Among a guard of armed police officers and dogs, on Tuesday evening, the 2015 PEN American Gala honored Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award to a standing ovation. The applause that filled the room — which began softly and warily as a tribute video played, and ramped up to become steady and confident by the end of several speeches — was the end note to more than a week of controversy leading up to the literary organization's gala.
Prior to the event, six prominent writers and gala hosts withdrew from the PEN Gala over its decision to honor Charlie Hebdo, which was the target of a terrorist attack killing 12 people in its Paris office after it published cartoons of the prophet Muhammed. Soon, more than 200 additional PEN members joined the original six — Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Peter Carey, and Taiye Selasi — in boycotting the event by signing a letter dissociating themselves from PEN America for "valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world."
Soon afterward, other major authors stepped in to fill the roles empty after the boycott, with prominent fantasy author Neil Gaiman leading the charge along with graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, Maus's Art Spiegelman, Reading Lolita in Tehran's author Azar Nafisi, and author and journalist George Packer.
Upon arriving Tuesday evening, attendees were greeted outside the American Museum of Natural History with news organizations' cameras, hoping for comments on the hot-button issue of the evening — so it is only fitting that PEN president Andrew Solomon addressed the elephant in the room at the get-go, remarking on why his organization decided to honor Charlie Hebdo:
Few people are willing to put themselves in peril to ensure that we are all free what we believe. Tonights’s award reflects [Charlie Hebdo’s] refusal to accept the curtailment of speech through violence... We defend free speech above its content. Muteness is more toxic than speech. Silence equals death.
Gerard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, accepted the award on behalf of his publication, earning a massive round of applause from the audience. Gaiman tweeted a selection of the speech from the gala:
"Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not."
Novelist and editor Alexander Chee echoed this sentiment in his own words about his stance on the controversy.
Dominique Sopo, president of French anti-bias group SOS Racisme made a surprise appearance at the gala, and some of this remarks were quoted by attendee and writer Philip Gourevitch.
French author Alain Mabanckou, who was born in the Republic of Congo, spoke out during the PEN gala about Charlie Hebdo's longstanding commitment to "anti-racism."
"Charlie Hebdo has fought all forms of racism since its inception," he said.
Author of Bright Lights, Big City and PEN gala attendee Jay McInerney agreed, also speaking out about author authors and his own opinion about the divisive issue:
Iranian-born Nafisi, who replaced a boycotting author as one of the 30 hosts of the gala, spoke out about her reason behind doing so:
Nafisi calls out "Charb," aka Charlie Hebdo's late editor-in-chief who was murdered in the attacks Stéphane Charbonnier, for a comment her made back in 2013: "The passion for anti-racisim and equality between human beings has been and will always be our founding covenant."
The events of the night placed an emphasis on PEN American's mission, which includes the belief in the freedom to write and express — and those who stood for Charlie Hebdo kept that in mind as they rose to their feet.
Meredith Turits contributed reporting for this story.