PEN World Voices Festival 2010


by Jonathan Zeller, 04/14/2010

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In the mid-2000s, then PEN president Salman Rushdie and his colleagues were disturbed by what they saw as a rift between the United States and the rest of the globe. Americans were ignoring outside views, they felt, and the world was shutting out American voices and American perspectives.

The PEN World Voices Festival, back for its sixth year from April 26 through May 2, was created to encourage the exchange of ideas between America and the rest of the world, while also promoting free expression and human rights. As a famously literary city, an enclave of diversity and a hotbed of creativity, New York City is an ideal host for the event, and has been its home from the start. (Read's related interview with Salman Rushdie for more on the festival's origins and impact.)

This year's festival lineup connects cultures, authors and readers, today's publishing industry and tomorrow's, and the fictional and real worlds. And in pursuit of a less lofty—but nevertheless laudable—kind of free expression, many of the events are free (check the PEN website for details and a full schedule).

The Main Events
World Voices' Opening Night Extravaganza on April 28 (yes, opening night is two days after the festival's start date) features writers from around the world—representing Pakistan (Mohsin Hamid), China (Yiyun Li), India (Salman Rushdie himself), Mexico (Alberto Ruy-Sánchez) and the United States (Patti Smith), to name a few—reading in their own languages with the English translation projected on a screen behind them.

The next night's That's Not What I Meant! offers a chance to hear Swiss writer Peter Stamm and his translator, poet Michael Hofmann, discuss the challenge of translating Stamm's words into English.

There's also a throwdown for the growing contingent of readers who see translation as a contact sport: the April 30 Translation Slam, where wordsmiths wrestle Alex Epstein's and Cathy Park Hong's texts into English. And worry not, rhyme lovers—PEN won't let prose writers hog the spotlight. During the Big Poetry Reading (earlier that same day), poets from Portugal, Denmark and elsewhere share their work.

On May 1, the PEN Cabaret makes its highly anticipated return. There, Natalie Merchant sings Ogden Nash poetry, Chilean-American novelist Ariel Dorfman reads a ghost story, and others from the literary world dazzle (le) Poisson Rouge with their theatrical talents.

Great Debates
PEN thrives on hot-button discussions, and 2010 brings plenty of them. On April 29, Weather Report: What Can We Do? assembles Bjørn Lomborg, Jostein Gaardener, James Hansen and others to consider the science and politics of climate change, public policy and personal responsibility. Later that night, in Face-to-Face: Confronting the Torturers: A PEN Freedom to Write Event, authors read from true and fictional works in which people who have been tortured confront their abusers—an especially resonant subject given recent revelations about the War on Terror.

On May 2, meanwhile, four events explore issues impacting the Middle East and its relationship with the world at large. Iran: A Conversation with Maziar Bahari and The Daily Show's Jason Jones is a conversation with Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was accused of spying and jailed for 118 days after the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election, and Jason Jones, who had interviewed him earlier for The Daily Show. Taming the Gods: A Conversation with Ian Buruma and Andrew Delbanco brings together author Iam Buruma (who wrote the event's namesake book) and Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco—Time magazine's favorite American social critic of 2001—to analyze the relationship between religion and democratic ideals.

And in Black Sheep & Exploding Turbans, writers discuss concerns about mutual respect, ethnic tensions and free expression between Europe's press, its governments and its significant Muslim minority.

Around the World
Cultural exchange isn't marked solely by controversy, of course. In April 29's A Gathering of Voices, children's authors David Almond, Janne Teller and others explore how their work has been inspired by cultures around the world, including their own. That day and the next, I Come from There showcases free readings of new plays by Arab playwrights about love, war and almost everything in between. Two Worlds, on May 2, moderated by Canadian-American New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, lets authors who have moved to America from elsewhere discuss how immersion in a new home has changed them and their writing.

In New York Stories on April 29, New Yorkers hear about themselves, too, as writers discuss great New York City–inspired works by Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Hardwick and Henry James.

