2017 Literary Gala: Suzanne Nossel
PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel delivered these remarks at the 2017 PEN Literary Gala.
Good evening. PEN is an organization of words. But we know when it’s time for action.
Here at PEN America, we have had the good fortune to use our freedom on behalf of those overseas who are kept from, and punished for, speaking out. When they are silenced, we spring into action. We send delegations to free jailed poets in the Gulf; help Russian writers resist Putin’s repression; bring imperiled Bangladeshi bloggers to safety. We also defend free expression here at home.
In recent years, we’ve done so mostly using the written word: reports to call out dragnet surveillance and defend free speech on campus, letters, press releases, petitions, legal briefs—all words. But late last year, we recognized that written words alone might not be enough. Not enough to defend the place of free media in our democracy. Not enough to protect vulnerable peoples from hate crimes. Not enough to keep us connected to the world across border walls and visa bans.
So we mounted Writers Resist in January, gathering 2,500 people on the steps of the New York Public Library to read, cheer, chant, and sing. Poems became polemics. Historic writings were rallying cries. The primal essence of literature was unleashed. Writers Resist was about marshaling our community, the literary community, to build muscle memory for battles to come. To train ourselves to show up, make signs, summon our friends, give up our Sundays, bundle up our kids and shiver in the cold—not for colleagues far away but to defend our freedoms right here at home. We took a page from the people of Moscow and the Maidan, Tehran and Tahrir Square.
A week after we mustered in Manhattan, the Women’s March mobilized millions on the Mall, in main streets across the country and metropolises around the world. The germ of an idea began on Facebook. A pipe dream that would have remained a fantasy were it not for a fierceness to overcome naysayers, demand diversity, and rally Americans off the couch and onto the streets in the largest demonstration in U.S. history. Everyone who has ever put on an event, including this event, knows that just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. Bob Bland and her compatriots had the courage not to wait for the establishment, the donors, the high-level endorsers, the parks permit. They decided it must happen, so they would make it happen. And it did. I will never forget turning a corner in Washington, D.C., to behold a massive pink tsunami of cheering, streaming people flooding forward from every direction as far as the eye could see.
There is a time when similes give way to slogans; craftsmanship concedes to chants; when writers become activists; when you switch off the computer and you head to the airport. We are proud to honor the Women’s March with the PEN/Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. They kindled a courage inside us. The march was a ferocious defense of the principles that safeguard our freedom and give us the luxury to stand up for others. It was a show of force that signaled Americans, the world, and the White House that our rights and values would not go down without a fight. That pink roar has helped save affordable health care, freeze the visa bans, and, just last week, brought down Bill O’Reilly. And now a moment to remember the passion and power of the Women’s March.