Toni Morrison to be honored at PEN gala
Bestselling author Toni Morrison will accept the PEN/Borders Literary Service Award at the 2008 PEN Literary Gala, which takes place April 28 at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, with journalist Christiane Amanpour serving as emcee.
The award will be presented by Borders Group CEO and President George Jones.
The PEN/Borders award honors a truly distinguished American writer whose critically acclaimed work helps us to understand the human condition in original and powerful ways.
“Toni Morrison is a truly American writer, dealing frankly yet poetically in her work with the sweeping themes of identity, race, class, and gender in our society,” Jones said. “Above all, it is her determination to expose the use of language for racist, sexist, and other manipulative ends that have made her the heroic writer she is today.”
Toni Morrison’s body of work, comprising eight novels, drama, lyrics, and essays, challenges restrictive thinking about literature’s universality and produces irrefutable evidence that the history and culture of the United States is incomprehensible without the African-American experience. Morrison’s powerful novels of race and identity include The Bluest Eye (1970); Sula (1974), nominated for a National Book Award; Song of Solomon (1977), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first novel by a black writer to be so chosen since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1949; Tar Baby (1981); Beloved (1987), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and made into a motion picture in 1998; Jazz (1992); Paradise (1998); and Love (2003). In 1993, Toni Morrison became the eighth woman and the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Gala also serves to honor members of the international community who risk their lives and livelihoods to promote and defend free speech through three separate awards.
The 2008 PEN/Katherine Anne Porter First Amendment Award will be given to U.S. Veterans Administration nurse Laura Berg of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After witnessing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, Berg wrote a letter to the editor of her local weekly paper, The Alibi, to express her frustration with the Bush Administration’s handling of the disaster. Within days, the VA seized Berg’s office computer and launched an investigation for sedition; her union representative confirmed that Berg’s letter had been sent to the FBI for investigation as well. When Berg pressed the VA for more information about the investigation, she received a memo from the VA’s Chief of Human Resources, Mel R. Hooker, which affirmed that the VA had no evidence that Berg had written the letter on her office computer but claimed the agency was “bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition.” Sedition under federal law is a plot or conspiracy to use force to overthrow the government, punishable by up to twenty years’ imprisonment. In March 2006, Berg received an admission from a top official that the agency was wrong, plus a private apology from her boss. Berg, who no longer works at the VA hospital but does not rule out a return to her former position, said she would still like to see a written policy at the VA to protect and remind all employees of their First Amendment right of freedom of speech.
The two other prizes that will be presented at this year’s Gala are the 2008 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, which will go to Chinese writer Yang Tongyan (pen name Yang Tianshui), and the 2008 Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award, which will be given to Kho Tararith and the Nou Hach Literary Project of Cambodia.
Yang is known for his critical writings published on web sites such as Boxun.com and EpochTimes.com. His online publications include poems, essays, novels, short stories, and memos, many of which were written while in prison. Yang spent a decade in prison from 1990 to 2000 on “counter-revolution” charges for his involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy protests. He was also held incommunicado for suspicion of inciting subversion of state power from Dec. 24, 2004, to Jan. 25, 2005.
In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge’s obliteration of civil society and cultural and educational institutions in the 1970s severely damaged the country’s tradition of reading, all but short-circuiting the literary imagination itself. The Nou Hach Literary Project, which Kho Tararith directs, began in 2002 to support the development of modern Cambodian literature. The Project founders feared that post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia would move directly into the digital age without the restoration of the printed word as part of the national culture. The Project publishes an annual volume of prize-winning fiction, literary essays, and poetry and holds an annual writers’ conference and workshop to honor and support modern writers in Cambodia. They also sponsor creative writing workshops in the outlying provinces, and have produced a series of radio programs on classical poetry.
The Nou Hach team includes Cambodian artists, writers, librarians, scholars, and academics, as well as international scholars who serve as advisors to the project.
Some of the prose and poetry in their publications is critical of the Cambodia’s government and repressive society. On several occasions, Tararith has received threatening phone calls telling him to stop publication, but he is firm in his decision to take responsibility for the contents of his anthology and to encourage young people especially to write, impressing upon them the importance of freedom and free expression to Cambodia.