Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom, and the Future
Special symposium event celebrating PEN America’s centenary, at the New-York Historical Society.
Over the last 100 years, PEN America has mobilized countless writers, activists, and public intellectuals in the fight to defend free expression and the open exchange of ideas. Join PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel and President Ayad Akhtar for Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom, and the Future, an afternoon of public conversation with world-renowned authors and staunch advocates for the freedom to write including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Jenny Finney Boylan, Dave Eggers, and Salman Rushdie. The speakers will reflect on milestone moments in PEN America’s history and current-day instances of silencing, charting the ways in which writing and free speech are being challenged through book bans, educational gag orders, online harassment, self-censorship, and the detention of journalists and artists worldwide. With trenchant analysis of the past and present, this special symposium will provide vital insight about the future of free expression.
Please note: PEN America Members should email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about complimentary member tickets. New York City students are eligible for discounted tickets. A VIP reception will follow the symposium with limited tickets available for purchase.
Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom, and the Future is presented in conjunction with PEN America at 100: a Century of Defending the Written Word, curated by PEN America trustee Bridget Colman with Lisa Kolosek. On view at the New-York Historical Society through October 9, this special installation culls material from PEN America’s and PEN International’s rich archives to provide an in-depth look at how PEN America evolved from a post-World War I dining club into today’s leading free expression advocacy organization.
∗ PEN America is working with those closest to Salman Rushdie to determine how the Symposium can best honor his work and voice as he recovers from severe injuries in an attack chillingly linked to the themes of this event and PEN America’s work to defend and celebrate free expression.
Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America, the foremost organization working to protect and advance human rights, free expression, and literature. As CEO, Nossel has led campaigns for free expression in Hong Kong and China, Myanmar, Russia, Eurasia, and the United States. Her career has spanned government service and leadership roles in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Nossel has also served as the chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch and as executive director of Amnesty International USA. She also held senior State Department positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Nossel frequently writes op-eds for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications, as well as a regular column for Foreign Policy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award, and was named one of The New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2013. A story from her collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, was awarded the O Henry Prize. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. Adichie divides her time between the United States and Nigeria, where she leads an annual creative writing workshop.
Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright, and has served as PEN America’s president since 2021. His work has been published and performed in over two dozen languages. He is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Akhtar is the author of Homeland Elegies (Little, Brown & Co.), which The Washington Post called “a tour de force” and The New York Times called “a beautiful novel…that had echoes of The Great Gatsby and that circles, with pointed intellect, the possibilities and limitations of American life.” His first novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown & Co.), was published in over 20 languages. As a playwright, he has written Junk (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Kennedy Prize for American Drama, Tony nomination); Disgraced (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony nomination); The Who & The What (Lincoln Center); and The Invisible Hand (NYTW; Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award, Olivier, and Evening Standard nominations).
Among other honors, Akhtar is the recipient of the Steinberg Playwrighting Award, the Nestroy Award, the Erwin Piscator Award, as well as fellowships from the American Academy in Rome, MacDowell, the Sundance Institute, and Yaddo, where he serves as a Board Director. Additionally, Ayad is a Board Trustee at New York Theatre Workshop, and was named the New York State Author, succeeding Colson Whitehead, by the New York State Writers Institute.
Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in more than 45 countries, is the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels. Burning Questions, a collection of essays from 2004–2021 was published in March 2022. Dearly, her first collection of poetry in over a decade, was published November 2020. Her latest novel, The Testaments, is a co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. It is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, now an award-winning TV series. Her other works of fiction include Cat’s Eye, finalist for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; The MaddAddam Trilogy; and Hag-Seed. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize, the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award. She lives in Toronto.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is the author of 18 books and a trustee of PEN America. She is the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College; in 2022-23 she is a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study. Her next book is Mad Honey (Ballantine), co-authored with Jodi Picoult.
Dave Eggers is the author of many books, including The Every; our Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets? Do They Live Forever, shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award; A Hologram for the King, a finalist for the National Book Award; and What Is the What, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of France’s Prix Médicis Etranger. He is the founder of McSweeney’s Publishing and cofounder of Voice of Witness, a book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises. In 2002 he co-founded 826 Valencia, a youth writing center with a pirate-supply storefront, which has inspired similar literacy programs around the world. He is a winner of the Daytona Literary Peace Prize and the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, and is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters.
Salman Rushdie is the Booker Prize-winning author of 15 works of fiction—his 16th, Victory City, will be published in February 2023—and of five nonfiction works. He is a past president of PEN America and has received the PEN/Allen Literary Service Award (in the US) as well as the Pen Pinter Prize (in the UK). He is a Fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York.