The PEN Awards and World Voices Festival Are on the Brink of Collapse

For PEN America, the window to salvage this year’s literary awards and World Voices Festival—as well as perhaps the wider reputation of the organization—is rapidly closing.

With the PEN America Literary Awards ceremony less than two weeks away, 29 writers and translators (out of 87 nominees) have now withdrawn from consideration for 10 different awards due to what they see as PEN’s inadequate response to the unfolding genocide in Gaza. This includes 9 of the 10 nominees for the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Award, the most lucrative and prestigious of the five major awards. (The esteemed translator Esther Allen, who co-founded the PEN World Voices Festival in 2005, has also declined the 2024 PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation.)

In a blistering open letter (reproduced in full, and followed by PEN America’s response, at the close of this article) sent to the PEN America Board and Trustees earlier this morning, 30 nominated writers and translators informed the organization that they “wholeheartedly reject PEN America and its failure to confront the genocide in Gaza” and demand the resignations of PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan, and the entire PEN America Executive Committee, “whose values and commitments have steered the organization in a disastrous direction for far too long.”

When reached for comment, a representative from PEN America said that the letter “reads to us as a demand to foreclose dialogue in the name of intellectual conformity, and one at odds with the PEN Charter and what we stand for as an organization.”

The signees also echo the call for “an audit of PEN America’s longstanding implicit support of the Israeli occupation” made by the more than two dozen authors who have already declined to participate in the 2024 PEN World Voices Festival. As an addendum to their March 14 open letter to PEN America, the authors—which include heavyweights like Naomi Klein, Michelle Alexander, Hisham Matar, Lorrie Moore, and Hari Kunzru—have now issued a statement of support for the protesting award nominees:

As we renew our call for PEN America to conduct an external review of its historic and current policies and statements regarding Palestine and the Israeli occupation, we want to acknowledge the significant number of writers and translators who have been nominated for various PEN America awards and have chosen to withdraw their names from competition or have declined their awards altogether. Their actions are a protest against PEN America’s stance on the Israeli military’s genocidal campaign against Palestinians. This catastrophic campaign has led to the often-targeted killings of Palestinian writers, professors, and journalists and their families, while PEN America has remained shamefully unwilling to speak out against the systematic nature of these crimes.

This month, in an attempt to quiet the increasingly loud protests against its decisions and leadership, PEN America stated it has committed $100,000 to help writers in Gaza. This amount is, at best, just enough to cover the evacuation costs of a single family, with no guarantee that the evacuation will be permitted. Meanwhile, PEN America will be dispensing $350,000 in literary awards.

We are grateful to those writers and translators who have taken a stance in the name of justice and freedom of expression for Palestinians. We extend our solidarity to anyone who joins them in refusing to be honored by an organization that is dishonoring writers, professors, and journalists elsewhere.

Thank you for your moral compass.


PEN America’s flagship World Voices Festival (the 20th incarnation of which will take place in New York City from May 8-11 and Los Angeles from May 8-18) has also been hemorrhaging participants and support in recent weeks, and now appears to be in an equally precarious position to the awards ceremony. In addition to the authors who have already declined invitations to appear, Rebecca Makkai took to X (formerly Twitter) on Friday to explain why she, too, has backed out of the festival. Catherine Lacey (who also withdrew from the PEN/Jean Stein Award) posted on Instagram yesterday that “Suzanne Nossel needs to step down immediately to allow a new phase of PEN America to begin. In the meantime, it’s not a time for awards or galas.” A representative from the Community of Literary Magazines & Presses [CLMP] also confirmed to Lit Hub that the organization will no longer be co-presenting the Indie Lit Fair at this year’s festival.

On Monday afternoon, the nine former presidents of PEN America—Ayad Akhtar, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Louis Begley, Joel Conarroe, Jennifer Egan, Frances Fitzgerald, Peter Godwin, Salman Rushdie, and Andrew Solomon—issued a press release addressing this recent turmoil in which they urged writers to “keep faith in the community that we have built together.” The statement was roundly criticized on Instagram and X for what many commenters saw as a tone deafness, as well as a failure to engage with the substance of the allegations leveled at PEN America over the past six months.

Where PEN America goes from here remains to be seen, but from this vantage point one thing seems clear: if a public commitment to meaningful change in both policy and leadership is not announced in the coming week, the writing may well be on the wall for this year’s festivities.



