PEN America welcomed a broad cross-section of New York luminaries to the American Museum of Natural History Tuesday night for the at once celebratory and urgent 2018 PEN Literary Gala, held at a time when open discourse and press freedom—liberties that the organization has defended worldwide for nearly a century—are under threat in the U.S. as well as abroad. Provocative speeches from literary and activist leaders rallied the nearly 950 guests to redouble their efforts in defense of truth, facts, the role of the media, and open dialogue as foundations of democracy. The event honored individuals who have boldly harnessed the power of language to alter society for the better: student activists against gun violence Cameron Kasky, Samantha Fuentes, and Zion Kelly; legendary, outspoken suspense writer Stephen King; journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been imprisoned since December in Myanmar for their work exposing atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority; and President and CEO of Simon and Schuster, Inc., Carolyn Reidy, a vocal champion of a wide range of literary voices and perspectives.

In the dramatic setting of the Museum’s Millstein Hall of Ocean Life, under its famed, 94-foot-long blue whale, the literary community came together in a remarkable display of solidarity to advance the mission of PEN America, led by its recently elected President, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan. Eminent writers sat among the guests as hosts, including Wajahat Ali, Margaret Atwood, Carl Bernstein, Charles Blow, Rosanne Cash, Nathan Englander, Masha Gessen, Malcolm Gladwell, Marlon James, Saeed Jones, Dinaw Mengestu, Walter Mosley, Paul Muldoon, Ruby Namdar, Lynn Nottage, and Jeffrey Toobin. Other notable attendees included Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cynthia Nixon, Kehinde Wiley, and Gay Talese.

Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, presented Cameron Kasky and Samantha Fuentes of Parkland, Florida, and Zion Kelly of Washington, D.C.—young leaders catalyzing the movement against gun violence—with the 2018 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, honoring dauntless exercises of free expression. Nossel said of the student activists, “At a time when democracy around the world is in retreat and our trusted policy sages are warning of an ascendant authoritarianism it shouldn’t take a gunshot to shatter our sense of complacency. One day they sat in calculus class and drama club, doodling and daydreaming like any other high school students. Weeks later they had scored passage of a historic new Florida gun control law and led the largest student protest in American history. If that voracious potency lay within each of them, we must ask what potential lies within each of us.”

Kasky, Fuentes, and Kelly arrived onstage amidst impassioned cheers from the crowd. Cameron Kasky said, “The Parkland, Florida, March For Our Lives students whom I am here to represent are reacting to exactly one horrific, tragic incident which happened in our otherwise safe and cozy suburban environment. There are communities all across our country in which deadly shootings occur not just once in a while, and not only daily, but literally throughout the day, every day…We will grow weary, we’ll have good days and bad, but it is in standing alongside those who battle this violence every day that will give us the drive and courage and energy to finish this battle—and we will succeed.”

Samantha Fuentes, who was shot during the massacre in Parkland, expressed gratitude 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. Thank you to PEN for giving me this award.” She fell ill during her speech and had to leave the stage, but reappeared moments later, her mother at her side. “More than anything, thank you to my mom. My mother is my inspiration in being a fierce Latina woman that doesn’t take no for an answer. Without all these elements I would not be standing where I am right now. Without all these elements, I would not being standing at all.”

Zion Kelly, whose twin brother was killed walking home from a mentoring program, told the crowd: “If we want change to happen, we have to be willing to be courageous. I understood this and turned my agony into action. I knew I had to take a stance because thousands of students, just like me, live in fear. To honor my brother, I fight for change in his memory. We all fight for change by expressing ourselves freely and using the power of our voices.”

Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, Stephen King’s longtime friend who starred in The Shawshank Redemption based on a King novella, presented the author with the PEN America Literary Service Award. PEN America conferred the honor to King not only for his artistry and accomplishments as a writer, but also for his role as a defender of free expression, as a critic of policies that threaten democracy and human rights, and as a philanthropist. Freeman said, “Stephen’s portrayal of the yearning for human freedom in Shawshank was so potent that when a Chinese dissident managed a daring prison break a few years back, one of the first things Beijing authorities did was ban the very word ‘Shawshank’ on social media and internet searches. They knew that Stephen King’s words and story had the force to inspire, a power they were determined to crush…In an age of new assaults on the press and truth, Stephen has taken his public platform and transformed it into a vehicle for unfiltered dissent. Stephen calls it likes he sees it and has become a clarion voice of unvarnished, sometimes harsh truths.”

Stephen King, who made a rare public appearance to accept the award, was met with a sea of applause when he said, “From my earliest working days as a high school teacher, I’ve been telling kids that those who read can learn to write, and those who can do both will eventually succeed in the world. Readers learn to be fair, and writers learn to think. They are the crucial counterweight to those who are close-minded and mean-spirited. Too many of those are currently in positions of power, their poverty of thought best expressed in that intellectual dead zone known as Twitter, where clear thinking and kindness is too often replaced with schoolyard taunts.”

Margaret Atwood, recipient of the 2010 PEN America Literary Service Award, spoke on behalf of the two Myanmar reporters who were honored with this year’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. “Journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, have the misfortune of working in a country with a long record of suppressing independent voices, a history that appears to be hard to leave behind. We may comfort ourselves by believing that this kind of persecution happens only in distant countries like Myanmar. But the autocrats’ playbook for discrediting critical coverage—long documented in places like Russia, China, and Iran—is now going viral… The systematic effort to drive a rift between access to knowledge and the citizens of a country has a familiar ring to this dystopian novelist.”

Atwood proceeded to read a message from the two imprisoned journalists: “We do believe that the truth will bring justice to us. The news needs to be written and expressed openly in our country and right now we can’t report it…The award is an encouragement that we have the backing of people from around the world who love the freedom of the press and democratic values. We desperately miss our families, our friends, and our newsroom. Your encouragement fortifies our hopes.”

Of the 42 jailed writers who have received the PEN Freedom to Write Award since 1987, 38 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates. The 2012 Freedom to Write Award-winner Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and blogger who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for criticizing the government, made a surprise appearance at the gala just weeks after his release. He thanked PEN America for advocating for his freedom, saying, “We live in an age of paradox. On the one hand, we have countries, amongst them the U.S., home of the First Amendment, where freedom of expression has come to be taken for granted, and on the other, Ethiopia, my country, where the freedom to express oneself without restraint, without reprisal, is still an elusive ideal, still distant as the stars. And in this world of two realities, I ask whether those who are free have an obligation towards those of us who are unfree. I say they do…In the prize I received from PEN America, I see the solidarity of the free to the unfree. I see the triumph of our common humanity over our differences. I see our common destiny, which is that of freedom for all humanity.”

Carolyn Reidy, the only woman among the top ranks of publishing CEOs, was this year’s PEN America Publisher Honoree. From the gala stage, Reidy said, “In our country too many voices are marginalized, or powerless, and through our choices of what to publish we have the ability and the obligation to help change that. It would be very easy to publish only those voices and perspectives with which we identify or feel comfortable. But I have always felt that it is our responsibility as publishers to step outside of that comfort zone and engage with different points of view, and to publish for the many different audiences that comprise our nation’s readership.”

PEN America President Jennifer Egan celebrated the record-breaking $2.2 million (and counting) raised by the event to support the defense of free expression—work the organization has been undertaking since its founding in 1922. She said, “It would be hard to create PEN America today. The broad optimism of its vision—to celebrate literary expression and defend the freedoms that make it possible—can sound almost quaint. And the range of opinions among writers might prove too disparate to gather enough of us under one umbrella. But here we are. And with our strength in numbers comes the credibility to foster genuine dialogue at moments of crisis and impasse. As PEN America’s president, I hope to redouble these efforts; I believe they’re our best hope of freeing ourselves from the segregated echo chambers that have deadened our national discourse.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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