On May 5th, I had the pleasure of attending the annual PEN Gala at the American Natural History Museum. As far at the literary world goes, it’s definitely one the most prestigious events in the country, if not the most. And like most literary events, it usually comes and goes without much attention beyond its attendees. But this year was different. This year, PEN decided to honor Charlie Hebdo with an award, causing a stir within the PEN community. Six members, who were scheduled to host a table that evening, boycotted the event–publicly citing that the magazine contained “selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” And it’s true, a simple search will lead you to countless examples of cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo that are offensive to not only Islam but Judaism and Christianity, too. The cartoons are crass, exaggerated and powerfully evocative.
So why did some hosts protest while others remained supportive members of the organization? Because PEN is on the right side of the road. PEN wasn’t awarding Charlie Hebdo (the satirical magazine) for its content. They were honoring not what was published, but the freedom to publish, because above all, PEN stands for freedom of speech. Radical extremists want to control Charlie Hebdo, and Salman Rushdie, and Sony Pictures, and every other creator of art. They want to control what people create. But we can’t control art, its essence is its freedom. Freedom of speech is one of our most basic rights, and PEN exists solely to ensure the world’s writers of that right.
Because of the controversy, security measures were taken to protect the guests. When I arrived I was surprised to see a SWAT team lining the lower steps of the museum entrance. Bomb sniffing dogs and GI Joe looking officers hugging semi-automatic rifles to their chest. The vibe however, was lax and peaceful. One of the officers even helped me up the stairs (I’m not good in heels).
Inside, the museum lobby was bursting with lively guests. It seemed that the attendees felt a sense of pride with their attendance. The protests made the event even more necessary and heavy, dealing with protection of speech within its own community, an obstacle I imagine the staff never imagined they’d encounter. The members who stood by PEN stood closer together that night. Another one of PEN’s great missions is to bring writers together and create a sense of harmony within a diverse group. Not everyone in that lobby agreed with the choice to honor Charlie Hebdo, but they did agree to honor the foundation of the organization and that created a warm camaraderie that was impossible to ignore. Standing below the skinny shadows of the Barosaurs was a good reminder to look up and remember to consider the bigger picture. While we might have looked like a mob of silk and champagne in the moment, we were soldiers, helping to carry out a cause much larger.
The program began with a speech by Andrew Solomon, a seasoned speaker with an exquisite insightfulness necessary to kick-off such a tensely anticipated evening. “Charlie Hebdo’s current staff have persisted, and tonight’s award reflects their refusal to accept the curtailment of lawful speech through violence,” Solomon preached with priest-like power, to an audience already clapping. “Muteness is more toxic than speech,” he later concluded, a sentiment which was quickly spread across Twitter. The profundity of his words heightened the energy in the room. As his opening remarks progressed, backs straightened, ears perked and hashtags spread. Those were the words the audience wanted to hear and they were so happy to have them. Little, tangible pieces of armor to protect against naysayers. “We express ourselves to cure the world,” he continued, a prelude to a long and spirited round of applause.
Glenn Close took the stage to follow with an equally inspiring speech with added sensory touches that tugged on the audience’s collective heart strings. “I believe that the greatest writers re-arrange our lives for the better,” she crooned to a sea of pleased sighs. But of the Tweet-able quotes of the night, SOS Racisme president Dominique Sopo summed-up the evening’s objective quite simply, “I think it’s very important that we do not kill those who died a second time by raising a polemic.” It brought the seriousness and perspective needed to round-out the speakers, officially hitting every note in the euphonic symphony of support that was the gala.
I had expected PEN to be on the defense, but they weren’t. The line of speakers were inspirational, passionate and up-lifting. They made everyone feel proud to be there, to be supporting such a necessary organization and allowed everyone to feel confident in their choice to stand by Charlie Hebdo, again not for what they do, but for doing. The evening got me thinking about PEN and its importance in our generation. None of my friends are aware of PEN and if I didn’t work in publishing, I don’t know that I would either. There are countless organizations that support human rights but few as powerful and reactionary as PEN. And yet, most people under 30 have no idea they exist. So, if this article was tl;dr–here’s a millennial breakdown of the transcendent organization you probably already passively support, and why you should now actively support.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT PEN
1. PEN is an international human rights and literacy organization.
2. It was founded in 1921 in response to divisions that contributed to World War I.
3. PEN serves writers who have been imprisoned or persecuted for exercising their right to freedom of speech.
4. Each year approximately 300 writers are imprisoned and thousands more are persecuted.
5. PEN is not a political or governmental organization.
6. 35 of the 39 Freedom to Write Award recipients have been released from prison after being awarded the honors.
7. PEN sponsors public literary programs and inner-city school activities.
8. PEN runs a Prison Writing Mentoring Program that was founded in 1971. It empowers inmates to express themselves through writing.
9. PEN gives out more than $150,000 in literary awards each year to writers of fiction, science, sports, children’s literature, drama or poetry.
10. You can support PEN in various ways. You can join as an Advocate or Professional Member. As a member you will get invites to cool parties, discounted tix, and the satisfaction of just knowing you are a part of something bigger than yourself in supporting an organization that defends free expression at home and abroad. But if you can’t afford to be a member, you can still support them by following them on Facebook and Twitter and sharing the stories of the writers who can’t.