One of the writers planning to boycott the PEN gala over its decision to award Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award has defended her decision.
Francine Prose, who along with Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi, has pulled out of the annual PEN American Center gala in New York on 5 May over the organisation's decision to award the controversial French satirical magazine the freedom of expression accolade in the wake of the massacre at its offices in January.
Twelve people were killed during the shooting at Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices due to its portrayal of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
The PEN American Center announced it will award the magazine the PEN/Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage in recognition of "paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss...in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory".
The decision for the writers, who include Booker Prize-winning Carey and Ondaatje, to pull out of the gala was met with criticism. Novelist Salman Rushdie, who was forced to go into hiding for years after a fatwa was issued against him following the release of his novel The Satanic Verses, described the writers as "just 6 pussies" on Twitter.
Explaining his stance to the New York Times, Rushdie added: "If PEN as a free speech organisation can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name.
"What I would say to both Peter [Carey] and Michael [Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them."
Prose, a former president of PEN American Center, has defended her decision to pull out of the gala, adding she was "dismayed" about the decision to award Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award.
Writing in the Guardian's Comment is Free, she said: "Let me emphasize how strongly I believe in the ideals of PEN; for two years I was president of the PEN American Center. I believe in the indivisibility of the right to free speech, regardless of what – however racist, blasphemous, or in any way disagreeable – is being said.
"I was horrified by the tragic murders at the Charlie Hebdo office; I have nothing but sympathy for the victims and survivors. I abhor censorship of every kind and I despise the use of violence as a means of enforcing silence. I believe that Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish whatever they wish.
"But that is not the same as feeling that Charlie Hebdo deserves an award. As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don't give them an award.
"The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don't feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honour."
Prose added she was "deeply shocked" by the criticism she and the other writers received in the wake of their decision, including those who said it amounted to an "endorsement of terrorism".
She added: "The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.
"And the idea that one is either 'for us or against us' in such matters not only precludes rational and careful thinking, but also has a chilling effect on the exercise of our right to free expression and free speech that all of us – and all the people at PEN – are working so tirelessly to guarantee."
In a letter to trustees, PEN American president Andrew Solomon defended the decision to honour Charlie Hebdo.
He wrote: "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."