PEN World Voices: the NY Festival of International Literature

Revolution #004, May 29, 2005, posted at

PEN World Voices: the New York Festival of International Literature

"Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing."

—Salman Rushdie, April 17, at the PEN World Voices festival

In 1989 author Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini, then the head of Iran's fundamentalist Islamic Republic. Khomeini accused Rushdie of committing blasphemy against Islam in his acclaimed novel The Satanic Verses.

Flash forward to 2005. Rushdie is now the president of the literary organization PEN America Center. And, ironically, an American ayatollah now sits in the White House. A powerful religious fundamentalist movement—of the Christian kind—threatens to turn this country into a theocracy. Rushdie recently said, "It has perhaps never been more important for the world's voices to be heard in America, never more important for the world's ideas and dreams to be known and thought about and discussed, never more important for a global dialogue to be fostered. Yet one has the sense of things shutting down, of barriers being erected, of that dialogue being stifled precisely when we should be doing our best to amplify it. The Cold War is over, but a stranger war has begun."

In these dangerous times of a "stranger war," Rushdie took the courageous step of launching PEN World Voices: the New York Festival of International Literature, a week-long series of readings and discussions showcasing literature and ideas from around the globe. PEN American Center describes itself as "an association of writers working to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship." It is part of PEN International, which was founded in 1921.

For this festival, 125 writers from 45 countries converged on New York City from April 16-22 to, in Rushdie's words, "highlight the international nature of literature and the way in which it crosses frontiers." The idea of this festival—bringing writers from all over the globe to the U.S., right now—was an ambitious and bold call to gather writers who stand with the people of the world and dream of something better. It was an invitation to discuss some of the important issues that come with being a writer in a world like this.

The last PEN Festival was held in NYC 20 years ago. Convened by Norman Mailer, that Festival brought together authors from around the world during Reagan's presidency at the height of the Cold War. Among the participants were Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; Nicaraguan author Omar Cabezas, who was a Sandinista; and writers Kurt Vonnegut and Susan Sontag from the U.S.

One of the key events of this year's festival was an evening of readings titled "The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything?" Among the writers participating were Margaret Atwood, Nuruddin Farah, Jonathan Franzen, Ha Jin, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Shan Sa, Wole Soyinka, and Salman Rushdie.

The event dealt in part with the role of the writer in a culture; their ability to tell people's stories, and what that means for eradicating injustice. It also spoke to the need for and significance of writers —fiction and non-fiction—being able to take those stories across borders, especially in today's world. In an interview with the New York Press , Rushdie said, "If you look at the success of books like The Kite Runner and Reading Lolita in Tehran , it's almost as if what people are getting from the news media isn't enough. It doesn't give you the means to fully understand what's going on in the greater world. Iranian writers, Iraqi writers, Afghani writers, are giving readers something they can't get from any other source."

The festival showed that the need for literature right now to connect people to each other and to help people understand the world is immense. Speaking to this question and the role of intellectuals, Rushdie, as part of the "Power of the Pen" panel, said:

"The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still an idea worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it's a truth that's in hock to nobody; it's a single artist's unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it's incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book's truth is slightly different in each reader's different inner world, and these are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader's imagination; and the enemies of the imagination, politburos, ayatollahs, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down, and can't. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have, but good books do have effects, and some of these effects are powerful, and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance."

Other panels in the festival included " Don Quixote at 400: A Tribute," "Africa and the World: The Writer's Role"; "Czeslaw Milosz and the Conscience of Literature"; "Writers and Iraq"; and "Crossing Borders: Universal Themes in Children's Literature."

Audio excerpts from the Festival are available online at PEN American Center's website: