At PEN America, a Complicated Centennial for Free Speech

At a sold-out event on Monday in Manhattan celebrating the centenary of the free expression group PEN America, there were as many literary luminaries in the audience as there were onstage.

Before intermission, Margaret Atwood, dressed in metallic sneakers and a bright pink shirt, had engaged in some salty, friendly needling of Dave Eggers over whose dystopian novels were more prescient. At the break, Tom Stoppard and Neil Gaiman were spotted in a floppy-haired tête-à-tête, while, Robert Caro and Paul Auster passed nearby.

But over the three-hour event at the New-York Historical Society, talk kept circling back to a man who wasn’t there.

Soon after taking the stage, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie brought up the brutal attack on Salman Rushdie, who was stabbed onstage last month at a literary event in upstate New York.

“After the attack on Salman Rushdie, I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said, going on to imagine “the brutal and barbaric intimacy of someone standing inches from you and forcefully plunging a knife into your flesh,” simply “because you wrote.”

The novelist and playwright Ayad Akhtar, the president of PEN America, was supposed to have interviewed Rushdie onstage about the 1989 fatwa in response to his novel “The Satanic Verses.”

Instead, he delivered a tribute to his friend, and recalled his furtive, almost guilty reading of a novel everyone in his conservative Muslim American community in Milwaukee, Akhtar said, regarded as blasphemy deserving of punishment.

“It was my first encounter with the sheer force of literature, and the trouble it could get me into,” he said.

Atwood engaged in some salty, friendly needling of Eggers over whose dystopian novels were more prescient.Credit…Timothy O’Connell for The New York Times

The centenary falls at a complicated moment for PEN America, and the increasingly embattled principle of free speech it defends. The group is enjoying a rising profile, as it has moved beyond its traditional focus on literary writers to address a wide variety of new threats to open discourse, including online harassment, misinformation and digital surveillance.

Long known for international activism, it has also emerged as a leading voice on threats to free expression in the United States, issuing a series of widely cited recent reports on the spread of educational gag orders — a term it coined to describe efforts by Republican-dominated state legislatures to restrict teaching on race and gender.

But Suzanne Nossel, the group’s chief executive since 2013, also lamented what she said was the erosion of free speech as a cultural value — including among its traditional defenders on the left (and in the publishing industry, where some employees have organized pressure campaigns to drop books by conservatives).

“We’re at a dangerous precipice,” Nossel said in an interview. “Young people have been alienated from the idea of free speech, and see it as a smoke screen for hatred and bigotry. At the same time, there are those who may call themselves standard bearers for free speech, but if you look at what they’re doing, they’re banning books, gagging curriculum, eviscerating free speech in our schools and universities.”

Salman Rushdie’s Most Influential Work

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“Midnight’s Children” (1981). Salman Rushdie’s second novel, about modern India’s coming-of-age, received the Booker Prize, and became an international success. The story is told through the life of Saleem Sinai, born at the very moment of India’s independence.

“The Satanic Verses” (1988). With its satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, Mr. Rushdie’s fourth novel, ignited a furor that reverberated globally. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, found the book blasphemous and issued a fatwa, or religious edict, urging Muslims to kill the author. Subsequently, Mr. Rushdie went into hiding for years.

“The Moor’s Last Sigh” (1995). Mr. Rushdie’s following novel traced the downward spiral of expectations experienced by India as post-independence hopes for democracy crumbled during the emergency rule declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975.

“Fury” (2001). Published after Mr. Rushdie moved to New York, this novel follows a doll maker named Malik who has recently arrived in the city after leaving his wife and child in London. Although Rushdie “inhabits his novels in all manner of guises and transformations, he has never been so literally present as in this one,” a Times reviewer wrote.

“Joseph Anton” (2012). This memoir relays Mr. Rushdie’s experiences after the fatwa was issued. The book takes its name from Mr. Rushdie’s alias while he was in hiding, an amalgamation of the names of favorite authors — Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. The book also discusses Mr. Rushdie’s childhood (and particularly, his alcoholic father), his marriages and more.

The attack on Rushdie, she said, was “a jolting reminder of why we do what we do, and how pervasive the threats are,” she said. “This is a very personal catalyst to step it up.”

After the brutal attack on Salman Rushdie last month, PEN America was among the organizers of a rally in support of the author.Credit…Jackie Molloy for The New York Times

The attempted public assassination of a novelist in America may have scarcely been imagined at the group’s founding in 1922, which is documented in an exhibition on view at the historical society through Oct. 9. (From Wednesday through Sunday, it will be joined by a flashier display, “Speech Itself,” a large light-projection by the artist Jenny Holzer that will splash quotes from more than 60 authors across three buildings at Rockefeller Center each evening from 8 to 10.)

