Last week, PEN America hosted their 2018 LitFest Gala in Los Angeles, a celebration of free expression and the literary arts that honored some of the brightest names in film, television, and literature.

Ai Weiwei Honored at PEN America 2018 LitFest Gala
Ai Weiwei Honored at PEN America 2018 LitFest Gala

Globally lauded artist Ai Weiwei received the Artistic Expression Award, Academy Award Winning writer-director Barry Jenkins received the Award for Screenplay Excellence, award-winning Sharp Objects writers Marti Noxon and Gillian Flynn received the Award for Teleplay Excellence, and PEN America Trustee Marvin Putnam received the Distinguished Leadership Award. The event, hosted by My Favorite Murder creators and authors of the forthcoming book STAY SEXY & DON’T GET MURDERED, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, raised funds that will support initiatives including advocacy for writers, journalists, and artists threatened or imprisoned worldwide, as well as landmark research that addresses critical free speech issues, and the advancement of literary excellence and cross-cultural exchanges through hallmark initiatives, including the World Voices Festival of International Literature, PEN America’s Literary Awards, and fellowship and grants programs.

Kilgariff and Hardstark brought their biting wit and humor to the ceremony, highlighting PEN America’s commitment to standing at the intersection of literature and human rights.

Putnam accepted his award with an impassioned speech, stressing the importance of this organization by saying “for 100 years, no one has fought for our rights more than PEN. And when our first amendement rights have never been more in jeopardy, PEN has never been more crucial.”

Alfre Woodard took the stage to recognize the important work that Barry Jenkins has done and continues to do with his upcoming film If Beale Street Could Talk. Jenkins humbly accepted his award by thanking everyone in the room for “originating the arts, letters, and words” from which he draws inspiration.

Actress and activist Lisa Edelstein was on hand to present her friend and colleague Marti Noxon with the Award for Teleplay Excellence. She was grateful to have the opportunity to say thank you to Noxon for offering her a “powerful and inspiring” experience during their time together. Noxon, who accepted on behalf of both her and Flynn, explained why she was drawn to “Sharp Objects” in the first place. She explained that “it expressed a part of the female experience that too often isn’t recognized,” noting that anger is not commonly a quality afforded to women when there is too much pressure to make them “likeable.”

The final award of the evening was presented by legendary artist Frank Gehry, who shared with the crowd how impressed he was with the trajectory of Ai Weiwei’s work. “The things he stands for, and have suffered because of,” he said, “are things I believe in and I know this group does as well.” Ai Weiwei offered a deeply personal anecdote as he addressed the room. He explained that his father was a poet, who was punished simply for the words that he wrote. And yet, Weiwei still chose to become an artist – “The most powerful thing we can do in our lives is to write down what’s in our hearts, and to communicate clearly with one another.”

The evening also recognized this year’s Literary Award Winners Sarah Sentilles (Creative Nonfiction Award, Draw Your Weapons); Venita Blackburn (Fiction Award, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes); Jaeah Lee (Journalism Award, “After the Shooting”); Vickie VĂ©rtiz (Poetry Award, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut); Dan O’Brien (Drama Award, The House in Scarsdale: a Memoir for the Stage); Wendy Lesser (Research Nonfiction Award, You Say To Brick); Philip Boehm (Translation Award, Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall); and Robin Benway (Young Adult Award, Far From the Tree)

Presenters and special guests in attendance included Frank Gehry, Lisa Edelstein, Alfre Woodard, Willow Bay, Julie Bowen, Kirby Dick, Alex Gansa, Jennifer Maisel, Jessica Rhoades, Nick Wootton, Amy Ziering, and many others.

Now in its 28th year, PEN America’s LitFest Gala is a celebration of free expression and the literary arts. Each year, the event brings together impassioned tributes, conversation, and levity before an esteemed audience of authors, screenwriters, producers, showrunners, executives, philanthropists, actors, and devotees of the written word who share a commitment to the robust defense of creative freedom in Los Angeles and around the world. Proceeds from PEN America’s LitFest Gala support initiatives including: advocacy for writers, journalists, and artists threatened or imprisoned worldwide; landmark research that addresses critical free speech issues; and the advancement of literary excellence and cross-cultural exchanges through hallmark initiatives, including the World Voices Festival of International Literature, PEN America’s Literary Awards, and fellowship and grants programs. Recently honored luminaries and participants include Roxane Gay, Isabel Allende, Jose Antonio Vargas, Margaret Atwood, Janet Mock, Norman Lear, Guillermo del Toro, Amber Tamblyn, Aisha Tyler, Amy Poehler, and Cecile Richards.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

For more information on the PEN America’s 2018 LitFest Gala, please click here.

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