PEN America Won't Listen

"Now is precisely when we need to be having this conversation."
An elegant gathering about to begin at the Ebell Theater, a classic LA landmark, with two upholstered French armchairs on a dais awaiting speakers and audience chairs set up below
Image: Myriam Gurba. January 31st PEN America event at the Ebell Theatre, Los Angeles

by Myriam Gurba

Since October 25, members of the U.S. literary community have waited for PEN America to echo PEN International’s call for an immediate ceasefire and an end to Israel’s siege on Gaza. We have waited for PEN America to issue an official statement acknowledging that “Gaza is now the deadliest place in the world for media workers.” We have also waited for PEN America to issue an official statement mourning the dozens of confirmed killings of poets, playwrights, journalists, and scholars in Gaza. Instead of abiding by its stated mission to “defend writers, artists, and journalists and protect free expression,” PEN America has remained largely silent. 

Writers Bloc is a Los Angeles literary and reading series described in a 2020 New York Times profile as “an important stop for politics writers.” In October, Writers Bloc cancelled an event at Los Angeles’s Wilshire Ebell Theater that would have featured author Nathan Thrall discussing his book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama. Writing for The Washington Post, critic Ilana Masad described A Day in the Life of Abed Salama as an “important book, and one that closely examines the intricacies of injustice perpetrated on the Palestinian population by the Israeli government.” Asked to explain the cancellation, Writers Bloc founder Andrea Grossman told the Times, “Now is precisely when we need to be having this conversation”–meaning, by this, the conversation she herself had just “reluctantly postponed.” 

On January 31, PEN America and Writers Bloc sponsored a program featuring comedian Moshe Kasher and actor Mayim Bialik, a conversation that neither organization had found it necessary to postpone. In protest of the event's announcement, novelists Angela Flournoy and Kathleen Alcott promptly withdrew their participation in the PEN America event, “New Writers, New Books” scheduled for January 25th. Alcott, a planned honoree at the January 25 event, minced no words in an email to PEN America, describing Bialik as “a hugely influential racist who has incited ongoing slaughter.” Flournoy, who'd been scheduled to co-host, noted that Bialik “has spent the past 100 days sharing dehumanizing anti-Palestinian propaganda and rallying her five million followers to the cause of the Israeli military.”

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