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PEN America cancels awards ceremony after writers protest

caption: Playwright Ayad Akhtar on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards in his role as then-president of the organization.
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Playwright Ayad Akhtar on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards in his role as then-president of the organization.
PEN America

PEN America has cancelled its annual literary awards ceremony after nearly half of the writers and translators nominated withdrew their books from consideration.

The awards will still be granted to those who did not withdraw, though the ceremony, which was scheduled for Friday, April 29 in New York, will not go on. Writer and comedian Jena Friedman had been lined up to host the event.

An open letter signed by a number of writers to PEN America's leadership reads, "We reject these honors conferred by your organization in protest of your failure to confront the genocide in Gaza."

They contend that PEN America was slow to denounce "the incomparable loss of Palestinian life" and that when the organization finally did, its statement lacked "proportional empathy."

The Israel-Hamas war has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in Gaza. Israel invaded Gaza in response to an attack by the militant organization Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

"We greatly respect that writers have followed their consciences, whether they chose to remain as nominees in their respective categories or not," said Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America's head of literary programming, in a statement. "As an organization dedicated to freedom of expression and writers, our commitment to recognizing and honoring outstanding authors and the literary community is steadfast."

In February, Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar was dragged out of a PEN America event in Los Angeles after she and other writers used a portable speaker to play the names of writers and poets killed in Gaza. The event featured actor Mayim Bialik, who has supported Israel on social media.

The PEN America awards come with different-sized cash prizes. The foundation behind the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award said that Stein was a "passionate advocate for Palestinian rights" and said that it had directed PEN to donate the unawarded $75,000 to the Palestine Children's Relief Fund.

PEN said that winners who did not withdraw from consideration will receive their cash prizes, including playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, who will be honored with the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award.

This story was edited by Jennifer Vanasco. [Copyright 2024 NPR]

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