Two novelists have cut ties with PEN over its Mayim Bialik event and Gaza silence. ‹ Literary Hub

Literature

Dan Sheehan

January 31, 2024, 3:56pm

Two prominent novelists have broken with PEN America over the organization’s decision to platform controversial actor and outspoken ceasefire opponent Mayim Bialik, as well as its relative silence on the unfolding genocide in Gaza (which so far has claimed the lives of at least 120 writers, poets, and journalists).

National Book Award finalist Angela Flournoy (The Turner House) and O. Henry Prize winner Kathleen Alcott (Emergency, America Was Hard to Find) were scheduled to participate in PEN’s New Year, New Books event in Los Angeles on January 25 (Flournoy as co-host, Alcott as one of the celebrated authors), but withdrew their participation on January 18 upon discovering that PEN would be co-sponsoring a January 31 event featuring Bialik, a self-proclaimed Zionist who, in Flournoy’s words, “has spent the past 100 days sharing dehumanizing anti-Palestinian propaganda and rallying her five million followers to the cause of the Israeli military.”

American actor Bialik (Blossom, The Big Bang Theory), who will be in conversation with the comedian Moshe Kasher about his new memoir at tonight’s PEN Out Loud event, has come under fire in recent months for donating to (and wearing the merchandise of) the IDF, publicly opposing calls for a ceasefire, and trivializing the conflict with her inflammatory social media posts.

In their Jan 18 emails to Jenn Dees (programs director at PEN America in Los Angeles) and Suzanne Nossel (CEO of PEN America since 2013), Flournoy and Alcott also took the prominent free expression organization to task for its decision to co-host the Bialik event with Writers Bloc Presents (an organization that canceled a planned event with A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy author Nathan Thrall in October), as well as for its “reluctance to take a stand against the genocide in Palestine, and particularly the targeting of writers, journalists and artists.”

 

Here is the January 18 email exchange in its entirety:

 

Angela Flournoy’s initial email:

I will not be participating in this event or future PEN America events given the organization’s reluctance to take a stand against the genocide in Palestine, and particularly the targeting of writers, journalists and artists. There is a difference in an organization remaining impartial—a dubious policy itself during a genocide—and what is happening at PEN right now. On January 31st PEN is co-sponsoring a paid event featuring Mayim Bialik, a person who has spent the past 100 days sharing dehumanizing anti-Palestinian propaganda and rallying her five million followers to the cause of the Israeli military. That PEN would seek to give such a person a platform while the Palestinian death toll exceeds 24,000 is unconscionable. Lest PEN try to argue that featuring Bialik is simply in line with promoting speech, no matter how abhorrent, I’d remind you that the event’s cosponsor, Writers Bloc Presents, canceled a planned event with Nathan Thrall in October to discuss his new book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama. The choice to partner with an organization who deems writing that humanizes Palestinians as “too polarizing” is particularly confounding given PEN’s own statement against canceling similar events. In that same statement, PEN quotes from its charter: “The charter requires us to do ‘our utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.’” I do not see how hosting events featuring people like Bialik, and cosponsored by organizations like Writers Bloc can possibly be in line with this goal.

As every good writer knows, what people do matters just as much as what they say at the end of the day. PEN’s relative silence in the face of this growing human catastrophe, as well as the parallel war that is being waged on the cultural front via censorship, suppression and blacklisting, poses an existential threat to the validity of the institution itself. I know I am not the only writer who is looking to PEN to do better.

I have cc’d Fariha Roísín and Kathleen Alcott here, two brilliant writers who I hoped would be celebrated at this event. They, like myself, don’t feel much like partying given PEN’s current silence on the killing of their colleagues in Palestine.

Kathleen Alcott’s follow-up email:

As my colleague Angela mentioned, I will not be lending my name to PEN’s event. I was so heartened when I heard that PEN would be supportive of a statement in support of the 24,000 people who have lost their lives to Israeli genocide—among them the the writers and professors who have been targeted in the transparent attempt to eradicate Palestinian culture by vanishing the people who create its record—and heartbroken when I heard about your upcoming event featuring a hugely influential racist who has incited ongoing slaughter. Have you seen the videos in which Mayim Bialik laughs at the word ‘ceasefire,’ or the IDF propaganda she pushes, including videos which include verifiably false “translations” of Arabic? Andrea Grossman, the head of your co-sponsor Writers Bloc Presents, mentioned in a statement that she canceled Nathan Thrall’s event for A Day in the Life of Abed Salama at the risk of a “disruption,” so it’s interesting to me that Mayim Bialik’s presence qualifies as so innocent and uncontroversial. I can solve my curiosity about that dissonance by having a look at your twitter feed of the last few months, where if I squint I can find perhaps two mentions of the word Palestine, one in reference to an op-ed in Newsweek which encourages a truly impotent and ahistorical neutrality (as well as, arguably, some internalized Islamophobia). Nothing, of course, about a 75 year occupation, the Palestinians who are barred from using rainwater for their crops, the cities they built and vineyards they grew which are now the property of Israeli settlers, the women vying for risky pills to suppress menstruation because they have no supplies and humanitarian aid has been blocked. Meanwhile, Amy Poehler’s book being banned in Florida is something PEN bangs the drum about. Fighting censorship is elemental to flourishing media and publishing industries, but it only matters if the voices protected prominently and repeatedly include those with hands at their throat.

