Writers at Risk

Alissa Greenberg

It was one terrible night during the forest fires that finally convinced Anouar Rahmani to leave Algeria. Yes, the frequent interrogations got to him, as did the lengthy trial for “insulting state officials.” But until then it all felt worth it: publishing four novels exploring queer and feminist themes; challenging his country’s conservative religious mores; using the attention to spotlight the thousands of civilians who were disappeared in the 1990s by state security forces during Algeria’s civil war and more recently jailed atheists and dissidents—some of whom were subsequently freed. Then in August 2021, as flames raged in the Algerian city of Tizi Ouzou, artist and activist Jamal bin Ismael was beaten and burned to death by an angry mob. The government denied involvement. For Rahmani the culprit didn’t matter; he had lost trust in his own society. “You feel like a target,” he says. “The regime can attack me, yes. But someone else can attack me too.” He wrote to every journalist and human rights organization he could find asking for help. In January 2022 he finally arrived in Pittsburgh to start a new life, thanks in part to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).

Since its inception in 2006, ICORN has helped more than three hundred poets, lyricists, essayists, and novelists under threat. Originally founded a decade earlier under a different name, it was the brainchild of a cadre of outspoken authors, including Salman Rushdie, whose attack in August—which reportedly damaged his sight in one eye and mobility in one hand—thrust the issue of his profession’s risks into the spotlight. Threats to writers are on the rise worldwide, buoyed by increased nationalism, a broad political swing to the right, and the polarizing, polarized wilds of social media. With the pressure on, ICORN now works with a network of organizations at the intersection of academia, arts, and human rights to support writers abroad like Rahmani as well as scribes in peril closer to home.

“When regimes or fundamentalist groups are trying to force their views or their system on other people, the bearers of the information are the first to be curtailed,” says Marianne Hovdan, a protection manager at ICORN.

While many organizations exist to protect journalists and scholars, creative writers are increasingly in need of assistance. Their work lights an essential, rebellious spark, “providing inspiration for people to push back against authorities: imagining alternate truths, alternate futures, alternate realities,” says Karin Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Programs.

When ICORN started, it received about thirty applications a year, Hovdan says. From 2020 to 2021 it received more than four hundred. At PEN, Karlekar sees a need that’s not just deeper, but also broader in context. Beyond the violence and legal threats wrought by openly repressive regimes like Iran, Russia, China, and Afghanistan, she has increasingly found herself tracking threats in historically more democratic countries—including the United States.

“We used to focus 75 percent on international issues,” she says. But in the past several years, focus has “shifted dramatically” to domestic threats, including censorship on college campuses and, increasingly, the harassment of authors whose books have been banned in some communities. Violent rhetoric has also spiked in the borderless realms of social media, which compounds the problem.

At home, abroad, or online, the writers Hovdan and Karlekar work with face censorship, intimidation, or worse. Both cite as one example a group of Bangladeshi atheist bloggers who several years ago had their names and addresses published on a “death list” in newspapers. Not long after, ICORN helped an Iraqi journalist who had survived three assassination attempts. “We have people who have been in prison for thirteen, fourteen years, gone through horrible torture,” Hovdan says.

Endeavoring to keep cases like these in the public eye, Karlekar and her colleagues have maintained a Writers at Risk database, which now lists nearly eight hundred writers who have been jailed or threatened for their work. They also grant an annual Freedom to Write Award to a persecuted writer or poet. The prize includes compensation, but the major benefit is more profound: Of fifty-one nominees since 1987, forty-five have been freed from prison. Karlekar attributes this feat to a diversity of tactics: press statements, social media campaigns, meetings with congressional bigwigs or United Nations working groups. That’s how PEN America helped secure the release of two jailed Burmese journalists in 2018 and a trio of Saudi women’s rights advocates in 2019.

For more practical matters, Karlekar often connects writers with partner organizations like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s International Writing Program, which has hosted writers for three-month residencies since 1967, as well as Scholars at Risk, Journalists in Distress, and—especially if a writer is looking to flee their home country—ICORN. The organization now connects more than eighty cities around the world, including Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Ithaca, New York, in the United States. Cities host writers like Rahmani, typically through two-year residencies that provide them room, board, and connections to other resources. In addition to help from City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, ICORN’s local arm, Rahmani is also receiving support from the Artist Protection Fund and Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Modern Languages.

