Updates on the Coronavirus from PEN America

PEN America
Mar 12 · 35 min read

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.

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

Written by

#WritersResist, defending #FreedomtoWrite in U.S. and everywhere. #Resist infringements on #FirstAmendment and #FreePress. Annual festival: @penworldvoices.

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