Flint, Freedom to Write & J.K. Rowling on Trump: A Night at the PEN Gala
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by Sara Ortiz
PEN America hosted their annual Literary Gala beneath the iconic blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History in New York Monday night. During the black tie affair, figures such as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling were honored, and PEN President Andrew Solomon delivered the soiree’s opening remarks by announcing that this was PEN’s biggest gala to date, having far exceed their own goal and raised over $1.75 million.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Donna Tartt, presented the Publisher Honoree award to friend, editor, and Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch. While accepting, Pietsch shared a heartfelt message to his publishing colleagues, “All over the world, writers are living in peril… Let us be brave, but not too safe. Let’s publish wild voices, diverse voices.”
Lee-Anne Walters and Dr. Hanna-Attisha — the critical voices that exposed the lead poisoning water crisis in Flint, Michigan — were the 2016 recipients of the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, succeeding the Charlie Hebdo staff in 2015. The room collectively welcomed them with the only standing ovation of the night.
Though it was clear — not only from the buzz in the room and the young children seated next to parents in tuxes and gowns, but from every speaker’s personal anecdotes — that guests came to hear, albeit briefly, the author who captured readers with the wizarding world of Harry Potter. In her introduction, actress and producer Sarah Jessica Parker said, “Books are magic,” and also referenced Rowling’s famed Twitter account. Moments later, Rowling accepted the Allen Foundation Literary Service Award and stood at the podium delivering some of the mightiest lines of the evening, including thoughts on freedom of speech and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump: “Now I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted, but he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot.” Several in the audience greeted her address with applause and laughs.
PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel closed the evening by presenting the Barbey Freedom to Write Award to jailed Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji — who in 2015 was charged with “violating public modesty” after a private citizen complained of heart palpitations due to sexual content in Naji’s novel The Use of Life. After Najis’s brother accepted the award on his behalf, Nossel requested that those in attendance write notes of encouragement for Naji, stressing that PEN’s hopes are that the Barbey Freedom to Write Award will spur writers, readers, advocates, and world leaders to press Egypt to release Naji immediately and stop treating creativity as a crime.
— Photographs courtesy of PEN America, by Beowulf Sheehan