Amidst a political climate increasingly hostile to journalists, PEN America celebrated “free expression and the literary arts” at its LitFest Gala on November 2 in Beverly Hills.
The evening honored more than 10 writers for work ranging from poetry to journalism, and creative non-fiction to translation.
The award-winners included Barry Jenkins, the Academy Award-winning director and co-writer of “Moonlight,” who was recognized for Screenplay Excellence. Marti Noxon, writer of HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” and Gillian Flynn, author of the novel “Sharp Objects,” jointly won an award for Teleplay Excellence. Attorney Marvin Putnam received the Distinguished Leadership Award for service on PEN America’s Board of Trustees.
The LitFest Gala opened with a video highlighting journalists who have been censored, threatened or violently suppressed for their work.
The video featured Jamal Khashoggi, whose death in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey has been declared a carefully planned murder by the Central Intelligence Agency. It also showed Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Reuters journalists arrested in Myanmar in December of 2017 for researching the murder of 10 Rohingya Muslims.
During a break in the speeches, event attendees were asked to write letters of support to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s jail.
PEN America was founded in 1922 “to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others,” according to its website. The organization sees itself as an advocate for free speech everywhere, “recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.”
Many at the LitFest Gala spoke with concern over recent action taken to suppress journalism in America, citing the branding of legitimate, accurate journalism outlets as the “enemy of the people” by the Trump administration. To cheers and applause, CEO Suzanne Nossel described PEN America’s October 16 lawsuit filed against President Donald Trump.
“We have grown sadly accustomed to near daily attacks by President Trump on the media, but when his speech crosses the line into retaliatory actions or credible threats of reprisal against critics, the President’s actions are not only egregious, but also unconstitutional,” Nossel said on the PEN America website. “At a time when hostility toward the press has fostered a climate of threats and even violence, it is essential for courts to step in and affirm the role of the First Amendment and free press in our democracy.”
PEN America worries that the administration’s rhetoric has created a dangerous environment for journalists and that there exists a link between the accusatory language used by the president and violent action taken against journalists, like the pipe bombs that were sent to CNN.
The evening culminated with acclaimed architect Frank Gehry presenting Chinese artist, activist and political dissident Ai Weiwei with PEN America’s Artistic Expression Award.
“[His] efforts to be strong against the bad guys is exemplary,” Gehry said. “I wish we could all live up to his model.”
In his acceptance speech, Ai spoke about his childhood, much of which was spent at a labor camp and in exile because of his father’s political dissidence. Ai explained that his father, Ai Qing, a poet, was forced to clean public toilets. Ai Qing denied his son the opportunity to read or write in an effort to protect Ai Weiwei from governmental persecution.
“Words matter,” Ai said. “This is the most powerful thing we can do in life: clearly write down what is in your heart, communicate with people clearly, and bear responsibility for what we have been saying or what has been in our minds.”