Writers snub awards over honour for Charlie Hebdo

Michael Ondaatje has pulled out of PEN human rights gala. Picture: Getty
Michael Ondaatje has pulled out of PEN human rights gala. Picture: Getty
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MICHAEL Ondaatje, Francine Prose and at least four other writers have withdrawn from next month’s PEN American Centre gala, objecting to the literary and human rights organisation honouring French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

PEN announced that the writers were upset by Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of Muslims and “the disenfranchised generally”.

The Paris-based magazine, where 12 people were killed in a January attack at its offices, is to receive a Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the 5 May event in Manhattan.

Much of the literary community rallied behind Charlie Hebdo after the shootings, but some have expressed unhappiness with its scathing cartoons of Muslims and the Prophet ­Mohammad.

“I was quite upset as soon as I heard about [the award],” Ms Prose, a former PEN American president, said. She added that she was in favour of “freedom of speech without limitations” and “deplored” the January shootings, but giving an award signified “admiration and respect” for the honoree’s work.

The gala is the highlight of PEN’s annual, week-long World Voices Festival, intended as a celebration of artistic achievement and expression.

Besides Charlie Hebdo, which will be represented by editor in chief Gerard Biard and critic and essayist Jean-Baptiste Thoret, others receiving awards include playwright Tom Stoppard, ­Azerbaijani journalist Khadija ­Ismayilova and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle.

Ms Prose and Mr Ondaatje were among more than 60 writers scheduled to serve as hosts. According to PEN, the other hosts who decided not to attend were Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and Peter Carey.

In a letter sent to PEN trustees, current PEN US president Andrew Solomon acknowledged that several people were offended by some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but added that PEN believed strongly in the ­“appropriateness” of the award.

He added: “Based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracise or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression.

“We do not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.”