Updates on the Coronavirus from PEN America

PEN America
86 min readMar 12, 2020

How PEN America is uplifting its Members, writers, and the greater literary and free expression community during the coronavirus crisis. Questions? Contact us at info@pen.org. Listen to our daily podcast here.

Signs in a bookstore window in Brunswick, Maine. | AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Editor’s Note

June 9, 2020

We’ve stopped updating this page as of June 1, 2020. For more on our coronavirus response and all our work, click here.

Rallying Against Hate

May 27, 2020

As the pandemic has raged around the world, there’s been an alarming uptick in attacks and hatred against Asian and Asian-American people here in the United States. To fight back, we teamed up with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop to get more than 100 writers, artists, and activists to sign a joint statement of solidarity.

The statement was followed by a story in The Guardian about our efforts, and then today is followed by a daylong series of webinars, readings, and events under the banner “United Against Hate: A Day of Solidarity.”

Those activities get underway around midday, and we’ll make recordings of the highlight events available on our website. One of the day’s participants: writer and activist Helen Zia, who also joined us on The PEN Pod today to talk about the spike in anti-Asian sentiment but also how we can rally together to fight back.

Protest Rights Under Siege

May 27, 2020

There’s been a heartening rise in the number of protest actions across the country in recent years: the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and Standing Rock, just to name a few. But the current White House occupant has taken to calling protesters he dislikes disloyal. Meantime he praises as patriots those protesting lockdowns with guns at state capitols.

Now, in a new report from us at PEN America, we find that over the past five years, state legislators have introduced a slew of anti-protest legislation aimed at mostly limited First Amendment rights for progressive demonstrators.

Our report, Arresting Dissent, shows that while in 2015 and 2016 just six bills limiting protest rights were introduced at the state level, that number ballooned to 110 from 2017 to 2019. While many have died or been challenged in court, nearly two dozen have become law.

As our Nora Benavidez says:

In some instances these measures have been tailored in ways that reveal a determination to suppress the robust expression of particular viewpoints, for example by banning protests near public infrastructure projects that have been flashpoints for environmental concerns. At the same time, the president expresses hostility towards certain protest movements, and vociferous support for others, depending on whether or not they align with his views. This selective approach to respect for First Amendment rights flies in the face of the constitution and poses a danger to the expressive rights of all.

Chilean Authorities Appear to Condone Erasure of Art Installation

May 22, 2020

Chile and other Latin American countries have seen a rise in crackdowns against artistic and free expression. Just this week, Chilean authorities appeared to permit the “erasure” of an artist collective’s light installation. The group Delight Lab had been projected statements on buildings in Santiago.

On May 18, they screened the word hambre, or hunger, on the Telefónica building in downtown Santiago. The next day, they displayed the words humanidad and solidaridad (humanity and solidarity), but shortly thereafter, a vehicle apparently under police escort directed floodlights at the building, effectively “erasing” Delight Lab’s artwork.

Said our Julie Trebault:

The threats these artists have been receiving are deplorable attempts to silence and intimidate artists at a time when they and their work are more important than ever. Chilean authorities’ apparent involvement in Delight Lab’s censorship also indicates that this is part of a growing trend of restricting free expression during the pandemic. We condemn the harassment of Delight Lab and call on the Chilean government to both cease any censorship efforts and take strides to protect artists from violence and intimidation.

Diving Beneath the Waves

May 21, 2020

Writer, poet, novelist, and playwright Carmen Boullosa normally splits her time between Mexico City and New York, but since the pandemic, she’s stayed in the Mexican capital, reflecting on her work and continuing to write.

In today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we speak to Boullosa about her new book, The Book of Anna, just released last month. We spoke with her about the inspiration for the book, which is set in the world of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; how reading helps us make sense of the world; and what writers can do in times of crisis.

A Florida Scientist Punished for Doing Her Job

May 20, 2020

A scientist in Florida this week said she was fired for refusing to alter COVID-19 data to support the state’s reopening plan. It’s part of a disturbing trend of public servants being pressured to alter or withhold what should be publicly accessible information.

In a statement, our Nora Benavidez said:

“In the midst of a global pandemic, the stakes are literally life and death. Citizens rely on their local and state government to provide accurate and unbiased data so they may navigate these unprecedented times. Any attempt to manipulate or obfuscate the facts of the pandemic threatens not only the public’s right to transparency from their government, but also their very health and safety. If Jones was indeed fired for refusing to alter health data, that is both an act of retaliation and intimidation, signaling to other employees that it is in their interest to keep their concerns to themselves. At the end of the day, this creates a culture of fear and silence that files in the face of the fundamental rights we all have to access information.”

The Freedom to Write

May 19, 2020

While we’ve mostly used this space to explore our work as it relates to the coronavirus, this week we launched a new annual report documenting the writers imprisoned around the world. And while our Freedom to Write Index 2019 discusses those incarcerated last year, many still languish in the world’s prisons as the pandemic rages and threatens those behind bars in acute ways.

The Freedom to Write Index is part of the long history of advocacy of PEN America and indeed PEN International. For a century, PEN centers worldwide have taken it as their mission to defend writers who are muzzled by governments who seek to silence their voices.

We have long tracked cases and annually bestow our PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on an imprisoned writer or group of writers, we had never published a full look at all those held in a calendar year. That is, until now.

The Index shows that during 2019, at least 238 writers and public intellectuals were unjustly detained in connection with their writing. The worst offenders? China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. As part of the project, we also launched a comprehensive real-time database of historical cases that’s searchable by name, country, and case type.

We hope you have a chance to explore the Index and the database, and for more on the effort, listen to Tuesday’s episode of The PEN Pod, featuring Karin Deutsch Karlekar, who led the research effort for the Index, as well as Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji who was detained for his work for two years.

Looking Through Time; Plus Tough Questions

May 15, 2020

On this Friday edition of The PEN Pod, writer, teacher, and artistic director of StoryStudio Chicago Rebecca Makkai. Rebecca is the author of the acclaimed novels, The Great Believers, The Hundred Year House, and The Borrower.

The Great Believers, which is set during the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago, was a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist and received the ALA Carnegie Medal and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

We spoke with Rebecca about the similarities and differences between that moment in history and our current one; the writing advice she always gives her students; and why it’s more important than ever that we continue making and talking about art during times of upheaval.

Also on today’s edition, we put our toughest questions about free speech and the pandemic to PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. This week, we focus on “plandemic,” and the president’s attacks on journalists from VOA and CBS News.

Re-Reading Mary Shelley

May 14, 2020

A political theorist by day, Notre Dame professor Eileen Hunt Botting is also a scholar of the famed writer Mary Shelley. While perhaps best known for her novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Shelley’s 1826 apocalyptic novel The Last Man has been of particular interest to Botting.

Botting has called The Last Man the first modern major pandemic novel. On this edition of The PEN Pod, she explores the idea of how a pandemic can be shaped by politics, and how imagining what comes next is perhaps one silver lining of our current crisis.

Take a listen to the full episode:

Temperature Check: The Women’s Issue

May 13, 2020

In this week’s edition of Temperature Check, our biweekly newsletter series focusing on prisons and COVID-19, our team focuses on the specific issue of incarcerated women.

Nearly ten percent of the over 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. are women, a population that’s grown at twice the rate of men’s incarceration since 1980. Of those numbers, 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and more than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under the age or 18.

Read more, including a submission from prior PEN America Prison Writing Award Winner Elizabeth Hawes.

Calling On Cities to Support Writers

May 13, 2020

PEN America this week appealed to the Los Angeles City Council to provide support for literary organizations in any upcoming funding decisions related to the COVID-19 recovery. In a letter sent to Council members Monday, PEN America and its allies insisted literary organizations be specifically represented in any efforts to revitalize the larger arts community in the city.

The good folks at the Los Angeles Times picked up the story and explored all the PEN America is doing amid the pandemic. Our Michelle Franke said:

“The need is just unprecedented right now, so to the extent that organizations, backed by the city, can be thinking about creating meaningful pathways for people to not just survive but to ultimately thrive in some kind of future, I think that’s the work we should be doing right now.”

Why Fish Don’t Exist

May 13, 2020

Today on The PEN Pod, we are joined by writer and reporter Lulu Miller. Lulu is the co-founder of NPR’s Invisibilia. In her debut book, Why Fish Don’t Exist, she recounts the story of turn-of-the-century scientist and taxonomist David Starr Jordan, who was credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day, despite cataclysmic setbacks, including the destruction of his specimen collections in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

We spoke with Lulu about her book and its particular relevance in this moment across the globe, the importance of resilience, and how to remain optimistic in the face of adversity.

“The book really does look at resilience, and what becomes of you when you are optimistic in the face of unthinkable tragedy, failure, and destruction. On one hand, I wondered, ‘Does that lead you into danger?’ We hear of Icarus, time and time again — hubris is dangerous. But then at the same time, we get this cultural message that grit and perseverance is the stuff of heroes.”

You can listen to our full episode here:

Negotiating the Zoom Classroom

May 12, 2020

It’s been nearly two months since most of the nation’s university and college campuses shut down, which means the spring semester has been mostly been taking place in the virtual space. Our campus free speech team, rather than going to conferences and campuses, has been taking to webinars to brief professors and administrators on how to protect and promote free expression in the online classroom.

On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we talk to the campus speech project’s director Jonathan Friedman about the virtues and perils of bringing the classroom online, and how faculty, students, and their family members are coping. Take a listen.

A Hungarian Tale

May 11, 2020

Hungarian author and screenwriter János Székely was born right at the turn of the century, enduring one of the most challenging times in European history. His masterwork is his 1949 autobiographical novel Temptation, which has only just now appeared in English translation.

Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke to the work’s translator, Hungarian-British scholar Mark Baczoni, on this unusual, epic novel that explores the prewar period in central Europe. And without being too glib, he discusses key parallels between our time and Székely’s, as well as how translation and the need for translation has become all the more acute.

Take a listen:

Social Media Platforms on Defense, Plus How Global PEN Centers Are Coping

May 8, 2020

This week, Facebook and Twitter both unveiled new initiatives that could impact how those platforms impact free speech and free expression. Facebook launched the leadership of their new oversight board. The board is designed to provide some kind of check on Facebook’s decisions about the content that it either takes down or leaves up.

But is this a step in the right direction or just Facebook trying to dodge accountability and police itself? We put that question to our CEO Suzanne Nossel in our weekly TOUGH QUESTIONS segment on The PEN Pod.

She also tussled with an experiment over at Twitter, where that platform is experimenting with a warning to folks who may be inciting online hate…but not outright banning them from posting harassing language.