When a new application arrives, Hovdan and her colleagues try to determine how urgent a writer’s situation is and what kind of support they might provide during the period between acceptance and arrival in a host city. Staff might buy computers or other equipment for writers who have had to leave their belongings behind. They might help make a security plan in an inviting city. And they often coordinate mental health support, which is a major program priority. “It’s not like you whisk them out of Iran, and everything is fine, and they can keep doing what they’re doing,” Hovdan says. “It’s often a much longer process.”

For Rahmani, leaving his family evoked a “storm of sadness.” The dark, empty streets of midwinter made it harder; he sometimes wondered if prison would be preferable. But spring came. The director of City of Asylum sometimes brings him to the symphony. New friends are teaching him the strange ways of Americans: their hand gestures, their changing moods. And he found a new partner, Luke, who is smart and kind. For now, Rahmani is trying to focus more on the outcomes of his work than on what it has cost him. “Through my writing, I was able to do a lot of things that a lot of people couldn’t do,” he says. “If I did nothing else in that country, at least I spoke the truth.”


Alissa Greenberg is a writer at PBS Nova and a freelance journalist reporting at the intersection of science, history, and culture. Her work has appeared in print and online at the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and more.

NEA at Risk: The Future of Arts Funding Under Trump


Kevin Nance

Update: May 23, 2017. The Trump administration today released its first full budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018 (running from October 1, 2017, through September 30, 2018). The $4.1 trillion budget is notable for its cuts to domestic programs focused on social welfare programs, science and research, and the arts, including the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as the defunding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Each of the proposed cuts must pass through Congress before becoming law. 
Update: May 1, 2017. The House Appropriations Committee released the FY 2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill, the legislation that will provide discretionary funding for the federal government for the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2017. The bill includes $150 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), $2 million above the fiscal year 2016 level. Congress is expected to vote early this week on the full spending package.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, a word commonly used to describe the Republican Party’s nominee, Donald J. Trump, was nonideological. Running from outside—and to some extent against—the Republican establishment, Trump appeared ready to offer a policy agenda that would depart from his party’s traditional platforms in ways large and small. 

Following his Electoral College victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, however, President-elect Trump launched a transition during which he announced one rock-ribbed conservative appointment after another, including that of Stephen Bannon, the former executive chairman of far-right media company Breitbart News, who is committed to what he has called “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” as his chief strategist. And in the first six weeks of his administration, President Trump took a series of hard-line Republican positions: cracking down on immigrants, rolling back a slew of Obama-era regulations protecting the environment, nominating a Supreme Court justice said to be “an heir to Antonin Scalia,” reversing federal guidelines on restroom rights for transgender students, and, more recently, announcing a massive military buildup. This last increase is to be funded by deep budget cuts in other programs—including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent agency of the federal government that offers support and funding for individuals and organizations through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector.

On March 16, Trump became the first American president to propose not just cutting funds for the NEA but abolishing it outright. The White House unveiled a proposed budget that includes eliminating the NEA and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or CPB, which helps fund PBS, National Public Radio, and local public radio stations across the country.

“We are disappointed,” NEA chairman Jane Chu said in a statement, “because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every congressional district in the nation.”

Why kill the NEA? If the $3.9 trillion federal budget is envisioned as a pie, the Endowment’s most recent slice under President Barack Obama ($147.9 million, or .004 percent of the total) would hardly register as a crumb, much less a sliver. And yet the NEA quickly surfaces in nearly any discussion of budget cuts in the Trump era—not because gutting or killing it would contribute meaningfully to any fiscal imperative, but because many Republicans object to it on the ideological grounds that taxpayer funds shouldn’t be spent on the arts, which they consider inessential (or even “waste,” as Brian Darling, a former staffer of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank and longtime NEA opponent, put it in a recent article in the Hill, a newspaper covering politics).

“I am deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s proposed FY 2018 budget calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts,” Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of the lobbying group Americans for the Arts, said in a statement. “Our nation’s parents, teachers, community leaders, arts advocates, government officials, and even economists will not accept this proposal.”

Although Trump has now gone further than any of his predecessors in the Oval Office, the NEA has been the target of Republican budget hawks since early in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget and an architect of what became known as “supply-side” economics, planned to abolish the NEA and NEH over three years. Those plans—later confirmed in a book by Livingston Biddle, NEA chairman from 1977 to 1981—were shelved when a special task force (which included Reagan’s former Hollywood colleague Charlton Heston) concluded that the two agencies performed a valuable service to the nation. Still, and simply put, conservatives have been critical of the NEA for more than three decades because they consider it a frill.

