Over 600 writers and poets—including Roxane Gay, Alissa Nutting, Marie-Helene Bertino, Kiese Laymon, Saeed Jones, Fady Joudah, Carmen Maria Machado, Solmaz Sharif, Tommy Pico, Laura van den Berg, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah—have signed an impassioned open letter to PEN America, calling on the prominent free expression organization “to respond to the extraordinary threat that Israel’s genocide of Palestinians represents for the lives of writers in Palestine and to freedom of expression everywhere” and demanding that PEN “find the same zeal and passion that they have for banned books in the US to speak out about actual human beings in Palestine.”
The release of this letter, which condemns PEN’s relative silence on the unfolding genocide in Gaza, comes on the heels of two prominent novelists cutting ties with the organization over its decision to platform controversial actor and outspoken ceasefire opponent Mayim Bialik at a PEN Out Loud event on January 31, as well as Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar’s forcible removal from said event.
Here is the letter in full:
February 8, 2024
We, the undersigned writers and members of the literary community, are calling on PEN to respond to the extraordinary threat that Israel’s genocide of Palestinians represents for the lives of writers in Palestine and to freedom of expression everywhere. We demand PEN America release an official statement about the 225 poets, playwrights, journalists, scholars and novelists killed in Gaza and name their murderer: Israel, a Zionist colonial state funded by the U.S. government.
PEN International and its affiliate, PEN America, operate under the mission to “defend writers, artists, and journalists and protect free expression.”According to DemocracyNow, “Gaza is now the deadliest place on Earth for media workers.” We demand PEN take significant steps to save lives. As this letter circulates, the death toll among Palestinian writers and reporters will likely grow. On October 25th PEN International called for a ceasefire. Meanwhile, PEN America has remained silent, and it has become apparent to the public whose lives and voices matter to it and whose don’t.
PEN America continually perpetuates fascist nation-statehood, which becomes especially dangerous when the organization is so keen to define literary citizenship and freedom of speech. Whose freedom does PEN protect, if outside of press releases buried on its website, PEN has remained silent about Palestinian journalists, writers, and poets murdered by Israel?
On January 31, PEN America chose to platform Mayim Bialik, a person committed to the racist ideology of Zionism. In doing so, PEN is perpetuating dangerous, fascist views and offering tacit approval for the Zionist, racist and genocidal regime.
PEN Members and representatives from Writers Against the War On Gaza (WAWOG) protested this event indoors. Among them was Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian writer who has done weeks of unpaid labor for PEN as an event host, organizer, and judge of PEN’s Open Book prize and Robert Bingham prize. Rather than defending Jarrar’s right to free expression, PEN America violently dragged her out of the event by her audience chair, and threatened her with state violence, stating that if she did not silence herself the Los Angeles Police Department would be summoned to silence her.
We demand that PEN America apologize to Jarrar for these actions and take more concrete steps to support Palestinian writers in the face of a new wave of repression, retaliation and bigotry rippling through publishing, academia, and the creative arts industries. We demand PEN America create a legal strategy to get Palestinian authors and poets asylum immediately, and to publicize these efforts; to use its institutional power and resources, just as PEN does under the Writers in Crisis and Writers at Risk programs.
We demand PEN raise just as much hell over the unlawful detainment since December 12 of Mostafa Sheta, director of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, by Zionist occupation forces, as they do about those being unlawfully detained by states in opposition to the United States.
We demand PEN find the same zeal and passion that they have for banned books in the US to speak out about actual human beings in Palestine. As PEN America advances its campaigns against book banning and freedom of speech on campuses throughout the United States, the Zionist occupation forces have damaged or destroyed 372 educational facilities, including every single university and the Gaza Municipal Library, which served as a “cultural center and library for children.” They are targeting artists, poets, and writers. They murdered poet Heba Abu Nada and kidnapped poet and writer Mosab Abu Toha. Murdering writers and bombing libraries is the ultimate book ban. Destroying universities is the ultimate repression of campus free speech. Besides that, PEN America has not extended its campaign to talk about censorship of Palestinian writers in the United States. All these struggles are crucial to this time. But when PEN only speaks out about banned books here while our tax dollars fund a genocide, it deepens its complicity.
We demand PEN wake up from its own silent, tepid, neither-here-nor-there, self-congratulatory middle of the road and take an actual stand against an actual genocide. The bare minimum.
PEN’s charter claims its goal is “to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.” If PEN cannot live up to its mission of protecting, platforming, and amplifying those writers made most marginalized by nefarious forces, those living under constant threat of death for simply telling the truth about the world they have been forced to inhabit, then PEN should disband.
There is no form of censorship more powerful than the extermination of an entire people, no silencing more absolute than genocide.
You can see a full list of signatories, and add your own name, here.