Monday night I went to one of the most exciting events this writer has ever covered. It was the PEN Center USA’s Literary Awards Festival held at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA on October 14, 2013. PEN Center USA’S mission is “to stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.” (From the PEN Center Awards Festival booklet.)
This year the distinguished award-winners included: Joan Didion (Lifetime Achievement Award); Chris Hedges (the First Amendment Award); Sonia Nassery Cole (the Freedom to Write Award), Mark Boal, the screenwriter for Zero Dark Thirty, and several others. For a complete list and more information about PEN, visit penusa.org.
Unfortunately Ms. Didion was not able to appear, but in her place was none other than California State Governor Jerry Brown. He made a short, amusing and self-deprecating speech. He is quite charming, slender and bookishly handsome in person, and it was delightful to have him attend the dinner. Oliver Stone, the iconic movie director, was also in attendance, along with his son, and presented the award to Mr. Hedges. Mr. Stone made some pointed remarks during his speeches criticizing the government throttling the free press, and remarked, we have to fight “America’s War upon itself” and noted that “there is no free press, it’s worse than in the Bush Administration.”
The noted actors Angelica Houston, Harrison Ford, and Laura Dern were also in attendance to present awards, and all spoke eloquently about their shared cause for freedom of expression and to honor the award winners.
Another noteworthy speaker was the award for Freedom to Write winner Sonia Nassery Cole. She is an Afghanistan writer and filmmaker (indeed, there were protesters outside the hotel picketing her for non-payment of union labor costs from her recent film, The Black Tulip). This courageous woman recounted how she had been held at gunpoint “too many times to count,” yet she goes on fighting for freedom and liberty for her country. She said “she is proud to be an Afghanistan-American” and spoke eloquently and movingly about her cause.
All in all, a very exciting evening in an elegant setting, for a most worthy cause. For more information, visit PEN Center USA’s website penusa.org. You can also make a donation there to support their cause of literacy and freedom around the world as I just did, or become a member of their organization for a very reasonable fee.