By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Nossel: ‘To Break Boundaries and Risk Backlash’As timing goes, the author Ayad Akhtar could hardly have asked for a better moment to be announced the next president of PEN America.
A winner of the Obie and Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced (Hachette, 2013), Akhtar is in the run-up to the release on Tuesday (September 15) of his Homeland Elegies: A Novel (Hachette/Little, Brown). The book—partly based on fact—has quickly gathered an enviable collection of thoughtful articles and reviews.
Junot Díaz, in The Oprah Magazine, writes that Homeland Elegies is “singular in its richness, inventiveness, and braininess and the fiery candor with which Akhtar chars nearly every sentence. It speaks to his gifts that a novel so ruminative and digressive is also bursting with page-turning head-blowers.”
In comments to John Williams at The New York Times, Akhtar demonstrates his capacity for cutting through attitudinal rhetoric when touching on the “cancel culture” debate that has fascinated many in US literary circles recently. He’s willing to say, as many will not, that it’s not actually evident what the phrase is about.
“What are we really talking about when we talk about cancel culture?” he says to Williams. “To what extent are the institutions responsible for the acts of ‘cancellation,’ and to what extent are the initial voices on social media responsible for it? I’m not sure it’s clear yet.
“And some of the more high-profile attempts to weigh in on this have made clear that there isn’t consensus around what cancel culture even means.”
At PEN, Akhtar will follow the author Jennifer Egan, who will end a three-year tenure in the role on December 2. During Egan’s term, the organization has intensified its objections to limits on free speech and the freedom to publish, going so far as to sue Donald Trump in 2018 for his efforts to delimit journalists’ First Amendment rights to publish news he doesn’t like.
As Publishing Perspectives readers will remember, the organization in late August released its new compendium of 111 short essays, We Will Emerge, focused on impressions of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and political landscape. And it was during Egan’s presidency that the New York-based PEN America and the Los Angeles-based PEN Center USA merged into one organization, opening up a chance for greater coherence as the unified American chapter of PEN International.
In introducing Akhtar as the incoming president, PEN America’s Stephen Fee writes that the organization now has a membership of at least 7,500 “writers and readers” in the United States, with chapters recently established in Oklahoma, North Carolina, Michigan, and Alabama to augment the work of the New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington offices.
PEN also operates one of the largest and most remunerative batteries of awards programs in the States, the only drawback being that it’s remarkably confusing to follow, albeit for the right reason of its myriad awards named for generous sponsors. Longlists are expected from the program in December.
In announcing the news of Akhtar’s coming presidency, executive director Suzanne Nossel calls him “a dauntless documenter of our time.
“His writing across disciplines,” she says, “voices the unspoken and lays bare what many would rather keep cloaked. His willingness to break boundaries and risk backlash make him an especially appropriate leader for PEN America at a time when our collective cultural parameters are being renegotiated. He’s a fierce advocate and an embodiment of the role of literature as a catalyst for change.”
Akhtar: ‘An Essential Force’
Akhtar, a native of Staten Island raised in Milwaukee, has been a PEN America trustee since 2015 and brings a specific energy to his new role because his is one of the most veracious of the American Muslim literary community, positioning 9/11 in the early pages of his new book as “that terrifying day in September that changed Muslim lives in America forever.”
In a comment on the release of the news about his new role, Akhtar is quoted, saying, “PEN America has its work cut out for it in an era when the quest for truth is challenged as never before.
“PEN America has become a powerful bulwark standing for the power of literature to reveal truths and bridge divides, an essential force amid today’s overlapping crises.
“I feel privileged to build on the visionary leadership of Jennifer Egan and to work with PEN America’s trustees, staff, and writers to break new ground in fulfillment of our shared mission.”
Akhtar’s fellowships include stints with the American Academy in Rome, the MacDowell, and Sundance. He’s on the board of Yaddo.
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