Rachel Kushner and Michael Ondaatje Protest ‘Charlie Hebdo’ PEN Award

The cover of the first issue of Charlie Hebdo to hit newsstands following the terrorist attack on the magazine. Photo: Charlie Hebdo/EPA.
The cover of the first issue of Charlie Hebdo to hit newsstands following the terrorist attack on the magazine.
Photo: Charlie Hebdo/EPA.

Six prominent writers will boycott the PEN American Center’s annual gala next month over the decision to award a prize to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The magazine was announced in March as the recipient of the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, to be presented May 5 (see Charlie Hebdo To Receive PEN Award in May).

The writers include Teju Cole (Open City), two-time Booker Prize–winner Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda, True History of the Kelley Gang), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), Francine Prose (The Glorious Ones), and Taiye Selasi (Ghana Must Go). Also sitting out the ceremony is Rachel Kushner, who won enthusiastic praise for her novel The Flamethrowers, which is partly set in the SoHo art scene of the early 1970s and which may be in for a big-screen adaptation (see Jane Campion to Direct Film Version of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers?).

Citing the magazine’s portrayals of Muslims and other marginalized groups, the writers will sit out the ceremony despite the initial outpouring of solidarity following the terrorist attacks on the publication in January, which killed twelve staffers (see #JeSuisCharlie: A Digest of Responses to the Killings at Charlie Hebdo).

“I was quite upset as soon as I heard about [the award],” said Prose in interview with the Associated Press. “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo.”

Prose added that while she was in favor of “freedom of speech without limitations,” she feels that the publication’s portrayals of Muslims and “the disenfranchised generally” should not be rewarded or celebrated.

In a letter to trustees, PEN American president Andrew Solomon acknowledged the controversy, stating: “It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims, as their cartoons offended members of the many other groups they targeted. But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo‘s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression.”

“We do not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats,” he said.

The PEN American Center gala and award ceremony will take place on May 5 in New York City.


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