PEN raises freedom of speech concerns at home and in Belarus

PEN America president Ayad Akhtar made a passionate speech about the organisation’s work at the PEN America Literary Awards held at Town Hall in Manhattan

Acknowledging the body’s centenary he said: “For the past 100 years, we’ve worked to defend the rights of writers to imagine, and speak, to create freely. As we look ahead to the next hundred years, our mission is fueled by new urgency. Alarming attempts to use the power of the state to ban ideas, and the books that contain them, have proliferated in this country, and we are also battling a dwindling space of civil exchange–and a growing belief on all sides of the political spectrum that the harms of speech hold an equal or even greater claim on us than the freedom to speak.”

The evening’s top award, the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Award, named after the US writer and editor who died in 2017 was awarded to Perceval Everett for his novel Dr No.  His previous novel The Trees was shortlisted for the Booker in 2022.  The PEN/Jean Stein Award is given to ‘book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact’.

PEN is busy in its centenary year.  It marked International Writers for Peace Day on 3 March with a statement deploring the arrest of the Belarussian writer Ales Bialiacki.  It said: “Bialiacki is one of countless Belarusians jailed since Aleksander Lukashenka’s fraudulent election spurred a government crackdown on dissent. Today’s verdict shows that, in Belarus, the authorities defend Lukashenka’s dictatorship by making the defense of human rights a criminal act. We reject every step in the criminal prosecution of Bialiacki and call for his immediate and unconditional release. We condemn the arrests and imprisonments of all writers jailed in the Eurasia region and around the world. We urge writers everywhere to join us in commemorating International Writers for Peace Day because in times of war, we unite our voices in support of peace.”