Hundreds of people gather for the PEN America Gala, hosted by Awkwafina – WHIO TV 7 and WHIO Radio

NEW YORK – (AP) – PEN America hosted one of New York’s first major indoor literary gatherings since the pandemic began last year, as hundreds gathered on Tuesday night for the annual gala of the organization to honor writers, community servants, political dissidents and such eminent public figures as Walt Disney Executive Chairman Robert A. Iger.

After a virtual ceremony in 2020, attendees met at the longtime gala location – the American Museum of Natural History, under the giant blue whale model. PEN, the human rights and literary organization, asked everyone to present proof of vaccination and proof of a negative test within 72 hours of the event. Once inside, they were instructed to wear masks when not “actively eating or drinking” on a night that included a cocktail party and sit-down dinner.

Infection rates remain high in New York compared to early summer, although well below the pre-vaccine peaks of last winter and March-April 2020. A November literary tradition, the Nationals Ceremony Book Awards, will be held online for the second year in a row. because of the virus. But PEN President Ayad Akhtar, author and playwright, called the gala a civic duty. He told the audience that after 18 months of Zoom screens, a live reunion of writers and other artists and the gradual reopening of PEN offices could inspire others to “move forward.”

“It’s part of what we think we can and should do,” he said.

According to PEN, around 500 people attended the gala, hundreds less than in recent years. But the organization still raised more than $ 3 million, announced PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel, a record for the event. Attendees included Min Jin Lee, Claudia Rankine and Walter Isaacson, among others, a PEN spokesperson said, as well as a few special presenters.

Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced Iger by praising Disney’s handling of the film version of “Hamilton” and his “willingness to bring artists to the table” and honor their voices. PEN / Audible Literary Service Award recipient author and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. was introduced by two old friends: Jodie Foster, who studied under him while attending Yale University, and the recipient of the Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian playwright author who praised him for his efforts to shed light on the past of black people around the world.

Hosted by actor-rapper Awkafina, the PEN gala was a defense of free speech and a warning against the spread of lies.

Iger, the “corporate honoree” of the evening, worried about “polarization” and a “general contempt for the truth”, amplified and accelerated by modern technology. Also among the winners were California public health officials Mimi Khin Hall and Dr Gail Newel, who received the PEN / Benenson Courage Award for what in ordinary times would have seemed obvious: serving their communities. Both have faced threats and rage from those who have denied the severity and even the existence of the coronavirus. Public health has always been a challenge, Hall said, but during the pandemic she and her peers faced “unprecedented hostility, fueled by disinformation and political divisions.”

But, she added, “when disaster strikes, our commitment to humanity becomes clearer.”

Three jailed Iranian writers and activists, Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan and Reza Khandan Mahabadi, received the PEN / Barbey Freedom to Write Award, their award received for them by playwright Lynn Nottage. She read a letter from the three dissidents thanking PEN and saying their thoughts were with the many other persecuted people in Iran and beyond.

“Your prize, in fact, belongs to everyone,” the letter read.

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