At the PEN Literary Gala—a fund-raising event that also plays host to PEN America’s Free Expression Awards— held in New York City this past May, the organization debuted its recent rebranding. The newly unified aesthetic, including a new logo, website redesign, and official shortening of its name from PEN American Center, was the culmination of the revamping of one of the oldest literary-activism organizations in the country—a revamping that had been years in the making.
PEN America, founded in 1922, is one of more than 100 members of PEN International, a worldwide association of writers established in London in 1921 to advocate freedom of expression and the value of literature. Though it’s a member of the larger body, PEN America is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization funded primarily by grants, membership dues, and private donors. It has consistently straddled two worlds, representing both the interests of free expression and the advancement of literature.
Suzanne Nossel, who became executive director of PEN America in 2013, represents the first of those two missions especially. Before joining PEN, Nossel served as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Organization Affairs in the Obama administration, followed by a brief stint at the head of Amnesty International. Nossel said she sees PEN as unique for the range of its mission, operating between the literary nonprofit world on one hand and free-expression advocacy groups on the other.
“When we hear about the case of a poet or a novelist who has been targeted [by authorities], that to me is the heart of PEN, and it’s also a case where you’re not going to see the Committee to Protect Journalists or other groups necessarily rising to the forefront,” Nossel said. “So I think PEN has a special obligation in those cases. That said, we also defend plenty of journalists.”
At Home and Abroad
Under Nossel, PEN has attempted to raise awareness of free-expression issues on both the home front and the world stage. Earlier this year, PEN awarded Ahmad Naji, the Egyptian journalist and novelist, the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, recognizing his struggle against the strict speech laws of his country as he serves a two-year prison term for “violating public modesty.” The organization has also been outspoken regarding the persecution of secularist bloggers in Bangladesh, a number of whom have been murdered recently over their writing.
In America, PEN has swung its focus toward hot-button issues such as campus free speech and freedom of press violations in the wake of events including the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In 2013, it conducted a survey of dragnet surveillance done by the NSA and its effect on free expression. “Upwards of 25% of writers are telling us in surveys that they are self-censoring in some way as a result of knowing about dragnet surveillance of their topics,” Nossel said. “They’re afraid to research; there are people that they’re leery of communicating with; there are subjects they don’t want to write about because they’re afraid that doing so may be tracked and traced and may trip them up in some way in the future.”
Some of the increased focus on domestic issues comes from the political climate, in which surveillance has become widespread and candidates on the campaign trail actively decry the free press. But Nossel’s connections to Washington, too, have fueled that push; she noted that part of what’s helpful about her background is “understanding some of the levers, in terms of advocacy.” After conducting a report on the persecution of whistle-blowers in government ranks, for example, PEN released its findings at a public forum in Washington.
In spite of recent headlines panicking over the threats to free speech in the U.S., Nossel noted that protecting free expression here, rather than in countries with more draconian laws such as Qatar or Mexico, is a different beast. “It is important to recognize that we operate in one of the freest, most protective environments for free speech in the world,” she said. “I think a lot of our members are motivated by a sense of privilege that they enjoy being here, and a sense of obligation—duty, almost—that they have to writers around the world who are punished for what we do freely. So I would say we take an approach of vigilance here, but also one of appreciation of the freedoms that we have.”
PEN has also turned its eye to translations of literary works in places such as China, where books may be censored without their authors ever knowing about it. Nossel cited PEN president Andrew Solomon’s book The Noonday Demon as an example. “We had somebody go through his book, a book about depression, and compare the Chinese version to the English version, and certain passages about his being gay had been caught and excised without his knowledge,” she said. “We did a report documenting that, and with the aim of making publishers, editors, agents, and writers more aware that when they do publish in translation in China, they need to think about whether their work is going to be censored.”
PEN’s wholehearted condemnation of censorship and support for freedom of expression—including expression that its members may find distasteful, or disagree with—has occasionally gotten the organization into hot water.
In 2015, after a shooting at the offices of the controversial satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in France, PEN awarded the paper with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. A number of writers, including Junot Díaz and Joyce Carol Oates, protested the move, arguing in an open letter that it supported cartoons they found to be mocking a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.”
