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PEN America Literary Gala Addresses Gaza War Criticism

PEN America Literary Gala Addresses Gaza War Criticism

The 2024 PEN America Literary Gala welcomed hundreds of guests inside Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History on Thursday, including several prominent figures from the entertainment industry. Seth Meyers served as emcee for the annual black-tie fundraiser, which recognizes individuals who “celebrate, champion and defend freedom of expression.”

The gala took place following the recent cancellation of the annual PEN America Literary Awards and World Voices Festival. Several PEN-affiliated writers, including nine of those who received nods for the PEN/Jean Stein award for best book, chose to boycott these events in light of the organization’s response to the Israel-Hamas war. PEN America has been under scrutiny as several PEN-affiliated authors have alleged that the free speech and literary organization has favored Israel amidst the war and not properly acknowledged the violence afflicted upon Palestinian writers and journalists.

While the fundraiser took place as planned, the evening was not without its critics; several pro-Palestine protestors chanted outside the Museum of Natural History as guests arrived, as well as handed out pamphlets criticizing the organization. Amid the backlash, PEN America has called for a ceasefire multiple times and helped establish a $100,000 emergency fund for Palestinian writers.

Inside the museum, the awards dinner took place in the Hall of Ocean Life underneath a life-size whale sculpture. In his opening remarks, Meyers used humor to allude to recent controversy. 

“2024 — a year PEN America will always remember as super chill and laid back,” the Late Night host joked. “I’m here not only as a supporter of PEN America and the amazing work they do, but also because my boss Lorne Michaels asked me to come. To put it in museum terms, I am on loan from the Lorne and Alice Michaels collection.”

PEN America president Jennifer Finney Boylan also addressed the controversy. 

“Some members of our community boycotted the annual Literary Awards and the World Voices festival in order to make it abundantly and passionately clear how disappointed they were with our initial response,” she said. “To our critics, I want to say that we hear you and we want to move forward with you together. We know that you are speaking your conscience and your heart. Your protests have compelled PEN to take a hard look at our own and commit to doing better in the future. So listen to me, we will amplify the voices of all writers at risk, from Israel to Ukraine, from Palestine to Russia, from Florida to Texas.” 

In addition to acknowledgements of criticism, the night unfolded as planned to honor five champions of free speech hailing from various fields and backgrounds: musician Paul Simon, Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Wandrea “Shaye” Moss, Dow Jones CEO and Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour and Vietnamese writer and pro-democracy advocate Pham Doan Trang, who is currently in jail in Vietnam for speaking out against the government.

After Malcolm Gladwell introduced Simon, the singer-songwriter and philanthropist took to the stage with an acoustic guitar to perform his song “American Tune,” which was met with a standing ovation. In his subsequent speech, he explained that he wrote the song following the re-election of Richard Nixon and the 1970 shooting at Kent State.  

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“The mood today is uncomfortably similar to those days, and we might ask ourselves what we have learned,” Simon said. “Well, we’ve learned that we are slow learners. Overwhelming evidence of global warming hasn’t driven us to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently. Baby boomers are having their last taste of power. We’re two countries stitched together by language and a Super Bowl.”

Later in the night, Tyler Perry presented Freeman and Ross, who testified before Congress after Donald Trump accused them of voter fraud, with their award. In his speech, Perry revealed how the recent political climate has affected him: “For the past eight years or so I’ve felt this sinkingness in my soul, this heaviness in the world. What is going on? There’s so much animus, division… I think about how algorithms of social media make us feel, affect our mental health. This feels like evilness is winning.” 

The Hollywood mogul went on to explain how Freeman and Ross’ story inspired him. “These people were just election workers trying to do their civic duty, and they found themselves being targeted. For me it broke my heart, it made me think that evil was winning — until I saw them testify before Congress. Standing there proud, talking about what they’d been through, telling their stories, having their own voice, speaking loudly, I realized that evil’s not winning — it’s just loud.”

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