It’s not mandatory that you heed that alert. You can ignore it, you can swat it away. I also think if people decide that they’d rather not see these alerts, that should be an option. You shouldn’t be forced to be confronted with this. But who doesn’t write the occasional email or perhaps social media post in a moment of anger or frustration, or a great joke comes to mind, but then you think the better of it?

Also on today’s edition: an interview with Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, who is also president of our peer PEN center in Ukraine. Take a listen:

Imprisoned Writers Confronting COVID-19

May 8, 2020

In just a few weeks, PEN America will be releasing a new look at how writers in particular are being persecuted globally. Among those facing unjust imprisonment, Bangladeshi photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol.

Bangladeshi photo journalist Kajol was arrested and charged Monday shortly after being “found” following a disappearance of 53 days. PEN America denounced his disappearance and arrest as a blatant attempt to muzzle criticism of the government, and demanded that Bangladeshi authorities immediately release Kajol and drop all charges against him.

We’ve also been calling attention to the case of Russian writer and historian Yury Dmitriev after a COVID-19 outbreak in his detention center. His appeal for release was rejected by a Russian court this week.

Sixty-four, Dmitriev has worked to uncover and document mass graves from the era of Stalinist purges. He was first arrested in 2016 on charges of sexual misconduct involving children–a charge the Russian government has used before to discredit those it wishes to silence–and acquitted in 2018. That acquittal was overturned just two months later, and new charges were brought against him for which he faces up to 20 years in prison; he remains in pre-trial detention.

Claiming Ourselves Through Language, Plus Bookstores Around the Country

May 7, 2020

Today on The PEN Pod, we are joined by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated filmmaker. A leading voice on human rights and immigration, Jose is the author of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, co-founder of the nonprofit media and culture organization Define American, and co-producer of the hit play What the Constitution Means to Me.

We spoke with Jose about how the pandemic is impacting immigrants in the United States and around the globe, as well as the unique freedom that is inherent in writing.

Also today, we unveil another installment of our series on how local bookstores are weathering the shutdown and the economic strains of our current moment. In this installment, we profile shops in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.

The PEN World Voices Festival is BACK

May 7, 2020

Today PEN America launches the digital version of its 2020 PEN World Voices Festival. The PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature traditionally brings hundreds of writers from around the world to New York and Los Angeles each spring, drawing audiences of thousands to book talks, readings, and lectures.

With those in-person events now impossible to convene, PEN America has turned its efforts online, curating an ongoing digital version of the Festival that includes a suite of podcasts, videos, interviews, and musical playlists, with live events and other features to roll out over the coming weeks.

Among the many incredible features: a new weekly podcast called THESE TRUTHS, a writing workshop video series called PEN TO PAPER, a glimpse into the non-writerly lives of writers through a series called WRITERS IN RESIDENCE.

We’ll be rolling out new content each and every week. Stay tuned!

Charles Yu on Stereotypes, Plus a New Reading List

May 6, 2020

Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Charles Yu, author of four books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by TIME Magazine. He received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, and was nominated for two Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the HBO series, Westworld.

His latest book, Interior Chinatown, was released earlier this year. We spoke with Charles about writing about stereotypes and TV tropes in his new novel, how to revisit what we consider “real” in the time of the pandemic, and the power — and pitfalls — of our imaginations.

Also today, PEN America releases a new reading list uplifting Asian American voices for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month:

Risks to Civil Liberties Across Russia, Eurasia

May 6, 2020

While PEN America has been focused on threats to free expression globally under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis, our Polina Sadovskaya has been paying close attention to Russia and the other former Soviet republics. She monitors that region on behalf of our organization, and has just published (alongside Veronika Pfeilschifter) a new piece offering an overview of the vastly differing responses across the region.

In particular, she highlights the specific threat journalists reporting on the crisis have faced. In Russia, she reports that radio stations and news sites have been compelled to pull articles about the outbreak, while other journalists have been questioned about their sources.

Most notably, in Chechnya, journalists at Novaya Gazeta were threatened by the head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, after one of their journalists, Elena Milashina, published articles about the outbreak of the virus. She’s repeatedly been targeted and assaulted for her reporting.

Polina offers up her analysis on today’s edition of The PEN Pod.

An American Life In Italy

May 5, 2020

In 2020, the Italian city Parma was meant to be celebrated as the country’s capital of culture. Of course the COVID-19 pandemic has upended any and all plans for the year, and the outbreak has been particularly acute in Italy.

But as the lockdowns are loosening slightly, today on The PEN Pod we talk to American author Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, who after living in some of the world’s biggest cities, finally settled in Parma. The Wisconsin native says she’s never lost her Midwestern accent, and her memoir Mother Tongue about her life in Italy has just bee republished.

She previews what life has been like under the Italian lockdown; how a country that has endured multiple hardships over the century is coping with this one; and how she’s found time to write and create and be productive…even with an hours-long line at the grocery store.

Also on today’s edition, we take a look at the Pulitzer Prize winners, announced yesterday. The roster includes a number of friends of PEN America. Take a listen:

Just Press Play: Oksana Zabuzhko

May 4, 2020

When Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko was a Fulbright Scholar, she wrote Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, a novel that caused the biggest literary scandal in Ukraine in decades upon its publication in 1996. Since then, it has been translated into 16 languages and recognized both as the calling card of the new Ukrainian literature and the “Bible of Ukrainian feminism.”

Her short story collection, Your Ad Could Go Here, was just released in English translation. For our weekly Just Press Play playlist series, she offers up a playlist of songs that line up with the book’s table of contents.

The full soundtrack would be quite voluminous. (In several stories, music plays an immediate part of the action; in one, the protagonist is a jazz singer who often quotes from her own repertoire.) As such, I have limited my selection to compositions that I have loyally turned to in quarantine, like close family and old friends.

Take a listen:

Thrillers in a Time of Crisis

May 4, 2020

At a moment when the world’s in crisis, diving into a good book is a treat. And diving into a series of good books can be a welcome distraction. On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we interviewed bestselling author Karin Slaughter. Her crime novels have sold millions of copies globally, and fans go wild for her Will Trent series of books.

Slaughter lives just down the road from the CDC, and in our interview talks about research she did there for a prior book, and how it’s helped form her take on the current pandemic. She’s also founder of Save the Libraries, a nonprofit that supports public libraries in the U.S.

Take a listen:

Unorthodox, Plus Some Tough Free Speech Questions

May 1, 2020

Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke to author Deborah Feldman, whose 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots documents her escape from an ultra religious Jewish community in Brooklyn. Now her story is the basis for a Netflix series by the same name.

In our interview, we discussed what life is like for people who are facing isolation and repression, especially at a moment when we’re all stuck inside. And she offers up a look at what’s on her bookshelf.

Also, we went over some tough questions about free speech with our CEO Suzanne Nossel for our weekly segment on tricky questions amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

This week, we talked about the responsibilities that digital platforms have to prevent online conspiracy theories from tipping into online harassment, the controversy around Michael Moore’s new documentary, and why PEN America is honoring local journalists this Sunday for World Press Freedom Day.

Limits on Government Data a Symptom of Crisis

May 1, 2020

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been warning about governments and officials using the crisis as cover for drastic moves to censor or otherwise withhold civil liberties.

To wit, in Florida, we saw a case emerge this week where medical examiners’ offices were reporting a fatality rate ten percent higher that state department of health figures. Thanks to the amazing reporting at The Tampa Bay Times, this story came to light, but since then, the state has been withholding critical information about the virus.

In our statement, we said that public access to government records should never be subject to political interference:

Accurate medical reporting is quite literally a matter of life and death during a pandemic, and the people of Florida deserve a clear picture of COVID-19 fatalities as the state considers plans to reopen. As is so often the case, it is thanks to dogged investigation by local journalists that these discrepancies have come to light. Now the government needs to uphold its end of the bargain and respect the public’s right to access this information.

A National Wakeup Call

May 1, 2020

This Sunday marks World Press Freedom Day, normally a moment for us to reflect on the work that journalists do worldwide to provide critical information. Right now, though, we believe it’s crucial to also honor those journalists working so hard here in the U.S. amid the pandemic.

As part of that efforts, we’ve been sending letters to state governors and other officials urging them to direct needed resources to local news outlets. Now, we’re asking our Members to play a role as well. Today, we sent a message to our 7,500 Members across the country to email their governors to make the same request.

Check out the link above to read more and to see how you can reach your state officials at this moment of crisis.

Critically Engaging With the World

April 30, 2020

On today’s edition of The PEN Pod, we speak to author and PEN America Trustee Dinaw Mengestu, author of three novels, all three named New York Times notable books. His most recent is All Our Names, and Dinaw teaches at Bard College.

In our interview, we talk about how Dinaw is working with his students right now, as well as the possibilities for writing and transcending borders amid a global lockdown.

Also on today’s episode, we speak to Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection. Usually her program is in the business of helping artists and other creative professionals around the world get the resources they need when their work is threatened.

Now, she and her team have taken that work a step further, assembling a group of ten organizations to creative a rapid-response network called Amani: Africa Creative Defence Network. This way, when an artist needs to link up with resources, that person can fill out one form and it gets to all ten organizations to coordinate.

Take a listen to the full episode:

Natural Prayer of the Human Soul

April 29, 2020

Today on The PEN Pod, the inimitable poet and activist Carolyn Forché. Carolyn was scheduled to read from In the Lateness of the World, her first new poetry collection in 17 years, at a PEN Presents event, which like many of our author events during this time, was unfortunately canceled. She spoke with us about the new collection, how poetry can take on new meanings in moments of extremity, and the power of collective experience.

She discussed how the book, of course written well before the pandemic, reflects the current moment:

I think the book is haunting, in a way. When I read through it again, after this pandemic began, I realized that somehow these poems had been written toward this for a long time. When I read them in light of the pandemic, they take on a different light. There’s a different tone; they seem to be speaking on their own, toward something that we are experiencing all over the world — all of us.

Listen to the full episode here:

Live From the Car’s Backseat: Brandon Shimoda

April 28, 2020

Okay, while the conversation wasn’t actually live, author Brandon Shimoda did record his podcast interview with us from the backseat of his car in Tuscon, mostly so his kid could sleep. This year, Brandon took home the 2020 PEN Open Book Award for his sweeping family saga The Grave on the Wall.

Part family history, part meditation on migration and movement, the book started with a photograph of Brandon’s grandfather.

The photograph really became a portal to the next, I don’t know, at least half a dozen years of my life — I was traveling to the places where my grandfather had spent time in his life, where he was born, where he grew up, where we scattered his ashes in Death Valley. I thought maybe I was writing a biography, but it turned out that biography was the thing that actually repelled me. What I was interested in was all of the shadows and silences that constituted the backside of his biography. That’s the book that ended up being the result of that process — what I would consider the backside of a biography of a person.

