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PEN America ceremony canceled due to protest, Tony Kushner will donate prize money

Playwright Ayad Akhtar on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards in his role as then-president of the organization.
Beowulf Sheehan
PEN America
Playwright Ayad Akhtar on stage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards in his role as then-president of the organization.

Updated April 25, 2024 at 3:29 PM ET

This story has been updated.

Playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner told NPR he will donate the $25,000 purse that comes with the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award, for which he is this year's recipient.

In an email, the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award and Emmy Award-winning writer said that when he receives the award, "I will donate half the money to Jewish Voice for Peace and half to UNRWA, earmarked for relief work in Gaza." Kushner is a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace advisory board.

His award was originally scheduled to be presented on Monday, April 29 along with the other prizes in PEN America's annual literary awards ceremony. But the event was canceled when nearly half of the writers and translators nominated withdrew their books from consideration. The awards will still be granted to those who did not withdraw.

An open letter signed by a number of writers to PEN America's leadership reads, "We reject these honors conferred by your organization in protest of your failure to confront the genocide in Gaza."

They contend that PEN America was slow to denounce "the incomparable loss of Palestinian life" and that when the organization finally did, its statement lacked "proportional empathy."

In February, Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar was dragged out of a PEN America event in Los Angeles after she and other writers used a portable speaker to play the names of writers and poets killed in Gaza. The event featured actor Mayim Bialik, who has supported Israel on social media.

The Israel-Hamas war has killed over 34,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in Gaza. Israel invaded Gaza in response to an attack by the militant organization Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

"We greatly respect that writers have followed their consciences, whether they chose to remain as nominees in their respective categories or not," said Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America's head of literary programming, in a statement. "As an organization dedicated to freedom of expression and writers, our commitment to recognizing and honoring outstanding authors and the literary community is steadfast."

One of many artists calling for a ceasefire

The awards will still be granted to those who did not withdraw or to those, like Kushner, who received lifetime achievement awards.

Kushner is one of many artists who have called for a ceasefire in Gaza. In an interview with the Haaretz Podcast in March, he said, "If you had asked me, even on October 7, would Israel allow, 30,000 people, many of them civilians, to be killed by the IDF I would have said no."

A production of Kushner's Angels in America is currently on stage in Tel Aviv. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's Munich which is getting renewed attention in light of Israel's war with Hamas.

"In both his art and activism, Tony Kushner compels us to confront uncomfortable truths about the 21st century," PEN America wrote in its announcement, "helping us feel our way towards a better future and aspire toward a more just and compassionate world."

The PEN America awards come with different-sized cash prizes. The foundation behind the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award said that Stein was a "passionate advocate for Palestinian rights" and said that it had directed PEN to donate the unawarded $75,000 to the Palestine Children's Relief Fund.

This story was edited by Jennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 22, 2024 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that April 29 is a Friday. It is a Monday.
Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.