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The Charlie Hebdo-Related Reason These Writers Are Boycotting an Awards Ceremony

Six novelists have declined invites to annual PEN American Awards gala.

Michael Ondaatje, one of the writers declining invites to the PEN American Awarda gala. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Six writers are declining invitations to the annual PEN American Center’s annual gala—a prestigious night for the who’s who of the literary world—in reaction to PEN’s decision to honor the Charlie Hebdo newsweekly with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Writers Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi, originally invited to join as literary hosts for the evening, will no longer be attending at all.

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” Carey wrote in an email to The New York Times. “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.”

Earlier this year, twelve staff members of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, were killed in an attack by Muslim gunmen. Gerard Biard, the editor-in-chief, and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a staff member, who both survived the shooting, will be accepting the award on behalf of their publication.

What happened at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January was certainly tragic, but the compulsion by the Western intelligentsia to lionize the newsweekly for its work, despite its often racist and sexist depictions of marginalized groups, appears reactionary. It’s not difficult to condemn what happened to Charlie Hebdo without endorsing its content—which is what these writers are doing. It’s what Kushner was referring to when she decried “cultural intolerance” and “a kind of forced secular view” to PEN in an email withdrawing from the gala.

Unsurprisingly, however, there are some who are taking these writers to task for their pointed statement. Salman Rushdie spoke out against their withdrawals yesterday, in a series of tweets and in statements to the press, referring to them as “six pussies”.

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