(New York, NY/Los Angeles, CA/Washington, DC) — In a virtual event marking a year of exceptional challenge but also extraordinarily courageous acts of free expression, PEN America Tuesday hosted its annual gala, culminating in an exclusive conversation on politics, prose, and propaganda with former President Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed “wannabe” writer and recipient of this year’s PEN America Voice of Influence Award. Hosted by film executive, PEN America Trustee, and founder of The Black List Franklin Leonard, the gala gathered authors and readers in a nationwide celebration of the freedom to write.

Recipients of PEN America’s distinguished free expression awards this year included former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who stood up to targeting by the Trump administration; Darnella Frazier, the 17-year old who documented the murder of George Floyd; Xu Zhiyong, the Chinese dissident jailed after speaking out as the COVID epidemic surged; songwriter, activist, and National Book Award winner Patti Smith; corporate leader Frank A. Bennack Jr.; and President Obama. Presenters and participants included Emma Thompson, Spike Lee, Madeleine Albright, Gabrielle Union, Bono, Joan Baez, Soledad O’Brien, and many more.

After a reading of the PEN charter by representatives of the 7,500 PEN America Members in cities across the country, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel cited the organization’s work in recent years to achieve national reach, through  chapters and activities in Birmingham, Austin, Tulsa, Detroit, Dallas, Greensboro, and elsewhere. She said that the tasks ahead are clear.

“We know that our information ecosystem is broken, and that we’ll need to rebuild confidence in a free press and resurrect the essential role of local news as a force for democratic accountability,” Nossel said. “We’ll need to dismantle barriers to participation in our national conversations, ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to be heard, including in the literature that we create and cherish. We’ll need to resurrect flagging faith in the very ideals of free speech so that Americans and people around the world don’t turn their backs on this vital principal just because the going has gotten tough.”

“Our organization was founded in the fragile aftermath of the First World War, another fraught and fractured historical moment,” said playwright, novelist, and newly-named PEN America President Ayad Akhtar, who took the helm after the successful three-year term of author Jennifer Egan. “But I’m heartened to think that this assembly of not always like-minded but always like-hearted writers and thinkers and advocates—that our assembly tonight points to our power.”

The first honoree of the night exhibited the very brand of free speech idealism that Nossel and Akhtar extolled. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and recipient of the PEN/Benenson Courage Award Marie Yovanovitch was dismissed from her post and returned to the U.S. to boldly testify before Congress about the corruption and underhanded dealings she had witnessed.  Yovanovitch’s honor elicited an outpouring of support and participation from dozens of U.S. diplomats who applauded her forceful stance on behalf of the stalwart professionals of the U.S. foreign service.  After receiving the award from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Yovanovitch acknowledged the too-often unheralded work of government servants whose work is essential to free expression and democracy.

“The history of our times has not yet been written, and I am full of hope about what our story will be because I see so many people standing up and doing the right thing. You know some of them because their actions have put them in the headlines. Most of them toil under the radar, keeping Americans safer, more prosperous, and more free,” Yovanovitch said.

As the organization does at each year’s gala, PEN America elevated the case of an imprisoned writer, this year honoring Chinese human rights defender Xu Zhiyong with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Xu has been detained incommunicado since earlier this year, in part for penning an essay criticizing China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that has given governments worldwide an excuse to crack down on dissent.

Xu’s colleague, fiancé, and women’s rights activist Li Qiaochu accepted the award on his behalf from her home in China, where she is currently facing charges for her own outspoken advocacy. Aware of the risks but undeterred, she urged the international community to continue speaking out on Xu’s behalf, “not only for his personal situation, but also for calling on the Chinese government to honor the rights of citizens granted by the constitution.”

Acclaimed filmmaker and change-maker in his own right Spike Lee then took the virtual stage to present the second PEN/Benenson Courage Award of the night to 17-year-old Darnella Frazier. “I am so proud of my sister,” he said of Frazier, who this May risked her well-being to document the murder of George Floyd, sparking a movement against anti-Black violence that would grip the nation and the world. “That footage reverberated around this God’s earth,” said Lee, “and people took to the streets and all over this earth.”

From her home in Minnesota, Frazier clutched the award, emotionally thanking Lee and PEN America for the honor. “I would never have imagined out of my whole 17 years of living that this would be me,” she said. “It’s a lot to take in, but I couldn’t say thank you enough for everything that’s been coming towards me.”

Her acceptance speech was then followed by a string of powerful tributes thanking Frazier for her bravery, including words of gratitude from Meryl Streep, Gabrielle Union, Sen. Cory Booker, DeRay Mckesson, Molly Crabapple, Rita Dove, and past PEN/Benenson Courage honorees Anita Hill and Mona Hanna-Attisha. Host Leonard also gave his own moving tribute, urging the virtual audience to remember Darnella Frazier’s name as a pillar of strength.

Frank A. Bennack Jr., executive vice chairman of Hearst and author of Leave Something on the Table: And Other Surprising Lessons for Success in Business and in Life, was honored as this year’s PEN America Corporate Honoree. Presenters Soledad O’Brien, Steven R. Swartz, and Steven J. Corwin lauded his profoundly ethical leadership and Hearst’s generous support of PEN America. Bennack cited two key facts in his remarks: “Truth matters. Words matter.” He congratulated PEN America for upholding those values in its near-century-long work.

PEN America then celebrated a writer and performer who for decades has expressed the power of words and truth through song: PEN/Audible Literary Service Award recipient Patti Smith. Leonard kicked off the celebration of Smith’s career by rightly labeling her a “legend” who has “forever altered our culture.” U2 front man and human rights campaigner Bono wove together a personal tribute to Smith, and Joan Baez joined in the celebration, calling Smith “my sister in arms, open arms” while sitting in front of a striking original painting she had made of the punk poet laureate.

Smith then grabbed the mic and, from her own studio, thanked PEN America, the gala co-chairs, the staff, and Members of PEN America for her award. She launched into a performance of “Peaceable Kingdom,” married with the rallying chorus from her 1988 landmark hit, “People Have the Power.” 

Concluding the evening, PEN America bestowed its 2020 Voice of Influence Award on former President Barack Obama (read more about the president’s award and PEN America’s interview with President Obama). Former PEN America president and Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow conveyed the award on behalf of PEN America, and then opened a half-hour conversation with President Obama spanning literature, human rights, political freedom, journalism, disinformation, racial dialogue, and the former president’s hopes for the future.

“For PEN [America] as an organization, it should be heartening to realize that it turns out the pen is mightier than the sword,” the former president said in this exclusive author-to-author interview. “The stories we tell are powerful. One of my goals as president, and even post-president, has always been to see, can we tell a unifying American story, but one that includes everybody? Because the past unifying story so often left out a lot of people’s stories. I think it is possible, but we’re going through the growing pains of trying to reunify, but in a way that is more reflective of the diversity of this nation.”

Transcripts and videos will be available at pen.org/PENgala, and additional material are available upon request. Please contact Stephen Fee at [email protected].