That philosophy was carried to its logical conclusion at the state level in 2011 in Kansas, where Republican governor Sam Brownback gutted the Kansas Arts Commission by line-item-vetoing the $689,000 in state funding that would have qualified it for matching grants from the NEA and a second group. “In difficult fiscal times such as these, the state must prioritize how to spend its limited resources and focus its attention on providing core services,” Brownback said in a statement at the time. In an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine, Kansas Arts Commission chairman Henry Schwaller called it “a devastating loss.” “This has happened because of the governor’s ideological belief that public funds should not be used to fund the arts,” he said. “But it’s also related to his clear misunderstanding of the role of the arts in society and in Kansas in particular. Children and seniors, especially in rural communities, will lose access to the arts because of this.”

Cultural conservatives also still harbor an animus against the NEA that has its roots in the controversies that erupted in 1989 over photographer and NEA grantee Andres Serrano—whose “Piss Christ,” part of the artist’s Immersions series, showed a plastic crucifix submerged in what was said to be his own urine—and Robert Mapplethorpe, whose photographs depicting the gay S&M subculture were shown in an NEA-supported exhibition in Cincinnati. The Serrano and Mapplethorpe firestorms, stoked by subsequent flare-ups involving the so-called “NEA Four” (performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller, whose grant proposals were approved by the NEA’s peer review panels but vetoed by then chairman John Frohnmayer in 1990), turned the NEA into a national lightning rod. Led by Republican senators Alfonse D’Amato of New York and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, conservatives in and out of government repeatedly called for the arts agency to be dismantled as an affront to traditional American values. “Do not dishonor our Lord,” Helms railed on the Senate floor in reference to Serrano. “I resent it, and I think the vast majority of the American people do. And I also resent the National Endowment for the Arts spending the taxpayers’ money to honor this guy.”

In recent years, controversies involving NEA-supported art have become exceedingly rare, in part because most grants to individual artists were discontinued, by congressional mandate, in 1995. The exceptions were literature fellowships and two lifetime honor programs, the NEA Jazz Masters and the NEA National Heritage Fellowships. At the same time the NEA’s advocates have successfully made the case for the arts as an economic engine, contributing $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2013 alone, according to a study conducted by the NEA and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. (That includes for-profit arts activity such as filmmaking.) The NEA has also staked a claim as the nation’s most effective instigator of contributions to the arts by others. For every dollar it awards in grants, the NEA says, up to nine dollars is generated in matching support from private and public sources, leading to an additional $500 million in arts funding in 2016. Still, that onetime shibboleth of the religious right—that the NEA supports degenerate art—still bubbles up now and again on alt-right Internet forums.

Weeks before President Trump unveiled his budget plan, two powerful conservative groups—the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of 173 conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives—called upon him to abolish the NEA and the NEH. And the NEA remains a perennial target of right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart News, once edited by Bannon and known to be on Trump’s daily reading list. Breitbart has been publishing articles critical of the NEA at least since 2009, when it claimed the agency was encouraging artists to support President Obama’s agenda on education, health care, the environment, and other topics. “The National Endowment of the Arts is under attack—again,” poet Dana Gioia, who led the NEA from 2003 to 2009, wrote recently in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. “The foes are the same tired cast of characters who have assaulted the agency for the last thirty years. Their arguments are the same threadbare notions that have been repeatedly rejected. They are mounting a partisan battle that will do the nation no good. But for the sake of the arts, it needs to be fought again and won.”

Gioia continued: “Both the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Study Committee have long been obsessed with ending federal support for the arts. During my six years as the chairman of the NEA under president George W. Bush, these groups launched one unsuccessful volley after another. Their stated rationale was that the federal government had no business funding the arts. Beneath that small-government ideal, however, was another openly acknowledged motive not related to the public good but to political advantage. By eliminating the NEA, they could deliver a symbolic victory against leftist urban constituencies.”

For all these reasons, the NEA finds itself once again in potentially mortal danger. With Republicans now firmly in control of the executive branch and both houses of Congress, the agency’s prospects for continued survival may be dimmer than at any point in its history.


The NEA was established by Congress in 1965, during the Johnson administration, to “support the survival of the best of all forms that reflect the American heritage in its full range of cultural and ethnic diversity and to provide national leadership on behalf of the arts.” Over the years, the Endowment has dispensed more than $5 billion to artists and arts organizations in the fields of dance, design, folk and traditional arts, literature, media arts, music, opera, multidisciplinary works, performance art, theater, and the visual arts. (Poets & Writers, Inc., the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine, receives an annual grant that supports the magazine and the website pw.org. Poets & Writers is also a cofounder of the Literary Network, or LitNet, a coalition of sixty-eight nonprofit literary organizations that was established in 1992 as an extension of the now-defunct Coalition of Writers Organizations and in response to the freedom of expression controversies surrounding the NEA.)

