New York City’s 92nd St. Y has halted a beloved literary reading series after the organization’s decision to cancel an event featuring a novelist who had been critical of Israel prompted other artists and writers to cancel their own appearances at the venue.
The Y, which was founded 150 years ago as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and is now known as 92NY, called off a Friday appearance by Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen just five hours before it was scheduled to start. Nguyen had signed onto a letter condemning Israeli attacks on Gaza in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 cross-border raids as disproportionate.
“I hope there is a moral consensus that killing civilians is wrong, whether Hamas does it or whether Israel does it,” Nguyen posted on Instagram two days prior, explaining his reasoning for signing last Wednesday’s letter, published in the London Review of Books. “I try to keep space in my mind and heart for all the victims and their loved ones. We share a common humanity.”
The Y denied canceling the event with Nguyen, saying it had only postponed “while we take some time to determine how best to use our platform and support the entire 92NY community,” Reuters reported. (The talk was moved to a bookstore downtown, by the director of the Y’s poetry center, according to The New York Times.) Still, over the weekend, writers Hannah Gold and Chris Kraus called off their December appearance at the Y “in solidarity with” Nguyen. Others, including British writer Hari Kundzlu and Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist Andrea Long Chu, followed suit. An unspecified number of Y staffers also quit, the Times reported.
Kraus said the Y’s treatment of Nguyen “seemed extreme and unreasonable.”
“I’m not sure that cancelling events in support of [Nguyen] will have any effect or influence anyone, but to show up for a cultural institution that takes such heavy-handed partisan measures feels really distasteful,” Kraus told The Daily Beast in an email.
On Monday morning, reports emerged on social media that renowned poet Nikky Finney, who was scheduled to appear at the Y on Thursday, would no longer be participating in light of Nguyen’s cancellation. Later in the day, the Y announced its entire 2023-2024 season of literary events would be “on pause given recent staff resignations.”
FYI Nikky Finney has withdrawn.
Extremely moved and emboldened by Nikky's unequivocal commitment to truth and justice. She did not hesitate ❤️ https://t.co/74vLTbNqu3
— sara m. saleh | سارة صالح (@SaraSalehTweets) October 23, 2023
Reached by phone, Finney said she is hoping the event will still happen, albeit somewhere other than the Y.
“The poetry reading that is scheduled for Thursday must happen in a space where all are welcomed and all feel welcomed,” Finney told The Daily Beast.
She said she “believe[s] in this poetry reading very, very much and I really feel that this is the time to have this poetry reading, and that is what I am placing my bet on over everything else.”
“We need, as a community, to come together and listen to each other talk about truth,” Finney went on. “Artists look at the hard-to-say thing and speak into it. That’s why I want this [event] to happen. I am waiting to hear where the reading is going to be. That is critical.”
Poet Marie Howe, who was also scheduled to be part of Thursday’s lineup, said she feels much the same way.
“Free discourse is the heart of a civil society,” Howe told The Daily Beast, emphasizing that “discourse” does not mean hate speech. “I am hoping that the persons at the Y who cancelled the discussion with Viet Thanh Nguyen will remember how crucial freedom of expression is to our world—now more than ever.”
Following the hubbub over Nguyen’s cancellation—or postponement)—the Y said in a statement released Saturday that it is “a Jewish institution that has always welcomed people with diverse viewpoints to our stage.”
“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,” the statement said. “Given the public comments by the invited author on Israel and this moment, we felt the responsible course of action was to postpone the event while we take some time to determine how best to use our platform and support the entire 92NY community.”
Speaking broadly, Finney said, “Art is always about illuminating the story, that’s what art does. That is what it must do. We must make art that does that, and so that is why we’re coming together.”
Visitors to the poetry program’s page on the Y’s website on Monday afternoon were greeted by a blank screen stating: “no results.”