The first annual PEN World Voices Festival brought together 125 writers from around the globe for a week of intense conversation about language, culture, crime, catastrophe, death, sex, religion—the facts of life, political and personal, that goad those who make literature in a time of turmoil. “Tyrants fear the truth of books because it’s a truth that’s in hock to nobody,” PEN president Salman Rushdie observed during one discussion. “It’s a single artist’s unfettered vision of the world.” The mix and clash of individual visions at that first gathering was such a heady success that we’re at it again, with the 2006 World Voices Festival, April 25-30. In the meantime, thanks to heroic efforts by this journal’s volunteer transcribers, proofreaders, fact-checkers, and copy editors, we bring you words from the 2005 festival. Here’s a preview.
Svetlana Alexievich: “After Chernobyl, they buried milk, they buried meat, they buried bread. . . . They sliced off the top layer of the soil, which had been contaminated, and they buried it. They took ground and they buried it in the ground. And everyone involved turned into a philosopher.” Francois Bizot: “I think we should maybe have the courage to identify ourselves with and humanize the torturer.” Carolin Emcke: “Victims of violence . . . lose their ability to give an account, to give a narrative of what happened to them, because they lose trust that anybody will care.” Philip Gourevitch: “There are three words that probably most motivate my reporting on the aftermath of political violence: unimaginable, unspeakable, and unthinkable. . . . They are the words by which the press gives you permission to forget and ignore.” Francine Prose: “I’ve been reading books about Hitler, books about Stalin. . . . I’ve been reading them the way a hypochondriac reads health newsletters, looking for the warning signs.”
Lyonel Trouillot: “I reflect violence in my work because one writes with one’s gaze. But it would be a mistake for a New York or a Parisian reader to view this violence as a new exoticism. Violence is one aspect of the reality of my country—a country where one lives, one makes love, one drinks, one sings.” Elif Shafak: “In the Middle East, sexuality is also about delight, pleasure, and yes, sexual perversion and the delight you derive from that.” Hanif Kureishi: “Our religions—not only Islam, but also, obviously, Christianity—think and talk about sexuality all the time. Watching this chap Ratzinger and one of his cardinals on the TV, I heard a word . . . which made my blood go cold: the ‘re-evangelization’ of Europe.” Shashi Tharoor: “My novels speak to an India of multiple realities, and of multiple interpretations of reality. . . . If we had to do an Indian version of E pluribus unum, it would be E pluribus pluribum.” Michael Ondaatje: “You can have a real person in the real world who is simply too unbelievable for fiction. . . . A woman working in human rights told me she was driving in Colombo, and the American ambassador’s car came by with the flag, and in the backseat was a clown.” Zakes Mda: “This is a love story, you know, the eternal triangle: man, woman, whale.”