In the 2016 fiscal year, more than 80 percent of the NEA’s $147.9 million appropriation was distributed as grants and awards to organizations and individuals across the country. About 40 percent of that money was awarded directly to the states through their arts agencies. The other 60 percent was distributed to artists and arts organizations applying through the NEA funding categories.

In a clear response to past criticism of its grant-making process as “elitist,” the NEA now earmarks a portion of its grants for underserved communities. Forty percent of NEA-supported activities happen in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, and 36 percent of NEA grants go to organizations that reach people with disabilities, people in institutions (including prisons), and veterans. One-third of NEA grants serve audiences with low incomes. 

And while some have charged that the NEA favors large cultural institutions that would more appropriately be funded by their presumably wealthy patrons, the majority of NEA grants—65 percent—go to small and medium-sized organizations in every congressional district in the nation.

All grant applications to the NEA are reviewed on the basis of “artistic excellence and artistic merit,” according to “Art Works for America,” the NEA’s 2014–2018 strategic plan. Applications are first evaluated by independent panels consisting of experts in the various disciplines and “at least one knowledgeable layperson.” The panels’ recommendations are forwarded to the NEA’s advisory body, the National Council on the Arts, whose members are artists, scholars, and arts patrons appointed by the president. The council’s recommendations are sent to the NEA chairman (currently Jane Chu, a holdover from the Obama administration), who makes the final decision.

But will there be any grant decisions to be made in the new fiscal year? Will there be a National Endowment for the Arts at all? As of this writing, it’s unclear how Trump’s budget will fare in Congress, where the NEA still enjoys the support of most Democrats and some Republicans, including moderates and even some conservatives. In his statement, Lynch quotes North Carolina Republican representative Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, as saying he opposes Trump’s plans for the arts: “I appreciate the education that is found in the arts, so at this point I have no path to making any kind of hard cuts right now.” In her statement, Chu implied that anything could still happen. “We understand that the president’s budget request is a first step in a very long budget process,” she said. “As part of that process we are working with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to prepare information they have requested.”

A message posted to the grant application page of the NEA’s website on the same day the president’s proposal was unveiled reads, “We continue to make FY 2017 grant awards and will continue to honor all obligated grant funds made to date. In addition, we will continue to accept grant applications for FY 2018 at our usual deadlines…. The agency continues to operate as usual and will do so until a new budget is enacted by Congress.”

In the coming months the House and Senate budget committees will each write and vote on budget resolutions, at which point the subcommittee’s “markup” appropriation bills determine the level of spending for all discretionary programs. Then the full House and Senate debate and vote on those bills; only after each bill passes Congress can the president sign them and the budget becomes law. 

Whatever happens during this process, it won’t occur under the radar. It will be done in the full glare of the public eye, and under the careful scrutiny of those who benefit from NEA’s support, including members of the literary community who stand ready to protect the future of arts funding.


Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine

Vote of Confidence: The Life-Changing Support of an NEA Fellowship


Kevin Larimer


For more than fifty years the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has been a vital part of this country’s creative ecosystem, providing funding and support to writers, translators, and organizations, as well as partnering with arts groups and non-arts sectors to create programs, such as Poetry Out Loud and the Big Read, that celebrate America’s rich cultural heritage and promote access to the arts in every community. For readers of this magazine, of course, the most visible—and sought-after—support offered by the NEA comes in the form of creative writing fellowships: $25,000 grants given in alternating years to poets and prose writers, enabling them “to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement.” In short, they allow writers to be writers—even if that means simply giving them the ability to pay the rent or the student loan or the babysitter or the credit card bill—in a world that rarely acknowledges their work in financial terms.

But this isn’t all about the money. This is about being part of a tradition, built over the past half century, that honors artistic excellence in its many forms. This is about writers who are also nurses and farmers and teachers and librarians receiving support and validation from experts in the field—a measure of reassurance that the work they do before or after the day job or the night shift is valuable. And, yes, this is about patriotism: the federal government sending a message that the work of poets and writers is integral to an open society in which free expression is not only protected, but also encouraged. 

