Gala Raised $2.6 Million for PEN America’s Work to Defend Free Expression

(New York, NY) — As PEN America marked its centenary with the 2022 Literary Gala,  distinguished writers and artists, global human rights advocates and humanitarians, and influential thinkers gathered last night at the American Museum of Natural History to celebrate the organization’s defense of free expression from smothering regimes and ideologies throughout the last century and in our tumultuous present. Approximately 650 attendees seated under the iconic blue whale in the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life bore witness to riveting speeches denouncing censorship at home and abroad, and honoring those who have fought to uphold the freedom to write, read, and learn. Hosted by Emmy-winning CBS News Sunday Morning contributor, NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! panelist, journalist, and writer Faith Salie with arch humor and a running current of foreboding over our democracy’s imperilment, the gala was both a celebration of the work that has been done by PEN America and the luminaries it honors, and an urgent warning of this its ever-deepening necessity.

In a previously unannounced highlight of the event directly linked to PEN America’s rallying against a recent onslaught of book bannings, Salie revealed a partnership between Margaret Atwood, Penguin Random House, and the Canadian creative agency Rethink to create a special edition of a book that has been challenged and banned for decades—Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. This one-of-a-kind version, dubbed The Unburnable Book, was printed using fireproof materials, and is being presented for auction by Sotheby’s until June 7, with all proceeds going to benefit PEN America’s work. In an accompanying video, Atwood herself demonstrates the book’s resistance to censorship: she wields a giant blow-torch, spewing flames at the novel, which remains unscathed.

Faith Salie described, “Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Just recently she recalled that she stopped writing it several times thinking it was just too far-fetched. Nope. ‘Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past,’ she wrote. ‘There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?’ The answer is us. And your inextinguishable support. We do not want to disappoint Margaret; we have seen her wielding a blow torch.”

PEN America President Ayad Akhtar welcomed the audience to the gala with a speech dissecting the meaning of democracy, the many forms the idea takes in people’s minds, and the power differentials and abuses that undermine it, zeroing in on this idea: “The exercise of speech that matters to us most, that must matter to us most—that speech which articulates our needs, our understanding, our competing senses of reality itself—this speech which shapes our lives in cooperation with one another, however tensely, this is what democracy is built on. This is what democracy means.”

PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel announced the launch, this summer, of an archival PEN America at 100 exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, curated by PEN Trustee Bridget Colman. Elaborating on Colman’s findings in the archives, Nossel said, “In unimaginable times, we need the imagination, and specifically authors’ imaginations as manifest in the written word, to force us to reckon with what the rational mind would evade. We need authors’ imaginations to discern that faint glimmer of light on the outer edge of the horizon, a dawn that foretells a time past this one. At a moment when hope and history seem only to clash, our forebearers within PEN, the inspiring, indelible writers and thinkers of generations past, are a wellspring that fuels us to go on. Their work is a reminder that amid the alarming headlines and gathering clouds, the will, the soul, and the moral commitment of writers, readers, thinkers and truthtellers will not dim. The imagination roams, creativity persists, hope remains and our fight goes on, harnessing the passion of the last 100 years to guarantee the freedoms of the next.”

Literary hosts—influential voices in the writing community seated at each table of guests—attended to support and advance PEN America’s mission. They included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, PEN America President Ayad Akhtar, Rumaan Alam, Marie Arana, Preet Bharara, Jessica Bruder, Candace Bushnell, Susan Choi, Robert Costa, Naima Coster, Aidan Donnelley Rowley, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Masha Gessen, Peter Godwin, James Hannaham, Tom Healy, Maria Hinojosa, Siri Hustvedt, Mitchell S. Jackson, Zachary Karabell, Katie Kitamura, Jean Hanff Korelitz, Hari Kunzru, Dylan Landis, Min Jin Lee, Elizabeth Levy, Jay McInerney, Dinaw Mengestu, Paul Muldoon, Yascha Mounk, Lynn Nottage, Zibby Owens, Holly Peterson, Jodi Picoult, Francine Prose, Claudia Rankine, Ben Rhodes, Simon Schama, Fatima Shaik, Dani Shapiro, Bartlett Sher, Gary Shteyngart, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Andrew Solomon, Gay Talese, James Thackara, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Tara Westover.

