May 16 Ceremony Celebrates J.K. Rowling, Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch, Flint Activists Lee-Anne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and Jailed Egyptian Novelist Ahmed Naji

NEW YORK—New York’s literary community gathered Monday night at the 2016 PEN Literary Gala to honor novelist and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling; Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch, advocates who exposed the lead-poisoned water in Flint Lee-Anne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha; and jailed Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji for their contributions and sacrifice in defense of free expression. Beneath the famed blue whale of The American Museum of Natural History’s Millstein Hall of Ocean Life, 850 guests enjoyed what felt like intimate dinner parties, hosted at each table by literary celebrities including Tina Brown, B.J. Novak, Salman Rushdie, Dinaw Mengestu, Beau Willimon, and Zadie Smith.

Award-winning actress and producer Sarah Jessica Parker presented Rowling with the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for Award for engendering a love of literature among children worldwide. Herself the frequent object of censorship in schools and libraries across the globe, as well as online targeting, Rowling has emerged as a vocal proponent of free expression and access to literature and ideas for children, as well as incarcerated people, the learning-disabled, and women and girls worldwide. Read Ms. Rowling’s full remarks from the event here.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt introduced Pietsch as the Publisher Honoree for his leadership in the fight against censorship by new and traditional actors. Through thirty years as an editor working with Tartt, David Foster Wallace, James Patterson, and others, Pietsch has championed the power of the unrestrained word.

“He’s shown himself over and over to be a brave publisher,” said Tartt of Pietsch. “You can see a few of the many many ways in which he’s been a force for good, with his decision to publish the posthumous manuscript of Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, a book which many less courageous publishers would have found it very very easy to pass on, and his efforts to resist censorship of works in translation in China.”

Toni and James C. Goodale presented the 2016 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Walters and Hanna-Attisha, who received a standing ovation for their exceptional acts of courage in speaking truth to power. Walters and Hanna-Attisha were two essential voices in exposing the lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply, calling out the grave damage to public health in a majority black community where about 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

In accepting the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on behalf of his brother, Mohamed Naji spoked of Ahmed’s experience in prison, where is currently serving a two-year sentence for “violating public modesty” after a private citizen complained that an excerpt from Naji’s novel The Use of Life had given the reader heart palpitations due to its sexual content.

“Ahmed keeps telling us about the new novel he is writing; he is thinking about writing a novel which he cannot actually write. He is imagining it, like he always has,” said Mohamed Naji. “Although Ahmed has been stripped of all his fundamental rights, they cannot take away his right to imagination.”

Suzanne Nossel, the Executive Director of PEN who presented the award, encouraged all in attendance to write brief notes of encouragement to Ahmed Naji.

“This award is an antidote to impervious strongmen and indifferent peoples, a clarion call that throws the weight of the world’s greatest writers, publishers, editors and the entire creative community on the side of freedom, the side of Ahmed Naji,” Nossel said.

Photographs
High-resolution photographs from the evening are available at http://bit.ly/2016-pen-gala

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression at home and abroad. 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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