Stephen King, Parkland Students Honored at PEN Literary Awards

Stephen King and Margaret Atwood attend the 2018 PEN Literary Gala - Getty-H 2018
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Margaret Atwood also presented imprisoned journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with awards Tuesday evening in New York.

Morgan Freeman and Margaret Atwood led the way for the passionate ambiance at the PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on Tuesday night.

The event celebrated the literary organizations' many programs, and honored author Stephen King; journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo; publisher Carolyn Reidy; and high school students Cameron Kasky, Samantha Fuentes and Zion Kelly, who were hailed for their activism.

Freeman took the stage to present King with the PEN America Literary Service Award, calling the prolific novelist “a dauntless champion of the written word.” The actor applauded his friend’s commitment to helping writers and underserved communities by harnessing the power of writing and reading.  

“Through his writing, Stephen King is an emissary who brings often remote stories, identities and experiences into focus,” Freeman said. “When I first read the script of The Shawshank Redemption, inspired by Stephen King’s novella, I said I’d be willing to play any part. I did. And I would’ve. Stephen brought compassion and humanity to the forgotten in prison, getting readers and audiences all over the world invested in their future and their freedom.”

While accepting his honor, King emphasized the importance of education, reading and writing, especially under the current political administration. “Reading is powerful. From my earliest days working as a high school teacher, I’ve been telling kids that those who read can learn to write and those who can do both will eventually succeed in the world,” he said. “Readers learn to be fair and writers learn to think. They are the crucial counterweight to those that are close-minded and mean-spirited. Too many of those are currently in positions of power. Their poverty is best expressed in that intellectual dead zone known as Twitter where clear thinking and kindness is too often replaced by schoolyard taunts not to mention bad spelling and bad grammar.”

Atwood presented imprisoned journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award for their reporting on attacks against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in their native Myanmar. They were arrested in 2017 for violating the Official Secrets Attack, and their families accepted the award on their behalf.

“When democracy is in retreat the first thing authoritarians do is silence those who are telling the stories they dislike,” Atwood said, later adding: “While the United States isn’t putting reporters in prison yet, the tactics of the current administration are dangerous. They include attacking and discrediting reporters by name, threatening to punish unfavorable coverage, trying to convince the public that reputable and accountable news outlets cannot be trusted, and branding certain news organizations as the enemies of the American people.”

Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster Inc., was the first woman to receive the Publisher Honoree award, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students Cameron Kasky and Samantha Fuentes, and Washington, D.C., high schooler Zion Kelly received the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

“Courage implies that a certain course of action is being taken voluntarily. I have been told it takes courage to speak up particularly as we’re thought of as the powerless youth, and maybe to a certain extent that’s true,” said Kasky. “However, the Parkland, Florida, March for Our Lives students are reacting to exactly one horrific, tragic incident that happened in our otherwise safe and cozy suburban environment. There’s a very good chance that if this type of violence visited our so-called safe community on a daily basis, I’d frankly stay inside.”

His classmate, Fuentes, took the stage after, but in the middle of her speech, she became overwhelmed, threw up and left the stage. Kelly stepped in and spoke about how his brother was killed on the way home from school in D.C.

“One thing that is very important to me is just telling my truth,” Kelly said. “I don’t feel safe traveling to and from school in my city, Washington, D.C., because of illegal guns. It’s important to tell this part of the story also. If we want change to happen we have to be willing to be courageous.”

Fuentes returned to the stage after Kelly to thunderous applause. “I think sometimes I forgot I got shot,” she said. “And I think things are easy sometimes, and I put it on the backburner and pretend everything’s going to be totally fine and then you throw up onstage for the second fucking time in a row.”

Fuentes thanked her mom, who joined her onstage, for her support, and she also sent her love and support to the victims and families of the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas.

“Santa Fe High School, you are in my heart,” Fuentes said. “I know what it feels like to lose the ones you love right in front of your eyes. The rage, the sadness, the anguish and the fear. My arms are open for you, to embrace you but also to fight for you. Stay beautiful and good night.”