Take a listen to the full episode:

Looking to the States to Support Local Journalism

April 27, 2020

PEN America has been enlisting its members and friends to help support local journalism at a time of true crisis. We’re appealed to federal lawmakers, but this week, we turned to the nation’s governors and demanded that they include emergency funding for local news in their coronavirus relief efforts.

Our Nora Benavidez says:

Over the past two weeks, in the face of plummeting ad revenue, dozens of local publications across the country — from the largest chains to successful nonprofit and community outlets to tribal media and family-owned newspapers — have furloughed or laid off their reporters, reduced their publication frequency, or dropped their print editions altogether. In an industry that employs more than 80,000 people nationwide, many outlets are now struggling to cover even half of their reporters’ salaries, with newsroom layoffs increasing across the country.

A King of Warsaw Shares His Picks

April 27, 2020

While we were excited to welcome novelist Polish novelist Szczepan Twardoch to the now-canceled World Voices Festival, we are delighted to let you listen to the music that inspires his work.

As part of our Just Press Play series, Twardoch shares some of his favorite jams. His novel The King if Warsaw debuted this month.

This playlist is as eclectic as my needs and musical taste. I’ve lined it up so that it somehow reflects my daily schedule: starting with the music I often listen to while working, Swans and electro; afterwards, Polish rap, Johnny Cash, RATM, and Rammstein, in which I find emotions that somehow correspond with emotions that can be found in my novels; and later on, time for quietness and reflection. Enjoy.

Anti-Muslim Sentiment in The Royal Abduls

April 27, 2020

Debut author Ramiza Koya has been active in the literary scene in Portland, and while for years she pursued a number of writing projects, this year she’s out with her first novel The Royal Abduls.

It’s a story of an Indian-American-Muslim family in the post-9/11 era, and the struggles for acceptance in a country split sharply on racial and religious lines. Koya talks about how she hopes others might read her book, but also about her own struggle with cancer and how her community in Portland has rallied around her.

Take a listen:

Kids’ Reads for the Quarantine

April 24, 2020

With so much put on hold — including going to school, playing with friends, after-school activities, visits with grandparents, and even weekly trips to the library; not to mention the fear of catching a scary disease that is transmitted in invisible ways — the COVID-19 crisis has upended children’s lives.

Families reading books together can create a sense of comfort and perspective, whether it involves re-reading family favorites or taking a fresh look at some of the books on this list, compiled by members of the PEN Children’s and Young Adult Book Authors Committee. These books describe upended lives, resiliency, and stories of children and others who rise above. In addition, there’s a new book here that’s available for free online and presents facts about the coronavirus in a child-friendly way.

Poetry and Beauty, Plus Tough Questions With Suzanne Nossel

April 24, 2020

Poet Rigoberto Gonzalez earlier this year was granted the 2020 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, just weeks before the pandemic set in. We caught up with him amid the lockdown to discuss the arc of his poetry, how his family history informs his work, and the ability to find beauty amid a crisis.

Also on today’s edition of The PEN Pod, our weekly segment “Tough Questions” with our CEO Suzanne Nossel. We discussed the reaction to Facebook’s decision to pull posts related to lockdown protests; a State Department report on how Iran, Russia, and China are pushing falsehoods about the virus; and paywalls and local journalism.

Take a listen:

The Paris Review Shifts Into Isolation Mode

April 23, 2020

Emily Nemens came to The Paris Review as editor in 2018, charged with revising the magazine for the current moment. Less than two years later, she and her team are managing how to keep a magazine running and its contributors busy amid a global pandemic.

We spoke to Nemens about her work as editor and about her new novel The Cactus League, published earlier this year.

A Scientist is Fired for Truth Telling

April 23, 2020

This week, the White House removed Rick Bright as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and as he deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response. He was given a narrower job at the National Institutes of Health.

Bright alleges that he was dismissed for his insistence that the government scrutinize hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug embraced by President Trump as a COVID-19 treatment.

Our Washington director Thomas O. Melia wrote on Medium:

The president’s insistence on false narratives and snake oil cures may well have claimed lives. Unable to tweet the virus into submission, he’s turned his sights on the very scientists and experts who should be leading the way right now.

Read his entire piece here:

Green Card Decision Reflects Disregard, Disgust for International Voices

April 22, 2020

It’s become perhaps too routine to lament the president’s use of the coronavirus crisis to assert an anti-immigrant agenda. And last night, after much fanfare and confusion, the president announced a suspension of green card issuances for 60 days.

While the country is already effectively closed to immigration as a result of the pandemic, it’s yet another blow against the movement of people but also, as our Julie Trebault says, against the exchange of cultures and ideas.

This decision demonstrates a disturbing disregard and, frankly, disgust for international voices and cultures in American society. Without a doubt, the Trump administration has exploited the COVID-19 pandemic, using it as cover to quietly act on the president’s personal and hardline, anti-immigrant agenda. Keeping people out of the United States will not solve this pandemic; instead of looking to science and sound policy, Trump is sending a clear message to the world that smacks of un-Americanism: You’re not welcome here.

Read our full statement.

Belonging in the World

April 22, 2020

Last year, writer Mimi Lok debuted her first short story collection Last of Her Name, and in March, a group of judges awarded her the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. The judges wrote that the stories were not only darkly comic but necessary.

In these pages, we find fractals. The microscopic contains the macro. The collection ranges all over our globe while distilling breathtaking, tiny moments of tremendous significance. Whether we are with estranged siblings over a meal to try to talk, or moving back and forth in time to unearth one family’s personal history, or in the closet with an elderly homeless woman listening in on a younger man’s affluent life, we are moving constantly between different strata.

On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we talked about how the pandemic is reshaping literary life right now and how the connections forged in the pages of her book mirror the connections we make amid the pandemic. She also discussed her work as executive director of Voice of Witness, a nonprofit oral history project.

Take a listen.

Risotto and the Grand Canyon; Plus Small Publishers and the Pandemic

April 22, 2020

In the second installment of our Writers Who Cook series, author Malie Meloy brings us into her kitchen where working through the fresh ingredients always comes first. She writes that her boss at her first real job taught her how to make risotto. “She said it was easy and forgiving; it’s all about stirring.”

Check out her full recipe here:

Also, while we’ve focused a lot on the plight of writers at this time, small publishers have their own unique set of challenges as the economy grinds to a halt. Our LA executive director Michelle Franke spoke to Dan Smetanka, vice president and editor-in-chief of Counterpoint Press, one of the country’s largest independent publishers, about how they’re coping.

Media and readers will most likely be very forgiving with changing publication dates as we all try to navigate this new terrain. But let’s all agree now that we’re only giving books as gifts this holiday season.

Exploring Post-Pandemic Fiction and Reality; Elevating Local Journalism

April 21, 2020

In today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we talked to Emily St. John Mandel, the author of five novels, including most recently The Glass Hotel and Station Eleven. Station Eleven, a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, also won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award, among other honors, and has been translated into 33 languages.

We spoke with Emily about the comparisons many readers have made between Station Eleven, which takes place in the aftermath of a fictional swine flu pandemic, and our current moment; what inspired her new book; and her writing process.

Also on today’s episode, we speak to PEN America’s Katie Zanecchia about the rollout of our initiative to elevate local journalists amid the pandemic. As part of the lead-up to World Press Freedom Day, we’re profiling journalists doing life-or-death work to report on the crisis, and we’re asking for your nominations for reporters doing this critical work.

Visit the page above to see what you can do to support local journalism right now. And take a moment to sign our petition calling on Congress to support local accountability reporting.

Take a listen to today’s episode:

Hong Kong Arrests Activists Amid COVID-19 Distraction

April 20, 2020

The threat to civil liberties and free expression right now is acute, as governments exploit a global pandemic to lash out against critics. In Hong Kong over the weekend, authorities arrested 15 prominent figures of the city’s pro-democracy movement.

We issued a statement Monday calling on authorities to stand down in their campaign against pro-democracy activists. Our Summer Lopez said the arrests are an example of Hong Kong using crisis to silence critics.

One would think authorities would have learned by now that retaliating against people for protesting only drives greater public grievances and strengthens the resolve to defend democracy in Hong Kong. The world is still watching, and we call on Hong Kong authorities to drop these politically motivated charges and respect the right of the people of Hong Kong to speak their minds.

Read our full statement here:

Just Press Play: Tommy Pico

April 20, 2020

For our weekly World Voices Festival digital series Just Press Play, we bring you a playlist from Whiting Award winning author of IRL and co-host of the pdocast “Food 4 Thot” Tommy Pico. Not only can you listen to his playlist, you can also check out his commentary on each track.

For Lorde’s “Buzzcut Season,” he writes: “I’m gonna be real: I haven’t had a haircut since November, and I am starting to look mangy. I was going to get a fresh cut right before my spring tour, but with all of my dates canceled and the shop closed, it looks like it might be awhile before I get a good snipping. Looks like it’s buzzcut season, friends!”

Listen hear for his selections:

Science Fiction and Our New Reality

April 20, 2020

Bestselling author N.K. Jemison is the first writer to win three consecutive best novel Hugo Awards for her sci-fi trilogy Broken Earth. She came on The PEN Pod today to discuss her new book, The City We Became, which kicks off a series of books she’ll be writing focused on urban centers.

In her latest work, she contends with imagined worlds but also the very real-life problems of social stratification and gentrification.

What I’m hearing from people is that they’re reading it as some kind of metaphor for the current moment, for the pandemic. But the book was written almost two years ago, given the vagaries of the publishing world. So obviously I wasn’t thinking about a global pandemic at the time. I was thinking about a sort of slower motion, systematized destruction that I’ve been seeing happen in a lot of cities — not just in the United States, but around the world, and that was what I was speaking to.

Take a listen:

Putting Pressure on Congress

April 17, 2020

PEN America’s already been putting pressure on members of Congress to support local news amid the pandemic (look for a major local news initiative from us starting Monday). But we’ve also joined a number of other groups to ensure the arts, humanities, and literary sectors receive the financial support they need to weather this crisis.

Today we joined some 40 other organizations calling for relief that will “sustain the arts sector’s unique capacity to support the U.S. economy, uplift the human spirit, and provide lifelong learning.”

Keeping Company

April 17, 2020

While most folks are focusing on their sourdough recipies, we at PEN America are working with our friends and authors to provide a few other ways to keep yourself distracted while you’re stuck at home. Each week we’ve published select reading lists bringing you some of the best in literature from some amazing voices.

