A group of writers and former PEN America and PEN Center USA staffers and fellows have written an open letter decrying the August 31 announcement that the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship would not be renewed for 2021, the program's 25th anniversary year. Over the weekend, PEN America leadership emailed the PEN community with an update explaining that the program would not entirely be scrapped, but would continue on in a different form.
The Emerging Voices Fellowship is a staple program of the organization's Los Angeles office, which was once a separate branch of PEN International but was merged with the larger PEN America in 2018. The PEN America website describes the fellowship as "a literary mentorship based in Los Angeles that has been providing underrepresented, marginalized writers with the tools they need to launch a professional literary career since 1996," providing "curated one-on-one mentorship and introductions to editors, agents, and publishers, in addition to editing, marketing, and web development workshops...with the ultimate goal of diversifying the publishing and media industries."
In the August 31 statement, PEN America Los Angeles executive director Michelle Franke wrote that applications for the fellowship for 2021 would not be opened "due to the constraints on convening a cohort of fellows and the non-renewal of several key grants that have supported the program," but that PEN America would instead "be presenting a series of online professional development workshops inspired by elements of the EV program," amounting to a "free and open access workshop series on craft and career issues... presented in partnership with our PEN Across America initiative and local chapters in cities nationwide."
That decision was criticized in the open letter, which calls for "for accountability and answers for PEN America’s failure to protect this indispensable program." Inspired by "a convening of Latina and immigrant writers in 1995, EV has grown into a nationally recognized and esteemed program," the letter states. "While the heart of this program is in its Los Angeles hometown, its effect and impact is national." The letter goes on to argue that the program, which was "run by one staff member" on a "small program budget ($150,000)" that "goes directly back to authors and the literary community at large," did not represent a large portion of PEN America’s $10 million annual operating budget or "its $1.75 million cash reserve." The letter also notes the salaries for high-level employees at PEN’s New York office, according to the organization's 2018 IRS 990 form, which indicates that PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel's salary in that year alone amounted to well over twice the alleged cost of the program. Furthermore, it asserts that signees to the letter were "alarmed and disconcerted" by how this decision was communicated to PEN membership.
"We see these actions, and the uncertainty of the communications surrounding PEN’s decision, as the slow dismantling of the fellowship," the open letter states. "It must be emphasized that this is one of the only fellowships of its kind that predominantly serves POC writers. To clarify, the EV program was PEN’s primary if not only means of serving emerging writers of color and the literary community at large.... For PEN’s leadership to now abandon this program illustrates exactly what they care about, and who really matters." (In response to the claim that this was PEN's primary program serving emerging writers of color, PEN America representatives pointed PW to the following programs: the Writers Emergency Fund, the Prison and Justice Writing Program, the M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic, the workshop series Dreaming Out Loud, the PEN America Worker Writers School, and a range of public programs.
The letter continues: "Let us state this plainly—we don’t want workshops, and we don’t want surveys. What we need is the Emerging Voices Fellowship." Among the proposed solutions requested in the letter are "commitment to reopening the Emerging Voices Fellowship application no later than April 2022 (for a 2023 Fellowship cohort)," "the formation of an EV steering committee made up of alumni, mentors, and supporters to support program development and fundraising goals," "commitment to active fundraising for the Emerging Voices Fellowship for the next 12–18 months," and the release of a "breakdown of how PEN America’s $10+ million annual operating budget is allocated to geographic regions."
In a letter to the PEN community on Saturday, PEN America leadership—signees include Nossel, outgoing president Jennifer Egan and president-elect Ayad Akhtar, Franke, and senior director of literary programs Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf—wrote: "As we previously let you know, having to cancel our galas and other fundraising events, as well as absorb loss associated with the pandemic and economic crisis, required some tough decisions and changes in order to sustain our organization. That said, in this year in which we've come to expect the unexpected, we are elated to share that, late this week, we were able to secure a new commitment, beginning in 2021, from one of our donors to reallocate a portion of their giving. The redirected funds will underwrite efforts to nurture, mentor, and support emerging writers, who have been historically excluded from publishing, through a structured program that will be deeply informed by and will expand upon our Los Angeles-based Emerging Voices Fellowship."
Nossel added that the effort would "include finding new ways to foster connections between annual participants and program alumni and agents, editors, and publishers," with the end goal being "a national program operating virtually and, we hope, with some in-person engagement as public health circumstances allow." She wrote that PEN would "devote the next few months to extensive consultation and study in order to define an approach that can work nationally and offer the kind of intensive experience that we know has been so important," adding that Franke and PEN America’s senior director of literary programs Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf would lead that effort in consultation with the organization's Board Literary Committee "and other stakeholders," and that Emerging Voices alumni and program participants would be consulted and sent an optional survey as part of the process.
That said, Nossel noted that the donation "will cover only a portion of expenses associated with this program," adding that "fundraising will be ongoing." Still, she wrote, "we are heartened to be able to ensure that the current Emerging Voices hiatus will be a limited one, and we are excited to work together."
In a statement on behalf of those behind the open letter, Emerging Voices master class instructor and UC-Riverside associate professor Alex Espinoza wrote to PW on Saturday that, while the organizers of the letter were "pleased to hear PEN America will reallocate funds to support marginalized voices," they "remain committed in our desire to see the original PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship reinstituted. We view PEN's communications and lack of transparency over the last six months regarding the investment in the EV Fellowship as a measured and strategic dismantling of the original program's vision and impact. The Fellowship is already national. Moreover, it has proven incredibly efficacious in its pivot to a virtual opportunity to engage writers across the country."
Nossel, speaking with PW on Sunday, said that the fellowships are "very much a part of the DNA of our organization, with our commitment to amplifying lesser heard voices in a variety of ways. This program has a very proud lineage—it's an extremely important program, the centrality of which is underscored as we confront the gap in diversity and inclusion in the publishing world." She continued that, with regard to this year's fellowships, "there were several months still running on the program at the time when the lockdown set in, which essentially forced a translation of what the program had been to virtual, as we did with everything with the whole organization."
Nossel added: "We face the challenge of how to evolve it, given the pandemic and the difficulty of in-person programming, which we and many other organizations have pretty much abandoned for the time being. We are committed to ensuring that we serve this community, and we do see the urgency—we are committed to figuring out how this can work virtually. Can we reach more people, nationally? Are there ways to even strengthen it, perhaps, looking at what can be done through other channels, other technology?"
This piece has been updated with further information and for clarity.