(New York, NY) — PEN America announced today that acclaimed Nigerian writer, poet, and playwright Wole Soyinka will fly in from Nigeria to offer remarks at the organization’s 2021 Literary Gala celebration in New York City on Tuesday, October 5. The Nobel laureate will present Henry Louis Gates Jr. with the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award. Soyinka will also headline a PEN America event that week, the first U.S. appearance of the prolific writer in the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It means a great deal to Skip Gates and to PEN America that Wole Soyinka has decided to join us for what will be an unforgettable occasion,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “Wole Soyinka is a giant in world literature. His stature is proportionate to the momentous task of recognizing Professor Gates for his contributions to our understanding of history and culture. The PEN America Literary Gala is always a great party, but it is touching to see how this in-person reunion for the literary and free expression communities is drawing in people from around the world.”

“Wole was an Extraordinary Fellow at Cambridge in the 1973-1974 academic year, and I was a Mellon Fellow from Yale, reading English literature at Clare College,” said Gates. “I had never heard of him before, but was directed to contact him when I expressed interest in studying African literature. His appointment, by the way, was in the Social Anthropology Department because the English Faculty reportedly did not accept African literature as ‘literature.’ At a dinner in October 1973, it was Soyinka, joined by my new friend and fellow Clare student Kwame Anthony Appiah, who told me that my fate was to become a professor of African and African American Studies, and it was past time to abandon my parents’ s dream that I become a physician. It took a bit for me to accept their advice, but soon I did and the rest they say. . . !”

It was during their time together as teacher and student that Soyinka wrote his tragedy, Death and the King’s Horseman, one of the two plays that the Swedish Academy singled out in its citation announcing Soyinka’s selection as the first Black author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, a ceremony that Gates proudly attended. Soyinka and Appiah are godfathers of Gates’ two daughters.

PEN America also announced today that Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, a former student of Gates, is also scheduled take part in the award presentation ceremony. Gates co-directed Foster’s senior thesis at Yale on the late Toni Morrison, whom Foster interviewed as part of her research.

Soyinka previously delivered the PEN America Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2012, and has been featured as part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City. Soyinka is the author of some 40 works including plays, novels, poetry, essays, and biographies.

The PEN/Audible Literary Service Award is given each year to a cultural luminary whose work helps us understand and interpret the human condition in powerful and original ways. PEN America announced earlier this spring the awarding of its PEN/Audible Literary Service Award to Gates for his profound achievements in literature and history. PEN America also previously announced its 2021 Corporate Honoree, The Walt Disney Company’s Robert A. Iger.

In the coming months, PEN America will name additional gala honorees, including the recipient of its PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, bestowed on an imprisoned writer; and the recipient of the PEN/Benenson Courage Award for showcasing unparalleled courage to defend free expression. Health and safety regulations permitting, PEN America is planning to return its signature Literary Gala event to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City under the iconic blue whale in the Hall of Ocean Life.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. Headquartered in New York City with offices in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., the organization counts 7,500 Members in all 50 states, as well as seven volunteer-led regional chapters. Throughout the pandemic, PEN America has remained committed to the principles of free expression, continuing its pathbreaking advocacy while also celebrating literary excellence. In the past year, the organization has launched new marquee research projects; kept the pressure on policymakers in Washington to defend free expression; demanded free speech protections on campuses; led the fight to protect protest rights; and has uplifted emerging, historically-underrepresented voices in its work celebrating writers.


To inquire about table sponsorship opportunities or journal ads, please contact Deborah Wilson at [email protected] or visit pen.org/literarygala.