PEN/Benenson Courage Award: Jack Petocz

Presented by Asia Kate Dillon

Asia Kate Dillon, widely acclaimed for their performance on Billions as Taylor Mason—TV’s first nonbinary main character – took the stage to present the 2022 PEN/Benenson Freedom of Expression Courage Award to high school activist Jack Petocz. In March 2022, Petocz organized a statewide student walkout to protest HB 1557 (the Parental Rights in Education, or “Don’t Say Gay,” bill), which helped catalyze a groundswell of protest at schools and beyond against the silencing legislation. Following the walkout, Petocz was suspended on March 3 from Flagler Palm Coast High School for handing out 200 LGBTQ+ pride flags. He was reinstated in school on March 7, though his school appears to continue to take disciplinary action, currently barring him from running for senior class president.

Petocz has been fighting censorship in his school district over the past year, including leading students in protest against the removal of George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue. He has written to Governor Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers, imploring those in positions of power to stop policing the education and identities of LGBTQ+ students. Petocz was a participant in PEN America’s spring 2022 Free Speech Advocacy Institute, an innovative educational and training program designed to provide students with opportunities to learn about and take action on free expression issues in the United States and worldwide.

Devoted to exceptional acts of courage in the exercise of freedom of expression, the award this year recognized Petocz for his unflinching stance against censorship and silencing, and as an exemplar of his generation’s refusal of the regressive legislation burdening education throughout the country.

Dillon spoke to the power of written words and representation to deepen one’s understanding of self and others. They said, “I hear from people of all ages that seeing my character on Billions has helped them understand their own gender identity – and that this has helped them to feel less alone. I even hear from people who have actually set aside their phobias and hostilities, traded them for a more open mind after watching our show. For me, that demonstrates with such clarity how books, screenplays, and creativity in other forms can make this world a better – and a safer — place. But not if those books aren’t read, and if they can’t be found on shelves in schools and libraries, if they can’t be discussed, if questions and differences can’t be explored. That is why what Jack and his fellow students are doing is so important.”

Petocz, accepting the award, said,  “I am proud to be a member of Gen-Z. We are a group of progressive, politically-engaged, and dedicated change-makers, who will not and cannot stand idly by as lawmakers across the country strip us of our basic constitutional rights. Instead of being able to focus on menial responsibilities such as schoolwork, my generation has been forced to rapidly mobilize and fight for our future.” He urged everyone listening to make their” voice heard in November, not just by voting in local, state and national elections, but also by supporting young organizers working to guarantee a more progressive and democratic tomorrow.” He concluded, “If our collective voice couldn’t make a difference, then they wouldn’t be trying so hard to silence it.”

A speech from Jenny Finley Boylan likewise mentioned Petocz’s work, with the bestselling author and PEN America trustee recounting telling her conservative, 85-year-old mother that she is transgender—and receiving a loving response that suprised her. Boylan recalled, “She also suggested, ‘you should write a book. Your story might open hearts.’ And a few years later, I did publish a book, She’s Not There, a memoir about a life in two genders, and about my long journey to find acceptance. That book did open hearts, I hope—but it also threatened people who have no room in their mind, or in their imaginations, for a life like mine. Instead, books like mine are being banned—in Florida, and across the country. Still, thanks to people like Jack, authors like me know that we are not alone, and that the forces that would erase our work now know that they will have a fight on their hands.”

PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award: Vladyslav Yesypenko

Presented by Michael Douglas

The 2022 PEN America Literary Gala recognized Vladyslav Yesypenko, a Ukrainian journalist imprisoned in Russian-occupied Crimea, with the 2022 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which his wife, Kateryna Yesypenko, accepted from two-time Academy Award-winning actor and UN Ambassador to Peace Michael Douglas. Like others dauntlessly laying bare occupying forces’ encroachments on everyday life in Crimea and now throughout Ukraine, Yesypenko has been targeted by a methodical campaign to silence and crush a free press and open expression. After being tortured and forced to confess to baseless, politically motivated charges of weapons manufacturing, Yesypenko was sentenced to six years in a Russian labor colony. His arrest, torture, and imprisonment is a grave reminder of the risks that Russian invasion poses for press freedom and human rights in Ukraine.

