On December 5 at its gala dinner, The Nation Institute awarded playwright and screenwriter (and Nation editorial board member) Tony Kushner its annual $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship “for a lifetime of artistic work giving voice to the marginalized, and his outspoken criticism of social injustice.” What follows is Kushner’s acceptance speech.
I was very much hoping that the Puffin Prize would be accompanied by a puffin of some sort. Not a live, caged puffin—that would entail responsibilities, bird dander and guilt, and I gather that puffins, though silent when flying over water, are champion vocalizers on land, and anyway a caged puffin would send the wrong sort of message. And I wasn’t hoping for a stuffed puffin. God forbid, that would send an even worse message, since puffins are struggling to avoid the fate of their cousins, the great auks. This is something puffins and people have in common, being haunted by the fate of the now-extinct great auk. Skim through any day’s newspaper or pay even slight attention to our roller-coaster climate of recent years, and you’re bound to feel slightly great auk–ish; you’re aware of life on earth tilting in a great auk–ward direction. So I wasn’t hoping for a stuffed puffin—even though it’s fun to say “stuffed puffin.” We’re Americans, not Icelanders who pull puffins right out of the sky with big nets and in whose diet puffin meat figures importantly, who refuse to protect the birds and who eat puffin hearts raw. It’s a big Icelandic delicacy, raw puffin heart, or so I am told, and I wouldn’t put it past them; they are very interesting people.
I suppose I was hoping for a small painted effigy of a puffin to keep on my desk; they’re very handsome birds, and they have a wonderfully silly name. Since it was announced that I was this year’s recipient of the prize, I’ve noticed how much people enjoy writing and saying “Puffin Prize” and working variations of the theme. I’m currently working on a film, down in Richmond, Virginia, and yesterday, on the set, our cinematographer called out, “Hey, congratulations on the prize! So what have you been puffin’?” It’s a very good idea to name a prize after a bird with a silly name; all prizes should have silly names or something pleasantly ridiculous attached to them, as an antidote to self-seriousness. If you decide to establish another prize, perhaps you’ll consider calling it the Great Auk Award. Who wouldn’t want to win that?
I have always striven to cultivate inside myself a determined, unappeasable resistance to deriving pleasure from receiving honors and winning awards. It’s weird, because I love receiving and winning them, and I secretly hate everyone who wins an award instead of me, even people who win awards for things I’m entirely out of the running for—the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for example. I have it out for Dan Schechtman, the discoverer of quasicrystals and recipient of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “Hate” is too strong a word, really, but I am bummed out for a few humiliating microseconds of incomprehensible envy. It’s so nice to win awards, why wouldn’t you want to win one every day? And how nice to win one for chemistry, even if you’re innumerate and haven’t the slightest idea why observations of quasicrystals have produced a fundamental shift in our concepts of atomic structure, or even what’s quasi about them. Perhaps it’s because it’s so nice that I’m so mistrustful of awards; anything this nice must be terrible for you, or so my lived experience to the age of 55 has led me to conclude.
I was as surprised to be named as recipient of an award for creative citizenship as I would have been to be named a Nobel Prize–winning chemist. I know a bit more about citizenship than about quasicrystals, but that doesn’t mean I’ve ever felt I’m a prize-worthy citizen; far from it. That this is not merely an award for citizenship, but for creative citizenship, makes me feel like an ice skater who’s just managed to circumnavigate the rink for one complete revolution without holding on to the railing, breaking an ankle or falling on his ass, learning that he’s made the Olympic team. I really can’t pull off sports analogies convincingly, but you get the point.
That this prize comes with an ego-deflating silly name helps—I’m not a prize-winning creative citizen, I can remind myself, I am a Puffin Prize–winning creative citizen. I as a citizen am henceforth joined to a short, stocky seabird with a fat head, a clown beak and stumpy wings I have to flap frantically to evade hungry Icelanders. That helps deflate me, it helps reduce the degree of painful ego-dystonic discrepancy between what I am as a citizen and what I think an ordinary citizen, much less a creative one, ought to be.