PEN President Jennifer Finney Boylan Announces Plans to Review PEN’s Work Going Back a Decade

PEN America has faced an enormous amount of criticism from the literary world for, among other things, failing to call Israel’s six-month assault on Gaza a genocide, and is now facing a wave of withdrawals from two of its signature events, the literary awards and the World Voices Festival. In response, PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan has announced the formation of a working committee “to review PEN America’s work—not just over the last six months, but indeed, going back a decade, to ensure we are aligned with our mission and make recommendations about how we respond to future conflicts.” That announcement is printed in full, below:


American Authors Demand a Second Draft of PEN America, and the World in Which We Write

by Jennifer Finney Boylan, president, PEN America

A unique delight of language is the poetry inherent in collective nouns: a pride of lions, a crash of rhinoceroses, a mustering of storks. Personally, I’ve always been partial to an unkindness of ravens. If you’ve ever encountered a group of them doing battle with a scurry of squirrels, as I have at my home in Maine, you know exactly how cruel an unkindness can be.

What, then, do you call a group of poets, essayists, and novelists? My suggestion? A schism of writers.

Since the beginning of the Gaza war, PEN America—one of the country’s largest advocacy groups for authors, and which I serve as President—has been riven by the differing responses to the ongoing tragedy by the many writers in our community.

Make no mistake: it is easy enough to condemn Israel in the wake of the 32,000 civilian deaths thus far in Gaza. It is an abomination.

In the last month, some authors have begun to drop out of some of PEN’s signature spring events—the Literary Awards (last year dubbed the “Oscars of books” by Vanity Fair) as well as our World Voices Festival, the event envisioned by Salman Rushdie in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to keep dialogue alive between the United States and the world. These protests are intended to highlight what some writers feel has been PEN’s inadequate, or inconsistent, response to the war.

Others wish to send the message that the organization needs to do a gut check, to ensure that we are, indeed, the group mandated by its 1948 charter to stand by the principle of “unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations,” to “dispel all hatreds” and “to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible.”

These are hard days for those who oppose the suppression of freedom of expression. In October, the 92nd Street Y put its literary reading series on hold, after calling off author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s event in the wake of his signing an open letter critical of Israel.

Last month, Guernica magazine published—and then retracted—an essay by an Israeli writer reflecting on the struggles of coexistence during wartime. One of the magazine’s publishers resigned, and later wrote that the essay attempted “to soften the violence of colonialism and genocide.”  The magazine’s editor stood by the essay, and also resigned.

One of my first acts as PEN President was to travel to Jerusalem to talk with a Palestinian poet; to Tel Aviv to talk with a group of Israeli writers, including a nascent PEN Israel, some of whose members are ardent dissidents and critics of the government; to Haifa to talk with Palestinian citizens of Israel, some of whom have been threatened with jail for criticizing the Netanyahu government. I also met with leading human rights lawyers and advocates defending writers facing repression.

One conclusion I drew from those conversations came as no surprise—that these divisions are as deep, and as bloody, as history itself. But I also learned that it is conversation between writers from different cultures—not silence—that can constitute the first fragile step toward understanding.

Those conversations also gave me occasion to reflect upon this perilous moment in America. What does it mean to live in a country in which we are no longer able to speak to one another; in which we believe that people who take a different point of view from ourselves should not be allowed to speak; or honored, or published, or even seen? What does it mean when some authors would rather silence themselves than be associated with an organization that defends free speech and dissent?

I have heard from many, many authors who do not agree with those withdrawing from PEN events, and who do not wish to withdraw from our events themselves, but are afraid of the consequences if they speak up.

What kind of art can be created in a culture in which some voices remain unheard?

I ask this as someone whose memoir, She’s Not There, was banned this year in some school districts in Texas. This is a book which I have been told has literally saved the lives of some of its readers, and which has given trans people hope when they had lost all of their own. But in some school districts in Texas, stories like mine are considered so dangerous they must be erased.

I do not wish to live in a country in which authors’ voices are erased.

It is worth confessing that I have, on many occasions, exhibited exactly the kind of intolerance and cowardice I am now describing. Time and time again I have mocked and trolled and even called for the silencing of people with whom I disagree. It felt good at the time.

It doesn’t feel so good now.

The business of living in a culture of free expression means that the best response to speech with which we disagree is not silence and shame. The best response to speech with which we disagree is—of course—more free speech.

None of which means that PEN America has responded perfectly during this crisis. In the last six weeks, open letters from a wide range of authors have been published in LitHub and elsewhere, asking that we use this current moment as an occasion to self-reflect, and to see if we are, and have been, who we say we are and intend to be.

I view this criticism as an opportunity, and I am grateful to the dissenting authors for their passion and for the urgency of their request.

The executive committee of the board of PEN America, therefore, has now charged a working group of authors and scholars to review PEN’s work— not just over the last six months, but indeed, going back a decade, to ensure we are aligned with our mission, and to make recommendations about how we respond to future conflicts. This group, consisting of individuals both inside and outside of PEN America, (including a representative with some experience at PEN International,) will spend the next several months doing a deep dive into our work, and will make recommendations which will form, I hope, the basis of a clearer, better understood approach to our work on free expression in conflict that is consistent and true to PEN America and the writers whom we represent.

I took on the job of PEN president fully intimidated by the legacy of those who have occupied this post before me: Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Salman Rushdie, Ayad Akhtar, Jennifer Egan. Compared to these luminaries, I frequently fear I can only come up short. Is a comic transgender memoirist really what the current moment calls for?  What skills do I have, after all, besides my fundamental belief that we should all, somehow, find a way to love one another, and forgive each other for the mistakes that we have made?

I am no Arthur Miller. I am, to be honest, not even a Dennis Miller.

But I’m not backing away from the business of love and forgiveness. That hope—embedded in so many of our poems, essays, plays, novels, and translations—is the only tool we have for opening hearts, for seeing things from someone else’s point of view, for dreaming of a time—as poet Robert Hunter once expressed it—“when things we’ve never seen will seem familiar.”

I am looking forward to hearing the many conflicting voices of my fellow authors—and readers—in days to come. I am not content for us to be divided, one from another, by a kettle of hawks.

I still hope for a flight of doves.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, President of PEN America, is the author of 19 books.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top