ only to be told by French speakers how, when translated and put into context, these cartoons actually are explicitly anti-racist or mocking of racists and fascists.”
Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding after the controversial publication of his novel The Satanic Verses has been especially vocal in his support of PEN:
“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name . . . What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Later he tweeted, “The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.”
Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.