NEW YORK, N.Y. – On a night when speakers included Stephen King, Morgan Freeman and Margaret Atwood, no one at the PEN American gala had a more moving and inspiring presence than Parkland shooting survivor Samantha Fuentes.
One of three student gun control activists receiving PEN’s Freedom of Expression Courage Award, Fuentes became tearful, nauseous, fled the podium and returned a few minutes later to a standing ovation as she steadied herself and accepted an honour neither she nor Cameron Kasky nor Zion Kelly imagined or wanted.
“I think sometimes I forget I got shot,” she said, before speaking of her mission to “to prioritize people’s life over guns.”
“Thank you so much for believing in me, or not just me, thank you for believing that together we can correct the moral and fundamental problems in this country.”
The PEN gala, held Tuesday night at the American Museum of Natural History, was an education in the dangers and rewards of free expression, with words from longtime celebrities and those forced into fame, from political prisoners and those lucky enough to get out. The literary and human rights organization handed out prizes for literary service, political activism and defence of the First Amendment.
The gala took place as a longtime champion for writers oppressed in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, Philip Roth, was dying in a nearby hospital at age 85. Many Tuesday night spoke of risks to essential rights, abroad and in the U.S. Atwood, best known for her Dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” warned that “When democracy is in retreat the first thing authoritarians do is silence those who are telling stories they dislike.” She was presenting the Freedom to Write Award to two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, jailed in Myanmar.
In a letter read by Atwood, the journalists offered a dare to the Myanmar government: “Where is the truth? Where is the truth and justice?” they asked. “Where is democracy and freedom? Why do soldiers who are found guilty of murder get 10 years while we journalists who expose the murder face 14 years in prison?”
Freeman, who starred the film adaptation of King’s “Shawshank Redemption,” presented King his award for literary service and praised him as the “embodiment: of three essential qualities: “The writer as humanitarian, the writer as conduit to bringing unseen and unheard human experiences to life and the writer as activist to use the power of the pen to shape the world.”
King has a long history of supporting literacy and liberal causes and was remembered Tuesday for a special act of courage and solidarity. When some bookstores in 1989 considered pulling Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” because of death threats resulting from the “fatwa” announced by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, King responded that he would withdraw his work in response.
In his acceptance speech, King called himself “just a guy who’s loved books since childhood,” but set a higher tone for the writer’s place in the world.
“Those who can read can learn to write and those who can do both will eventually succeed in the world,” he said. “They are the crucial counterweight to those who are close-minded and mean-spirited.”
“Too many of those,” he added, are “currently in power.”
CEO Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster, King’s publishing house, was this year’s “Publisher Honoree.” Her speech was a tribute to open debate and a work of diplomacy before a liberal audience. President Trump, as in the two previous years, was one of the night’s villains; Freeman was so repelled he mumbled his name. But Trump is also a published author, and his campaign book from 2015, “Crippled America,” was released by Threshold Editions — an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
Freedom of expression, Reidy stated, was not just for one side.
“Opinions differ, and opinions matter. They have the ability to spark genuine debate about issues and ideas of real substance,” she said. “It is thus all the more important to reassert our core beliefs that free speech, the actual discussion and debate of ideas — ideas that can be good or bad, progressive or regressive, new or antiquated, revolutionary or status quo, mild or offensive, half-baked or fully cooked, and yes, liberal or conservative — needs to remain the right of every citizen in our society along with our obligation to protect that speech.”