On May 18, 2023, at the 2023 Literary Gala in New York City, PEN America honored author Salman Rushdie, its former president, who accepted the PEN Centenary Courage Award in person, his first public appearance since he was severely wounded in a knife attack nine months ago.
Rushdie, speaking to 700 guests at the American Museum of Natural History, said PEN America and its mission to protect free expression was never “more important” in a time of book bans and censorship and issued a call to action: “Terrorism must not terrorize us. Violence must not deter us. La lutte continue. La lutta continua. The struggle goes on.”
It was an emotional return to the stage for Rushdie, who for decades has been a tireless defender of persecuted writers and the freedom to write while himself living under a death threat for his writing. Rushdie said he was accepting the award on behalf of the “heroes” who rushed the dias at the Chautauqua Institute and tackled his assailant after he was repeatedly stabbed last Aug. 12. “If it had not been for these people, I most certainly would not be standing here today. I was the target that day, but they were the heroes. The courage, that day, was all theirs. I owe my life to them.”
PEN America’s current president, playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar, referred to “our beloved Salman Rushdie,” and said the organization was honoring him “because of what he stood for and continues to stand for, and what this organization is fundamentally all about. Freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to inquire, freedom to make sense of reality without deference to dogma, irrespective of the consequences. He has enlarged the world’s imaginative capacities and at such great cost to himself.”
Rushdie, who turns 76 next month, began his close association with PEN America when the Booker Prize-winning author emerged after more than a decade in hiding as the result of a call for his death issued in 1989 by the Iranian theocracy over his novel The Satanic Verses. He served as PEN America president from 20024-06 and co-founded the organization’s World Voices Festival, an annual spring event bringing international writers to New York City and Los Angeles; this year’s festival, the 18th edition, concluded last Saturday.
PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said: “After the shock of the attack, there was a long period when we had real doubts about whether Salman was going to make it and what kind of shape he might be in if he did. So to see him back, in action, at this event, with his PEN America family is a remarkable testament to his resilience and strength and a kind of emblem of our work — that in the face of lethal threats, the writer triumphs and the voice continues.”
Earlier in the evening, PEN America honored Saturday Night Live creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels with the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, citing SNL’s four decades of biting satire that captured the tenor of the moment and probed norms, restrictions and absurdities of our institutions and the powerful. John Mulaney presented the award to Michaels, who, after recalling some classic jokes about the writing output of a roomful of monkeys with typewriters, said: “I want to thank PEN for all you do to keep people like myself in the room writing.”
The imprisoned Iranian writer and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi received the 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Her husband, Taghi Rahmani, a journalist who himself has been jailed for his work, accepted on her behalf and spoke about their family’s heartbreaking sacrifices during her years of activism and imprisonment: “I cannot forget that my children have been tortured by the Iranian government and the prison authorities who have wilfully deprived them of even the sound of their mother’s voice. Our lives in the words of my daughter, Kiana, is like this, “When mom is there, dad isn’t. When dad is there, mom isn’t.”
Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a PEN America supporter, read aloud a statement written by Mohammadi from prison: “Freedom of expression aims to enhance the lives of individuals and human societies. Like all despotic governments, the Islamic Republic of Iran distorts facts, falsifies events, and sabotages the discovery of the truth by imposing systematic corruption to prevent its people from living decent, honorable lives. Standing up to the misogynist, oppressive, and theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran is standing up for the right to live against a system set up to destroy life.”
The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is presented annually to an international writer of conscience, imprisoned to silence them. For two decades, Mohammadi has fiercely defended women, political prisoners, and ethnic minorities and has been targeted by the Iranian government for her writings and human rights activism. She is currently jailed on false charges of “spreading anti-state propaganda” and defamation. PEN America has undertaken extensive advocacy on Mohammadi’s case; she is among more than 300 writers worldwide who are jailed and 800 more persecuted by oppressive governments in 80 countries, according to PEN America’s annual Freedom to Write Index.
The gala, a black-tie event that gathers acclaimed writers, human rights defenders, cultural luminaries, and champions of PEN America’s mission to defend and celebrate free expression, is a highlight of the New York City social calendar that mobilizes support for PEN America’s literary and advocacy programs across the United States and worldwide.
Colin Jost, the SNL Weekend Update co-host, drew laughter when he said: “I feel very fortunate to be here in this room tonight surrounded by two things that might not be around much longer: writers and ocean life.” Speaking in a room with a blue whale suspended from the ceiling, he pointed upwards saying: “This is the first time that whale has been the least endangered thing in the room.”
Among the guests this year were Fred Armisen, Alec and Hilaria Baldwin, Brit Bennett, Candice Bergen, Candance Bushnell, Robert Caro, Michael Che, Susan Choi, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, Jennifer Egan, David Greenberg, Steve Higgins, Clover Hope. Marlon James, Suleika Jaouad, Chloe Cooper Jones, Min Jin Lee, Raven Leilani, Jay McInerney, Emily Ratajkowski, Theresa Rebeck, Diane Sawyer, Bartlett Sher, Andrew Solomon, Cecily Strong, Gay Talese, among others.
The program was followed by a private VIP afterparty, with DJ Vicious, sponsored by Spotify.