After weeklong controversy, Charlie Hebdo receives PEN award at literary gala in NYC
Under armed security and a cloud of conflicted opinions and emotions, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was presented a freedom of expression award on Tuesday night from the PEN American Center.
Editor-in-chief Gerard Biard and critic-essayist Jean-Baptiste Thore accepted the Freedom of Expression Courage Award to a standing ovation following a weeklong debate — alternately thoughtful and divisive — over whether the honour was deserved.
Salman Rushdie and Neil Gaiman were among hundreds of writers, editors and others from the publishing world cheering for Hebdo at the literary and human rights organization’s gala at the American Museum of Natural History, where awards also were given to playwright Tom Stoppard, Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle.
Just as notable were those who would not, and could not, be there.
Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey and four other writers scheduled to be table hosts withdrew because of objections to what they considered the magazine’s offensive cartoons of Muslims. More than 200 writers, among them Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Cunningham, signed an open letter criticizing PEN. The gathering Tuesday night was overwhelmingly supportive of Hebdo and the award if only because so many opponents stayed home, some by choice, some citing scheduling conflicts.
Those who spoke recalled absent friends. While introducing Stoppard, actress Glenn Close paid tribute to the late Mike Nichols, who directed her in a Broadway adaptation of Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” Ismayilova, given the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, has been imprisoned since December and was represented by fellow journalist Emin Milli. Biard and Thore came on behalf of colleagues killed in the January shooting at the magazine’s Paris offices that left 12 dead.
In accepting the award, Biard noted the magazine’s history of shocking readers with its irreverent drawings of religious figures.
“Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking,” he said. “Being shocked is a part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”
While virtually everyone stood and clapped for Hebdo, not everyone was an admirer. The Iranian-born novelist Porochista Khakpour, a table host, told The Associated Press that she had no plans to applaud even as she affirmed her support for PEN’s mission. Roz Chast, the bestselling author and New Yorker cartoonist, called the Hebdo illustrations “sort of stupid and ham-handed.”
“But if I didn’t support their right to publish them I wouldn’t be here,” she told the AP.
The Hebdo award made the PEN gala the most controversial in recent memory, but also the best attended. More than 800 came for the event, at $1,250 a ticket, compared with around 700 a year ago. With the presence of Hebdo officials and the recent shootings near Dallas at an anti-Islam event, guests Tuesday passed through metal detectors and armed police officials. Police cars lined the street outside the museum’s main entrance.
Expression itself was the real guest of honour. PEN president Andrew Solomon said the Hebdo award, and dispute, were reminders that the “defence of people murdered for their exercise of free speech is at the heart of what PEN stands for, so is the unfettered articulation of opposing viewpoints.” Stoppard joked during his speech that artists had been under attack since Plato excluded them from his ideal republic and warned that: “If we can’t live up to what is expected of us, we’ll be gone. We just won’t be there anymore.
“And if you want to find us, you’ll have to come here, to the Museum of Natural History,” he said.