Since it’s national poetry month, we asked writer and translator Forrest Gander to write an intro for this week’s reading list, a selection of collections from the 2020 PEN America Award for Poetry in Translation.

Yes, it was Nezahualcóyotl, the poet-philosopher-ruler of the Nahuan people in pre-Columbian Mexico, who warned us that “like a cape made from the feathers of a zacuan, / that rare, rubbernecked bird, / we start to come apart / the moment we leave the house.” But housebound as so many of us are now — and inside a reality that seems filled entirely with the feeling of unreality, like an ocean filled with withdrawal — I wonder if some of us can stake claim to this moment as an opportunity for restoration. It’s a rich time for traveling across borders in our minds, for taking literary translations as our field guides, for tapping into imaginations that expand our experience of what it means to be human, among others, connected by a common plight. As we always have been, even when we didn’t notice. Now we might ask translation to bring us closer.

Okay, and we also couldn’t resist getting authors in their kitchens, or at least see what’s keeping their bodies and souls nourished while stuck mostly indoors. Author of Black Card Chris L. Terry introduced us to his lentil soup and the backstory behind it. Plus, don’t miss the photo credit from his five year old son.

Screenwriters Are Hurting; Plus Tough Questions With Our CEO

April 17, 2020

Like so many industries, writers have taken a major hit as the economy has hit the skids. Screenwriters in the entertainment industry face a unique moment of uncertainty, as television and film and digital projects often require groups of people to be in the same place to produce, but it doesn’t stop writers from putting pen to paper.

To dissect all the ways this crisis is affecting Hollywood, we turned to founder of The Black List and film entrepreneur Franklin Leonard (who also happens to be a PEN America trustee). He’s also been outspoken about the industry’s lack of diversity, and discussed the challenges facing the entertainment business even before the pandemic. But he’s also optimistic that the world could change for the better.

I think that there is going to be an explosion of brilliant art that comes from people, in all art forms, responding to this lived moment. And I just hope to be around long enough to see it, is my attitude, and to be a part of the process and part of the systems that make it more likely that those things can be brought to the public and that the creators can be well-compensated for that work.

Also on Friday’s episode, our weekly Tough Questions with PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. This week, we cover the Trump administration’s ongoing press briefings, Liberty University issuing a warrant against two journalists, and concerns over surveillance amid the pandemic.

I always think back to this famous Rahm Emanuel phase, ‘Never waste a crisis’ — it’s sort of the idea that in crisis, there lies opportunity. We have seen governments and private businesses seizing the opportunity of the COVID crisis to advance goals that they’ve had for a long time.

Zoombombing Is New. The Techniques Aren’t.

April 16, 2020

Our campus speech program, rather than going dormant as campuses have shuttered, has turned its attentions online. Through a series of training seminars and workshops, that team continues to inform the conversation around threats to free speech, especially as they manifest in the virtual classroom.

One focus of these seminars has been the threat of Zoombombing, or harassers crashing webinars and spewing hate or offensives images. Our Jonathan Friedman writes on Medium that such attacks might be new, but it has its legacy in the unfortunate reality of online hate and harassment. He writes:

Zoomboming has its antecedent in abusive online tactics that have metastasized in recent years, with individuals subjected to sexual harassment, doxing, or having their emails flooded with gruesome imagery and threats. There can be little denying that professors, administrators, and students have been favorite targets for such invective. Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community have been targeted disproportionately.

Read his whole article here:

Iranian Author Ali Araghi on Uncertainty and Translation

April 16, 2020

Ali Araghi is the author of the novel The Immortals of Tehran and the founding editor of the online literary journal PARAGRAPHITI. Currently, Ali is a PhD student in comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis, and alongside his second novel, he’s also working on Persian, Translated, a database of Persian literature translated into English.

He joined The PEN Pod to talk about his new novel, as well as his perspective on the shutdown and the health crisis we’re all enduring.

Take a listen:

Defending Access to Literature Behind Bars

April 16, 2020

E-readers offered the promise of expanding access to literature, news, and information to people incarcerated in the nation’s prisons and jails. But unfortunately, the private companies that provide these digital devices often levy exorbitant pay-per-minute access fees.

In a coalition letter, PEN America today called on the CEOs of the two main companies that provide these e-readers to waive all access fees for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. Our James Tager said:

As prisons across the country go on lockdown in response to the coronavirus, incarcerated people are more isolated and alone than ever during a time of national anxiety and uncertainty. Tablets offer a needed access point for news, books, and other information that provides knowledge, comfort, and connection.

James also joined The PEN Pod today to talk about the letter. Take a listen:

Bernardine Evaristo on the Emergence of Characters

April 15, 2020

On today’s edition of The PEN Pod, Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo joined us to talk about the COVID-19 crisis in London, how she crafted the characters in her latest novel Girl, Woman, Other, and rediscovering literature at a time of crisis.

I find reading almost like meditation. For many years, when I got my first Apple computer, actually, it’s just so huge — 24-inch screen, and so sexy and glorious and colors and great internet connection — the first thing I did every morning was to go on there and scroll through and scan social media, the news, and so on and so forth. At some point, I realized I’d lost something. And actually, when I begin the day reading a book, before I look at the news, before I check my Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, all those things, I find it sort of settles me. And I find it incredibly peaceful and enriching.

Also on today’s podcast, Washington Post media journalist Paul Farhi discusses the role of the press and how reporters are coping with the circus of Trump’s press briefings.

Take a listen to the whole episode here:

An Even More Outrageous Press Conference

April 14, 2020

While he’s since somewhat walked back his comments, President Trump used a Monday press conference to assert (nonexistent) absolute authority over state governments in his efforts to restart the economy. Our Thomas O. Melia, a former State Department official, wrote on Medium that it was yet another installment of a continuing spectacle of tirades against the press and personal grievance.

Tom also wrote about the president’s use of White House staff to produce and effectively underwrite a propaganda video seeking to rebut reports about his widely failed efforts to take timely steps to control the coronavirus.

These lengthy pity parties, in which the president of the United States provides virtually no useful information to the public about how they can protect their families from COVID-19, have become increasingly counter-factual. Mr. Trump’s breathtaking ignorance about the Constitution and how our government works at any level means that he constantly presents false information live on national television.

Read more about our lawsuit against President Trump here.

Burma Detains Street Artists

April 14, 2020

Three Burmese street artists were arrested for painting a mural that Myanmar authorities said was “insulting to religion.” They were detained under the country’s draconian article 295A, which criminalizes speech that “insults or attempts to insult” religion or religious beliefs.

One of the arrested artists in front of the mural in question.

The mural appeals to Burmese citizens to stay home amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hardline Buddhist activist alleged that the figure of the Grim Reaper on the right resembled a Buddhist monk. The charges against the artists can carry a two-year sentence.

Our Artists at Risk Connection project director Julie Trebault said that their arrest exemplifies how laws that punish peaceful speech can have abusive consequences:

These artists are being censored and criminalized for posting a public health message, and authorities are allowing the law to be used as a de facto religious veto over public art. Laws like Article 295A are frequently used to silence speech that is of legitimate public concern. That is exactly what is happening here. These laws should be immediately amended or repealed to align with international guarantees of free expression, and the charges against Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai, and Naw Htun Aung should be dropped.

Read our full statement:

COVID-19 and Mass Incarceration

April 14, 2020

On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we take a deeper look at how the pandemic is playing out in the nation’s prisons and jails. First, we discuss current conditions with Caits Meisser, who leads PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program. We talk about what writers on the inside are facing and about her team’s new weekly newsletter series, Temperature Check.

Then, we turn to investigative reporter Beth Shelburne. Based in Alabama, she covers one of the most over-capacity prison systems in the nation. She talks about the crisis on the inside but also the challenges she faces as a reporter in covering conditions of confinement.

Finally, we hear from one of our writers who’s serving time in a prison in Michigan. Justin Rovillos Monson shares his original poem, “Lockdown Language in a World that Does Not Yet Understand the Total Logic of the Cage.”

Missouri Governor Bans Reporters From Daily Briefing

April 14, 2020

Missouri’s Governor Mike Parson has taken social distancing precautions to an extreme, banning reporters from even attending daily press briefings. Rather than enforcing distance among journalists, the governor’s office requires reporters to email questions in advance, and they are in turn vetted by the governor’s staff.

It’s an obvious move to block transparency and press access at a time when it couldn’t be more important. And what’s more, emailing questions halts one of the most critical tools in a reporter’s arsenal: the follow-up, which every politician dreads but to which every member of the public is entitled. Our Nora Benavidez said:

We urge the governor to reverse these new press briefing restrictions. Other state leaders across the country have managed to carry out regular briefings in a manner that ensures public safety without compromising press freedom. There is no excuse for actions that limit Missourians’ access to information in this critical moment.

Read our full statement here:

Don’t Let Leaders Use Coronavirus As an Excuse to Violate Civil Liberties

April 13, 2020

Following the mantra to never let a crisis go to waste, world leaders have been using this period of uncertainty and alarm to crack down on free expression and free speech. In her latest Foreign Policy piece, our CEO Suzanne Nossel writes that around the world, we have the be vigilant to the threats posed by leaders who would hijack crisis to burnish their own images or preserve power.

Suzanne highlights how governments around the world have cracked down, and adds that here in the U.S. the president repeatedly uses the bully pulpit “to tout unproven treatments, downplay the severity of the crisis, and spread falsehoods…[H]is relentless propaganda nonetheless drags down public discourse and makes it impossible for citizens to know what to believe.”

The current conduct of governments could have lasting ramifications. As the immediate crisis (hopefully) subsides and attention turns to restarting the economy, there is no guarantee that public or political pressure will be powerful enough to ensure that pandemic-driven crackdowns on civil liberties don’t outlast the contagion. Moreover, there is a risk that aspects of the battle against COVID-19 become a new “forever war,” with privacy violations and censorship becoming semipermanent on the grounds that the virus, and its inevitable successors, can never be fully vanquished.

Read the full article at Foreign Policy’s website.

A World Apart, Censorship Rears Its Head

April 13, 2020

On Monday, two egregious attacks on free speech and the freedom of the press came to light for us at PEN America. One was here in the U.S., where President Trump’s re-election campaign sued a Wisconsin NBC affiliate after they aired an ad critical of the president’s coronavirus response.

In India, late last week authorities drove hours to serve notice to the founding editor of India’s The Wire news website, who faces a criminal complaint for his outlet’s coverage of a state government minister who attended a public religious gathering in contravention of India’s social distancing rules.

In both cases, governments appeared to be papering over their own lackluster responses to the crisis by lashing out at the press and the media. On both accounts, we say the criminal charges and the lawsuit are frivolous and should be rejected outright.

