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PEN America’s Literary Gala May 18 to Honor Iranian Writer and Human Rights Defender Narges Mohammadi with PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award

May 18, 2023 IN WIP
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PEN America’s Literary Gala May 18 to Honor Iranian Writer and Human Rights Defender Narges Mohammadi with PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award

The NYC Gala will Honor Saturday Night Live Creator and Executive Producer Lorne Michaels and will be Hosted by SNL Star Colin Jost


(NEW YORK)— PEN America announced today that Iranian writer and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi will receive the 2023 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award this Thursday at the organization’s annual literary gala.

Targeted by the Iranian government for more than 30 years for her writings and human rights activism, Mohammadi is currently jailed on false charges of “spreading anti-state propaganda” and defamation. Her husband, Taghi Rahmani, also a journalist and an activist who has himself been jailed for his work, will accept the award for her at the 2023 PEN American Literary Gala  at the American Museum of Natural History.

The gala is a momentous evening that gathers acclaimed writers and honors visionaries in literature, the arts, journalism, publishing, film, and other fields—alongside individuals who have demonstrated remarkable courage by standing up for free expression in the face of adversity. The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award is given annually to an international writer of conscience, imprisoned to silence them.

For two decades, Mohammadi has fiercely defended women, political prisoners, and ethnic minorities working with Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi’s Defenders of Human Rights Center, where she is vice president. She was first targeted by Iranian authorities as a college student when she wrote about women’s rights for her student newspaper and was arrested at a political meeting.

Who is Narges Mohammadi?

At age 51, having been jailed for most of the last decade, Mohammadi sustains the will to defy Iran’s persistent and unjust effort to silence her, despite being tortured, denied the medicine she needs, held for long periods in solitary confinement, and separated for years from her husband and twin children, who live in exile. Through letters, interviews, books, and social media she has kept the spotlight on human rights and alerted the world to prison abuses. In 2022, she published White Torture, a book that exposes the shocking details of physical and psychological abuse in Iranian prisons through the testimonies of 14 women.

She was most recently detained in November 2021, and is serving several sentences related to defamation and anti-state propaganda charges totaling more than 10 years and 70 lashes. Authorities have threatened to impose additional trumped-up charges in recent weeks.

PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel said: “Narges Mohammadi inspires awe across the world for her unflinching courage and resistance to the Iranian government’s determined campaign to silence her. The sacrifices that she and her family have made are heartbreaking.  She is a beacon for free expression in one of the most harsh places in the world for writers, journalists, and artists. We are proud to honor this fearless truthteller whose resistance has made her a symbol of defiance against repression, especially to young Iranian women who rose up against a brutal crackdown on dissent over the last year. Their willingness to defy the authorities by the thousands shows that Mohammadi’s example is being passed from one generation to the next. Her defense of free expression also stands as a badge of honor to countless writers and journalists worldwide who also refuse to stay silent in their own countries and are jailed as a result.”

Mohammadi’s case has been among PEN America’s top advocacy priorities since 2012, and PEN America has issued numerous statements over the years calling for her immediate release and denouncing the injustice of her convictions and imprisonments.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is a powerful tool in PEN America’s efforts to end the persecution of writers and defend free expression; this year, more than 311 writers worldwide are jailed and 800 more are persecuted by oppressive government in 80 countries, according to PEN America’s annual Freedom to Write Index.

The award is a springboard for PEN’s advocacy for the writers it honors. Of the 52 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 46 have been released due in part to the awareness and pressure the award generates.

Last year, PEN America honored  Vladyslav Yesypenko, a Ukrainian journalist still imprisoned in a Russian labor camp, who was targeted by a methodical campaign to silence and crush a free press in Crimea. He was tortured and forced to confess to baseless, politically motivated charges of espionage and weapons manufacturing.

As previously announced, Saturday Night Live Weekend Update co-anchor and show writer Colin Jost will host the gala, which will also honor SNL creator, writer and executive producer Lorne Michaels who will receive the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award.

The gala is a highlight of the New York City literary and social calendar and again this year, PEN America will welcome 750 guests, including numerous human rights defenders, humanitarians and luminaries, whose generosity funds PEN America’s literary and advocacy programs.

Visit for more information.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, 201-247-5057

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People say that (writers) are pretty powerless: we don’t have an army, we don’t have a bureaucracy. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested?... Because the spoken word is powerful.

— John Ralston Saul on the work of PEN International