PEN American Center’s annual Literary Gala will be held on May 5, 2014 in New York City, and its director Susan Nossel has stated that two members of the Russian feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, will be in attendance. This year’s Literary Gala will be the largest in PEN American’s history with more than 500 guests hosted by U.S. and international writers of note. The benefit will help support PEN’s work all over the world, the bedrock of which is defending writers under threat and promoting free expression. Literary hosts of the festive event include Giannina Braschi, Robert Caro, Chang Rae Lee, Francine Prose, and David Remnick.
The PEN American Center has been in New York City since 1922. It is one of two U.S. branches of PEN International, a strictly non-political NGO founded in London in 1921. PEN International is the world’s oldest human rights organization. It is in “formal consultative relations with UNESCO” and holds “Special Consultative Status” with the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, notes the PEN American Center website. With a community of over 3,500 U.S. writers who are “working to break down barriers to free expression around the world,” PEN American Center is the largest of 145 such centers that are located in 101 countries.
PEN initially stood for poets, essayists, and novelists, but today the organization welcomes writers of all literary forms who want to advocate on behalf of those writers who are intimidated, imprisoned, and even killed for what they write.
The May 5 gala will present PEN’s highest honor, the Allen Foundation Literary Service Award, to Salman Rushdie for his role in founding and building the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, which begins seven days earlier, on April 28. The Literary Gala will mark the festival’s close. Rushdie will be introduced by Toni Morrison, who received the Literary Service Award in 2008. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo will be recognized with the first-ever Toni and James C. Goodale Digital Freedom Award for its “powerful new tool for communication and expression to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.” This tool, the PEN America site states, enables dialogue and the flow of information across political and geographical borders and has become essential for human rights activists, dissidents, and journalists.
The third award of the evening, the annual Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, is always given to “an imprisoned writer who has made significant contributions and endured personal sacrifice in the service of free expression.” PEN America has announced that this year’s recipient will be Ilham Tohti of China. Tohti is an ethnic Uyghur Chinese writer, university professor, economist, and public intellectual. Tohti has long been harassed by the authorities in China for his unfavorable and vocal opinions about China’s treatment of the Muslim minority in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The members of Pussy Riot, whom themselves were incarcerated for nearly two years due to their unfavorable and vocal opinions concerning their own government, will make some brief remarks during the presentation of this award.
PEN writers and translators who signed a letter of protest to the Chinese government include Edward Albee, Paul Auster, Giannina Braschi, Don Delillo, EL Doctorow, Deborah Eisenberg, Jennifer Egan, Tess O’Dwyer, David Remnick, Salman Rushdie, Francine Prose and John Waters.