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Authors Respond to the Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza

Authors respond to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza

Since last October, the international and American literary landscapes have been deeply affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. One of the major ways this has manifested is in authors pushing governments and organizations to take action on behalf of Palestinians in the region, who face continuing violence and starvation. Below, we give a brief, non-exhaustive overview of how the situation in Gaza has been at the forefront of many events in the book world during the past eight months.

On October 18, 2023, the London Review of Books published “An Open Letter on the Situation in Palestine,” which has since been signed by 750 authors. It decries the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces, as well as the cutting off of electricity, water, and aid routes. The signatories, based throughout the US, UK, and EU, demand their respective governments cease all “arms shipments and military funding” to Israel due to its “grave crimes against humanity.” Authors who have signed include Sally Rooney, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Lethem, Hala Alyan, and Isabella Hammad, among many more. One of the signees, Viet Thanh Nguyen, allegedly lost a speaking engagement at the 92nd Street Y, a cultural center in New York, due to his criticisms of Israel, resulting in an open letter expressing “dismay and alarm” for this decision that was signed by Susan Choi, Tessa Hadley, Yiyun Li, Claudia Rankine, and others.

The PEN America Awards were canceled at the end of April 2024 just a week before the ceremony was meant to be held due to criticism and the decision of numerous authors to remove their books from consideration for prizes. The trouble began in January when PEN America, which identifies itself as standing “at the intersection of literature and human rights,” invited actor, children’s book author, and outspoken supporter of Israel Mayim Bialik to speak at an event. It was disrupted by members of the organization Writers Against the War on Gaza, who were forcibly dragged out by security. In the weeks that followed, authors pushed for PEN America to make a statement condemning Israel’s actions in Gaza. An open letter laments the killing of Palestinian authors and journalists and demands that the organization “find the same zeal and passion that they have for banned books in the US to speak out about actual human beings in Palestine.” It has been signed by 1,300 people and counting, including Roxane Gay, Marie Helene-Bertino, Rachel Lyon, Lydia Kiesling, Susan Muaddi Darraj, Kelly Link, John Manuel Arias, Maaza Mengiste, Ashley C. Ford, Jami Attenberg, Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, Jess Row, Carmen Maria Machado, Laura van den Berg, and others.

By April, a full one-third of the nominees for PEN awards had pulled their books from consideration, including nine out of ten nominees for the PEN/Jean Stein Award, which comes with a cash prize of $75,000. Their open letter once again criticized the organization for its silence, declaring, “We believe that cultural and human rights organizations have a crucial role to play standing in solidarity with the Palestinian fight for freedom, especially here in the United States.” After the event was canceled, the literary estate of Jean Stein, an author who was vocal about her support of Palestine during her life, asked PEN America to donate the prize money to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.

On May 7, poet Su Hwang posted to X a statement of termination for her publishing contract with Milkweed Books over their refusal to divest from the pro-Israel Alan B. Slifka Foundation, which funds the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. She states her hope that Milkweed, who published her first collection of poems, will “embrace a more expansive approach to dissent during an ongoing genocide.” 

On May 20, more than 100 fellows and members of Kundiman, a well-known nonprofit supporting Asian American writers, signed an open letter calling for the resignation of the organization’s current Board of Trustees, citing a series of events sparked when a statement of solidarity with Palestine posted on social media by Kundiman staff was deleted by the board and “replaced…with one that conflated Jewish lives with Israel while also erasing Gazans entirely.” The letter has continued collecting signatures, expanding to encompass those of allies, donors, and others associated with Kundiman, and has currently surpassed 600. Signees include Alexander Chee, Rana Tahir, Ocean Vuong, K-Ming Chang, Lisa Ko, Franny Choi, C Pam Zhang, R.O. Kwon, Porochista Khakpour, and Talia Lakshmi Kolluri. 

Many Palestinian writers have used their individual platforms and words to bring attention to the current crisis, including Hala Alyan, Etaf Rum, and Isabella Hammad. On June 13, The New York Review of Books published an article by Hammad, “Acts of Language,” which summarizes, reflects on, and explains much of how the literary world has responded to the situation in Gaza since October. She closes the essay with a positive and hopeful account of her experiences interacting with student protestors at Columbia University: “Many of them were Palestinian, and many were Jewish. Talking to them filled me with a joy I had not felt in months.”

More information about how authors, journalists, artists, and academics are supporting Palestine can be found on the Writers Against the War on Gaza website.

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