Authors and book lovers flocked to New York City’s Greenwich Village and Los Angeles’ Skirball Center on Wednesday for the sold-out opening night of PEN America’s 2023 World Voices Festival, a celebration of international literature featuring more than 100 writers from 27 countries.

PEN America President and festival Chair Ayad Akhtar noted that the festival comes at a time of division and turmoil. This week, we’ll turn to writers to help imagine the world, futures, ways through it, across 40 events in New York and Los Angeles,” Akhtar said.

The festival kicked off with panels on identity, place, and human rights, culminating in the live-streamed conversation with festival Guest Chair Ottessa Moshfegh: Why Write?


María Fernanda Ampuero, José Olivarez, Javier Zamora and Eloisa Amezcua

In a conversation moderated by PEN World Voices Festival Curator and poet Eloisa Amezcua in both English and Spanish, Javier Zamora, José Olivarez, and María Fernanda Ampuero explored how writing, in all genres, can help us grasp how we became the people we are.


Tess Gunty, Amor Towles, Rebecca Makkai, and Sarah Thankam Mathews in conversation with Omari Weekes.

When we talk about reading, we often talk about being transported. This panel, featuring New York Times bestselling authors Amor Towles (The Lincoln Highway), Tess Gunty (The Rabbit Hutch), Rebecca Makkai (I Have Some Questions for You), and Sarah Thankam Mathews (All This Could Be Different), focused on the literary device of place and its role in mapping narratives. 

The authors agreed that writing about a place can be better from a distance. “I find that displacing myself makes me a sharper observer,” Towles said.


Human rights activist Amir Soltani moderated a conversation with Afghani women’s rights activist Crystal Bayat, award-winning visual artist Tala Madani, Iranian poet-in-exile Nesar Mohammadi, and multimedia artist and member of the Art/Culture/Action collective Nazanin Noroozi.

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How are artists, writers, and activists mobilizing and participating in the struggle for human rights and gender justice around the world? Writer, filmmaker, and human rights activist Amir Soltani moderated a conversation with Afghani women’s rights activist Crystal Bayat, award-winning visual artist Tala Madani, Iranian poet-in-exile Nesar Mohammadi, and multimedia artist and member of the Art/Culture/Action collective Nazanin Noroozi at the event co-presented by The Skirball Cultural Center.


Ottessa Moshfegh, Akhil Sharma, Min Jin Lee and Rachel Kushner answer questions from the audience.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Ottessa Moshfegh spoke with novelists Rachel Kushner (The Mars Room, Flamethrowers), Min Jin Lee (Pachinko, Free Food for Millionaires), and Akhil Sharma (Family Life, A Life of Adventure and Delight) to discuss why they write and how they respond to the moral discourse of the day.

Moshfegh asked the panelists about their responsibility to readers. Kushner said she doesn’t think about it much, because “I’m not writing to a reader per se. It’s a higher responsibility.” Min Jin Lee said she feels “deeply responsible,” and that readers let her know if she gets anything wrong. Moshfegh, for her part, said she felt “a responsibility to be irresponsible as a writer.”

Sharma said he happy he rarely meets his readers, although Moshfegh told him she considered him “a very important writer.”

“I don’t view myself as an important writer but I like to think of myself as more important than all the writers I don’t like,” he quipped.