In 2016, Adalah-NY, a grassroots organization arguing for a boycott of Israel due to what it sees as an apartheid regime “founded as a Jewish state on land ethnically cleansed of its indigenous Palestinian population,” criticized PEN for accepting Israeli sponsorship for its World Voices Festival this past May. (Nossel said PEN has been receiving “minor”support from Israel since roughly 2006, before she took charge.)
The official PEN position, in response to the criticism over Israeli sponsorship, pointed to a policy formally adopted by PEN America in 2007 against participating in cultural boycotts because of their incongruence with free expression. In the case of Hebdo, Nossel maintained that context was important—and often missing in the criticism of the move.
“The reason we gave the award to Charlie Hebdo was that we really thought what they were engaging in was satire,” Nossel said. “And if you looked at some of the cartoons that people would find most offensive to an American, once you understand the French context, it can look very different.”
Raising Membership, Awareness
In spite of criticism, PEN remains devoted to freedom of expression in both journalism and literature, in all its diverse forms. Diversity has been a focus of late for the organization, and the numbers show it. In 2015, a year that saw 825 new members join the organization (compared to 541 the year before), 17% of new “professional,” or full-time, members were people of color, and 55% were women.
This, when put in the context of PEN’s history—and the history of the American literati as a whole—is a bit of a transformation from the stuffy, almost exclusively white and male organization of yore. Long gone are the days of former PEN America president Norman Mailer and the controversial 1986 PEN Convention, when Grace Paley led the bulk of women attendees in a walkout over lack of diversity.
“I think there was a history of PEN not being particularly inclusive,” PEN director of literary programs Paul Morris said.
The change in its membership ranks is not an accident. In order to make the community less “gated,” Morris said, fewer letters of recommendation are required for membership, and members no longer have to be literary writers. Membership fees are down as well, and though self-published authors are not yet accepted as members or eligible for awards, Morris mentioned that may change too.
The strategy has worked. PEN currently boasts roughly 4,400 members (a mix of writers, publishing professionals, and “general supporters”), up from 2,700 in 2011, when Morris came aboard. In-house, the staff has grown from around 14 to 26, give or take some interns, during the same period.
Morris has had no small role to play in the increase in membership. As director of literary programs, he is charged with managing membership and PEN’s comprehensive program of literary awards; the organization, Nossel said, will give out more than 20 awards in 2017. “I inherited a very sleepy program called the PEN Literary Awards,” Morris said, adding that when he arrived, the awards “were being handled by a former intern.” Both the membership drive and the overhaul of the awards program were done with an eye to broaden PEN’s influence and to expand its appeal to people connected to industries where free expansion is a bedrock principle.
This year, PEN has announced three new awards: the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, honoring 12 debut fiction writers with $2,000 each and publication in an anthology cosponsored and published by Catapult; the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, recognizing “a book that has broken new ground and signals strong potential for lasting influence” with a $75,000 purse; and the PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Oral History. A fourth award, in collaboration with the Nabokov Foundation and with a $50,000 purse, will be announced later this year, and it will bring the total amount of cash prizes PEN will offer in 2017 to upward of $315,000—more than double the $150,000 it offered in 2015.
Morris also handles events, including “mingles,” cosponsored by organizations in the literary and social-justice fields, including Lambda Literary, Vida, and Cave Canem. (The events are funded, in part, by the Booth Ferris Foundation.) The events bring members of otherwise disparate organizations together to discuss their respective causes, and to occupy an atmosphere ranging between a casual gathering and a safe space for expression in the face of a world that, in many ways, is opposed to it; PEN’s mingle with Lambda, held just after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, transformed from a typical literary hobnob into an impassioned and emotional vigil for the slain.
As for the future, Nossel said PEN will continue working toward expanding—after raising its membership “by more than a fourth, we’ll be looking to continue that trend.” She went on: “Everything we’ve done has sort of grown. We’ll be doing more programming looking at Muslims in America; we’ll be doing more programming looking at issues of gender. We’ve expanded our voice in Washington, and also the voices of writers from around the world, bringing a series of delegations to make writers from Myanmar, from China, from Russia, heard at the White House and in the State Department, so people understand what the challenges are, what they’re up against, and how the United States can help. We’ll be doing more of that.”