2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award: J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling has used her talents and stature as a writer to fight inequality on both a local and global level. Herself the frequent object of censorship in schools and libraries across the globe, as well as online targeting, Rowling has emerged as a vocal proponent of free expression and access to literature and ideas for children, as well as incarcerated people, the learning-disabled, and women and girls worldwide. On Monday, May 16, Rowling was presented with the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. Her full remarks from the ceremony are below, with an introduction by the actress Sarah Jessica Parker.
Sarah Jessica Parker: Good evening, and may I begin by saying just how honored and thrilled I am to be here tonight, presenting J.K. Rowling with the 2016 PEN/Allen award.
There is nothing quite so rewarding as watching a child open a book and discover the enchantment that awaits them in that world of words. I think there can be no mistake in declaring that J.K. Rowling changed the landscape of children’s literature forever—and for the better—with her introduction of Harry Potter to the world.
As a voracious reader myself, I recall the joy and the enormous satisfaction I felt when my son, J.W. started reading the Harry Potter series, because for him it was the gateway to loving books for life. Oh, he loved reading those books. But it wasn’t only because he enjoyed the story. The characters resonated so deeply with him. I recall—so specifically—J.W. seeing such distinct qualities in the Harry Potter characters. He loved to take the story apart—to see how their choices not only dictated the story, but changed them—helped them to grow. He learned about honor, humility, dedication, and resilience.
He began to understand human nature. And he arrived at this on his own, rather than Ms. Rowling trying to teach lessons. Finding the delight and great satisfaction in everyday things—that sense of possibility, of optimism and hope, is evident in all of her writing. So, too, is a deep sense of right and wrong, of friendship and love and staying true to oneself. I believe to this day that J.W.’s keen interest in story development and books that offer distinct characters and rich storytelling come from his early exposure to her extraordinary voice and her deep love and respect for her readers.
Of course, we know that the Harry Potter series went on to sell over 450 million copies worldwide in 200 territories and 79 languages. And let’s not forget about the movies—eight blockbuster films and three theme parks—all part of her impressive Wizarding World. But most impressive of all: an entire generation of readers—my son included—who grew up with the understanding that books contain magic, and that reading can not only teach us about ourselves, but can indeed help us make the world a better place.
But J.K. Rowling is more than Harry Potter. Her first novel for adult readers, The Casual Vacancy, was a bestseller that was made into a BBC and HBO television series. And in 2013, she was unmasked as the crime author Robert Galbraith, with three titles—The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil—all critically acclaimed.
One would think that, with a career like that, Ms. Rowling would have little time left to devote to other activities.
And yet, in between her writing, she changed the world again.
The 2016 PEN/Allen award is bestowed to an author whose work embodies its mission to oppose repression in any form, and to champion the best of humanity. Humanity, I believe, starts with children, and there is no greater indicator of our own humanity than in how we treat the most vulnerable among us. Ms. Rowling’s work in founding Lumos, which helps institutionalized children across the world return to family life, and her charitable trust, Volant, which works to alleviate poverty and social deprivation among women and children, is proof of that.
Just last year, Lumos won the prestigious “overall charity” honor from the Civil Society Media’s 2015 Charity Awards, despite being a young and growing organization. And now, with its recent launch in the United States, Lumos is growing and reaching more and more children who need help.
Her charitable efforts are improving the world in broad strokes, one family at a time. But on a lighter note, I believe she’s also improving the world in other ways, too—namely, on Twitter.
Her Twitter account is truly a sight to behold. In a place where harassment and cyberbullying are not uncommon, J.K. Rowling uses her platform to speak out against injustices, to rally for what’s right, and to encourage her readers to be themselves. Perhaps my favorite story, though, is when a library on a remote Scottish island tweeted about their plans to discuss one of her novels, and Jo showed up to their book club. What a delightful way to make someone’s day!
