NEW YORK — On a night championing free expression and featuring speeches by Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison and two members of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot, no one moved the audience more than the daughter of an imprisoned Chinese dissident.
Jewher Ulham, daughter of Ilham Tohti, spoke with emotion, firmness and acknowledged nervousness Monday at the annual gala of PEN American Center. She accepted the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith of Expression Award on behalf of her father, a scholar arrested in January and charged with inciting separation among China’s ethnic Uighurs.
The only weapon her father had wielded was “words — spoken, written, distributed and posted,” Ulham, a student at Indiana University, told hundreds assembled at the American Museum of Natural History, including Rushdie, Morrison, Robert Caro and Martin Amis.
“This is all he has ever had at his disposal and all that he has ever needed. And this is what China finds so threatening.”
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo was given the inaugural Digital Freedom Award and Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot spoke briefly, calling for attendees to send books to political prisoners.
The gala capped PEN’s weeklong World Voices Festival of International Literature, featuring writers and artists from 78 countries. It was a night to be honored and a gathering of kindred spirits for Rushdie, who once lived in hiding for fear of being assassinated by agents of the Iranian government, who had called for his death after the alleged blasphemy of “The Satanic Verses.” He is a former president of PEN American Center, the literary human rights organization, and he founded the World Voices festival in 2005. Introduced by Morrison as a “legend,” with such longtime friends as Amis and Paul Auster in the audience, Rushdie received PEN’s Literary Service Award.
Rushdie said he was especially drawn to two fictional characters whom he believed best symbolized creativity and courage — Scheherazade of “One Thousand and One Nights,” who saves her life through storytelling, and Alice of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” who stands up to the wicked Queen of Hearts.
“I think about Alice and Scheherazade a lot,” said Rushdie, who thanked PEN for its support during his years underground.
After the gala, PEN announced long-lists for several literary awards, with nominees including Jonathan Franzen’s “The Kraus Project” for a $10,000 prize for best book of essays and Megan Marshall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Margaret Fuller” for a $5,000 biography award.