By Tina Susman
If the PEN American Center’s mission is to promote free expression and lively discourse, the literary group accomplished that with its decision to honor the French magazine Charlie Hebdo at its annual Literary Gala on Tuesday night.
Even before the attack on a Texas event lampooning the prophet Muhammad, PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo a freedom of expression citation had stirred controversy.
As the publication’s editor, Gerard Biard, and its film critic, Jean-Baptiste Thoret, went to the stage to accept their award, though, there was no sign of the tensions preceding the event, which included a boycott by some PEN members. Biard and Thoret received a standing ovation, and Biard urged writers to work together to “disarm” enemies of free speech.
“They don’t want us to debate. We must debate,” said Biard, who lost eight staff members in a January terrorist attack sparked by Charlie Hebdo‘s mockery of Muhammad. “We must disarm them.”
Days before the ceremony got underway, under tighter-than-usual security because of Sunday’s Texas attack, more than 200 PEN members had signed a letter disassociating themselves from the decision to give the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.
Several authors who were to be table hosts at the $1,250-a-head, black-tie event pulled out in protest, forcing PEN to find fill-ins and sparking heated debate on the difference between intelligent satire and disdain aimed at humiliating marginalized sectors of society.
…PEN President Andrew Solomon devoted his opening remarks to the dispute, giving an impassioned defense of Charlie Hebdo and the organization’s decision to honor it. Solomon said that despite violent attacks directed at the magazine for poking fun at Islam, “Charlie Hebdo‘s mission of satirizing sacred targets endured.”
“Few people are willing to put themselves in peril to ensure we are free to say what we believe,” said Solomon, adding that PEN exists to defend free speech.
“Silence equals death,” he said.
(To read the full report, please visit the Los Angeles Times.