Pen America, Facing Criticism Over Its Response To The Mideast War, Gathers For Annual Gala

From left to right, Suzanne Nossel, Andrea Mitchell and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)
From left to right, Suzanne Nossel, Andrea Mitchell and Almar Latour attend the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History, Thursday, May 16, 2024, in New York. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Like a political convention held amidst an intra-party rift, Thursday night's PEN America gala was a call for unity, dialogue and a renewed sense of mission at a time when PEN's priorities have been called into question.

“Our assembly is disassembling,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel acknowledged Thursday night. “People of good intention and staunch conviction are wracked by a wrenching conflict. We are haunted by destruction, death and suffering that has caused some to question PEN America’s words, deeds and purpose.”

The literary and human rights organization has faced ongoing criticism over its response to the Israel-Hamas war, with hundreds of writers alleging that PEN showed limited concern over the suffering of Gaza residents and the deaths of Palestinian writers and journalists. PEN has already canceled its spring awards ceremony after dozens of nominees withdrew and its World Voices festival after hundreds signed an open letter saying they wouldn’t participate.

Some had wondered if the gala would take place, but the event is the organization's major annual fundraiser, with more than $2 million coming in from Thursday's event, and key donors remained. All five major New York publishers — Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan — were listed as sponsors, along with organizations ranging from Bloomberg and Barnes & Noble to the National Basketball Association and the David Geffen Foundation.

“There was zero discussion about us not attending,” Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Many attendees had to clear three checkpoints before entering the American Museum of Natural History; if dissenters were inside, they were not speaking out. Nossel received a standing ovation, and she was among several speakers who emphasized common PEN goals such as opposing book bans and the imprisonment of writers, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia. PEN President Jennifer Finney Boylan stated that PEN America was “determined to amplify the voices of all writers at risk — from Israel to Ukraine, from Palestine to Russia, from Florida to Texas.”

Seth Meyers, the evening's host, joked about the “super chill and laid back” moment for PEN. One honoree, Paul Simon, consoled with words and music. Simon, this year's winner of PEN's Literary Service Award, brought an acoustic guitar to the stage, and performed a gentle, even fragile version of his 1973 classic about a generation's strife and exhaustion, “American Tune.”

“There are songs that can inhabit two eras and speak truth to both,” he said, adding that the “mood today is uncomfortably similar to those days.”

Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour was presented the Business Visionary Honoree Award and dedicated much of his speech to Gershkovich, saying he was being held in Russia simply for doing his job and noting the hundreds of other journalists in similar peril worldwide. “The grim reality is that there are scores of Evans everywhere,” he said.

Authors at the gala included Candace Bushnell, Jay McInerney and Andrew Solomon, a former PEN president who joined Salman Rushdie, Jennifer Egan and other onetime PEN officials in publishing a letter in April urging “writers to keep faith in the community that we have built together so that PEN America can continue to evolve in ways that serve and elevate the writers as a vital force within society.”

Around 650 were in attendance, roughly 100 less than 2023, according to PEN. Some who came acknowledged ambivalence.

“I won’t say it didn’t occur to me about whether I should go,” said novelist Dinaw Mengestu, a PEN vice president who has been highly critical of the organization. “But I feel it’s important that we can continue to move forward and try and learn and change.”

Protests against PEN have continued, and writers have publicly clashed. On Thursday night, around 20 protestors stood in front of the museum, calling out names of Palestinian civilians killed and chanting “Shame!” as gala attendees arrived. Earlier this month, Author-journalist and PEN board member George Packer condemned what he called the “authoritarian spirit” of PEN critics, alleging in The Atlantic they were pressuring others not to back the organization. Mengestu responded on Instagram by alleging that Packer's essay “perverts and distorts the legitimate and necessary criticisms against PEN” and trivializes the Gaza war.

Last week more than a dozen writers who withdrew from PEN events held a benefit reading at a church in downtown Manhattan, with proceeds going to We Are Not Numbers, a youth-led Palestinian non-profit in Gaza that advocates for human rights. When the opening speaker, Nancy Kricorian, referred to the PEN cancellations, audience members shouted and clapped. Another speaker, writer-translator and “World Voices” co-founder Esther Allen, criticized PEN for continuing with the fundraising gala while calling off the awards and World Voices.

“The priorities could not be clearer,” she said.

Two honors Thursday night were dedicated to those under siege in the U.S. and abroad.

PEN's Freedom to Write Award, for imprisoned dissidents, was given to journalist Pham Doan Trang of Vietnam. Accepting on her behalf, her friend Quynh-Vi Tran praised Trang as a “symbol of bravery and perseverance, inspiring countless young people to envision and strive for a Vietnam where freedom and human rights are upheld.”

PEN's Courage Award was presented to Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and her daughter, "Shaye” Moss, both of whom faced violent threats after President Donald Trump falsely accused them of manipulating ballots for the 2020 election.

“I still struggle with fear. It has a way of just rearing its head and interrupting my life. I would love for it to stop, but what I want most is for people to understand the truth that has been buried beneath so many lies,” Moss said.

“But here tonight, with all of you, I’m filled with hope again.”