Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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PEN America Cancels Award After Writers’ Boycott Over Gaza

PEN America has canceled its prestigious 2024 awards ceremony after nearly half the writers nominated for a prize withdrew their work in protest of the organization’s stance on the war in Gaza.

The group, which is dedicated to free expression, announced on Monday the cancellation of the April 29 awards in New York City. Some 28 of the 61 authors and translators who were nominated for awards had this year withdrawn their books, citing PEN America’s alleged lack of support for Palestinian writers.

Nine out of ten authors nominated for the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award—the event’s most lucrative honor—withdrew their work from consideration.

“We greatly respect that writers have followed their consciences, whether they chose to remain as nominees in their respective categories or not,” PEN America’s Literary Programming Chief Officer Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf said in a press release on Monday. 

“We regret that this unprecedented situation has taken away the spotlight from the extraordinary work selected by esteemed, insightful, and hard-working judges across all categories,” Rosaz Shariyf said.

The annual awards ceremony has, since 1963, recognized outstanding literary voices across multiple genres including fiction, poetry, children’s literature, and drama. 

This writers’ boycott comes amid growing discontent in the literary sphere over PEN America’s response to Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, as the conflict approaches its 200th day. Since February, over 1,300 writers and poets have called on PEN America to “find the same zeal and passion that they have for banned books in the U.S. to speak out about actual human beings in Palestine.”

A second open letter—published last week—saw 30 nominated writers and translators demand the resignations of PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan, and the entire PEN America Executive Committee.

There are also question-marks about PEN America’s World Voices Festival, due to take place in New York City from May 8 to 11 and Los Angeles from May 8 to 18. Last month, prominent writers such as Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander, and Zaina Arafat, signed an open letter withdrawing from the festival.   

Following the boycott, PEN America shared the names of its 2024 finalists and winners online. The organization said it is considering how to allocate funds for each award on a case by case basis.

The estate of Jean Stein has directed PEN America to donate the $75,000 prize money to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, calling Stein a “passionate advocate for Palestinian rights” in PEN America’s press release. 

“Proud, inspired,” wrote novelist Maya Binyam, one of the nominees who withdrew their work, on social media platform X. “Thank you to all the authors who withdrew their work, to the PEN staff who supported our action, to the writers who withdrew from the WVF and charted a path forward, to Jean Stein for saying what PEN America refuses to—Gaza will be free.”