It is hard to believe the world has only known about the existence of J.K. Rowling for 20 years. She feels timeless. Her work, classic. This coming year, we’ll have two new projects to look forward to, including the “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” stage play, and her screenwriting debut for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
I’m sure that you, like me, cannot wait to see what comes next.
I am thrilled to honor J.K. Rowling tonight and to bear witness to her unparalleled gift for storytelling and changing the world, one child at a time.
And now to present the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service award is Annette Tapert Allen, the Award’s sponsor.
J.K. Rowling: Firstly, I want to say thank you very, very much for this huge honor, given as it is by an organization that I have admired very deeply for many, many years. It’s also been an absolute privilege to share this stage tonight with your previous honorees. PEN’s campaigns on behalf of imprisoned writers are essential and inspirational, though it is sad to reflect how much, how needed your defense of writers continues to be today.
Speaking personally, I have very little to complain about where my freedom of expression is concerned. I was once confronted by a Christian fundamentalist in a toy shop here in New York. I had no idea the phrase, “I’m praying for you,” could sound so intimidating. A bomb threat was once made to a store at which I was appearing. The premises were searched, nothing was found, the event went ahead. And the Harry Potter books have figured frequently on lists of the most banned. But, as such lists feature many of my favorite writers, I’ve always been very flattered to be included.
Of course, I can afford to take these things lightly, protected as I am by citizenship of a liberal nation where freedom of expression is a fundamental right. My critics are at liberty to claim that I’m trying to convert children to Satanism., and I’m free to explain that I’m exploring human nature and morality, or to say, “you’re an idiot,” depending on which side of the bed I got out of that day.
However, I’ve never taken these freedoms for granted. In my 20s, I worked for Amnesty International, where I learned exactly how high a price people across the world have paid and continue to pay for the freedoms that we in the West sometimes take for granted.
In fact, I worry that we may be in danger of allowing their erosion through sheer complacency. The tides of populism and nationalism currently sweeping many developed countries have been accompanied by demands that unwelcome and inconvenient voices be removed from public discourse. “Mainstream media” has become a term of abuse in some quarters. It seems that unless a commentator or television channel or a newspaper reflects exactly the complainant’s worldview, it must be guilty of bias or corruption.
Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me—a moderate and a liberal—most uncomfortable. Only last year, we saw an online petition to ban Donald Trump from entry to the UK. It garnered half a million signatures.
Just a moment.
Now, I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there.
His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine. Unless we take that absolute position without caveats or apologies, we have set foot upon a road with only one destination. If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral ground on which to argue that those offended by feminism or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage should not oppress campaigners for those causes. If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed the line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture, and kill on exactly the same justification.
I’d like to conclude these remarks by reading you two short passages from the blog of a teenage girl. In 2009, Tal al-Mallohi became one of the youngest prisoners of conscience in the world when she was taken from her home by Syrian security forces. She was 18 years old. Her friends and family had to wait eleven months to find that she had been charged with giving aid to foreign country. Her parents have been permitted to see her only once. There are fears she may have been tortured.
This is some of the material that was considered so dangerous and inflammatory that she remains incarcerated:
I do not like the words of the poet Rudyard Kipling: “The East is East and the West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Instead, I promote the union of the East and West. They meet somewhere. With rational thought, two great souls from here and from there can agree with each other, irrespective of the vast separation of time and space. Oh my brother human, if I disagree with you in thoughts, principles, or beliefs, does this deny the fact that we are both human? All you and I have to do is to respect each other. Tolerate the views of your opponents coolly and patiently. While listening to them, do not think to respond before listening to all opposing opinions.
I repeat that beautiful plea for plurality, tolerance, and the importance of rational discourse in the hope that Tal al-Mallohi will soon be freed. In the meantime, long may PEN continue to fight for her, for the freedoms on which a liberal society rests and without which no literature can have value. Thank you very much indeed.
This event took place as part of the 2016 PEN World Voices Festival.