92NY Halts Literary Series After Pulling Author Critical of Israel

92NY, one of the city’s leading cultural organizations, announced Monday that it was putting its prestigious literary reading series on pause, following an outcry over its decision to cancel an appearance last week by a prominent writer who had been critical of Israel.

The controversy started on Friday afternoon when 92NY, formerly known as the 92nd Street Y, decided to pull an event that evening featuring the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who had planned to discuss his memoir. The reading, organized by 92NY’s Unterberg Poetry Center, instead moved to a bookstore in downtown Manhattan, without any sponsorship from the Y.

92NY confirmed afterward that the decision not to go ahead with the event stemmed from Nguyen’s public statements about Israel.

The decision drew criticism from advocates for free expression. And over the weekend, a number of writers scheduled to appear at 92NY in the coming months announced their intentions to pull out, and some members of the poetry center’s staff resigned.

On Monday afternoon, 92NY said that the 2023-24 literary series was “on pause given recent staff resignations.”

It was an abrupt end to the planned season at the poetry center, which was founded in 1939 and has long been one of the city’s most storied literary venues, with a roster of speakers has included Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison.

Before the season was paused, upcoming events included appearances by Richard Ford, John Edgar Wideman and Roxane Gay, as well as an event on Thursday featuring two former United States poet laureates, organized in conjunction with the Academy of American Poets.

On Saturday, as news of the cancellation of Nguyen’s event spread, writers began announcing they would withdraw from upcoming appearances. The critics Christina Sharpe and Saidiya Hartman and the poet and novelist Dionne Brand said they would not appear at an event on Wednesday called “Writing, Form and Black Life.”

“As writers of conscience, as anti-imperialist, anti-racist and anti-colonial thinkers, we have cancelled our appearance,” they said in a joint statement posted on Sharpe’s account on X, formerly Twitter.

The poet Paisley Rekdal and the critic Andrea Long Chu also wrote on X that they were pulling out of their events.

“I am aware of the very difficult position that the Y is in, and I’m deeply sympathetic to it,” Rekdal said in an email on Monday. “However, the Y’s decision has unintentional knock-on effects for the writing community as a whole, in particular an implicit chilling effect on free speech.”

Chu, in her social media announcement, called 92NY a “pro-war nonprofit.” In an email, Chu said the organization had the right to invite or disinvite who it pleased.

“I don’t judge the Y for being political,” she said. “I judge it on the substance of its politics, which I find horrific.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Chihaya, the poetry center’s director, and Sophie Herron, the senior program coordinator, confirmed they had resigned, but declined to comment further.

The turmoil at the Y is part of continuing cultural repercussions over the war between Israel and Hamas. In the arts world, there have been numerous open letters criticizing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and broader policies toward Palestinians. Some of those letters have in turn prompted counter-letters criticizing what the signatories see as the minimizing, or even the endorsement, of the surprise attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed some 1,400 people, most of them civilians.

Nguyen, whose novel “The Sympathizer” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, was among more than 750 artists who signed an open letter in The London Review of Books calling for an immediate cease-fire, and charging that Israel’s “unprecedented and indiscriminate violence” in Gaza constituted “grave crimes against humanity.” On Instagram, Nguyen also reiterated his support for the movement calling for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel, known as B.D.S.

His appearance at 92NY, which was to feature him in conversation with the novelist Min Jin Lee, was pulled at around 2 p.m. on Friday, six hours before it was supposed to start. It was held instead, without any sponsorship from the Y, at a McNally Jackson bookstore in Lower Manhattan.

At that event, Bernard Schwartz, the poetry center’s executive director, called 92NY’s decision “unacceptable.”

“What other events will the Y say can no longer happen on its stages?” he asked. When contacted on Monday, Schwartz declined to comment further.

In a statement on Saturday, the Y said it had “postponed,” not canceled, the event with Nguyen, but acknowledged the decision was made was out of concern with Nguyen’s “public comments” about Israel.

“We are a Jewish institution that has always welcomed people with diverse viewpoints to our stage,” it said in a statement. “The brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel and the continued holding of hostages, including senior citizens and young children, has absolutely devastated the community.”

Back to top button