This and much more is at stake as we move through the congressional budget process following President Trump’s ill-advised proposal to eliminate federal support for the NEA. And while these kinds of decisions often come down to numbers on a spreadsheet, it is important to highlight the real people—with lives and loved ones and dreams and challenges—at the other end of those fellowship checks. I spoke with nine fellowship winners, from 1977 grant recipient Joy Harjo to 2017 fellows Kathryn Nuernberger and Monica Sok, about what receiving the NEA’s creative writing fellowship meant to them, both in terms of practical financial assistance and as a vote of confidence from the federal government at that particular time in their personal and professional lives.

Joy Harjo | Kimiko HahnJulia AlvarezPeter Ho DaviesAnthony Doerr  
Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“To be an artist in my family was somewhat expected. My grandmother and great aunt were painters. With Indian oil money, they obtained arts training—but more than that, they were afforded the time to create. Two of my most valued possessions are paintings by them. My grandmother Naomi Harjo even played saxophone. But to be a poet, especially as a single mother, with no additional income, made for a different story. My family was proud of me, but their constant concern was: How are you going to make a living? We already had one poet in our family tree, Alexander Posey, a Muscogee Creek poet who founded the first native daily newspaper, but he made a living as a journalist, not as a poet. I knew that I would write no matter what, and I wrote my way through jobs, classes, and childrearing. The Pueblo novelist and poet Leslie Silko was the first writer I knew to be awarded an NEA fellowship, and she urged me to apply. I was about to graduate with my MFA and didn’t have anything lined up except a return home to New Mexico and an application for teaching creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, then a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. I remember that late spring afternoon of 1977 opening the letter from the NEA announcing my fellowship. It was the gift I needed. It was enough money to assist me with writing what would be my breakout/breakthrough book of poetry, She Had Some Horses. I used the money for rent, utilities, supplies, and childcare. The fellowship bought me time. And it bought more than that; it brought affirmation. It put my family and community on notice that what I was doing as a poet—a strange occupation for a young native mother who needed to make a living—was considered worthy of support. My next fellowship came in 1992. It gave me the time I needed to get over that hump period that happens in the lives of all of us who create art. She Had Some Horses had set a mark. The second fellowship helped me leap the fence and make a collection that envisioned a book of poetry as an oral event.” —Joy Harjo, NEA fellow, 1977, 1992; author of ten poetry collections and a memoir, Crazy Brave (Norton, 2012)



“In the early 1980s I was studying Japanese at Columbia University and working in one of the college’s secretarial pools. When I wasn’t retyping a professor’s paper, I took advantage of the best typewriter in the world, the IBM Selectric, and put it to use for my own purposes. I was the busiest-looking secretary on campus, writing poems that would become my first two books, Air Pocket then Earshot. I was also a thirty-one-year-old new mother without an MFA—which is to say, without mentors or connections—and I felt alone, isolated. All my poet friends had books, but the support for presses was rapidly drying up. For me, mailing out a manuscript with the enclosed SASE was expensive. And waiting for snail mail was crushing. This was the backdrop to a parcel I received in our small mailbox: a thin envelope from the National Endowment for the Arts. I read it in the crack-infested vestibule of my apartment building in New York City and wept. It was 1986, the year I knew I’d be okay—more than okay. The NEA fellowship in poetry gave me validation that cannot be measured. Validation, for me, was a license to trespass: to continue writing fragments about the female body from an Asian American woman’s point of view. It may be difficult now to believe how radical this was: to hold a legal pad and pen in a coffee shop and write with confidence. The fellowship marked a turning point in my life, as it does for so many writers who receive the same gift of validation from the NEA.” —Kimiko Hahn, NEA fellow, 1986, 1992; author of nine poetry collections, including Brain Fever (Norton, 2014)