Mapping Out the Virus With Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

April 13, 2020

Health professionals are obviously playing a heroic role amid the coronavirus pandemic. And increasingly, doctors who are also writers are helping interpret disease and the pandemic to all of us.

Dr. Judy Melinek is a medical examiner, and in 2015, she penned her memoir Working Stiff alongside her co-author and spouse T.J. Mitchell. Recently they’ve switched over to novels, with their debut First Cut. We caught up with Judy and T.J. to talk about the outbreak, writing as a married couple, and facing their own quarantine.

What Professors Need to Know About Online Hate

April 10, 2020

Across the country, teachers and professors are making the difficult transition to teaching students online. Already a hotbed for questions over free speech and free inquiry, universities and colleges are now having to confront similar questions in the virtual space.

As part of a weekly webinar series, our campus free speech program this week hosted an online conversation about online attacks and abuse and what higher education professionals need to know about the phenomenon.

PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman and Viktorya Vilk joined Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League and Cynthia Miller-Idriss of American University to detail how threats of online hate and harassment can proliferate in different ways online. Watch the entire webinar here:

Local Bookshops and How You Can Support Them

April 10, 2020

From Tulsa to Denver to points in between, PEN America engages with Members across the country, and one of our favorite places to convene: the bookstore. Obviously bookshops nationwide are hurting right now with shelter-in-place orders and the closure of non-essential businesses.

We’re reaching out to bookstores across the country, normally hubs of literary life, how readers can support their favorite shops. And they’ve come up with lots of creative ways, from virtual book clubs to wine pairings to curated reading lists for when you can’t stand the look of your spouse/dog/roommate.

Our first installment in this “Bookstores Across America” series brings you some insights and messages from Birmingham, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Detroit. We’ll have more regions and bookstores featured each week.

Just Press Play With Your Favorite Authors

April 10, 2020

In the coming days and weeks, you’ll be hearing more from our World Voices Festival team. While we couldn’t bring you all the amazing speakers that we were planning on this May, we’re going to rolling out tons of great content to keep you company during these uncertain times.

First up: a new musical series we’re calling Just Press Play. We’re asking some of our authors to bring us the soundtrack of their writing lives. The playlists are meant to remind all of us that music, much like books, can connect us across distances.

Today, we have a playlist from Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans, a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction.

Stay tuned for all our playlists, coming at you each week over at PEN.org.

A Debut Novel, Plus Some Tough Questions

April 10, 2020

On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we talked to Ruchika Tomar. She’s the 2020 recipient of the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut novel, which she won for her book A Prayer for Travelers. Our judges referred to Ruchika as an exquisite writer, saying her book is “marked by a deft and deeply rendered sense of place.” We spoke with her about the pressures that the pandemic has put on vulnerable and at-risk populations, what writing can offer in this moment, and what books she’s turning to now.

Also on today’s episode, the second installment of our Tough Questions segment, where we put tricky questions about free speech and free expression to our CEO Suzanne Nossel. This week, she fielded questions about Diamond and Silk being booted from Twitter; while public subsidies for local news might save democracy; and how scientists are being muzzled by the White House.

As always, we want to hear from you. Send us your reactions, your tough questions, or just your current favorite read. Tag us #thePENpod or leave us a voicemail. Here’s all of Friday’s episode.

Puerto Rico’s Disinformation Misstep

April 9, 2020

Governments around the world are taking drastic steps to contain the coronavirus. As part of our ongoing work, we’re keeping watch on where those measures might cross a line that violates free speech and free expression.

Case in point: a new decree from the governor of Puerto Rico threatening to criminalize the spread of disinformation. Our Nora Benavidez responded:

Criminalizing the spreading of false information, on social media or in the press, is a clear violation of First Amendment protections. Right now we need unfettered access to reporting, not government efforts that will silence the public and the media by imposing sanctions. It is critical to preserve space for the public to discuss and debate policy responses to the pandemic, and journalists in particular should not have to worry about the risk of government retaliation for their reporting, especially in such a fluid news environment. Even if this measure is intended to target those deliberately spreading false information about the pandemic, it risks creating the conditions for a crackdown on speech.

Read our whole press release here:

Experiencing COVID-19 Inside America’s Prisons

April 9, 2020

Our Prison and Justice Writing team continues their weekly email series, this time with an edition featuring new poems from fellow Justin Rovillos Monson, who will join our own Caits Meissner for a live virtual conversation.

This week’s edition also includes a writing prompt about remixing a book, and the latest episode of our Works of Justice podcast, featuring an interview with The Appeal’s Josie Duffy Rice.

Read more:

In This Together?

April 9, 2020

For today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we spoke with poet and novelist M. NourbeSe Philip, winner of this year’s PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. Based in Toronto, she shared her thoughts on the transformative power of poetry and the interconnectedness of the literary community.

She discussed her recent piece “Covidian Catastrophes,” where she discussed colonial powers and their disruption to ways of life globally. She highlighted that we’re seeing a similar kind of havoc now. She also shared an original poem for our listeners. You can read it on our website and listen here to the whole episode:

PEN America Leads Coalition Calling for Local News Relief Package

April 8, 2020

As we’ve said in the Washington Post, Slate, and elsewhere, local news right now needs a lifeline. Already under significant economic pressures, the coronavirus outbreak has made a bad situation worse. On top of that, journalists are performing life-or-death work reporting critical stories at a moment of national crisis.

Today, alongside some 50 other organizations, PEN America sent a letter to Congressional leadership demanding that any future stimulus bill include funding for local journalism.

The letter highlights the fact that national outlets can’t substitute for rigorous, on-the-ground local reporting, and that without it, our health and our democracy suffer.

“Local news outlets, ranging from state- to city- and community-level media organizations, are necessary partners in meeting the critical information needs of people in the United States,” the letter reads. “Americans cannot endure an accelerated decline in access to vital information. And like other adversely affected sectors of the economy, local news cannot withstand the hardships of COVID-19 and the worsening economic crisis without federal support. We’re calling on you to include the journalism sector in the congressional assistance packages revitalizing affected industries and sustaining workers across our nation.”

Read the full letter here:

Staying Connected, Reading War and Peace

April 8, 2020

While it feels like ages ago, just last month, author Yiyun Li took home PEN America’s PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for her lyrical novel Where Reasons End. After the COVID-19 outbreak, Li decided to pour some of her seemingly-boundless energy into a virtual book club called #TolstoyTogether.

Today, on The PEN Pod, she spoke about why she chose such a heavy tome, and also about her writing, how she stays connected, and her background in immunology:

For me, I feel that I have to go to the original research by Chinese, American, English, and British scientists and see those data. I don’t want those data to be interpreted for me. So in that sense, I think my research background was helpful. Also, I feel like there’s just less agitation in me. I think to treat this thing, one has to have common sense, and one cannot panic. I think those are the two things I want to stay with.

Take a listen to the full interview, and also in this episode, how governments and public agencies are masking normally public information:

How Coronavirus Is Changing Literary Culture

April 7, 2020

Since 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan has served on the PEN America board and has in recent years led the organization as president alongside our CEO Suzanne Nossel.

She’s been an incredible steward of the organization, and in today’s episode of The PEN Pod, she discusses her own recent struggle with a suspected case of COVID-19. She’s fortunately on the path to recovery, and in this episode talks about her own brush with the virus but also its broader impact on readers and writers, especially those with publication dates on the horizon.

The thing that’s so tricky about writing books is that it takes an incredibly long time — it’s years of one’s life, generally. And then you really have a couple of months in which to try to make something happen in the culture — through, often, live events — and those are a really important part of the process, which I’ve really come to rely on as closing the circle of solitude in which the writing happens to connect with readers and have the experience of reading aloud, getting feedback. All of that is now gone.

And yet, she brings a note of optimism, expressing hope that like the postwar period, the United States could undergo transformative change as a result of crisis (Egan extensively researched the mid-century wartime period for her latest novel, Manhattan Beach).

My hope for this moment is that we too come out of this with some pretty radical changes to our lives. I’d love to see a different notion of what value is, that doesn’t specifically mean monetary value. There are all kinds of value in our culture. We’re really seeing that.

Take a listen to the entire episode:

Being More Present in the Moment

April 6, 2020

David L. Ulin was the book critic for The Los Angeles Times for many years, so he’s quite used to being asked what people should be reading right now. When it comes to the coronavirus outbreak, he says that folks should focus on the books they’ve always wanted to read rather than listening to what other people have to say.

On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, David also discusses reading books specifically about outbreaks as part of better understanding how this isn’t the first time humanity has faced a global pandemic.

In fact, until fairly recently in human history, it was a pretty regular occurrence. I want to be aware of that sense that we want to have the expectation of survival, but we’re always living under the shadow of our own mortality, and somehow, maybe if we’re lucky in those moments where we can step outside of the dread, it allows us to kind of be more present in the moment.

He also discusses how the literary community, as a group of communicators by nature, may be among those groups best prepared to weather the current crisis.

Also on today’s edition, we talk about PEN America’s newest reading list. This time, it’s a roundup of newly-published books from authors who would’ve taken part in our annual World Voices Festival this spring in New York and Los Angeles. Since we can’t meet in person, we figured we’d bring some of their books to you.

Take a listen:

Healthy Skepticism for Russia’s COVID-19 Surveillance Measures

April 3, 2020

Russia has joined the ranks of countries implementing new technologies to purportedly monitor compliance with coronavirus lockdowns. Russian authorities in Nizhny Novgorod, a region some 250 miles east of Moscow, have reportedly introduced a QR code-based system, via an online app, to track the movement of citizens who need to leave their homes during the city’s lockdown. Similar measures are being planned for Moscow.

PEN America’s Eurasia director Polina Sadovskaya said such efforts come as Russia has failed to take serious measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Instead, it has resorted to silencing voices who are reporting on the coronavirus outbreak truthfully.

In the context of a Russian regime that constantly seeks greater control over its people, the introduction of new surveillance measures that enable authorities to track an individual’s location should raise alarm bells. Any measures that are deemed necessary for public health reasons need to also prioritize citizens’ privacy and include safeguards to prevent the tools from being abused.

Read our full statement:

Crisis Aboard a U.S. Vessel, Questions Over Punishing Speech

April 3, 2020

A huge crowd cheered farewell to Capt. Brett Crozier, relieved of his command of the aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt for speaking out about an outbreak of coronavirus aboard his ship. Hundreds we seen on the boat’s hangar deck chanting Capt. Crozier’s name.

Crozier’s letter to military leadership leaked Tuesday; in it he warned that his sailors faced the risk of death if the Pentagon didn’t take immediate action. He was relieved of duty Thursday. As of Friday afternoon, more than 100,000 have signed an online petition calling for his reinstatement.

PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel objected to the move by the U.S. Navy, saying that while we understand the need for discipline, this dismissal should be disturbing for anyone who values the First Amendment.

Speaking out earnestly on a grave matter of health and safety for the sailors under his command in the midst of a life-threatening pandemic was an act of conscience and compassion. To be penalized for that is shameful. The navy’s action today demonstrates that this administration’s ‘shoot the messenger’ approach to handling its own failings has now taken hold in the U.S. military as well. Our leaders have lost sight of the fact that there are values higher in this country than the preservation of their reputations.

Click below to read PEN America’s full statement:

Time For Tough Questions

April 3, 2020

Obviously the podcasting game is a bit new to us here at PEN America, but we’ve been brainstorming ways to make it most relevant and illuminating for you, our audience.

To wit, today we’re launching a weekly segment on The PEN Pod called Tough Questions. The idea’s pretty simple. We’ll review the news of the week, see where there have been tricky situations around free speech or free expression, and then we’ll put those questions to our CEO Suzanne Nossel (who happens to have a forthcoming book on the topic).

On today’s episode, we discuss the case of a doctor in Washington state fired for speaking out against his hospital; Trump’s press briefings and whether they’re worth the wall-to-wall coverage; and cities threatening to arrest folks for spreading disinformation.

Hear the whole episode here:

You can also read Suzanne’s full take on Trump’s press conferences and how the cable networks might not want to cover every moment of them here:

A Magnificent Time to Write

April 2, 2020

Writer Parnaz Foroutan, a former PEN America Emerging Voices fellow, is no stranger to destabilizing times. Her family fled Iran during the Iran/Iraq war. Her family experience helped defined her latest work, the newly released memoir Home is a Stranger.

In today’s episode of The PEN Pod, she discusses her new book, connecting virtually with readers and writers, and why the voices of marginalized people, especially immigrants, are so crucial right now.

As immigrants, we come from a point when all of a sudden our homes, the societies we live in, are turned upside down. So we’ve experienced something similar to what’s happening right now when the world is suddenly turned upside down. There’s a sort of resilience and hope that we carry because we’ve survived that, and I think we can share that with the world. I think our stories can show that human beings have courage and they are resilient and that hope is a key factor in surviving this period. And the stories should be shared.

Listen to our entire conversation here:

And you can listen to a longer conversation with Parnaz on our Emerging Voices podcast.

A Temperature Check on COVID-19 Conditions in U.S. Prisons

April 1, 2020

This week, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program started a new regular email series, “Temperature Check: COVID-19 Behind Bars.” The rapid-response emails include works from writers on the inside, insights on the deteriorating health situation in America’s prisons, and a podcast episode with Fair and Just Prosecution’s Miriam Krinsky and Scarlet Neath.

Today’s edition includes a dispatch from Derek Trumbo, a multi-time PEN America Prison Writing Award winner, dramatist, and part-time mentor to all those who seek purpose in imprisonment. He resides at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, Kentucky.

He writes:

“All visits, religious services, programs and distractions will be temporarily suspended for the foreseeable future.”

News trickles in. New cases where our families live, work, exist without us.

“All inmates statewide will receive one free call and two emails a week until this passes.”

Our social distancing took effect with the jury’s verdict. Years passed. Phone numbers changed. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt, shame, and time to reflect. Shelter in place. Isolate.

“All personnel will be screened for your safety.”

Temperature checks.

Click here to read his whole essay and to receive regular updates.

Turkmenistan, Iran Take Draconian Measures Under Cover of Coronavirus

April 1, 2020

Two separate developments this week alerted our experts here at PEN America.

In Iran, a coronavirus task force moved to ban all print media. Authorities say they are doing so to halt the potential spread of the disease, though Iranian journalists have (rightly) pointed out that it’s yet another attempt to restrict a free press.

As our Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs, said in a statement, “This move looks worryingly like yet another example of an authoritarian regime using the coronavirus outbreak as an excuse to constrain rights–in this case, narrowing restrictions on press freedom in Iran even further.”

Also this week, the government of Turkmenistan, under the authoritarian rule of long-time President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, effectively banned the use of the word coronavirus. Responding to the move, our Washington director Thomas O. Melia said the following:

At a moment when open and fact-based communication about the crisis is vital, this ludicrous, censorious response is not only an affront to free expression–it could well cost the lives of Turkmenistan’s citizens.

Reimagining the Future With Jamie Metzl

April 1, 2020

It’s hard to be an optimist right now, especially with grim projections coming from the White House about what’s ahead for Americans.

Still, novelist and technology futurist Jamie Metzl shares his thoughts on how virtualization has transformed our world, how we can maintain human connection throughout this crisis, and why he still calls himself an optimist.

We are facing an enormous challenge today, but we now have almost godlike capacities to read, write, and hack the code of life. And those tools, I’m firmly convinced, are going to save us, and we’re going to figure out treatments and we’re gonna have a vaccine not just for this, but for all kinds of challenges in the future. But these technologies don’t come with a built-in value system. All technologies are value-neutral. It’s up to us to determine what are the values that will guide the application of our most powerful technologies, and that’s the issue. That’s why organizations like PEN that are so focused on values are so critical, because these are the conversations that we have to have.

Also on the podcast, messages from our listeners and more on journalism at the front lines. Take a listen:

Journalists Are Among First Responders

March 31, 2020

A moving piece from our colleague Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America. She writes about the phenomenon of New Yorkers applauding health professionals out their apartment windows and calls on all of us to consider journalists as equally crucial in the fight against the pandemic.

We are generally conditioned to think of war correspondents as heroic for putting themselves in the line of fire to document violent conflict. Marie Colvin, Daniel Pearl, James Foley — the names of journalists who died covering conflict stay with us, their courage and sacrifice recognized and unquestioned. But the U.S. is facing a new kind of war in our own towns and cities. We need to start viewing the journalists covering the crisis as we do war correspondents. In this battle, information is our greatest defense.

She points out that reporters are bravely facing risks to their own health and the health of their families to rescue us from deliberate falsehoods and disinformation.

Read more about our work on journalism, and particularly local journalism, here:

A Tale of Two Crises

March 31, 2020

Fatima Shaik is a writer and journalist who co-chairs our children’s and young adult book authors group. She’s also a New Orleans native who, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, hopped across Louisiana to write and document the upheavals that took place there in the decade following the storm.

On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, she shares some of what she learned during that time and what other writers might learn from her experience:

The first thing that I found out was that there are some things that you can’t control, and you just really have to accept that. So I would advise writers to be flexible and to live in the present. One of the things is not to be so hard on yourself if you’re not doing the things that you were doing before. After Katrina, I couldn’t write fiction for a while. Everything that I was seeing was so fantastic, I couldn’t describe anything more fantastic than that.

She also listed a number of recommendations of children’s books, and encouraged parents to read from authors whose ethnicity they may not share.

Take a listen to the whole episode, and please leave a message for us! We’d love to hear what you’re reading and what you’re doing to stay connected.

Taking Advantage of a Crisis: A Conversation With Reza Aslan

March 30, 2020

There are few people who know their way around free expression better than Reza Aslan, host of the TV show “Rough Draft” and author of four books on religion. In today’s episode of The PEN Pod, Reza talks about the role journalists play right now, and how adhering to the old standards of respect for the presidency no longer apply.

I would go so far as to say that those norms haven’t applied for quite some time, but they certainly do not in a time of existential crisis, where we are looking at the possibility of — and this is not an exaggeration — more than a million Americans dying from this preventable place that we’re in right now. At times like that, norms just have to be thrown out, and we have to really start to talk to our politicians, and particularly to the president, in a way that perhaps a lot of these journalists or media personalities are not used to, but which the times are really calling for.

Reza also discussed his concerns that politicians with agendas may try to advance draconian, anti-free expression policies under the cloak of a crisis. And he reflects on reading and writing and entertaining his family.

Also on today’s podcast, another reading list for your perusal! This time, a group of our Emerging Voices fellowship alumni put together some of their recommended reads:

Listen to the whole episode here:

The Virus of Information Suppression

March 29, 2020

Two big news stories about free speech and expression caught our eye last week. In one case, a doctor at a Washington state hospital was reportedly fired for critiquing his facility’s preparedness for the coronavirus. On the opposite side of the country, a Florida reporter was barred from the governor’s press conference after asking questions about social distancing.

In both cases, committed truth-tellers were punished for speaking out. Such retaliation has no place in a free society. As our CEO Suzanne Nossel pointed out this weekend, the pandemic is bad enough without being “compounded by a resort to punitive tactic aimed to suppress vital information.”

China’s early targeting of doctors and journalists for sounding an alarm on the pandemic muzzled their voices and led to deadly delays in responding to the outbreak. Even as it falls behind the world in controlling infection rates, the U.S. must not succumb to the virus of information suppression. Doctors and journalists need to be able to speak the truth without fear of reprisal, and the public has a right to hear what they have to say. Shame on those officials who resort to authoritarian, anti-American retaliation against speech; the citizens to whom you are accountable deserve far better.

Read our full statement:

It’s Time For a Local News Bailout

March 27, 2020

As we’ve been saying since we published our landmark report on local news last fall, the industry needs a major infusion of public and private dollars. That need has only accelerated with the coronavirus crisis. Our Suzanne Nossel and Viktorya Vilk argue in Slate that it’s high time for an investment in local journalism.

As talk of future stimulus bills is percolating in Congress, local news deserves designated support: expanded funding for public media, a boost in government advertising, and interest-free loans and new pools of money specifically for regional and local newsrooms. Any financial support for local media must include thoroughgoing safeguards to ensure that public funding does not impinge upon the editorial independence. This initial shot in the arm should set the stage for longer-term, more comprehensive approaches that update the country’s approach to public media to meet the challenges of the digital age.

Read their full piece at Slate or on our website:

Trump’s Bullying of TV Stations Airing Critical Coronavirus Ad

March 27, 2020

And he’s at it again.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign this week sent a cease-and-desist letter to television stations airing ads critical of the way he has handled the coronavirus crisis, threatening to revoke their operating licenses.

While there’s very little Trump could actually do, we at PEN America said that it’s yet another attempt by the president to harass and intimidate, exploiting the legal system to attack his adversaries. Our Nora Benavidez says:

It’s a troubling practice and a violation of the First Amendment. In the midst of an election and while the U.S. is grappling with an unprecedented public health crisis, it’s appalling for the president to focus in on using his influence to silence a critical television ad that is unquestionably protected political speech. The fact that this threatened action would never hold up in court actually exposes it for what it is: a bullying attempt to intimidate the press and silence the president’s critics.

