Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom and the Future

A special symposium to celebrate the centennial of PEN America at the New York Historical Society.

PLEASE NOTE: PEN America members should email membership@pen.org for more information on free membership tickets. New York City students are eligible for discounted tickets. The symposium will be followed by a VIP reception with limited tickets available.

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Over the past 100 years, PEN America has mobilized countless writers, activists, and public intellectuals to defend free speech and the open exchange of ideas. Join PEN America CEO Suzanne Northell and the president Ayad Akhtar Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom, and the Future, an afternoon of open conversations with world-renowned authors and staunch advocates for freedom of writing, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adic, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Dave Eggersand Salman RushdieSpeakers will reflect on milestone moments in PEN America’s history and examples of silence today, portraying the passage of book bans, educational gag orders, online harassment, self-censorship and detention of journalists and artists around the world. Through an in-depth analysis of the past and present, this special workshop will provide important insights into the future of free speech.

Words on Fire: Writing, Freedom and the Future and PEN America’s 100th Anniversary: ​​A Century of Defending the Word, curated by PEN America trustees Bridget Coleman and Lisa Klossek. On view at the New York Historical Society through October 9, this special installation draws on material from PEN America and PEN International’s extensive archives to gain insight into how PEN America grew from a post-World War I dining club to the leading free speech advocacy organization it is today .

Hosted by:

Suzanne Northell headshotSuzanne Northell is the CEO of PEN America, the foremost organization dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights, free speech and literature. As CEO, Northell has led free speech movements 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. Northell also served as chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch and 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, Northell regularly writes for New York Times, Washington Postand other publications, as well as regular columns foreign policy.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adic Born in Enugu, Nigeria. her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writer’s Award, her second novel, half yellow sun (2006), won the Orange Award.her 2013 novel American Won the National Book Critics Association Award and was named New York Times Top 10 Best Books of 2013. her collection of stories, something around your neck, Awarded the O’Henry Prize. she was named one of time magazine100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, wealth Magazine named her one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent job is, sad note, an article on the loss of a father, published in 2021. Adige splits her time between the US and Nigeria, where she leads an annual creative writing workshop.

New York, NY – August 7, 2017: Ayad Akhtar poses for a portrait in New York.

Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright who will serve as president of PEN America since 2021. His work has been published and performed in more than two languages. He is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Edith Wharton Prize for Fiction, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize for Literature.

Akhtar is Motherland Elegy (Little, Brown & Co.), where Washington post known as “a tour de force” and New York Times Called “a beautiful novel… the great gatsby This revolves around the possibilities and limitations of American life with a keen intellect. “His first novel, American Dervish (Little, Brown & Co.), published in more than 20 languages.As a playwright, he wrote Rubbish (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Kennedy American Drama Awards, Tony Nominated); shame (Lincoln Center, Broadway; Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony Nominated); who and what (Lincoln Center); and invisible hand (New York Times; Obie Award, Outside Critics John Gassner Award, Olivier and Evening Standard nominees).

Among other honors, Akhtar has received the Steinberg Playwright Award, the Nestroy Award, the Owen Piscato Award, and the American Academy of Rome, McDowell, Sundance and Yaddo’s Fellowship, where he serves as a board director. In addition, Ayad is a board trustee for the New York Theater Studio and was named a New York State Writer by the New York State Writers Guild, succeeding Colson Whitehead.

Margaret Atwoodwhose work has been published in more than 45 countries and is the author of more than 50 novels, poems, review articles, and graphic novels. burning problem, 2004 essay collection2021 release in March 2022. Honey, her first book of poetry in over a decade, was published in November 2020. her latest novel, will, is a co-recipient of the 2019 Booker Prize.it is the long awaited sequel The Handmaid’s Tale, now an award-winning TV series.Her other works of fiction include cat eyeshortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize; alias gracewon the Giller Award in Canada and the Premio Mondello Award in Italy; blind assassin2000 Booker Prize Winner; Mad Adam trilogy; and Hag-seed. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the German Book Trade Peace Prize, the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize, the PEN America Lifetime Achievement Award, and los angeles times Innovator Award. She lives in Toronto.

Jennifer Finney Boylan headshot

Photo by Dan Hale

Jennifer Finney Boylan He is the author of 18 books and a trustee of PEN America. She is the Anna Quindlen writer at Barnard College. For the 2022-23 academic year, she is a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study.her next book is crazy honey (Ballantine), co-authored with Jodi Picoult.

Dave Eggers is the author of many books, including Each; our fathers, where are they? What about the prophet? whether they live forever, Shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Prize; Hologram of the Kinga finalist for the National Book Award; and what is what, Finalist for the National Book Critics Association Award and recipient of the French Medicis Etlange Award.He is the founder and co-founder of McSweeney’s Publishing Witness the voice, a book series that uses oral histories to illuminate human rights crises. In 2002, he co-founded 826 Valencia, a youth writing center with a pirate supply storefront, inspiring similar literacy programs around the world. He is the recipient of the Daytona Literary Peace Prize and the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, and is a member of the College of Arts and Letters.

Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie is the Booker Prize winner for 15 works of fiction—his 16th, city ​​of victory, to be published in February 2023, contains five works of nonfiction. He is a past president of PEN America and a recipient of the PEN/Allen Award for Literary Service (US) and the Pent Award (UK). He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York.

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