Douglas said, “[Yesypenko] is a courageous truth-teller, a patriot, a beloved father and husband. In his work as a journalist, he has sacrificed his own freedom to bring to us the stories and the truths of the people of Ukraine. My own family has roots in this region now torn by war. And like so many of us, I have been awed by the bravery of the people of Ukraine today and their powerful resistance to the campaign by Putin and the Russian regime to wipe the country, its culture and its history right off the map. Amid this brutal conflict, if ever it was time to understand what it means to defend democracy, the right to live and speak freely, that time is with us now.”

Kateryna Yesypenko chose to speak in Ukrainian to reflect the power of language to frame national identity, saying “My husband has been in prison for 15 months because, and only because, he is a journalist. Vladyslav knew that reporting in Russian-occupied Crimea was dangerous, but he believes that people deserve to know what’s going on, to know what the truth is. He also believes in the profound importance of telling the stories of those whose lives do not ordinarily make headlines or front pages…My husband believes this so deeply that he is prepared to risk his life. I share his commitment, and my life’s work, as long as he is imprisoned, is to advocate for his freedom, his right to come home to us, and to carry on with his journalism.”

Vladyslav Yesypenko has spent nearly a year in detention; from captivity, he penned a letter with urgent, blistering frankness and even defiant dark humor, published by Krym.Realii, stating, “Nothing shows the ugly nature of the occupying power as the constant filling of the cells with new people who were detained on fabricated evidence… [Thanks to] the Russian FSB, which provided an unprecedented opportunity for a freelance journalist for Radio Liberty not only to become an observer in a pre-trial detention center in the occupied Crimea, but also to try their hand at their ‘investigation’ methods, which can either drive them crazy or put an end to them. It didn’t break me, but my hair seemed to turn gray.”

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is a powerful tool in PEN America’s year-round efforts to end the persecution of writers and defend free expression, serving as a springboard for PEN’s multifaceted advocacy for the writers it honors. Of the 51 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 45 have been released due in part to the awareness and pressure the award generates. The last time PEN America awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to a Ukrainian was in 2017; filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was that year’s honoree, and the award and subsequent campaign generated significant advocacy that helped win his release from Russian prison in 2019.

2022 PEN/Audible Literary Service Award: Zadie Smith

Presented by Ruth Negga

Zadie Smith received this year’s PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, conferred in recognition of her remarkable achievements as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist whose work displays unparalleled attention to craft and humane ideals. Through her trenchant, moving, and inventive writing—which includes novels White Teeth, Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, Swing Time, short story (Grand Union: Stories) and essay (Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Feel Free, and Intimations) collections, frequent critical work in Harper’s Magazine and New York Review of Books, and more—and professorship, Smith has helped guide future generations of writers and readers to embrace and explore culture across genres and media. Ruth Negga, the Academy Award-, Golden Globe-, and BAFTA-nominated actor who was just nominated for a 2022 Tony Award for her performance in the Sam Gold-directed Macbeth now on Broadway—and a longtime fan of Smith’s writing—presented the author with the award.

Ruth Negga said, “When White Teeth came out, I saw for the first time people I could relate to and people I recognized in the landscape of contemporary fiction. This reflection of self and surroundings is crucial in an exploration of self and how we relate to the world. I felt witnessed and seen, and also an empathic recognition of how the world may relate to me and others like me. I have been in conversation with Zadie’s books and writings ever since.”

Zadie Smith, questioning her own literal ‘literary service’ (“the truth is, whenever anybody asked me to perform a ‘literary service’ I was always busy writing or teaching literature, and I felt I had no time; I experienced writing as a permanent emergency state, believing if I devoted time to anything else, I would run out of time”), arrived at the “medieval” and “unfashionable” word “vocation.” She said, “I felt writing was my vocation. But a vocation is generally in service to something. So the question becomes: in service to what? The most honest answer is: to language itself.”

