The decision by the PEN American Center to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo has caused at least six writers to withdraw as literary hosts at the group’s annual gala on May 5. Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have withdrawn from the gala, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo‘s editor in chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a Charlie Hebdo staff member who arrived late for work on Jan. 7 and missed the attack by Islamic extremists that killed 12 people, are scheduled to accept the award. In a letter sent earlier on Sunday to Pen trustees, current PEN American president Andrew Solomon acknowledged that several people were offended by some of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons, but added that PEN believed strongly in the “appropriateness” of the award.
“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 ostracise 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.”
Petter Carey, speaking in an email interview with The New York Times, has said that the PEN American Center is currently “blind” to the French nations “cultural arrogance” and shouldn’t be giving Charlie Hebdo the award.
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”
Carey also said the award went beyond the Pen American Centers traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression. Soloman, while saying that he was not surprised by the controversy of the decision, has said that he was surprised by the “vehemence” with which people are reacting to it, as well as the fact that the writers decided to boycott the event less than two weeks beforehand.