Letter from the PEN Literary Award longlisted writers:

To the Executive Board & Trustees of PEN America,

We, the undersigned longlisters and awardees of the PEN/Jean Stein, PEN/Dau, PEN/Bingham, PEN/Hemingway, PEN/Voelcker, PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, PEN Translation, PEN/Manheim, PEN/Heim Translation, and PEN Award for Literature in Translation, are writing to inform you that in protest of your failure to confront the genocide of the Palestinian people and defend our fellow writers in Gaza, we reject these honors conferred by your organization. Some of us have withdrawn our works from consideration for prizes. Others have declined prizes outright. We stand in solidarity with one another and with the people of Palestine in our refusal to lend our names and tacit approval to PEN America’s disgraceful inaction.

Since October 7th, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been murdered and over 70,000 injured by the state of Israel. As we write this, more than a million people in Gaza are facing a catastrophic lack of food as a result of Israel’s starvation—an indisputable tactic of genocide. 

Also since October 7th, thousands of writers have written and signed letters demanding that PEN America speak out and stand in solidarity with Palestinian writers. PEN America was slow to speak on this incomparable loss of Palestinian life—and when PEN did decide to speak, the organization’s statements showed a lack of proportional empathy, and were often laced with ahistorical, Zionist propaganda under the guise of neutrality. Neutrality is a betrayal of justice. PEN’s statements and actions, and often the lack thereof, demonstrate not only an immoral reliance on corporate dollars, but also a serious deficit of writerly courage. PEN America states that “the core” of its mission is to “support the right to disagree.” But among writers of conscience, there is no disagreement. There is fact and fiction. The fact is that Israel is leading a genocide of the Palestinian people. PEN’s perpetuation of false equivalences, their equivocation and normalizing, is indeed a betrayal. Additionally, the forcible removal of Randa Jarrar from a PEN-sponsored event represents a breach of trust between PEN America and a Palestinian writer whose speech and physical safety you should have protected, and whose voice you should have heard.

PEN America’s leadership has eroded our confidence in its mission and in the important work you claim to support. We have been disgusted, for months, by the sight of these leaders clinging to a disingenuous façade of neutrality while parroting hasbara talking points. We have also been appalled to learn that management has sought to suppress the off-hours political speech and activity of its own workers, in part by suggesting language by which staffers could be punished for participating in any political activity that undermines PEN America’s mission. Yet that stated mission is to “protect free expression in the US and worldwide.” If PEN America cannot protect free expression in its own offices or at its own events, how can the organization be trusted to do so anywhere else?

PEN America also promises to be an organization that “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights.” PEN America’s dishonest framing of the genocide of the Palestinian people as a war between Israel and Hamas, your New York Times-like refusal to even use the word “genocide,” and your consistent platforming of Zionists has invalidated its implicit contract with the writers you purport to represent: the agreement to protect our freedoms and securities. We are being lied to by an organization that has built its reputation off the labor of writers it refuses to protect.  

PEN America’s silence and implicit support of Israel stands in stark contrast to the actions of PEN International and PEN Centers around the world. Nearly fifty PEN Centers signed onto PEN International’s ceasefire call in October. English PEN, in tandem with Irish PEN and Wales PEN Cymru, have been vocally critical of the UK government’s uncritical support for Israel, have called for investigations into the sale of arms to Israel, and have demanded political pressure for Israel to comply with international law. PEN America, by contrast, has had no criticism of American complicity in the bombardment of Gaza. Likewise, a recent letter from PEN South Africa to its members outlines several concrete actions taken by that organization, many of them in support of and following the lead of PEN International. It also includes a summary of a call-out sent to PEN America, asking, among other things, why the US chapter has been so circumspect in condemning Israel’s murders, and why it had not yet joined PEN International’s call for a ceasefire. 

After increasingly loud public protests as well as internal pressure from staffers, PEN America finally joined the call for a ceasefire on March 20th, five months after many of its sister centers. You, the board and trustees, deserve no amount of adulation for acquiescing to the bare minimum demand. As PEN South Africa writes, “because of the United States’ military, economic and political relationship with Israel, PEN America bears a particular responsibility […] to call for an immediate, permanent ceasefire and an end to the occupation.” (NB: While you did at last call for an immediate ceasefire, you forgot the word “permanent.”) We believe that cultural and human rights organizations have a crucial role to play standing in solidarity with the Palestinian fight for freedom, especially here in the United States.  

