Q&A with Jennifer Egan, New PEN American President

On March 1 PEN America, a literature and human rights organization that advocates for freedom of expression, named Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jennifer Egan as its new president.
On March 1 PEN America, a literature and human rights organization that advocates for freedom of expression, named Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jennifer Egan as its new president. Egan, a PEN America trustee since 2013, succeeds writer, journalist, and lecturer Andrew Solomon, who served as Pen America president from 2015–18. As Egan stepped into the role, PEN America also announced the completion of a planned unification with the former PEN Center USA in Los Angeles. The center now serves as the organization’s West Coast hub as PEN America Los Angeles. With a combined membership of more than 7,000 writers, journalists, screen and script writers, translators, editors, agents, and allies, PEN America is the largest of the more than 100 centers that comprise the PEN International network. Most recently, Egan’s Manhattan Beach (Scribner) was named the winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, as well as being named a Best Book of 2017 by Amazon, NPR, Time magazine, USA Today, The Guardian, Esquire, and many others. Her previous works include The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, Emerald City and Other Stories, The Keep, and A Visit From the Goon Squad (all Anchor), which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and the LA Times Book Prize. She has written a number of short stories and worked as a journalist, writing frequently for the New York Times Magazine. LJ recently caught up with her to find out more about her work with the consolidated PEN and plans going forward. LJ: What can you bring from your own experience as an author and journalist, as well as a PEN America trustee, to the role of president? Jennifer Egan: I’ve been a member of PEN America since before the organization began keeping electronic records (dating myself, here)! As a young writer in New York in the 1990s, joining PEN America made me feel part of not just a local literary community, but a global network of writers united in celebration of the power and beauty of the written word and dedicated to defending it. So I bring some historical knowledge of the organization to my presidency. PEN America prides itself on bringing together writers of all genres; as both a journalist and a fiction writer, I’m glad that my work represents more than one category. And as someone who grew up in California but has chosen to make New York my home, I take a special joy in seeing the two coasts united, and I look forward especially to encouraging more robust PEN America programming in communities across the country far from New York. How involved have you been with PEN’s advocacy work? What would you like to see the organization take on? At the core of PEN America’s advocacy have always been threats to free expression. Under the Trump administration we’re seeing more of those on our domestic front than most of us could have imagined five years ago. PEN America is uniquely equipped to fight these practices—after all, we’ve been calling out the tactics of repressive regimes for decades. I’m also very excited about our new Writing for Justice Fellowship, which will commission six writers to create work that encourages debate on the subject of mass incarceration. Will the unified East Coast-West Coast PEN be organized differently? Only in the sense that we’ll be better able to function as a truly national organization, rather than as a largely New York–centered organization. We’re proud, finally, to have members in all 50 states, and have been working hard in recent months to foster nodes of activity in areas where PEN America hasn’t been especially active before. Will PEN America’s relationship with PEN International change? No—they remain our partners, connecting us to an important global network of free expression defenders. We will continue to work closely with PEN International to shine a light on writers threatened or imprisoned for their work. How can libraries—which have many of the same concerns—support PEN’s work? We’ve partnered with libraries in the past for our national programming intended to activate local advocacy for press freedom, and we hope to continue doing so. Given that libraries are trusted local institutions with the ability to reach many readers, they can play a crucial role in educating communities about fake news and media literacy. Libraries are also our fundamental allies in enabling access to literature for underserved and marginalized communities, and advocating against [banning] books. Do you have any plans or wishes for new directions for the organization? Things feel so volatile, politically, that for the moment I’m focused on harnessing our national strength and using it to give voice to literary communities that may not have been heard under the PEN America rubric before now. As I mentioned, we have a new prison writing initiative that I think will be tremendous. And as we approach our 100th anniversary, I look forward to thinking about new ways to strengthen and support our impact on writers and readers, as we work to protect free expression around the world.

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