PEN America Gala Features Obama, Yovanovitch, Albright, Streep

In News by Porter Anderson

‘James Baldwin didn’t have to go out and get votes,’ says Barack Obama in a taped interview with Ron Chernow that was part of tonight’s six-award PEN America gala.

Franklin Leonard hosts the 2020 PEN America gala in its digital rendition. Image: PEN America

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Update: The PEN America gala has concluded its stream, and we embed here for you the video so that you can see or review the show at your convenience. Our preview text then follows, as published earlier today.

Six Awards Conferred Tonight
Tonight’s (December 8) PEN America gala brings together the organization’s New York Literary Gala and Los Angeles LitFest Gala into a single digital fundraising event.

The program begins a 7 p.m. ET / midnight GMT (preceded by a VIP reception at 6:30 p.m. / 2330 GMT) and includes six honors with presenters and host Franklin Leonard. Information on registering for the fundraiser is here. Registration is free. Donations are requested but not required here.

This is an occasion on which all winners are known. The attraction, both for regular contributors and followers of PEN American and for fans of some of the personalities appearing, is support for this free-speech advocacy organization, of course, and the chance to hear some of these figures speak.

The honorees tonight range from Barack Obama, whose A Promised Land was released by Penguin Random House on November 17, to Darnella Frazier, whose cell-phone video documented the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd on May 25, setting off a profound and still potent new revolt against systemic racism in law enforcement and other aspects of American life. Patti Smith is expected to include a performance in her appearance.

Briefly, the six high-profile honors being formally conferred tonight are:

Obama, of course, is the big get for many of the late-year blizzard of publishing and book awards, handily making many appearances around the release of his book. He was seen in a taped message, for example, for the Booker Prize for Fiction program in November, an event originally scheduled on his memoir’s release date and then moved two days, as organizers put it, “to give readers a couple of days’ breathing space.”

Suzanne Nossel

The former president’s appearance tonight takes the form of a 30-minute interview with the author Ron Chernow. In media messaging ahead of the event, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel says that Obama and Chernow “will discuss the freedom to write, a liberty that faces unprecedented challenges amid rising authoritarianism that parlays disinformation and distrust to impair the very function of free speech as a catalyst for revealing the truth and driving forward societal progress.”

And, of course, there’s a chance here to play up the idea that, as Nossel puts it, “As an organization of writers, we have always seen president Obama not just as a leader, but as one of us: an author. His probing and evocative narratives helped introduce the world to his unique background, and the power of his life experience as a prompt toward a more pluralistic and encompassing society.”

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan, the outgoing president of the organization, is quoted, saying, “Long before he was a politician, Barack Obama was a spectacular writer. Since he published Dreams from My Father a quarter century ago, America and the world have benefited from the qualities he brought to that memoir: empathy, superb storytelling, and a fount of hope and possibility.

“Long before he was a politician, Barack Obama was a spectacular writer. Since he published Dreams from My Father a quarter century ago, America and the world have benefited from the qualities he brought to that memoir: empathy, superb storytelling, and a fount of hope and possibility.

“Now, as we conclude a year of plague and division, his voice is a tonic reminder of the power of language—and narrative—to uplift and transform.”

The playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar is the incoming president of the organization, as announced in September.

Obama’s Interview: Politician and Writer

Ahead of tonight’s event, PEN has released a couple of excerpts from the Chernow-Obama interview, which is to stream at 8 p.m. ET, an hour into the evening’s events.

“If I spoke the language of James Baldwin on the campaign stump, I’m probably not going to get a lot of votes in Iowa.”Barack Obama

In one excerpt, running just under five minutes, Obama discusses distinctions in how he might write and how he might talk about racism in the States.

“There’s a difference between politics and getting votes,” he says, “and truth-telling and the prophetic voice. And this is where sometimes my role as a politician vs. my role as writer can diverge. James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a searing account of the original sin of race and how it plays out in the life of a young James Baldwin and the life of Harlem. …

“Now, if I spoke the language of James Baldwin as he speaks it on the campaign stump, I’m probably not going to get a lot of votes in Iowa.

“Even though it’s as true and as important a document in understanding the realities race relations in America as anything that’s been written. But James Baldwin didn’t have to go out and get votes.

“We have to speak a language that a broad cross section of the population can hear.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on PEN America is here, more from us on authors is here, more on Barack Obama is here, and more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.