(New York, NY) — Literary New York stood resurrected last night after an 18-month pause at PEN America’s 2021 Literary Gala, an evening celebrating luminaries who lend their voices to clarion calls for free expression; standing up for truth and science amid a flood of virus-related conspiracy mongering and disinformation; and the advancement of literature, truth and open discourse. The event, emceed by Golden Globe-winning actress, writer, and producer Awkwafina, unfolded Tuesday night under the blue whale in the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History, bearing a message of triumph in coming together and gratitude toward those who have carried us through the pandemic through storytelling, standing up for truth and unlocking literature as a source of comfort and empathy through crisis. The event also sounded the alarm on the unjust imprisonment of writers and other threats to free expression as authoritarianism metastasizes around the world.

At the start of the program, PEN America President Ayad Akhtar contextualized the gathering within the healing of our wounded reality, saying, “Part of the place we, as writers, have in the larger order of things is to help make sense of collective adversity, trauma, if you will. Obviously, the great literature of the pandemic has yet to be published, maybe even yet to be written, but the trauma of this last eighteen months is still very much with us. In convening tonight in person as writers, as lovers of literature, as supporters of freedom in so many senses—we hope to be playing our part in helping to move forward.”

Awkwafina spoke of the shifts PEN America made to meet the moment, evoking “staff work[ing] from bedrooms and kitchen tables across the city, amid the wailing sirens and clanging pots and pans during those harrowing early months” as they planned hundreds of virtual programs (including last year’s virtual gala); expanded the organization’s Writers’ Emergency Fund more than ten-fold, getting cash to writers for basic needs like rent and food; trained journalists and activists on how to stay safe while exercising their First Amendment rights during last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations; spoke out against governments using the pandemic as a cover for more repressions; and waged a national campaign to blunt the impact of disinformation on the 2020 U.S. election; and more.

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 Ayad Akhtar, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Marie Arana, Preet Bharara, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Bill Buford, Robert A. Caro, Susan Choi, Naima Coster, Jennifer Egan, Álvaro Enrigue, Masha Gessen, Peter Godwin, James Hannaham, David Henry Hwang, Walter Isaacson, Zachary Karabell, Matthew Klam, Min Jin Lee, Jay McInerney, Samuel Moyn, Paul Muldoon, Lynn Nottage, Zibby Owens, Jodi Picoult, Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum (Matt Katz-Bohen, Michael C. Hall, Peter Yankowitz), Claudia Rankine, J. T. Rogers, Edward Rutherfurd, Fatima Shaik, Dani Shapiro, Andrew Solomon, Wole Soyinka, Lisa Taddeo, Gay Talese, and Jacqueline Woodson.

PEN/Benenson Courage Award: Mimi Khin Hall & Dr. Gail Newel

Presented by Andrew Solomon

PEN America honored the herculean yet too-often-unsung efforts of public health workers fighting a pandemic—not only of disease, but of disinformation that has posed dire challenges to our recovery. Santa Cruz County Health Services Director Mimi Khin Hall and Health Services Officer Dr. Gail Newel took to the stage to accept the PEN/Benenson Courage Award, presented by former PEN America President current Trustee, and professor at Columbia University Medical Center Andrew Solomon. Amid threats of violence, Hall and Newel stood firm in implementing evidence-based public health directives, facing down vitriol, attacks and attempted assaults. Their outspokenness about the challenges of holding firm to science in the face of denialism and denigrations helped strengthen the hands of health officials across the country in standing up to attacks on medicine, science, and sound health policy. 

Introducing Hall and Newel, Solomon praised their “remarkable mix of dignity and bravery” as they “elucidated the truth even as angry deniers tormented them, shouted them down, and endangered their safety and that of their children and families.” He emphasized that “the social precautions on which they insisted, as part of an information-based strategy to contain a disease that has now killed one in 500 Americans, undoubtedly saved lives. In their hands, simple undertakings such as asking people to wear masks and wash their hands became acts of grace. These two brave women never allowed their rationality to be enslaved by fear.”