“My first job out of graduate school was as a poet in the schools in Kentucky, a two-year residency funded by the Kentucky Arts Council and the NEA in 1975. I traveled around the state giving writing workshops and exposing people of all ages and backgrounds to poetry—students in elementary schools and colleges, farmers in communities in Appalachia, and reform-school teens in Louisville. After the Kentucky residency, I went on to teach across America in poetry programs funded by the NEA. I taught migrant workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley; bilingual elementary school students in Baltimore; senior citizens in nursing homes, church basements, and Sunshine Centers, as they were called, centers where a free meal was provided, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. This last residency culminated in a book of their writings, Old Age Ain’t for Sissies, as well as a series of public readings in the community funded by the NEA. African American eighty-year-olds recited their poems before enthusiastic audiences, feeling for the first time in their lives that they had a voice and were being heard. The program helped create a strong, compassionate, connected community. The NEA is a cultural resource we can’t afford to lose. No other programs are so widespread, addressing so many different age populations and areas of the country. We must not think of the NEA and its programs as something ‘just for artists.’ It is a vital educational resource, which doesn’t quit after our school years are over. We are educating our citizenry in the rich literary resources of this great country and helping them evolve and develop their own expressive tools. An informed citizenry means a stronger, more united, compassionate, and educated America. The individual grant I received from the NEA in 1987 allowed me to take time from full-time teaching and work on the stories that would eventually become my first published novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, based on my family’s immigrant experience after escaping the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1960. The novel now forms part of the curriculum in many schools and universities—the NEA at work again, enabling the creation of a diverse culture that enriches us all. Finally, in 2015, it was the NEA that nominated me for a National Medal in the Arts. For a little immigrant girl to end up receiving an award from the president of the United States was the American Dream come true. But none of us get where we want to go by ourselves. Along the way we encounter helpers, fairy godmothers. The NEA has served that role for me and so many others. I don’t have a magic wand to wave, but I do have a pen to write down this plea: Keep this incredible national treasure endowed and vital for the next generations of students, artists, writers, and readers, so that they can continue creating the country we all dream this can be.” —Julia Alvarez, NEA fellow, 1987; author of twenty-two books, including the children’s book Where Do They Go? (Triangle Square, 2016)



“I was lucky enough to receive NEA fellowships in 1998 and 2016. Both enabled me to write for a year. Both provided a considerable morale boost. Both made possible the books I was working on. That much is likely true for most recipients, of course. In my case, though, as an immigrant to this country, both also felt like an embrace from my adopted home. The emotional significance of the $25,000 grants, in other words, far exceeded their already handsome monetary value. The NEA also cemented my bond to the U.S. in another way. In between my two awards I had the privilege of serving on the panel that selects NEA fellows, which is how I found myself in a federal building on Pennsylvania Avenue at 9 AM on September 11, 2001. We saw smoke rising from the Pentagon through the windows of our conference room. Shortly thereafter, we were evacuated. That afternoon, back at the hotel, we decided, in spite of shock and sorrow, to continue our work. A small gesture, of course, but it felt like something worthwhile, a modest assertion of life and hope, of creativity, in the face of destruction, and one only made possible by dedicated NEA staffers. That night I walked down to the White House, which was floodlit like a beacon, and stood with the hushed crowd gathered before it. There’s been much talk of patriotism in the years between then and now, much talk about what the country stands for. The NEA, representing as it does a nation’s faith in the arts, seemed to me that day and ever since, an institution any country could and should be proud of. The federal building where the NEA was based on 9/11, incidentally, was the Old Post Office Pavilion, now the Trump International Hotel. The cost for a night in its largest suite on September 11, 2017: $25,000.” —Peter Ho Davies, NEA fellow, 1998, 2016; author of four books, including the novel The Fortunes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)



“My wife and I were married in 2000, but we couldn’t figure out how to live in the same town. She was working for Hewlett-Packard in Boise, Idaho, and I was hopscotching around the Midwest chasing teaching gigs and fellowships. We were paying two rents, spending all our money on airfare and telephone bills, and multiple times a year I cajoled my Subaru across Wyoming and Nebraska with our goldfish in a gallon water jug beside me. Every night I asked myself, ‘How important is it to me to be a writer? Important enough to spend anniversaries and Valentine’s Day and random Tuesdays apart? Just because I want to chase a silly dream?’ Then I won an NEA fellowship. I promptly sold the kitchen table, gave away most everything else, drove two thousand miles west, and moved in with my wife. For the first time since we were married, we got to wake up together every morning on a consistent basis. And after she went to work, I got to turn on my computer and face down the dragon of my next book. Years later, serving as a judge on a panel to award those same fellowships, I discovered that all over the country, writers and their loved ones were weighing similar choices: Make a car payment, or write an essay? Take a second job so a partner can finish her novel? The National Endowment for the Arts allows artists and their families to prioritize creativity, even if only for a few months, and sometimes those months are all an artist needs to give back to the country a piece of work that will outlast us all.” —Anthony Doerr, NEA fellow, 2002; author of five books, including the novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, 2014)

