PEN America on Tuesday announced that the playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar would serve as its next president, succeeding the novelist Jennifer Egan. Mr. Akhtar, who has been on the board of trustees for the nonprofit literary and human rights organization for five years, won the Pulitzer for his play “Disgraced” in 2013, and is publishing a highly anticipated new novel, “Homeland Elegies,” on Sept. 15. He will officially take over the president’s role at PEN America on Dec. 2.
I spoke to him about the current debates around free speech and so-called cancel culture, the organization’s new branches across the country, its future priorities and more. These are edited and condensed excerpts from the conversation.
There’s been a pivot toward a more domestic focus for the organization since the 2016 election. What do you think of that, and will it continue?
I got more involved, in part, because it started to make more sense to me in the wake of Trump’s election, coming from the heartland myself and feeling the pull of making PEN less of a New York-centric organization and more of a national one. There’s been so much focus on writers abroad, but after 2016 we recognized the ways that what we do abroad could work here.
What are some of the initiatives you’ve been most involved with at PEN?
PEN Across America. In 2016, where I came from, in Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs, I couldn’t find a single Clinton-Kaine sign anywhere. A lot of folks I grew up with — good folks, smart folks — had a very different idea of what was going on. I think dialogue is a very important thing for us to be engaged in as an organization, and to support communities where there are writers who want to get involved. We’ve opened six satellite chapters that were all started by membership in those communities who wanted to take on that role: Dallas, Austin, Tulsa, Detroit, Birmingham and Greenville, N.C. We’re going to continue to start more chapters across the country.
We also had a report about local news that I was involved with — the collapse of local news and the importance of it in the ecosystem. We become prey to disinformation in part because of the lack of locality.
There’s so much polarization between sides right now, but also within sides. And with PEN, that means something like internal disagreement about issues surrounding censorship and so-called cancel culture. How do you see the task of navigating those conversations and keeping everyone, if not on the same exact page, at least attuned to the same general mission?
I think that’s the challenge. Jenny and I started this thing called the literary committee, which is basically the writers on the board who get together, usually at Jenny’s house, and we have an event and talk through what’s come up. And we generally have not moved forward with a statement unless there’s a sense of real unanimity. It doesn’t mean everyone’s in complete agreement, but that we all think there’s something worth saying and that we can all basically agree on it.
If the board and the literary community can be a place for us to have a vital conversation about all this stuff, air our opinions and come to a kind of synthesized consensus, then it merits adding to the conversation. It’s an era where nuance gets lost sometimes because of the means of communication, so maintaining a public space where some degree of complexity and nuance around free speech can exist is a worthy goal.
Is the tension on the left around issues of cancel culture more of a distraction than a productive conversation to be having?
It’s everything: Social media can have really amazing insight and you can have really deep thinking on it, and you can have very knee-jerk, reactionary responses of all sorts. The big question for me around some of this stuff is: What are we really talking about when we talk about cancel culture? 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. PEN might, for example, invest some resources in an extensive white paper or report to think about it more coherently. That might be how the organization can be helpful — not to weigh in with opinion but to collate and analyze information, the way we did with local news.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and the more I think about it, the less clear the bright lines are. That’s not to say there isn’t an unfettered defense of speech to be made — there is — but also finding a way that equality and inclusion and speaking truth to power can exist with that. It’s very complicated.
What do you see as the organization’s biggest priorities, given everything to choose from right now?
Continuing the national outreach. The second would be engaging in the increasingly vociferous free expression issues that have been raised, not just by social media but by the political environment.
The third thing is the literary side. Widening access and also supporting excellence in literary production is an important part of what we do, showing that literature has a place in our national life; it’s not just a pastime or something some people do because they have a taste for it. It can be part of our national discourse and can contribute to it in interesting ways.
There must be a lot of hobnobbing involved in fund-raising. How will that work during the pandemic?
We’ll find out. We’ve been doing these virtual PEN events with show runners and writers; they’ve been quite successful. And a lot of donors have been keeping their commitments, even though we’re not doing our gala.
But we don’t know how long the pandemic will last. For an organization that depends on live events, it’s a challenge.
Have your thoughts about literature and activism and the places where they meet changed throughout your life and career?
I want to answer the question as Ayad the writer, not the future PEN president. But in the capacity of someone taking over at the organization, it’s a moment where our politics has forced people to come to terms with what they put out there and what that means. I’ve always taken an apolitical stance with regards to literature, because I’m not convinced that literature is the best way to form political opinions. It’s the great form of nuanced intellectual discourse. We can have profound conversations about literature, but I’m not sure that political opinions — like who to vote for — are the purview of literature. But increasingly everything has become politicized, and I think an organization like PEN has to acknowledge that.