Hall and Newel hugged as they took the stage, and Newel remarked, “I will leave it to others to study the political forces that have brought us to a place where facts and sound public policy are often met with anger and denial. What I can tell you is that in the face of that anger, under the threats and vitriol of some of the members of our community, Mimi and I shared a set of values based on honesty, trust, and a recognition of systemic inequality. We both see this award as being for all of the public health workforce—so many of whom operate with this same set of values.”

Said Hall, “Following our duty to save lives has been dangerous and deeply traumatizing…But what I have witnessed in my fellow local health officials and public servants is that when catastrophe presents itself, our commitment to humanity only becomes clearer.” Noting, however, that there has been an exodus from public health positions “whether by force, exhaustion, or fear,” Hall warned that “the environment that exists today threatens lives but it also threatens the very foundation of American democracy.” She fondly mentioned a phrase from Juvenal’s Satires that a Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors elected official had referenced to her “after a particularly ugly board meeting full of hateful comments” towards her and Newel: “Quis custodiet Ipsos custodus?’” or “Who will guard the guards themselves?’” Hall concluded, “Thank you, PEN America, from the bottom of our hearts, for being our guardians.”

PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award: Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi

Presented by PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel

With a Note from the Awardees Read by Lynn Nottage

Celebrated poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker Baktash Abtin; novelist and journalist Keyvan Bajan; and author, literary critic, and popular culture researcher Reza Khandan Mahabadi were recognized with the  The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, a powerful tool in PEN America’s year-round efforts to end the persecution of writers and defend free expression. The honorees, all centrally involved in the historic and vital—yet frequently imperiled—anti-censorship group Iranian Writers Association (IWA), are serving a collective 15.5 years in prison in Iran following a crackdown on members of the organization.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, introducing the award, said, “The heart and soul of our work at PEN is on behalf of imperiled writers.  At a time when writers don’t necessarily agree on much, the cause of an unjustly imprisoned writer reminds us that those compelled by the written word share values that transcend politics and ideology. As we celebrate together again here tonight, we are ever mindful of who is missing, emblemized by an empty chair belonging to those who are not free to sit with us or to stand with us, or to speak out with us.”

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage read a letter penned by the three writers: “We greet you from Evin prison’s ward 8 in Tehran and express our gratitude for your attention to us. More than anything, we are delighted that the importance of freedom of expression is being recognized…In many parts of the world, authoritarianism— manifested in censorship and oppression, publicly or hidden—is ruling and spreading fast. This doubles the responsibility of writers because human beings and creativity flourish in absolute freedom. Isn’t this the dream of any writer? We have been imprisoned for fulfilling this responsibility, and we have no regrets.”

Baktash Abtin, who spoke in a video recorded during a brief furlough from Iran’s notorious Evin prison, said, “I want to dedicate this award to all of the freedom seekers all over the globe and to their efforts in support of freedom of expression. I hope for a day when no one is imprisoned for their thoughts and for having such a beautiful demand as freedom.”

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award annually recognizes journalists imprisoned for their work and, with the public profile of the award, globally amplifies the urgency of their cases. Of the 48 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 44 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure the award generates.

2021 PEN/Audible Literary Service Award: Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Presented by Jodie Foster and Wole Soyinka

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, has, across a vast career, authored or co-authored more than 20 books and created more than 20 documentary films, including the acclaimed PBS series Finding Your Roots. He was honored by his former student—Academy and Golden Globe Award-winning actor and director Jodie Foster—and former teacher—playwright, political activist, and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka with the 2021 PEN/Audible Literary Service Award.

