The 2016 PEN Literary Gala & Free Expression Awards was Monday night at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where author and ardent defender of free speech J.K. Rowling was awarded the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. Recognized for "the extraordinary inspiration her books have provided to generations of readers and writers globally," Rowling's acceptance speech was just as inspiring as her writing.
Each year, the PEN American Center, a literary society and human rights organization devoted to defending free speech and advance literature world-wide, honors writers, journalists, and publishers who are devoted to protecting free speech and abolishing censorship around the globe. Joining J.K. Rowling on the 2016 list of honorees is novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji, the recipient of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award whose novel the Use of Life landed him a two-year prison sentence in Egypt on charges of "violating public modesty." Naji, whose book featured sexual content deemed inappropriate by Egyptian authorities, is currently incarcerated, but his case has helped raise local and global awareness of the increasingly severe restrictions on freedom of expression in the country.
Other honorees include Lee-Anne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, recipients of the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression of Courage Award whose voices were crucial in raising awareness of the Flint water crisis in Michigan, and Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch, the Gala's Publisher Honoree known for his leadership in the fight against censorship.
J.K. Rowling, who has become one of the loudest voices in the battle against censorship, was honored at the Gala for her work fighting for access to literature and ideas for children, incarcerated persons, persons with disabilities, and women and girls all around the world. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker introduced the author, mentioning not only Rowling's literary achievements, charitable efforts, and significant efforts to protect free speech, but the personal influence Rowling's books have had on Parker's own life and the life of her children.
During her acceptance speech, Rowling admitted "I'm blushing," before thanking the PEN organization for the great honor of receiving this prestigious award. She went on to talk about her own experiences with censorship and free speech, recognizing the importance of it, even when it seems to be working about you. The author explained:
"Protected as I am by citizenship of a liberal nation where freedom of expression is a fundamental right, my critics are at liberty to say I am trying to convert children to satanism, and I am free to explain that I am exploring human nature and morality. Or to say you're an idiot."
With wit and humor, Rowling talked about the essential need for free speech and expression for everyone, not just people you agree with. She used none other than Donald Trump, presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to drive home her point:
"Now, I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted, but he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine."
Rowling then went on to explain that differing opinions cannot mean differing rights and freedoms, which became a focus for the rest of her remarks:
"If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral grounds to argue that those offended by feminism or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage, should not oppress campaigners for those causes. If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the ground that they have offended you, you have crossed a line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture, and kill on exactly the same justification."
The author finished her speech not with words of her own, but with words from the blog of a teenage girl who, in 2009, became one of the youngest "prisoners of conscious" in the world after her arrest by Syrian security forces for what she had written. Among the many beautiful and insightful words of wisdom from the young girl's page was this final moving sentiment:
"Oh my brother human, if I disagree with you in thoughts,principals, or beliefs, does this deny the fact that we are both human? All you and I have to do is respect each other. Tolerate the views of your opponents coolly and patiently. While listening to them, do not think to respond before listening to all opposing opinions."
Just when you thought you couldn't love J.K. Rowling anymore, she delivers a moving and inspirational speech like this filled with emotion, wisdom, and, most importantly, hope. Congratulations, J.K. Rowling, this is one award you truly deserve.