Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi will not attend PEN American Center‘s gala this year–this refusal is in response to PEN’s choice to honour Charlie Hebdo.
The satirical magazine is set to be awarded PEN’s Freedom of Expression Courage Award on May 5, in recognition of their continuing to publish, despite years of threats against them, and the January attack on their offices in which 12 people died. According to PEN, Hebdo demonstrated “dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”
Andrew Soloman, current PEN president, told the New York Times that “We all knew this was in some ways a controversial choice, but I didn’t feel this issue was certain to generate these particular concerns from these particular authors.”
PEN’s position is that while criticism of Charlie Hebdo—that its cartoons rely on racist caricature; that they further marginalize marginalized peoples–is valid, their work to “preserve freedom of speech” must still be honoured. PEN’s detractors, though, argue that the award represents an endorsement of Charlie Hebdo and all of its tactics, racist caricature included.
— PEN America (@PENamerican) April 27, 2015
The writers have not organized a boycott–they withdrew from the gala separately, but their reasons are the same: they do not endorse Charlie Hebdo‘s work and they do not wish to be linked to it. You can find several of them quoted in the Times, but none have released an official statement.
Peter Carey told the Times in an email,
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? […] All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
PEN’s mission is to “[bring] down barriers to free expression and [reach] across borders to celebrate, through writing, our common humanity.” But does Charlie Hebdo‘s work do the same? PEN waffles on this question. They didn’t expect controversy. They don’t have to agree with everything Charlie Hebdo published, to recognize them.This dodge is unworthy of PEN. Say it plain: they believe that Charlie Hebdo is admirable and this opinion should not be controversial.
Well. In Canada, many of their cartoons push the limits of hate speech–a Charter-inspired challenge would not surprise me–and in France, where Charlie Hebdo is published, their work has been challenged in court. During the rush to republish the Prophet Mohammed cartoons and declare “Je suis Charlie,” many Canadian news organizations instead ran descriptions of the cartoons, citing concern for the safety of Muslim-Canadians and their duty to prioritize multiculturalism. PEN’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo certainly is controversial–and for good reason.
After the Janurary 7 attack on the magazine’s office, Teju Cole wrote in the Times,
“It is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions. The A.C.L.U. got it right in defending a neo-Nazi group that, in 1978, sought to march through Skokie, Illinois. The extreme offensiveness of the marchers, absent a particular threat of violence, was not and should not be illegal. But no sensible person takes a defense of those First Amendment rights as a defense of Nazi beliefs. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not mere gadflies, not simple martyrs to the right to offend: they were ideologues. Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology.”