The Quill and the Whale
Tuesday night, the trains weren’t running right. There we were, four New Yorker staffers in uncomfortable heels and bare legs, late for the PEN Literary Gala which, our invitations informed us, honors “members of the international literary community who risk their lives and livelihoods to promote and defend free speech.” By the time we tromped through the Upper West Side to the Museum of Natural History, the cocktail hour—really, a cocktail forty minutes—was almost over. Guests milled in the Hall of the Universe (“We are all stardust,” warned the sage display on which I rested my drink), but the black-tie attire had a way of neutralizing identities (except for Bill Moyers, who stood out in his marvelous magenta vest). Over here we spotted Sebastian Junger, over there Amitav Ghosh. There were floor-length gowns and sequins, truffled pizzas on long wooden boards. Greasy fingers and feather boas? Next to all this, we felt a little like stardust.
As it turned out, the feathers downstairs were in good company with those above. Guests were led up escalators and down corridors, past giant stingrays and stuffed tigers, to the Hall of Ocean Life. Inside, it felt like diners were in an aquarium, bobbing in the blue light of the massive whale.
We sat, and Margaret Atwood, with her shock of curly white hair, accepted the PEN Literary Service Award with charming self-deprecation:
I am joining a list of very distinguished writers, and I probably don’t deserve to be joining it; but as the theologically pessimistic used to remark, if we all got what we deserved we’d be boiling in oil.
Instead, we got chicken swimming in gravy, and though there was no clear dinner menu, there were Atwood’s optimistic words: “Given full access to everything on the menu, people on the whole will reject the tyrannical, the sadistic, and the repugnant.” We couldn’t have agreed more. In fact, almost immediately, we were introduced to someone who had done just that: the PEN/ Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award recipient, a Burmese blogger and political dissident named Nay Phone Latt, who, as a result of his writings, was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 2008. Pictures of Latt flashed on the screen: in a T-shirt, smiling goofily. He was practically a kid. He was also the first blogger to receive the award. Sitting in front of the bread bowl, we had to wonder: what were we doing blogging about cocktails and finger foods when there was oppression in the world?
At the end, a lank-haired Patti Smith sang to a hushed crowd:
So throw off your stupid cloak / Embrace all that you fear For joy shall conquer all despair / in my Blakean year Outside, waiting in the cold of the night and the rush for cabs, we hoped we could.