Benjamin Percyfrancine j. harrisKathryn Nuernberger | Monica Sok

“If I could have any superpower, it would be to stop or stretch time. And whenever someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas, I say, ‘Time.’ There is never enough of it. Here is the math of 2011: Two young kids, one still in diapers; two teaching gigs—at a traditional and a low-res MFA program—which translates to maybe a thousand manuscript pages in need of editing; one leaky roof; one totaled car; one novel under way; twelve speaking gigs; ten book reviews; six short stories; $40,000 in student loans; a five-hour flight to one set of grandparents; a five-hour drive to the other. There’s nothing startling or appalling about these numbers; I was responsible for many of them, and I was building the life I wanted. But working sixty hours a week and chasing bills and scrambling from one speaking engagement to the next and trying to be there for my family sometimes added up to a schedule that made me feel stretched so thin you could see through me. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I’m not sure I can keep up this pace,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want you to.’ The NEA fellowship allowed me to slow down and carve out time so that I could properly research and pour all of my creative energy into a book that I couldn’t have written in such a harried, exhausted state. Time. That’s what these grants give their recipients. The gift of time, which is in such short supply for all of us. And, of course, money: to hire a babysitter. To fly out a grandparent for help. To teach fewer classes or take on fewer freelance assignments—or escape whatever other obligations are keeping us away from the page, the canvas, the studio, the darkroom. And here is the lovely, complicated calculus of the NEA: Those dollars become hours, and those hours become novels, memoirs, sonnets, sonatas, landscapes, photo essays, documentaries that have an incalculable effect on enriching and expanding the lives of their audience.” —Benjamin Percy, NEA fellow, 2012; author of seven books, including the novel The Dark Net (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)



“Being awarded the NEA Fellowship changed the direction of my life. At the time it was awarded, I was teaching at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a secondary school in northern Michigan. I enjoyed the job but wasn’t writing enough. While a brilliant few are able to meet the time demands of high school teaching loads and still write, I didn’t have that stamina. Additionally, northern Michigan, though beautiful, was culturally isolating. Short on money and time, I worried I might get stuck in a career that would have meant limits on my writing. Winning this fellowship allowed me to accept my current residency at Washington University in St. Louis. It also gave credibility to my work. For poets, that’s a big deal. While, as artists, we all want to make work that is satisfying on its own merit, most poets do not survive on their work alone. As important as the work is to our audiences, I believe part of the reason harsh critics of the genre can get away with claiming poetry has no social poignancy is because we stand to make so little money in our field. Book contracts offer smaller advances than in other genres, so publishing does not always equal income. People who love poetry often depend on this community of reading and performance, and those events are generally free to the public. With our short form, we have a vibrant and accessible presence online. But it means the power of this art is not in its capital. We do what we love, and fellowships, such as the NEA’s, are monetarily crucial. The National Endowment for the Arts fellowship has, quite simply, allowed me to continue my work.” —francine j. harris, NEA fellow, 2015; author of two poetry collections, including Play Dead (Alice James Books, 2016)



“The recipient of an NEA grant sits precariously at the nexus of contradictory forces: art, government, and money. Great art ought to have nothing to do with money or power, and so paradoxically it comes to have a great deal to do with both. The philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer suggested the distinction between entertainment and art is that entertainment has purpose (to inspire people to pay for it), while art has ‘purposiveness.’ Purposiveness is the feeling that a work of art is accomplishing something beyond its own ends. By providing financial support and putting a spotlight on my recently released collection, The End of Pink, the NEA grant encourages me to focus more on purposive writing and less on a purposeful hustle to find readers, royalties, and otherwise ‘succeed’ in the literary marketplace. I’m able to use this year of grant funding to finalize a third book of poems, Rue, which considers eighteenth- and nineteenth-century botanical expeditions and folklore surrounding plants historically used for birth control through a lens of intersectional feminism. The grant has also allowed me to plan poetry readings in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado, often in rural areas that are disconnected from more urban literary hubs. How bold and brilliant a democracy is to invite paradox and dissent into its agencies, its budget, its apparatuses of power and control. Governmental support for the arts, which by their nature challenge the government that funds them, is a mechanism that inculcates within itself a relentless seeking after deeper understandings of what a democratic government should do and be for its people. Though not everyone who deserves these grants receives one, the presence of the NEA reminds all of us that our creative work is essential to the advancement of a great nation with even greater as-yet-unfulfilled ideals.” —Kathryn Nuernberger, NEA fellow, 2017; author of two poetry collections, including The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016)



