A World of Voices
By Vicki Lindner
In May I flew to New York, my former hometown, for PEN America’s 2017 World Voices Festival, “Gender+Power.” Unlike most literary conferences, this one, founded after 9/11 by Salman Rushdie and others, focuses on international writers and combatting isolationism. This year, 200 writers from 40 countries were featured in the festival.
PEN defends unjustly imprisoned writers in countries that fear the power of the word—China, Africa, and Mexico. I’ve been a PEN member since 1982, when I worked with the Prison Committee, teaching writing to Sing Sing prisoners and judging an annual prison writing contest. PEN also sponsors prestigious book awards. Since the 2016 election, it sends members a daily update on political issues affecting freedom of expression.
The international festival was appropriate in a city teeming with immigrants (almost everyone has an accent) and foreign tourists. Every event was held in a bar, bookstore, or theater, like the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. Every panel was political, vociferously anti-Trump, and focused on identity politics, multicultural literature, sexual orientation and gender, with titles like “Unapologetically Afro Latina,” “Identity in the Age of Globalization: An African Diasporic Perspective,” “Militancy and Sisterhood,” and “Queer Representation in the Media.” Most events featured international women writers, although some white Americans, like Marge Piercy, Jennifer Egan, and Vivian Gornick, were included. Straight white men could be glimpsed mostly in the packed audiences.
I never heard the word craft, though “how to” did come up in discussions about process, including self-editing. The panelists on “Badass Writers; Power and Truth” advocated letting the “real editor” take over, but one, who commented on white editors’ cultural blindness said, “Hey, if you don’t know what a quinceanera is, do your job! Google it!” Both Gabby Rivera, a feisty gay Latina who writes for Marvel comics, and Natalie Diaz, a Native poet at the University of Arizona (“I’m the go-to person when you need a Native to dance for all-white institutions.”) spoke about anxiety. Some eschewed Twitter for fear of encountering nasty Tweets. Gabby recommend Lexapro: “It made me a better person.”
I attended three events in the Housing Works Bookstore in Soho, my old neighborhood, where every product and service is donated to help homeless AIDS victims. (Free condoms at the counter.) On one panel, “Forbidden: Too Desirous,” on writing about women’s sexuality, glamorous Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, began by taking PEN to task for making her the panel’s only Muslim woman of color, saying that sex for African women is a vastly different issue. (I asked, “Where are the older women?”)
My favorite panel was a two-hour discussion of Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the New York mayor’s “read” for the city. The five Nigerians and one African American revealed fascinating material about their lives and views as they related personally to Adichie’s themes, creating a new, inspiring drama.
PEN World Voices is usually held in May. Most events were free, though advance tickets are recommended. You don’t have to join PEN to attend, but PEN offers memberships for writers, readers, and students from $125 to $25. A good cause!
This essay was previously published in the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Blog and reprinted by permission of the author.
Writing for Peace Adviser and Lighthouse instructor Vicki Lindner is a writer whose work has appeared in the Paris Review, Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares. Learn more about her work here.
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The fifth edition of our annual literary journal, DoveTales, An International Journal of the Arts, will be shipped on May 1st. Our “Refugees and the Displaced” themed DoveTales is a timely affront to a status quo comfortable with the suffering of others. With contributors from every continent on the planet except Antarctica (we’re working on that), this is a book that is meant to challenge assumptions and explore issues of peace, social justice, and our responsibility to our fellow man. Cover art is by Canadian artist, Allen Forrest. You can purchase your copy here.
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