On May 7, hundreds gathered at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village for Freedom to Write for Palestine, a gathering of writers who withdrew from PEN America's World Voices Festival and Literary Awards—both of which were canceled last month—over the organization's response to the war in Gaza. The event, part of the ongoing Palestine Festival of Literature initiative, was a fundraiser for We Are Not Numbers, a youth-led nonprofit in Gaza that supports and mentors young Palestinian writers. Books were sold on site by Brooklyn-based bookstore the Word Is Change.

In her opening remarks, novelist Nancy Kricorian described the event as an "alternative" to the World Voices Festival, calling it an opportunity to not only denounce the war in Gaza and show solidarity with Palestinians, but to continue to "pressure PEN America." Cheers erupted when Kricorian mentioned that thus far, such pressure had led to the cancellation of PEN's two tentpole spring events.

"PEN America's failure to take a stand is what brings us here tonight," Kricorian said, after remarking on what she felt was PEN's hypocritical activism on behalf of Ukraine when it was invaded by Russia. She also gave an extended "shoutout" to the PEN America union, PEN United, which has noted has been bargaining for higher salaries and "accountability from PEN leadership" for more than a year.

Overall, more than 70 writers withdrew from PEN's Literary Awards and World Voices Festival, which were slated to be held in New York City on April 29 and from May 8–11, respectively. Among the evening's readers were writer Michelle Alexander, poet and essayist Kay Gabriel, writer Sabrina Imbler, novelist Hari Kunzru, and writer Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who all withdrew from the festival; as well as translator Esther Allen, translator Kira Josefsson, poet Eugenia Leigh, poet Evie Shockley, and fiction writer Alejandro Varela, who all withdrew from the awards. Translator Nicholas Glastonbury, a judge for this year's PEN Translation Prize, was also a reader, along with Lorraine Garret and Seth Goldman, two poets from the Worker Writers School, which offers creative writing workshops to low-wage workers in conjunction with worker centers and trade unions. Rounding out the lineup were We Are Not Numbers writers Mohamed Arafat and Mahmoud Alyazji and musician Huda Asfour.

Under the watchful eyes of James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde—memorialized in murals on the church walls and designated "saints"—a number of writers read work by Palestinian writers and poets from We Are Not Numbers, including Haidar al-Ghazali, Haya Abu Nasser, and Dima Maher Ashour. Shockley read a poem by Palestinian American poet Fady Joudah, the winner of this year's Jackson Poetry Prize; Kunzru read an excerpt from his essay in the 2017 anthology Kingdom of Olives and Ash (Harper Perennial), edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman—the latter of whom was just released from Israeli detention following a protest; and Gabriel read selections from the 2021 oral history Voices of the Nabka: A Living History of Palestine (Pluto Press).

Allen, who cofounded the World Voices Festival in 2004 and declined this year's PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation, spoke at length about what she described as a shift in PEN America over the past two decades. "PEN America is different things to different people," she said. "Its current leaders seem to think that they are PEN America—to such an extent that they describe appeals for their resignation as attempts to bring about the fall of PEN." Allen described PEN America's "appalling taciturnity" on the war in Gaza is "part of a broader pattern of silencing and erasure," and juxtaposed PEN's cancellations of its largest writer-centered events with its plan to go forward with its annual fundraising gala: "The priorities could not be clearer."

Hari Kunzru echoed Allen's sentiments. Kunzru, the former deputy president of English PEN—which, along with PEN parent organization PEN International, called for a ceasefire in October—expressed a desire to "see PEN America return to its core mission." PEN America called for a ceasefire in March, following the circulation of an open letter in February signed by more than 600 writers, many of whom were in attendance.