NEW YORK – This year's PEN American Center gala was a defense of free expression, of Charlie Hebdo and of PEN itself.
Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman and Roz Chast were among hundreds who gathered Tuesday night at the American Museum of Natural History, where guests of honor included playwright Tom Stoppard, Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle. Hebdo Editor-in-Chief Gerard Biard and critic-essayist Jean-Baptiste Thore accepted the Freedom of Expression Courage Award to a standing ovation that followed a weeklong debate — alternately thoughtful and divisive — over whether the tribute was deserved.
The mood was both celebratory and uneasy, as PEN at times recalled an attorney mounting its closing arguments.
Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and four other writers scheduled to be table hosts had withdrawn because of objections to what they considered the satirical magazine's offensive cartoons of Muslims, with Gaiman and Alison Bechdel among those taking their place. More than 200 writers and others in publishing, among them Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Cunningham, signed an open letter saying that for Muslims in "marginalized" communities like France, the Hebdo images "must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering." Rushdie and others tenaciously responded, saying opponents mischaracterized the magazine and were suggesting that Hebdo somehow deserved the January shootings that left 12 people dead.
PEN president Andrew Solomon quickly referred to Hebdo in his opening remarks, calling the award, and dispute, reminders that the "defense of people murdered for their exercise of free speech is at the heart of what PEN stands for, so is the unfettered articulation of opposing viewpoints." Addressing the racism allegations, PEN brought in French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou to introduce Hebdo, while a surprise visit was made by Dominique Sopo, president of the French anti-bias group SOS Racisme.
The gathering Tuesday night was overwhelmingly supportive of Hebdo and the award if only because so many critics stayed home, some by choice, some citing scheduling conflicts. Rushdie, who feuded bitterly online with Prose and others, wondered how soon the literary community would unite again.
"Charlie Hebdo is the greatest anti-racist magazine in France and that these people should have been called racists has, to my mind, been criminal," Rushdie, forced into hiding for years because of death threats over his novel "The Satanic Verses," told The Associated Press before the ceremony. "This is a bad wound and people have behaved shockingly and I think they need to say so."
During the ceremony, several speakers recalled absent friends. While introducing Stoppard, actress Glenn Close cited the late Mike Nichols, who directed her in a Broadway adaptation of Stoppard's "The Real Thing." Ismayilova, given the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, has been imprisoned since December and was represented by fellow journalist Emin Milli. Biard and Thore came on behalf of colleagues killed in the January attacks.
In accepting the award, Biard noted the magazine's history of shocking readers with its irreverent drawings of religious figures.
"Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking," he said. "Being shocked is a part of democratic debate. Being shot is not."
The Hebdo award made the PEN gala the most controversial in recent memory, but also among the best attended. More than 800 came for the event, at $1,250 a ticket, compared with around 700 a year ago. With the presence of Hebdo officials and the recent shootings near Dallas at an anti-Islam event, guests passed through metal detectors and armed police officials. Police cars lined the street outside the museum's main.
While virtually everyone stood and clapped for Hebdo, not everyone was an admirer. The Iranian-born novelist Porochista Khakpour, a table host, told the AP that she had no plans to applaud even as she affirmed her support for PEN's mission. Chast, the best-selling author and New Yorker cartoonist, told the AP that she found the Hebdo illustrations "sort of stupid and ham-handed," and "kind of obvious, kind of, 'duh.'"
"But if I didn't support their right to publish them I wouldn't be here," she said.