Foster, whom he advised at Yale on her senior thesis on Toni Morisson’s Song of Solomon, leading to a nearly 40-year friendship, said, “PEN America stands up for written word, the power of ideas, and the individuals who use these tools to transform our world. You are the perfect exemplar of PEN America’s mission to celebrate and defend free expression, having used your own voice to give voice to countless others. Like so many other great luminaries of our day, from Cornel West, to Carl Sagan, from Maya Angelou to Mahalia Jackson, you bring faith to the ‘us.’ And I believe that that faith itself is an act of manifest, a conjuring…May this award remind you of our spiritual commitment to humanity and our impossible bonds. Thank you, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. from your ever grateful student, Alicia Christian Foster. AKA, ‘you know who.’”

Soyinka said that Gates, or “Skip, as he is more fondly known, gives the description sui generis a totally unquantifiable dimension. No one on this planet ever knows what he is up to, until the results emerge to astonish us all, to compel drastic deviations from accustomed perceptions of ourselves, our history and place in the contemporary world.” He recalled his first encounter with Gates: during a time of turmoil for the influential Transition Magazine (of which Soyinka was appointed Editor in the 1970s), following revelations that CIA-backed anti-communist group Congress for Cultural Freedom had infiltrated the publication. Soyinka describes that while he and others were so disgusted they wanted to shut down the publication entirely, Gates led the charge “to obtain totally independent sponsorship for its continuation” and ultimately brought it through many relocations into its current Harvard-published form. “For that intervention alone,” said Soyinka, “our man Skip is more than deserving of the PEN Audible Literary Service Award. But for him, that journal of ideas and intellectual exchange, Transition, would have made its final, definitive transition into oblivion.”

Referencing his relationships to the two speakers who presented his award, Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his acceptance centered his history as both an educator and learner, saying, “Today, partisans in various states are passing laws that regulate what teachers can say, aiming to exclude ‘critical race theory,’ the 1619 Project, even trying to ban words—words—like ‘multiculturalism,’ ‘equity,’ and ‘whiteness.’  But we must not exempt ourselves from scrutiny, and when well-meaning people treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination.” He continued, “The idea that you have to look like the subject to master the subject was a prejudice that our forebears—women seeking to write about men, Black people seeking to write about white writers—were forced to challenge…Any teacher, any student, any reader, any writer, sufficiently motivated and committed, must be able to engage with subjects of their choice, freely and without pre-qualification. That is not only the essence of learning, it’s the essence of being human.”

Corporate Honoree: Robert A. Iger

Presented by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose live stage recording of Hamilton was released on Disney + shortly after the pandemic had sequestered most facets of life within the home, and who penned the music for Disney’s upcoming film Encanto, introduced Executive Chairman of The Walt Disney Company and Chairman of the Board of Directors Robert A. Iger, this year’s Corporate Honoree.

“Bob’s career has been defined by creativity and boldness,” said Miranda, himself a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, three Grammy Awards, and two Emmy Awards. “Under his leadership, Disney has given us fantastic stories like Moana, Frozen, Coco, and Black Panther, and those stories have had a profound impact on our world.” Referencing Iger’s book, The Ride of a Lifetime, Miranda said, “One of the themes that emerges…is Bob’s willingness to bring artists to the table and talk and talk and talk until everyone’s common goals are in view. That’s a real skill set that many great artists possess: articulate a vision, and create the conditions under which that shared vision can be realized.”

Iger, who stepped down as CEO of Disney in 2020 and will leave his position as Executive Chairman at the close of 2021, said, “When people think about Disney they often think about our movies, our characters and our theme park attractions. None of that would exist were it not for the unforgettable stories our writers tell. Their stories, their words come first. And using the power of our global platform, we’re able to share those stories and their corresponding messages of hope, optimism, acceptance and understanding with a broad audience, striving to make our world a better, more just place. As I prepare to leave Disney after 47 years, one of the things I am most proud of are the movies we’ve made that celebrate the rich diversity of our world and the wondrous beauty of different cultures.”

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. For more information, please visit pen.org. 

Press Contact

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