Peter Carey [pictured] and Michael Ondaatje have pulled out of a PEN gala, objecting to an award due to be given out honouring French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi, Francine Prose and Teju Cole are also among those who are no longer planning to attend the PEN American Center Gala in New York on 5th May, where the satirical magazine is due to receive a Freedom of Expression Courage Award.
In January, gunmen stormed the offices of the magazine, resulting in the deaths of 12 people, including veteran cartoonists Cabu, Charb, Tignous and Wolinski. The international publishing community condemned the attacks, but people have also criticised the magazine, known for its controversial cartoons, and its portrayal of Muslims and other minority groups.
Prose, a former president of PEN America, told the Associated Press in an interview that she was "upset" when she heard the award was due to be given out. She said that while she "deplored" the attacks and believed in "freedom of speech without limitations", she "couldn't imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo."
The gala event takes place during a week-long World Voices Festival which has previously honoured Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth. Penguin Random House c.e.o. Markus Dohle is also due to be recognised during the week. PEN said in its citation: "Penguin Random House has been among PEN’s most stalwart supporters, with a history of resisting censorship and promoting reverence for the written word. Markus Dohle’s passionate leadership has helped galvanize an industry amid transformation, bringing energy and vision that are fueling reinvention in a dynamic and fertile new era of literary creativity."
Salman Rushdie criticised his fellow authors' decisions, and was quoted in the New York Times saying that though Carey and Ondaatje were friends, he believed they were "horribly wrong".
"If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures," Rushdie said, "then frankly the organization is not worth the name. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them."
PEN president Andrew Solomon defended the award in a letter sent to PEN trustees. He said: "It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims, as their cartoons offended members of the many other groups they targeted… But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo's intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression."
He added: "We do not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff's bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats."