PEN World Voices Festival Chairman Addresses Charlie Hebdo Controversy

Over the last few weeks, some of contemporary literature’s best known writers have debated the merits of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine set to receive an award for “freedom of expression courage” at the PEN American Center’s literary gala. The controversy has turned the gala itself—normally a tame fund-raiser meant to celebrate writing—into a political event.

Six writers have publicly boycotted the gala, where they were supposed to host a table for the $1,250-per-plate event, to protest what they say is the racist and Islamaphobic work of the magazine. Others have chosen to support the award, largely through arguments relating to freedom of speech and expression. 12 members of the Charlie Hebdo staff were murdered in January in retribution for cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

As this public debate has been raging, one man has remained quiet, even as the event he runs goes on alongside this debate—and includes partisans from both sides. The celebrated novelist Colm Toibin is the chairman of the PEN World Voices Festival, which runs all week in New York City. In his first public comments, Toibin told Steve Paulson that he completely understands both sides of the issue—but is still planning on attending tonight's gala and hosting a table.

For Toibin, the issue of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons goes beyond whether or not they are racist. After all, he says, “With freedom of expression you have to defend the freedom of people with whom you do not agree.” Yet, when it comes to the specific role that these cartoons played within France, such a position becomes complicated. “The public life of France remains deeply controversial because a great number of people feel excluded from that, including Muslim people,” he said. “The cartoons certainly did not make them feel welcome in France, and that’s a serious issue.”

The other serious issue, is, of course, murder. For Toibin, this is exactly the kind of issue that PEN should be engaged with. “Since they died for drawings they made, and since they died for words they wrote, and PEN is an organization specifically dedicated to the defense of freedom to imagine and freedom to draw and freedom to write, then obviously PEN has to take a position about this. The question is, ”‘What position to take?’"

Toibin sees the debate happening right now less as a rift within the organization and more as a productive argument about the nature of speech and advocacy in the literary community. He notes that potential boycotts do not target PEN itself, but merely this gala and award. At least three of the members who gave up their tables at the galas—Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, and Rachel Kushner—are still participating in events for the PEN World Voices Festival.