As any author who wants to become better examines the patterns of their craft, in the twelve years and four books I’ve published, I’ve become increasingly concerned with what is conveyed by what I have omitted. What we say matters as much as what we don’t—often, it says even more, given how it reveals the lightless blindspots of our subconscious. Aren’t those places always where bias grows? I believe that PEN, as a pacifist organization founded with the hope writers could end war given their freedom of expression, has a responsibility to look at what is not said. Given the statement you made on October 23 urging the importance of free exchange of ideas on the matter of this war, I’d desperately like to think you have the right intention, and you only need the encouragement to follow it. As a member of Writers Against On the War On Gaza, I will retain the eager hope that you investigate these omissions, and I imagine my colleagues will also.

Jenn Dees’ response email:

Dear Angela, Kathleen,

We respect your decisions as well as your concerns and will miss your presence. We hope that our efforts to advocate for the free expression of writers and artists in Gaza and around the world will have a meaningful impact, and Angela, with your prior feedback in mind, we are planning to set up a memorial space in the gallery to honor the many writers, artists, and journalists who are being killed and facing horrific dangers in Gaza and the region right now. As deep admirers of your work, we also hope we can stay and work together with you and Fariha in the future.

 

In conversations I’ve had with Flournoy and Alcott over the past two days, both were keen to stress that while the organizers of the New Writers, New Books event in Los Angeles had been receptive (in phone calls with Flournoy prior to her withdrawn) to the idea that meaningful acknowledgement of the plight of Palestinian writers at the event was a necessity, there seems to be a large and concerning gap between what individual PEN programmers are willing to do in support of Palestinian writers at in-person events and what the organization is willing to advocate for publicly. This has let them to conclude that the issue lies with top leadership.

Discontent with PEN America’s muted response to the war on Gaza (and, in particular, Israel’s targeting of Palestinian journalists) has been growing in literary circles over the past three months, with many authors wondering why the organization has continued to focus the overwhelming bulk of its energies on American book bans and campus free speech debates while Gaza’s journalistic and cultural firmament is being steadily eradicated.

Though PEN America has published statements expressing alarm at the destruction of cultural centers in Gaza, mourning the loss of Palestinian writers killed in the conflict, and calling on the Israeli government to rescind its threats against Palestinian photojournalists, a quick scroll through the organization’s homepage and various social media feeds makes it difficult for even the most generous interpreter to see these (largely buried) statements as much more than a fig leaf.

One of the primary remits of the 102-year-old free expression organization is to advocate for the safety of journalists and writers worldwide, and yet, despite Israel’s latest assault on Gaza becoming the most deadly conflict for journalists in modern history, the vast majority of PEN America’s Instagram and X (formerly Twitter) posts since October 7 make no mention of their dire circumstances. Indeed, the words ‘Palestine’ or ‘Gaza’ do not, at the time of writing, even appear on the homepage of PEN America’s website. For an organization that once brought Central Park West to a standstill in order to honor the journalists of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (12 of whose colleagues were murdered by al-Qaeda militants in a January 2015 attack on the magazine’s offices), this relative silence feels especially problematic.

Perhaps most troublingly of all, despite the staggering loss of civilian life and wanton destruction of Gaza’s cultural sector, PEN has yet to issue a statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza (something which PEN International did on October 25).

 

Lit Hub reached out to PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel for comment (on the aforementioned January 18 email exchange, rather than the opinions expressed by the author of this article) and received the following reply:

PEN America was founded on the idea that literature, art, and culture belong to humanity and should circulate freely even during conflict and political upheaval. We are a big tent organization, open to all writers and their allies. We regularly host conversations with authors whose views some find objectionable. Earlier this month we hosted artist Ai Weiwei for a discussion about his new memoir Zodiac. This came after several of his exhibitions were canceled due to a tweet some judged as antisemitic. Our December Annual General Meeting included dialogue between Palestinian and Jewish writers with wide-ranging views on the conflict. We recognize that some of our choices may spark controversy, and we respect the right to voice and demonstrate objections. In recent months we have spoken out repeatedly against the cancellation of events, exhibitions, and appearances due to participants’ views on the conflict. On the conflict itself, our approach has attracted a mix of support and criticism, coming from all sides. We welcome those conversations. In our international work, our focus is on government incursions on free expression and their effect on writers. We have offered commentary and advocacy where we have felt our voice could make a difference recognizing that there are groups with deep expertise on armed conflict and the region. Our comments and releases on the conflict can be found here.



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