The PENAmerican award I wish I could give tonight.


Photo from The New Eastern Outlook.


What a year to have joined PENAmerican.

If you missed the news, here’s a summary: PENAmerican, an organization dedicated to free speech in arts and literature, is awarding French magazine Charlie Hebdo for “freedom of expression courage award,” for continuing to print after their entire editorial board was assassinated by extremists. Given the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s content—and the conspicuous attention the assassinations received all over the world, even as journalists are killed daily by their own governments in the countries whose presidents showed up for “solidarity marches” in Paris—several writers (including Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner) resigned from being table hosts at the awards gala. Salman Rushdie excoriated them in The Guardian. Other writers have stepped up to take their places.

I get it. I get both sides.

But here’s the thing I wish PENAmerican would get: claims to “freedom of expression” are a mark of privilege in places where oppressed populations are struggling merely to be allowed to live as themselves. For them, freedom of expression is a myth. The very existence of Charlie Hebdo is a manifestation of gross privilege bestowed on one segment of the French population and denied to another. It’s far easier, and far more lazy, to recognize The Organization That Had a Very High-Profile Awful Thing happen to them, than to, say, recognize that the entire Muslim population of France continues to live in the place they call home despite constant state-sanctioned hostility to their rights to life, livelihood, religion, and yes, freedom of expression.

So that’s the award I’d want to give tonight, right alongside Charlie Hebdo. To the Muslims of France who continue to live and thrive, despite the millions of daily silencings they experience, which are no less effective than bullets.


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2 Comments on “The PENAmerican award I wish I could give tonight.”

  1. montsamu says:

    I’m ruminating over Alison Bechdel’s piece on the PEN American Center table host topic:

    And while I’m still crunching on her discussion of the why/why not, her closing paragraphs make me contemplative in another direction:

    {{ Anyhow, it’s weird to have this big rift going on between people I think of as being on the same side. Salman Rushdie and Katha Pollitt are defending the award, and Teju Cole, Sarah Schulman and Rachel Kushner are opposing it. Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN, wrote this op-ed in the Times on Friday, in which they try to minimize the divide. “Our goal has been to avoid a reductive binary; this is a nuanced question, and all of these writers have made persuasive moral arguments.”

    It’s good to have so much thoughtful conversation going on about the complicated dynamic between free speech and hate speech, between fundamentalism and xenophobia. I can’t say I am exactly looking forward to this little dinner party tomorrow night. But at the same time, I’m glad that I’m going. Violence is intended to polarize. I want to try and resist that. }}

    That bit about the rift being something between people she thinks of as being on the same side, about avoiding a reductive binary (from the PEN op-ed), about resisting polarization, about recognizing nuance. It’s something lacking in other spheres. I wonder where that will lead, if anywhere.

    And it goes along thematically a bit (in a different way I suppose) with the “divided” siblings from:

    {{ The literary world has been in a civil war of words since PEN announced last week that Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and four other table hosts pulled out from the gala, citing what they say are the offensive cartoons of Muslims in Charlie Hebdo. A stream of tweets, letters, Facebook postings and opinion pieces has divided old friends such as former PEN presidents Prose and Salman Rushdie, a leading backer of the honor, and even set siblings on opposite sides. Author-journalist Masha Gessen is a table host, while her brother, author and magazine editor Keith Gessen, is among more than 200 writers and others in publishing who have signed an open letter objecting to the award.

    “I haven’t discussed the award controversy with my brother, but this isn’t the first time he and I have disagreed on a political issue,” Masha Gessen told the AP in a recent email. “I don’t love him any less for being wrong!” }}

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