The yawning Great Hall of Cooper Union. Saturday, May 1st, 2010. The Hall is surprisingly empty for the three big names about the grace the stage. Banter and name-dropping occurs in the front row, the publishers of van Niekerk come up to me and we trade some information about The Mantle. The curtains are swept to the left and out steps K. Anthony Appiah, dressed from head to toe in black: a black necktie, vest, a black silk stripe down the sides of each leg and black loafers. He looks absolutely refined, head held high, papers clutched to his chest with long slender fingers tightly wound.
To start things off, a segment from the beginning of The Secret Gardens of Mogador: Voices of the Earth by Alberto Ruy-Sánchez:
First Spiral: The Sleepwalker's Quest for a Voice
1. Dawn breaks, slowly . . . and it was as if the light were singing
It was in Mogador the hour when lovers rouse, their dreams still entangled between their legs, behind their eyes, in their mouths, filling their empty hands.
War. What is it good for? Writing. PEN World Voices Festival lined up two war-themed panels on the afternoon of April 30, one featuring a bevy of novelists, the other filled with a squad of journalists. Politics remained resolutely to the side of the two discussions. No talk about whether the Iraq invasion was a good or bad idea, no discussion as to whether or not overthrowing oppressive regimes with violence is necessary. Panelists across sessions have been witness to conflict, and they have used it for inspiration in writing. But why? And how?
In an age of digital domination, where the future of the book is uncertain, a panel entitled "Blogs, Twitter, the Kindle: The Future of Reading" and PEN World Voices Festival confronted the impact of new technology on our current understanding of, as well as engagement with, both writer and their writing. For a panel of writers, such technology has the potential to intimidate. Yet, the panel of five was surprisingly mixed.
The Morgan Library and Museum on Madison Avenue in Manhattan set the stage for the PEN World Voices event, "New York Stories," which took place on Thursday, April 29th, 2010. Through glass curtains and cherry-stained wood, two flights of fogged glass stairs down, past the women in black at the coat check, beyond the security guard in the red velvet coat, through the company of ancient Assyrian scrolls, the Gilder Lehrman Hall awaited. The event had begun.
Sometimes PEN World Voices Festival offers sporting opportunities. After the critics finished being critical at the Austrian Cultural Forum, I had thirty minutes to complete a mad dash from 53rd and Fifth Avenue to 37th and Fifth Avenue, a.k.a. CUNY’s Graduate Center, for the Orwellian-sounding panel, “Utopia and Dystopia: Geographies of the Possible.” Along the way I had to suck down supplements: an iced coffee and granola bar. Aside the race against time (and hunger), PEN WVF also includes the Olympic feat of having to switch mental gears suddenly.
As I sat sipping my slightly too expensive, slightly too small beer in Joe’s Pub, the venue for yet another PEN World Voices event, I resorted to my new time killing device: my smart phone. A BBC news tweet popped up announcing the arrival of the UN’s top humanitarian official in the deeply, and seemingly continually, troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo. The social scientist buried beneath my software engineer exterior reflected on the point of tonight’s event.
The Austrian Cultural Forum (ACF) is eye-catching. The building’s zigzags penetrating and receding from the brick facades vertically paving 53rd St. Manhattan exudes a bit of swagger. This afternoon, I finally had the pleasure of exploring the tantalizingly narrow building, to listen in on the workings of the critical mind. My adventure through PEN World Voices Festival 2010 continued, but this time I heard from the critics, rather than the writers.
With momentum from the previous night’s readings from around the world, I headed to Joe’s Pub for PEN World Voices Festival’s “An Around the World Reading.” Maybe it should have been titled, “Across the Pond and Back, and Bring the Aussie” since most of the writers hailed from the U.S. and Europe. Does Australian Christos Tsiolkas get the prize for the longest trip to PEN WVF?
Let us not forget those writers whose voices are silenced because they live under repressive regimes or are in prison for their writings. I say this up front, because Salman Rushdie made the same statement up front last night at PEN’s “Readings from Around the World” at the 92Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As if to drive the point home, an empty chair graced the stage, in honor of those writers whose voices go unheard around the globe. An empty chair will be present at all PEN World Voices Festival events this year.