Marquee Names
PEN provides star power as well. On April 30, New York's own Jonathan Lethem and other authors discuss writing's power to depict ideal and nightmarish worlds in Utopia and Dystopia: Geographies of the Possible. The same day brings a discussion between Shirley Hazzard and Richard Ford, while May 1 features Toni Morrison across from Marlene van Niekirk, and Javier Cercas with Amanda Vaill. Finally, on May 2, Roddy Doyle and National Book Award winner Colum McCann (author of Let the Great World Spin) discuss their work and inspiration.

The Tense Future
Finally, technological advances have kindled tremendous change and interest in publishing's direction. All week, panels about literary magazines and journalism's future—along with a forum called Blogs, Twitter, the Kindle—explore what tomorrow may hold for reading, writing and the business thereof. In the festival's climactic event, the Fifth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, award-winning scribe Sherman Alexie discusses the role of books in a digital future, and ponders writers' changing artistic, political and economic responsibilities.

Remarkably, the above represents only a fraction of the offerings during the PEN World Voices Festival. If you want to attend an event, make sure to check whether there are advance ticket sales or reservations. If there are, get your seat now, before it sells out. Below, find listings for our picks, by date and venue.

Wednesday, April 28
Readings From Around the Globe: Opening Night Extravaganza, 92nd Street Y, 8pm, $20

Thursday, April 29
That's Not What I Meant!, Instituto Cervantes New York, 5:30pm, free

I Come From There; Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate Center; 4:30pm and 6:30pm; free

A Gathering of Voices, Instituto Cervantes New York, 7pm, free

New York Stories, Morgan Library & Museum, 7pm, $15

Literary Magazines: Here and Abroad, Now and in the Future; Galapagos Art Space; 7pm; free

Weather Report: What Can We Do?, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 8pm, $25

Face-to-Face: Confronting the Torturers: A PEN Freedom to Write Event, Joe's Pub, 9:30pm, $20

Friday, April 30
The Future of Journalism, Instituto Cervantes New York, 1pm, free

Utopia and Dystopia: Geographies of the Possible, Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center, 3pm, free

Blogs, Twitter, the Kindle; Instituto Cervantes New York; 3pm; free

I Come From There; Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, CUNY Graduate Center; 4:30pm and 6:30pm; free

The Big Poetry Reading, Bowery Poetry Club, 6:30pm, $10

The Great Fire—Shirley Hazzard in Conversation with Richard Ford, 92nd Street Y, 7pm, $20

Translation Slam, Bowery Poetry Club, 8pm, $10

Saturday, May 1
Toni Morrison and Marlene van Niekirk in Conversation with Anthony Appiah; The Great Hall, Cooper Union; 3pm; $10

Javier Cercas in Conversation with Amanda Vaill, Instituto Cervantes New York, 4:30pm, free

PEN Cabaret, (Le) Poisson Rouge, 8pm, $30

Sunday, May 2
Iran: A Conversation with Maziar Bahari and The Daily Show's Jason Jones, French Institute Alliance Française, 1pm, $12

Two Worlds, Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2:30pm, $15

Roddy Doyle in Conversation with Colum McCann, French Institute Alliance Française, 2:30pm, $12

Taming the Gods: A Conversation with Ian Buruma and Andrew Delbanco, powerHouse Arena, 3pm, free

Black Sheep & Exploding Turbans, powerHouse Arena, 5pm, free

Sherman Alexie: The Fifth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture; The Great Hall, Cooper Union; 6:30pm; $15


related venues/(7)

  1. 1
    Cooper Union, Great Hall
    7 E 7th St
    Manhattan – East Village
    NY 10003
  2. 2
    Galapagos Art Space (now closed)
    16 Main St
    Brooklyn – DUMBO
    NY 11201
  3. 3
    (Le) Poisson Rouge
    158 Bleecker St.
    Manhattan – Greenwich Village
    NY 10012
  1. 4
    Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
    36 Battery Pl.
    Manhattan – Battery Park City
    NY 10280
  2. 5
    The Met
    Fifth Ave. at 82nd St.
    Manhattan – Upper East Side
    NY 10028
  3. 6
    French Institute Alliance Française
    22 E. 60th St.
    Manhattan – Upper East Side
    NY 10022
  1. 7
    92nd Street Y
    1395 Lexington Ave.
    Manhattan – Upper East Side
    NY 10128

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