Hundreds gather for PEN America gala, hosted by Awkwafina

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2021 Invision

Corporate honoree Robert Iger, left, playwright Wole Soyinka, actress Jodie Foster and PEN/Audible Literary Service Award recipient Dr. Henry Louis Gates pose together at the 2021 PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK – PEN America held one of New York's first major indoor literary gatherings since the pandemic began last year, as hundreds met Tuesday night for the organization's annual gala to honor writers, community servants, political dissidents and such prominent public figures as Walt Disney executive chair Robert A. Iger.

After a virtual ceremony in 2020, attendees met at the gala's longtime venue — the American Museum of Natural History, under the giant model blue whale. PEN, the literary and human rights organization, required everyone to present proof of vaccination and proof of a negative test within 72 hours of the event. Once inside, they were asked to wear masks when not “actively eating or drinking" for a night which included a cocktail reception and a sit-down dinner.

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

“This is part of what we feel we can and must do,” he said.

According to PEN, around 500 people came to the gala, hundreds less than in recent years. But the organization still raised more than $3 million, PEN Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel announced, a record for the event. Attendees included Min Jin Lee, Claudia Rankine and Walter Isaacson among others, a PEN spokesperson said, and 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. The author and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., recipient of the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, was introduced by two old friends: Jodie Foster, who studied under him when she was attending Yale University, and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author-playwright who praised him for his efforts to illuminate the past for Black people worldwide.

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

Iger, the night's “corporate honoree,” worried about “polarization” and a “general disregard for the truth,” amplified and accelerated by modern technology. Honorees also included the California public health officials Mimi Khin Hall and Dr. Gail Newel, who were presented the PEN/Benenson Courage Award for what in ordinary times would have seemed self-evident: Serving their communities. Both have faced threats and rage from those who 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 have faced "unprecedented hostility, fueled by misinformation and political divisiveness."

But, she, added, “when disaster presents itself, our commitment to humanity becomes more clear."

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

“Your award, in fact, belongs to all of them,” the letter reads.