Neil Gaiman, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman Step in as Table Hosts for PEN Gala

Posted on May 4, 2015

Neil Gaiman, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, George Packer, Azar Nafisi and Alain Mabanckouand have agreed to step in at the last minute as table hosts at the PEN American Center Gala tomorrow night. They will replace six table hosts who backed out of the event in protest of the Freedom of Expression Courage Award being awarded to the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

PEN is giving the courage award to the magazine for its courage in carrying on after Islamic extremists stormed the offices and murdered nearly the entire staff because they were unhappy about the magazine publishing a cartoon of the prophet Muhammed. The disgruntled authors think that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were offensive to French Muslims who are poor and disenfranchised.

Charlie Hebdo has regularly criticized all religions for hypocrisy, racism and bigotry. The Catholic Church is a popular target for the cartoonists, as are the right wing politicians in France and many other people and entities. The magazine has said it has never mocked Muslims, but say that all religions can be criticized. PEN and freedom of speech activists say that no one should be shot over a cartoon.

The writers who pulled out of the gala are Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi. PEN's president Andrew Solomon has defended the award, noting that is not a content award, but a courage award for supporting freedom of expression, a crucial civil right which is outlawed in many countries. Salman Rushdie has been very outspoken on the issue. He told The New York, Times, "If PEN as a free-speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name. He said the six writers' decision to withdraw was "horribly wrong."

Rushdie, who had to go into hiding for years after Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa calling for his death in 1989 for writing his novel, The Satanic Verses, wondered if anyone would even defend his freedom of expression if the novel had been published today. On Twitter he got more direct, calling them "Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character."

The awarded will be accepted on behalf of Charlie Hebdo by Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a film critic for the magazine. He was late for work the day of the massacre in which 12 staffers were killed and that is the only reason he is alive to accept the award. He told NPR that the writers who are protesting the award don't seem to understand what the magazine does. He said they "don't really know what they are talking about," and that the magazine has never mocked Muslims.

But he fiercely defends the magazine's right to criticize religion. He explained, "You know, you're honoring a principle. You're not honoring a specific content in a magazine. Nothing is sacred for us...That's something that is very important." By law, France is a secular country.

Neil Gaiman summed the issue up perfectly, telling The Times, "The Charlie Hebdo PEN award is for courage. The courage to work after the 2011 firebombing of the offices, the courage to put out their magazine in the face of murder. If we cannot applaud that, then we might as well go home…I’ll be proud to host a table on Tuesday night."

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