“My manuscript needs work. It’s full of myth-making and family narratives in the context of the Khmer Rouge regime. Lately, I’ve been allowing myself to dwell in my dream space longer, to take more risks in my poetry. With the support of an NEA fellowship, I feel more confident about the imaginary world I’ve been trying to create over the last three years. Every week I continue my process of world-building. I spread out all my drafts and swim in the poems I’ve started. At this time in my personal life, I want to create new structures within my craft, to be wildly imaginative, to survive better in my search for love and healing. Without the financial burdens of rent and utilities, monthly student loans, credit card bills, and medical expenses, I can rest and practice more self-care while dealing with the difficult subject of genocide and intergenerational trauma. The award will also help me travel to Cambodia over the course of writing my first book. When I learned that the NEA might be defunded and then eliminated, I thought about the Khmer Rouge and its horrific transition into power, one where hundreds of thousands of artists and intellectuals were targeted in the early days of the regime. I’ve always been aware of myself as a poet in this country. The urgency to write remains the same for me, but I renew my desire to hone the subversiveness that my craft relies on so heavily. In 1990, the NEA also supported my grandmother Em Bun, a weaver, through a National Heritage Fellowship. My grandmother was a refugee. Over the course of three generations, the NEA has helped two women artists in my family. I strongly believe that it must continue to do the necessary work of preserving the arts.” —Monica Sok, NEA fellow, 2017; author of the poetry chapbook Year Zero (Poetry Society of America, 2015) 


Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.

Photo credits: Joy Harjo: Karen Kuehn; Kimiko Hahn: Beowulf Sheehan; Julia Alvarez: Bill Eichner; Peter Ho Davies: Dane Hillard; Anthony Doerr: Todd Meier; Benjamin Percy: Arnab Chakladar; francine j. harris: Cybele Knowles; Monica Sok: Sy J. Abudu

Salman Rushdie Death Threats, Chuck Palahniuk’s Writing Tips, and More


Evan Smith Rakoff


Every day Poets & Writers Magazine scans the headlines—from publishing reports to academic announcements to literary dispatches—for all the news that creative writers need to know. Here are today’s stories:

Novelist Salman Rushdie has decided to not attend the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival in India. In a released statement, the author wrote he was “informed by intelligence sources in Maharashtra and Rajasthan that paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld may be on their way to Jaipur to ‘eliminate’ me.” (New York Times)

The annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, began yesterday, and Word and Film has the skinny on the latest crop of literature-to-film adaptations, including Mark Jude Poirier’s novel Goats, and Beth Raymer’s memoir Lay the Favorite.

If you haven’t attended a Burns Supper—the yearly convivial celebrations of the Scottish poet Robert Burns—the Boston Globe lists several, but if Boston isn’t geographically convenient check your local listings as Burns Suppers are usually held on the poet’s birthday, January 25th.

The Guardian writes that T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novel World’s End, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1988, is an overlooked classic of American literature.

The Wall Street Journal examines the new and perplexing business of enhanced e-books. For example, the enhanced version of Stephen King’s latest, 11/22/63, “sold 45,000 copies at $16.99. The hardcover version, by contrast, sold close to a million copies at $35.00, and the unadorned digital version has sold nearly 300,000 copies at $14.99.”

On his website, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk offers thirteen tips for writers.

Writer A-J Aronstein describes what happens when the producers of the HBO adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections consider filming inside his childhood home. (Millions)

Flavorwire features literature-inspired nail art, including Pride and Prejudice, as well as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Change Comes to PEN American Center


PEN American Center, the central U.S. outpost for the international writers organization, will welcome a new president this spring and bid farewell this summer to its longtime executive director. Princeton philosophy professor and author Kwame Anthony Appiah is expected to be voted in next week to a one-year term as president and successor to Francine Prose, who has served two terms. Executive director Michael Roberts, who has served for eleven years in the post, will be leaving the organization at the end of June, with a successor yet to be named.

Roberts, who is departing PEN American Center in order to pursue other projects, was integral in the development of initiatives including Freedom to Write, an advocacy program for writers whose liberty is threatened as a result of their work, and the PEN World Voices festival, an annual literary gathering featuring performances, conversations, and readings with writers from around the world. Celebrating its fifth anniversary, PEN World Voices will take place this year from April 27 to May 3 in various venues throughout New York City.

PEN World Voices was praised by the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) as one of PEN American Center’s most worthwhile programs when the NBCC announced in January that it would award the organization the Ivan Sandrof Life Achievement Award. The NBCC also commended PEN American Center’s translation initiatives and the organization’s promotion of freedom of expression worldwide. The Sandrof Award, named for the first NBCC president, is given to recognize “dedication to book culture both long-standing and outstanding.”

A crowd gathers at the New York Public Library in August 2022 after the attack on Salman Rushdie, showing support for the author and the freedom to write.  (Credit: Jennifer S. Altman)

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Author: mshi

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  • December 13, 2022