Check out our full statement:

Gregory Pardlo on Self-Reflection, Unexpected Joy

March 27, 2020

Pulitzer Prize-wining poet Gregory Pardlo is using this time of distancing to do some serious self-reflection…and maybe even some refinancing. On today’s episode of The PEN Pod, Pardlo weaves the everyday into the poetic, as he has so richly done throughout his career as a memoirist and poet.

I had a conversation with my wife just yesterday, and the conversation went down rabbit holes that we would not ordinarily have pursued — the typical conversation about money and are we gonna take advantage of the plummeting interest rates right now and try to refinance the house — but the conversation turned, and I found myself making notes for poems. My wife’s way of thinking about the world is one of the reasons we got married in the first place; I enjoy her mind, and having the time to work through the mundane concerns and slip into the more abstract rabbit holes and turns in each other’s minds has turned out to be a really unexpected joy.

Also on today’s episode, we cover some mental health tips for writers who are facing social distancing. Our LA office’s Michelle Franke interviews a mental health professional who has some pointers.

Check out today’s episode, subscribe to catch a bonus episode this weekend of Gregory Pardlo reading poetry, and leave us a message! We want to hear from you (and we may include your virtual voicemail on the show)

Mental Health and the Outbreak

March 26, 2020

While the president has recklessly recommended people go back to work before the coronavirus threat is controlled, author and professor of clinical psychology Andrew Solomon tells The PEN Pod that we should be mindful of the risks social isolation poses to mental health.

Andrew is trained in psychology and wrote the National Book Award-winning The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. In addition to the impact the crisis is having on mental health, we also talked about travel writing and the perils of global isolation.

I think the only thing we can do is to try, through whatever online media we have, to look at: How is the news being presented in Italy? How is the news being presented in Vietnam? How is the news being presented in South Korea? How are people dealing with this elsewhere? And to recognize that a pandemic like this represents not the occasion of one country doing something dangerous to another country — not the occasion of closing borders because people from outside are going to come in and make us sick — but rather a moment when all of us are facing our common enemy.

Also on this episode, a look at how student journalists are supporting each other and reporting on their own upheavals.

Listen to the full episode here:

Thai Artist Arrested Over Coronavirus Facebook Posts

March 26, 2020

After returning from Spain, Thai artist Danai Ussama posted to Facebook that no COVID-19 screening was taking place at Bangkok’s international airport. Days later, officers from Thailand’s Technology Crime Suppression Division arrestsed Ussama at his art gallery in Phuket.

Though he was under self-quarantine, police flew him to Bangkok for his arraignment under the country’s draconian Computer Crime Act. He was released on bail but is scheduled to appear in court May 12.

The director of our Artists at Risk Connection project Julie Trébault said that his arrest is a “indefensible violation of freedom of expression and poses a significant threat to the spread of truthful health-related information during the pandemic.”

Laws like the Computer Crime Act are particularly dangerous in times like these, as they embolden authorities to crack down on civil liberties and freedom of expression in the name of health and national security. It is an outrageous abuse for authorities to charge Ussama a crime for essentially reporting his personal experience at the airport. Such criminal charges not only chill speech, but will deter others from sharing potentially crucial information during times of crisis.

Protect Yourself From Coronavirus Disinformation

March 25, 2020

As part of our ongoing efforts to fight back against disinformation, our colleagues at PEN America have published a new Tip Sheet: PEN America’s Guide on COVID-19 and Disinformation.

It offers up six easy tips for improving your digital consumption health. It provides advice on distinguishing news from opinion; on finding reliable information; and some pro tips on how to become a crack disinformation spotter.

Victory! PEN America’s Lawsuit Against Trump Moves Forward

March 25, 2020

Some huge news for us yesterday. A federal court in New York ruled that we can proceed with our lawsuit against the Trump administration over its punitive actions against the press. We originally brought the suit in October 2018 after President Trump repeatedly revoked press passes and used the powers of his office to punish reporters he doesn’t like.

On today’s edition of The PEN Pod, our new daily podcast, we talk to PEN America’s Nora Benavidez about what the victory means, what comes next, and why defending a free press is more important now than ever amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Also on today’s episode, we remember playwright Terrence McNally, among the first coronavirus deaths within the literary community. The New York Times’ Jesse Green walks us through his career.

Take a listen:

Now More Than Ever, Policymakers Should Fund Local Journalism

March 24, 2020

As Congress nears approval on trillions in stimulus spending, the Washington Post reached out to us at PEN America to ask: What solutions would we offer to mitigating the coronavirus’ impact?

Our answer is pretty simple: Fund local news.

In recent weeks, local news outlets have been providing a service that is literally life-saving: guiding the public on what they should or shouldn’t do, but also holding leaders accountable for their decisions. And many have dropped paywalls in service to their audience (and likely to the detriment of their bottom lines).

But while they may seem to be thriving, local media outlets still suffer from the disintegration of longstanding, advertising-based business models. That, coupled with the mass migration of consumers to social media platforms, has stripped local news outlets of their prime source of revenue, leading to the closure of one out of every five local newspapers and the slashing of newsroom staffs in half over the past 15 years. The spread of covid-19 has made this chronic illness acute: The closure of local businesses and slowdown in economic activity are depriving local news outlets of essential revenue to keep operations going.

Hence why we believe lawmakers should appropriate funds to help shore up local reporting. See our full report analyzing local news nationwide…and what we think can be done to reinvent it.

How We’re Reinventing

March 24, 2020

Every quarter, our CEO Suzanne Nossel sends around a letter to our friends and supporters. It’s usually a look back at the last few months, focusing on accomplishments and events and big initiatives that we’re working on.

This first quarter of 2020 is particularly jarring. Up until a few weeks ago, we were feting writers at our annual Literary Awards and making big plans for the World Voices Festival and our busy spring season. All that gone in a flash.

But we’ve been undeterred. As Suzanne writes, we are reinventing PEN America at a time when so many are recalibrating our own lives. Here’s what we’re doing:

First, we must mobilize to assist writers hard hit by the cancellation of events, closure of bookstores, and economic contraction, recognizing that many of their livelihoods were precarious to begin with. Second, knowing that books are the ultimate vessels for human connection across distance, we must foster community and bring the nurturing power of literature and writers to those thirsting for connection. Third, having mobilized in defense of fact-based discourse, we must stand up for the truth as a matter of life and death. And fourth, knowing that in crisis lies opportunity, we must ward off those who will try to use this calamity for ill, to enact lasting curbs to freedom of expression, access to information, and otherwise erode the underpinnings of a free society.

Check out the whole letter on our website:

Reporting on Disinformation, One Meme at a Time

March 24, 2020

After the horrific news of an Arizona man who died after ingesting a form of a chemical President Trump promoted as a “treatment” for coronavirus, the threat of disinformation and misinformation has perhaps never been so acute.

BuzzFeed news senior reporter Jane Lytvynenko has been covering disinformation as a beat for going on three years, and in an interview with The PEN Pod, she says she’s never seen anything like the rash of false stories and information that we’re seeing right now.

She says that there are a few things we know about the way disinformation functions and why it spreads:

It functions based on our emotions. It doesn’t necessarily function on facts. The reason why people share myths and disinformation, which we know from studies, is because of an anxiety, panic, or anger that myth or disinformation induces. So for us, the most important thing in preventing the spread of myths and disinformation is to be in touch with your mental health a little bit.

Listen to the whole episode here:

Call to Record Professors “Wrongheaded” Amid Coronavirus Crisis

March 23, 2020

This weekend, conservative activist and founder of Turning Point USA Charlie Kirk called on college students to record their professors’ virtual lectures to “document and expose” so-called “blatant indoctrination.”

As director of our campus speech project Jonathan Friedman said, such intrusiveness would be censorious even outside our current moment of crisis.

[B]ut the ongoing global health crisis makes this tweet particularly misguided. As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, students and faculty–across the political spectrum–will need to come together to find solutions, and online classrooms should continue to prepare students to engage with difficult questions in productive ways. That means keeping classrooms open to constructive dialogue, not shaming professors into self-censorship from fear of negative public attention.

Read our full statement:

Hopeful Thinking and Magic

March 23, 2020

What happens when one of the biggest literary festivals of the year just doesn’t happen?

At PEN America, we’re finding out. Just a few weeks ago, we were forced to cancel our annual international literary gathering, the PEN America World Voices Festival, a landmark event in New York City since it was founded 16 years ago.

For today’s episode of “The PEN Pod,” we speak to festival director Chip Rolley, who is also senior director of literary programs at PEN America. He discusses what literary festivals mean to readers and writers, and how we can recreate some of that magic on our own:

Festivals are kind of an exercise in hopeful thinking and magic to begin with…If you think about it, we’re taking two essentially solitary activities — the activity of writing a book and the act of reading a book — and we’re saying, hey, let’s get together and throw a party. Let’s put you guys in the same room, and let’s try to turn what happens in those solitary activities into something that is lively, engaging, communicative, community-forming. And it’s really unlike other art forms. If you go to a play, you’ve got a playwright who’s written every line, or if you go to the opera, that music’s written, the libretto is written, and everyone’s operating and planning towards a script. With these festival events, they are completely unpredictable. They’re spontaneous. They’re alive.

Listen to the whole conversation here:

A Poetry Collection for Our Current Moment

March 20, 2020

In addition to their day jobs, a number of staff at PEN America are themselves writers. Among them: Los Angeles office executive director Michelle Franke. A poet, she asked writers including Luis J. Rodriguez, Matthew Zapruder, Sheila Black, Chiwan Choi, Ashaki Jackson, Ilya Kaminsky, Katie Ford, and F. Douglas Brown for their poetry recommendations for this week’s PEN America reading list.

They did not disappoint.

Trump Chides Reporter for Coronavirus Question

March 20, 2020

In what PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel called “an international embarrassment to the United States,” President Trump today attacked an NBC News reporter who asked how the president would reassure Americans who are rightly frightened by the COVID-19 crisis.

Rather than answering Alexander’s question, the president went on attack mode, calling him a “terrible reporter” and labeling the inquiry “a nasty question.”

Nossel said:

President Trump’s shoot the messenger strategy of combating the coronavirus by attacking a reporter who did nothing more than point out the terror it is wreaking across America is shameful. Trustworthy, fact-based media has never been more essential to Americans than it is right now. The president’s effort to deflect the shortcomings of his administration’s response to the pandemic by attacking the reporters who question him has become an appalling daily spectacle and an international embarrassment to the United States.