The first meeting of the PEN Club (as the group was originally called) took place at the Coffee House Club in Manhattan, with some 40 original members including Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill and Robert Frost.

From the beginning, it took an international approach, in keeping with the spirit of PEN International, the parent group formed in 1921. In 1939, PEN America organized an emergency congress in New York in response to rising fascism in Europe. During the war, it raised money to help impoverished writers in Europe.

The exhibition also highlights its advocacy for imperiled writers around the world, like the environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995) and the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who died in 2017.

An exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, on view through Oct. 9, traces the group’s history since its origins in 1922, as the PEN Club.Credit…Timothy O’Connell for The New York Times
In recent years, the group has tracked the surging effort to ban books and restrict school teachings on race and gender.Credit…Timothy O’Connell for The New York Times
A menu from the first meeting, in 1922, with members including Robert Frost, Eugene O’Neill and Willa Cather.Credit…Timothy O’Connell for The New York Times

And it doesn’t gloss over upheavals in its own ranks, including the 2015 protest about the group’s award for “freedom of expression courage” to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which some PEN members saw as rewarding what they considered racist and Islamophobic cartoons.

Today’s organization, Nossel said, is “not your grandfather’s PEN,” which long had what she called a “crusty-fusty reputation,” deserved or not. For one thing, it’s bigger, with a membership of more than 7,000 (up from 3,500 in 2012), and a staff of over 70. (Under Nossel, the budget has grown to $15 million, up from $2.3 million.)

It has also worked to diversify, while also increasingly emphasizing that free speech is not just a matter of defending the right to speak, but dismantling the barriers that prevent marginalized people from being heard.

“We are not free speech absolutists,” Nossel said. “We take what I think is an enlightened approach,” attuned to the interplay of “competing values.”

The Attack on Salman Rushdie

  • An Onstage Attack: After years under threat, Salman Rushdie was stabbed roughly 10 times during an event in western New York. Though badly wounded, the author is said to be “on the road to recovery.”
  • The Suspect: The man accused of attacking Mr. Rushdie mostly kept to himself but was changed by a trip to the Middle East, his mother and acquaintances said.
  • Terror at an Idyllic Retreat: The attack took place at the Chautauqua Institution, which has played host to cultural and Christian leaders for nearly 150 years.
  • Reactions: After he was stabbed, many hailed Mr. Rushdie as the embodiment of freedom. Others expressed reluctance to use the attack as fodder for highly-politicized polemics on free speech.

The onstage discussion reflected those tensions, as well as less savory aspects of PEN America’s history. The novelist Jennifer Finney Boylan, her voice vibrating with emotion, read a lacerating 1987 letter from Larry Kramer to Susan Sontag, then president, blasting the group’s “intolerable attitude toward anything gay,” and its failure to “say Boo about AIDS.”

“Thanks, Larry!” Boylan, who is transgender, said, to loud applause. “I hope it’s fair to say that all these years later, PEN does a better job” defending L.G.B.T.Q. writers, whom she described as “the most threatened in this country.”

During an audience Q. and A., Boylan said she was of two minds about the fraught question of who gets to tell what stories. On the one hand, she said, PEN stands for artistic freedom. But on the other, she said, trans stories need trans writers.

“My argument is not about censorship,” she said. “My argument is that we can tell our own stories better.”

Adichie said that, as a person from a continent that was often misrepresented, she largely agreed. But Nossel brought up the controversy over “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins’ novel about Mexican migrants, which was embraced by some Mexican and Mexican American writers, but assailed by others as white “trauma porn.”

It’s easy to say work should be good, she said. “But who decides?”

Akhtar took a blunter line, decrying the rise of so-called sensitivity readers, whom publishers hire to flag potentially offensive depictions relating to race, ethnicity, gender, religion and other subjects. “If there had been sensitivity readers early in my career, I wouldn’t have a career,” he said.

“It’s tricky,” he said. “I joke, I feel like we are potentially entering an era of socialist realism without the genocide.”

And he again brought up Rushdie, whose absolutist, full-throated stance on free speech is looked at askance by many in literary circles.

“I can’t tell you how many times people in New York have said, ‘Don’t get too close to Salman, because you’ll lose credibility,’” Akhtar said.

At a reception after the event, there were canapés, “Centenary Sidecars” and jokes about the verbosity of writers.

Gaiman stood chatting with the cartoonist Art Spiegelman. “Art was just saying, ‘That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be!’” he said.

Atwood, between posing for photographs with admirers, said PEN was “relevant now.”

“When things are going fine, people say, ‘Free speech, yeah yeah,” she said. “It gets boring. But in an age of censorship and persecution, it matters again.”

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