PEN America calls off awards ceremony after nominees drop out over its response to Israel-Hamas war
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Facing widespread unhappiness over its response to the Israel-Hamas war, the writers’ group PEN America has called off its annual awards ceremony. Dozens of nominees had dropped out of the event, which was to have taken place next week.

PEN, a literary and free expression organization, hands out hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes each year, including $75,000 for the PEN/Jean Stein Award for best book. But with nine of the 10 Jean Stein finalists withdrawing, along with nominees in categories ranging from translation to poetry, continuing with the ceremony at The Town Hall in Manhattan proved unworkable.

Among those dropping out was debut novel finalist Rachel Eliza Griffiths, wife of former PEN president Salman Rushdie.

“This is a beloved event and an enormous amount of work goes into it, so we all regret this outcome but ultimately concluded it was not possible to carry out a celebration in the way we had hoped and planned,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement Monday.

The cancellation comes as tensions over the war have spread throughout the country, from college campuses to political events to roadways, which at times have been blocked by protesters everywhere from Illinois to California.

Since the war began last October, authors affiliated with PEN have repeatedly denounced the organization for allegedly favoring Israel and downplaying atrocities against Palestinian writers and journalists. In an open letter published last month, and endorsed by Naomi Klein and Lorrie Moore among others, the signers criticized PEN for not mobilizing “any substantial coordinated support” for Palestinians and for not upholding its mission to “dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.”

PEN has responded by citing that it has condemned the loss of life in Gaza, called for a ceasefire and helped set up a $100,000 emergency fund for Palestinian writers. Last week, PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan announced that a committee was being formed to review the organization’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.”

Critics have said that the relief fund is too small and noted that PEN waited until March to endorse a ceasefire, five months after the war began.

Stein finalists had included Justin Torres’ “Blackouts,” winner last fall of the National Book Award for fiction, and Catherine Lacey’s “Biography of X.” At the request of the estate for Jean Stein, an author and oral historian who died in 2017, the prize money will be donated to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.

“Jean Stein was a passionate advocate for Palestinian rights who published, supported, and celebrated Palestinian writers and visual artists,” reads a statement from Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Wendy Vanden Heuvel and Bill Clegg, on behalf of the Stein estate. “While she established the PEN America award in her name to bring attention to and provide meaningful support to writers of the highest literary achievement, we know she would have respected the stance and sacrifice of the writers who have withdrawn from contention this year.”

Camille T. Dungy’s “Soil” had been the only remaining Stein award contender.

PEN announced Monday that judges had selected a handful of winners, among them Javier Fuentes’ “Countries of Origin” for debut novel, the PEN/Hemingway award. Playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner will still receive the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award. Other honorary awards include the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, given to the late Maryse Condé.

Some authors have called for the resignation of Nossel and other top officials. Lacey, in an Instagram post last week, wrote that PEN needed to “make big changes in the leadership and move into a new era.” More than a dozen awards finalists endorsed a recent letter that demanded Nossel, Boylan and others step down and alleged that PEN had “shown blatant disregard of our collective values.”

A PEN spokesperson said it had no plans to respond to calls for Nossel and others to resign.

PEN’s other high-profile spring events — the “World Voices” festivals in New York and Los Angeles, and the gala at the American Museum of Natural History — will go ahead as scheduled. Klein and Moore are among the writers who have said they will not attend the World Voices festival, which Rushdie helped establish 20 years ago. Rushdie and other former PEN presidents, including Jennifer Egan and Andrew Solomon, had recently published a letter urging the literary community to participate in the festival.

“The festival was conceived amid conflict to draw together diverse authors and thinkers at a time of deepening and deadly geopolitical tension after 9/11,” the letter reads in part.

“We believe in PEN America and the festival and urge that, even at a time of discord, readers and writers will once again find a way to come together to jointly quest for insight and inspiration.”

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