As It Happens

Authors disagree over PEN award for Charlie Hebdo

An award being presented to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has incited a war of words between some prominent authors -- with at least six of them saying they won’t attend PEN’s awards gala next month.
Francine Prose is among several writers who object to the PEN American Center giving Charlie Hebdo an Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Salman Rushdie supports the move. ( (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press))

An award being presented to French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has incited a war of words between some prominent authors -- with at least six of them saying they won't attend PEN's awards gala next month.

The French magazine is to receive the Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the PEN American Center's Annual Gala in May.

Twelve people, including the magazine's editor-in-chief, were killed by Islamic extremists in a January attack at the magazine's office. The attacks were thought to be tied to Charlie Hebdo's decision to repeatedly print controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and Muslims.

Francine Prose, a former PEN American president, and five other writers, including Canadian Michael Ondaatje, wrote a letter to PEN explaining why they won't attend the awards gala where the award will be given.

Prose tells As It Happens host Carol Off that despite her objections, she supports the magazine's right to free speech.

"Free speech is indivisible. If you believe in free speech you believe in any sort of free speech -- that you can say anything you want. And that's absolutely what I believe in and I would include in that everything Charlie Hebdo has done."

But she says that doesn't mean Charlie Hebdo deserves the award.

"We defend the right of neo-nazis to march through Skokie, Illinois but that doesn't mean we give them an award."

Prose says that there are other journalists who are more deserving of the award.

"This is an award that should be given to equally brave journalists...There are journalists being killed in the Middle East. There are journalists being killed every day in Mexico, who are doing work that needs to be done because people need to hear about the truth they are reporting and what's happening in other parts of the world.  I don't quite understand the absolute necessity of the work that Charlie Hebdo did."

The move by Prose and the others to boycott the event has been met with criticism, most notably from author Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie  tweeted: "The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character."

In response, Prose, tells Off that the writers are standing up for what they believe in -- and says Rushdie's tweet is sexist.

"I  think it's a sexual insult...And think it was careless and I think Salman regrets it. It was in a tweet. But nonetheless I think it's an unfair word to use...Why  is our behaviour a sign of weakness? We've all caught a great deal of flack for this. If we wanted to be weak we could have just said, you know what I have another engagement I forgot about that night."

Rushie, who spent years in hiding after a fatwa was issued against him, had a message for the authors speaking out against the award.

"What I would say to both Peter (Carey) and Michael (Ondaatje) and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them."

But Prose tells Off her message is that a central question needs to be asked about why the award is being given to Charlie Hebdo now.

"I think it very conveniently feeds into the larger political narrative which is the narrative of white Europeans being killed by Muslim extremists... I'm not coming out in favour of terrorism obviously. (But this idea) is such a popular one in the media and politically. That fear has been used so well to justify various political policies of our government and other governments. The popularity of that narrative, and the easiness of that narrative, and also the emotionality that surrounds it means it's a very different story than other stories that could have been honoured and awarded."

In addition to Prose and Ondaatje, the authors objecting to the award include Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selas. 


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