She explained, “I want to give readers language that respects their intelligence and capacity for understanding, and to recognise, in my own language, the sacred nature of each and every human being.  I want to know what words really mean and why…I know there’s no such thing as an unmediated discourse, but I’d rather be mediated by the kind of talk you hear in the middle of the Kilburn High Road—that unpredictable, multiracial, multivalent and public town square—than to eavesdrop on the chatter emerging from the monetized, curated, oligarch-owned, digital town squares presently on offer in the virtual realm… Some people write philosophical, political or legal tomes about justice. Others write essays, speeches, policy papers, hot takes, tweets. When I’ve thought about justice it’s tended to be through a multivalent, multi-voiced form called fiction. Whether such an indirect use of language can be of any service whatsoever in this dumpster-fire world—as the algorithm likes to call it—I really don’t know. I don’t think it’s up to me to decide. But I’ve always hoped that my sentences could be of some public service, and I am grateful to PEN for this encouraging sign that, despite everything, they might be.”

Business Visionary Honoree: Don Katz

Presented by Cory Booker

U.S. Senator Cory Booker introduced Audible Founder and Executive Chairman Don Katz as Business Visionary Honoree, recognized by PEN America for his transformative contributions to the world of literature and audio storytelling. An accomplished journalist and author, Katz created Audible 25 years into an extraordinary career in which his work won a National Magazine Award, an Overseas Press Club Award, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, among other prizes. The company has revolutionized the way we experience literature, melding traditions of oral storytelling with technology, and has become the leading creator and provider of premium audio storytelling and the home for talented creators in audio. Katz and Audible have helped drive rebirth in Newark, NJ—where Booker was formerly Mayor and currently resides—initiating multiple programs to help advance equality, education, and economic development in the city where the company has been headquartered since 2007. One such program, the Audible-led Newark Working Kitchens, has activated local restaurants to provide over 1,300,000 meals to more than 10,000 city residents.

Booker cited Ralph Ellison—under whom Katz studied, and who had a major influence on his career—in discussing how so many people had declared Newark “dead” and rendered the city and its population “invisible.” Presenting the award to his friend Don Katz, he said, “We are suffering in our democracy from a pandemic of indifference. With a poverty of empathy. With people who refuse to see folks who live maybe just five or ten miles away from here that are still in our culture being rendered invisible. We are a nation that is falling into a culture of contempt where we hate each other just because of who we are or what we may believe in. Now more than ever we need people to understand that we belong to each other, that your salvation, your liberation, is intrinsically rolled up with mine: and this to me is Don Katz. He did the opposite of rendering people invisible. Instead, he saw a community that many overlooked, he saw our value, he saw our worth, but more than this, he understood that all the things he did are not an act of charity: they’re the ultimate act of self-preservation. Ladies and gentlemen, I love Don Katz because he understands…the need for courageous love, the need for unapologetic love, the need for defiant love. Because indeed, that is the only way one could save themselves and along the way help save a city, a nation, and perhaps, that’s the kind of love that will indeed redeem and save our world.”

Katz likewise spoke of Newark’s renaissance being part of Audible’s core principles—with a focus on structural inequality leading to numerous initiatives. He reflected on the many people he encountered who shaped his work as a writer and entrepreneur who have passed, from his editor Aaron Asher to his mentor Ralph Ellison (“my writing life and Audible were inspired by Ralph Ellison, who taught me during long tutorials how to understand the music I heard in language”) to Steve Jobs and Robin Williams.

Recounting the journey of Audible, Katz noted that it was once met with outrage, and considered a threat to “text itself” and even “to civilization.” Katz continued, “Written words, whether chiseled into stone or conveyed via the introduction of handwriting centuries ago were resisted by the stewards of cultural authority from the Greeks through Saint Augustine, when reading silently was thought to be the devil’s work. The invention of early video recording technologies and cable television, which the movie industry tried to erase in courts, and just about all technology-spawned media inventions including the way Audible created and embraced digital technology, did come under attack. But look more closely at these many historical junctures and you’ll see the most creative people bringing their talent close to these moments to give rise to golden ages; this was true for early radio as the most gifted vaudevillians created a new listening aesthetic. There were golden ages for silent film, for recorded film, for talkies, for on-demand episodic television, and now for Audible and the listening revolution… The most gifted writers and performers and their most creative intermediaries should now be drawing closer together. Whether to redress the darkness of the times as PEN continues to do, or to capture and convey voices that ought to be heard after years of marginalization, or just to tell new stories worthy of the telling, we have a lot of work to do together.”

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. Learn more at pen.org.

Press Contact

For more information, please contact Blake Zidell or Adriana Leshko at Blake Zidell & Associates, 917.572.2493, [email protected] or [email protected]

 

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