This goes well beyond CEO Suzanne Nossel (whose longstanding commitments to Zionism, Islamophobia, and imperial wars in the Middle East are well-documented) or any one individual. PEN America has a long history of ignoring PEN International and the global network of PEN organizations, focusing on narrow US interests instead of the global solidarity meant to underpin the organizations’ work. Therefore, we demand the immediate resignation of PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan, and the entire PEN America Executive Committee, whose values and commitments have steered the organization in a disastrous direction for far too long. We likewise join the demands made by the authors who pulled out from the PEN World Voices Festival, asking for an audit of PEN America’s longstanding implicit support of the Israeli occupation. We stand in solidarity with PEN staff and the membership of PEN America United. We demand new, elected leadership who will agree to paying staff a living wage and to working in concert with PEN International.

It should be noted that many of the undersigned writers, many of whom are early in their careers and rely on prize money to fund their basic needs, understand the risks we are taking by rejecting an organization that holds a cultural monopoly within the literary community. 

Writers have a responsibility to be good stewards of history in order to be good stewards of our communities. Such stewardship requires, in the words of Toni Morrison, that we “look to the present to contour the past.” It requires that we have an authentic relationship to knowledge, which we apply to our analysis of how the present should function in light of the past. As an organization that benefits from and seeks to support the labor of writers, PEN America should expect to be held to the same standard of stewardship. 

We cannot, in good faith, align with an organization that has shown such blatant disregard of our collective values. We stand in solidarity with a free Palestine. We refuse to be honored by an organization that acts as a cultural front for American imperialism. We refuse to gild the reputation of an organization that runs interference for an administration aiding and abetting genocide with our tax dollars. And we refuse to take part in anything that will serve to overshadow PEN’s complicity in normalizing genocide. 


Declining Signatories

Camonghne Felix, PEN/Jean Stein 

Christina Sharpe, PEN/Jean Stein 

Kelly X. Hui, PEN/Dau Prize

Eugenia Leigh, PEN/Voelcker Award 

Maggie Millner, PEN/Voelcker Award

Esther Allen, PEN/Manheim Award 

Julia Sanches, PEN Translation Prize

Frank Garrett, PEN Translation Prize

Don Mee Choi, PEN Award for Poetry in Translation

Kira Josefsson, PEN Translation Prize 

Maya Binyam, PEN/Jean Stein, PEN/Hemingway Award

Alejandro Varela, PEN/Jean Stein 

Robin Myers, PEN Award for Poetry in Translation

Cleo Qian, PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize

Natascha Bruce, PEN Translation Prize 

Nick Mandernach, PEN/Dau Prize

Joseph Earl Thomas, PEN/Jean Stein 

J.D. Pluecker, PEN Translation Prize

Adrian Minckley, PEN Translation Prize

Ada Zhang, PEN/Bingham Award 

James Frankie Thomas, PEN/Hemingway Award


Signatories of Support

PEN America’s recent donation of $100,000 to the PEN Emergency Fund pales in comparison to CEO Suzanne Nossel’s annual salary of more than $450,000 and the organization’s net assets of $43 million. This letter’s signatories of support object to the parsimony of this gesture in the midst of an ongoing genocide. Signatories of support who are able to do so pledge to redistribute their prize winnings to mutual aid funds in Gaza.

Soje, PEN/Heim Translation 

Noel Quiñones, PEN/Dau Prize

Subhashree Beeman, PEN/Heim Translation

Meg Arenberg, PEN/Heim Translation

Zkara Gaillard, PEN/Dau Prize

Sarina Ramos Rubén, PEN/Heim Translation

Verónica Dávila De Jesús, PEN/Heim Translation

Asa Yoneda, PEN Translation Prize 

Johanne Sorgenfri Ottosen, PEN Translation Prize


When reached for comment on the above letter, a representative from PEN America responded with the following statement:

Words matter and this letter deserves close scrutiny for its alarming language and characterizations. The perspective that “there is no disagreement” and that there are among us final arbiters of “fact and fiction” reads to us as a demand to foreclose dialogue in the name of intellectual conformity, and one at odds with the PEN Charter and what we stand for as an organization. We have repeatedly asked to meet with our critics in person, discuss their concerns and strive for a way forward—requests that have been rejected. The current war in Gaza is horrific. But we cannot agree that the answer to its wrenching dilemmas and consequences lies in a shutting down of conversation and the closing down of viewpoints. We respect all writers for acting out of their consciences, and will continue in our mission to defend their freedom to express themselves.

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