Cynthia Nixon, Margaret Atwood, and Catherine Zeta-Jones Celebrate Free Speech at the PEN America Literary Gala
The first time Marjory Stoneman Douglas student Samantha Fuentes got onstage to accept the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, she was sick at the podium. While the crowd gave her a sympathetic cheer, most thought that would be last they’d see of Fuentes for the night—but they were wrong.
After a few minutes of regrouping, she returned to the stage. “Sorry,” she said to the audience. “Sometimes I forget I got shot.”
She went on to give a fiery speech. “I suppose I won this award because I’m doing the right thing—and prioritizing people’s lives over guns is a simple and straightforward cause. But in a world that has grown so chaotic and convoluted, I appear to be the bad guy,” she said. “So this is for the good guys. Thank you so much for believing in me. But not just me—thank you for believing that together we can correct the moral and fundamental problems in this country. Thank you to all those students who walked out of school and those who were arrested for lobbying for change. Thank you to those who march alongside with me. Thank you to our lawmakers who are finally opening their eyes and wanting to address the problems the citizens are concerned with.” She received a standing ovation.
Fuentes wasn’t the only activist honored that night at the PEN America Literary Gala, which was held in Manhattan at the American Museum of Natural History. Fellow students against gun violence Cameron Kasky and Zion Kelly shared her award, while jailed Myanmar journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, president of Simon & Schuster Carolyn Reidy, and Stephen King also received accolades.
The legendary thriller author was introduced by Morgan Freeman. Yes, there was a Shawshank Redemption reference—but the most poignant part of Freeman’s address was when he detailed King’s support of Salman Rushdie, and free speech, after the Iranian government issued a fatwa over The Satanic Verses. “Stephen King called up the head of a major chain of stores and gave him an ultimatum,” he recalled. “You don’t sell The Satanic Verses, you don’t sell Stephen King.” Eventually, the gala came to an end—but the guests carried an air of defiance into the night.