Read our full statement here:

China Is Fighting the Coronavirus Propaganda War to Win

March 20, 2020

The U.S. has relinquished its high ground in the latest tit-for-tat between Beijing and Washington over journalists. It’s allowed China to cast this as a two-way fight, but as our CEO Suzanne Nossel writes in Foreign Policy, that’s masking the fact that China is quashing free expression to control its global image “at all costs and by any means.”

The advent of the new coronavirus has thrown these Chinese information control efforts into overdrive. Alongside punishing doctors and dissidents who dare to criticize the government’s response to the outbreak, Beijing has lashed out against foreign critics of its management of the pandemic and muzzled debate across the country’s social media platforms. Fearful that the initial denial and mismanagement of the outbreak could trigger social unrest, Beijing has now mounted an aggressive domestic and global propaganda campaign to tout its draconian approach to the epidemic, downplay its role in sparking the global outbreak, and contrast its efforts favorably against those of Western governments and particularly the United States.

Read the full piece here:

Social Distancing as a Form of Solidarity

March 20, 2020

While some may see the current social distancing moment as a blessing for writers, author Alexander Chee says that the distractions and rage of the moment are so great that it’s hard to focus on work.

In an interview for The PEN Pod, he offers tips for writers and others on how best to work under difficult times. He also encourages everyone to buy books and support local bookstores, even if that means buying online from a shuttered retailer. He also shares what’s on his bookshelf right now. Take a listen:

Also on The PEN Pod, we look at a Pew Research survey about how Americans are consuming news at this time. And our very own Michelle Franke, executive director of PEN America’s LA office, reads a poem from the late Mary Oliver.

Wash Your Hands, Read a Book, Protect Your Heart

March 19, 2020

Obviously the coronavirus is a health crisis, but it’s also an economic one. It’s had an acute impact on writers as book tours and festivals are canceled.

On today’s edition of The PEN Pod, we talk to PEN America trustee, author, and New York Times columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan. Her book is scheduled to publish in April, and she discusses the kinds of headwinds authors like her face.

She also talks about self-care and how readers and writers can care for each other.

My last day in New York City, I was walking up Amsterdam Avenue and I saw, spray-painted like a stencil on the sidewalk, the phrase “Protect your heart.” And that really got through to me, because I think we’re all so intent on not catching COVID-19 that we’re forgetting to take care of our spiritual selves…This is a good time to remember, now that we can’t do it, just how important we are to each other and how important community is.

Also on the pod, we review the case of Cuban artist and dissident Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara just released from jail. And we talk about a recent piece over at the Nieman Lab that explores how journalists are collaborating in the midst of the story of a generation.

Listen to the whole episode here:

Egyptian Writer Detained Over Coronavirus Protest

March 18, 2020

Egyptian security forces arrested Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif and other demonstrators in Cairo Wednesday. They were protesting overcrowded prison conditions that could worsen the spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated people.

Instead of reacting to the real crisis at hand, Egyptian officials have decided to arrest and hold Soueif and her fellow protesters. In a joint statement with PEN International and English PEN, our Karin Deutsch Karlekar said:

While the world focuses on the spread of COVID-19, Egypt’s government is bullying foreign reporters and arresting human rights defenders who protest. Clearly they are hoping their thuggish behavior will go unnoticed during this fearful time; it hasn’t. We call on the international community to push back against Egypt’s efforts to suppress freedom of expression under the cover of the coronavirus threat. Release these activists immediately.”

Read our full statement:

The PEN Pod: Day One!

March 18, 2020

Today’s day one of a little experiment we’re running at PEN America: The PEN Pod, a limited-run podcast to release every weekday morning. Like you, we have the same uncertainties and feelings of isolation amid this crisis. So we’re using this podcast as a new way to communicate, share stories, rant, and relate with each other in the absence of our major public events.

Here’s episode one:

For our first installment, we spoke to PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of the forthcoming book Dare to Speak, about the outbreak of disinformation that helped exacerbate the current crisis, and she shared what’s on her bookshelf right now. Don’t have time to listen? You can read highlights from our interview on our website:

And of course we’re eager to hear your thoughts. Please email or reach out on social to let us know what else you want to hear. Oh, and please subscribe!

China’s Smear of Mario Vargas Llosa

March 17, 2020

Over the weekend, Peruvian author and former PEN International President Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a newspaper column on the coronavirus that took aim at China’s censorship of doctors alerting the world to the coronavirus outbreak.

China’s embassy to Peru fired back, releasing a statement accusing Vargas Llosa of “discriminatory and defamatory statements.” There were also reports that his books vanished from e-book platforms in China.

Our CEO responded:

The Chinese government’s attacks on Mario Vargas Llosa should be seen for what they are: an attempt to dismiss valid criticism of their handling of the coronavirus by smearing the critic as defamatory,” said Nossel today. “But now is a moment for truth telling, and that includes the fact that China’s efforts to censor critics and whistleblowers — including their effort to silence whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, who later died from the virus — played a role in exacerbating the danger that the coronavirus has posed both to Chinese citizens and to the world at large.

Read PEN America’s full statement here:

Providing Support for Artists

March 17, 2020

PEN America runs a pathbreaking project called the Artists at Risk Connection, or ARC. During normal circumstances, the ARC team is busy connecting persecuted artists with needed resources, especially those who face serious threats to their artistic expression.

Right now, of course, artists globally are facing some of the same pressures as writers. That’s why our ARC team has assembled a number of COVID-19-related resources for artists and other cultural professionals in the field.

The list includes emergency relief funds, resources for artistic organizations, legal resources, webinars and more. The ARC team will be keeping the list up to date.

China Boots U.S. Reporters

March 17, 2020

The Chinese government today, still reeling from the coronavirus, announced it would expel a number of U.S. journalists, including those from The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, as well as imposing additional restrictions of other U.S. reporting outlets.

As PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel says, there’s no doubt this is an attempt to “control the uncontrollable story, namely the spread of COVID-19.”

At a time when facts and information are a matter of life and death for billions of people worldwide, the cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation between Beijing and Washington over the role of journalists is stunningly misguided and a grave risk to public safety. Both countries should lift any applicable restrictions and allow professional media outlets to play their role of reporting the news and calling it like they see it.

Read her whole statement here:

The PEN Pod Launches Tomorrow

March 17, 2020

These are really difficult times for everyone, especially those directly impacted by the coronavirus, as well as front line health professionals.

It’s also a unique and challenging time for writers and readers. Bookstores are shuttered. Tours are being canceled. And a number of complex issues around free speech and free expression are coming up amid the crisis.

We won’t have all the answers, but starting Wednesday, March 18, PEN America is launching a limited-run weekday podcast, The PEN Pod. We’ll have interviews with authors, writers, and friends, and we’ll talk about how we’re all coping with the uncertain times we live in, but also about how we can support a wider literary community at this time.

Check out the trailer below, subscribe on Spotify, and we’ll post interviews and other podcast content on this live blog.

A Tough Decision Day for PEN America

March 16, 2020

After a weekend of news about cancelations and closures, PEN America now joins countless organizations facing major disruptions this spring. For us, it means we are not going to proceed with the 2020 PEN America World Voices Festival.

It’s a heartbreak for all of us. Teams have been working tirelessly for months to program the festival. Ticket sales were underway. Authors and readers and writers were all making plans to descend on New York City and Los Angeles. But we reached a point where it was clear we couldn’t proceed. Here’s an excerpt from a letter from our CEO Suzanne Nossel and the Festival director Chip Rolley:

The World Voices Festival was founded in the wake of 9/11 to provide a beacon for writers and audiences from around the world and to build bridges across borders as an antidote to cultural isolationism. As a new and unexpected isolation is thrust upon us, we regret deeply that we won’t be able to shine that light or foster those vital in-person connections.

Right now, we’re looking for the best path forward to continue elevating writers during these difficult times. On Wednesday, we’re aiming to launch a limited-run podcast that will bring some of our voices to you, our friends and Members. Take a listen to the trailer:

You can read our full letter here:

White House Limiting Access to Coronavirus Deliberations

March 13, 2020

The White House has limited access to coronavirus response meetings and information, blocking out access for reporters and even government officials who don’t have adequate security clearance. Our CEO Suzanne Nossel, who served in government, tweeted this:

And our Washington director Thomas O. Melia, also formerly a government official, said:

Attempts to shut out the government’s own experts are inexcusable — especially when such exclusions prevent the public from knowing how their health and safety are being affected. The Trump administration’s secretive approach to handling coronavirus deliberations has insidious implications for our society’s access to information at large.

Read our full statement here:

Literature in the Time of Coronavirus

March 12, 2020

As a group of readers and writers, we at PEN America love ourselves a reading list. And we realize that folks might have canceled trips, or are stuck at home, or are just looking for a great book that offers more context around a health crisis.

Check out our nine picks for books that you can read that provide a bit of respite and a bit of understanding, from Severance to The Decameron.

A New Jersey Official Threatens Criminal Prosecutions for Virus Disinformation

March 11, 2020

Local and state officials across the country are working their hardest to provide accurate information and health care for those who might be at risk of the virus. But throughout this crisis, PEN America’s Free Expression team is monitoring for instances where folks might overstep.

Case in point: a New Jersey law enforcement official threatened legal action against people who may spread misinformation about the virus:

Our U.S. director of free expression programs Nora Benavidez responded:

Advising people to take care in sharing reliable and fact-based information about coronavirus makes good sense. Threatening criminal prosecution for spreading misinformation in a time of great confusion, on the other hand, is both wrongheaded and likely unconstitutional.

Read the whole statement here:

A Coronavirus Update From PEN America

March 11, 2020

As the country and the world contend with a public health crisis, PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel and President Jennifer Egan sent a letter to our Members, supporters, and friends. They write:

As the world faces a global health crisis, we at PEN America are encountering uncharted territory. We’re an organization committed to truth and facts, and right now, we believe nothing could be more important than a commitment to free speech and ensuring that vital information flows freely. These are our guiding principles as we navigate the uncertain.

Click below to read the entire letter:

Truth Has Become a Coronavirus Casualty

March 9, 2020

Our CEO Suzanne Nossel writes in Foreign Policy that the coronavirus outbreak is a direct result of an outbreak of disinformation. She writes:

As the coronavirus spreads, another dangerous virus has followed closely behind: the scourge of government leaders and official authorities obfuscating data, suppressing information, and misinforming citizens about the outbreak. With the crisis likely to get worse before it gets better, many countries’ citizens are increasingly unsure just whom or what to believe. This not only increases the threat to public health, but it also undermines trust in the very institutions on which we rely to fight the virus.

This new virus of disinformation also has its origin in China, has spread to other authoritarian states such as Iran and Russia, and has now infected the highest levels of government in the United States.

Click below to read the entire piece:



PEN America

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