Open Secrets at the 15th Annual World Voices Festival
In less than three weeks, PEN America will present the 2019 World Voices Festival (May 06-12). It’s our 15th anniversary and we could not be more excited about the stellar line-up of writers, artists, and public figures who will be joining us, and our topical (and urgent) theme, “Open Secrets.” We will explore one of today’s hottest issues: the dissolving boundary between the public and the private in our literature, our politics, and our daily lives.
All of us are aware of how the genres of literary memoir and personal testimony have flourished in recent years, partly as a result of a culture more attuned than ever to share everything (online and off line), but also due to an increased willingness by writers to share, and try to make sense of, profoundly personal experiences.
We have witnessed important social change in the #MeToo movement, and disclosures of child sexual abuse within religious institutions. At the same time, we are increasingly apprehensive at how the digital revolution can be used against us, with governments and corporations harvesting our private data, foreign governments manipulating our democratic processes, and every aspect of our behavior seemingly able to be tracked and manipulated.
This year’s Festival explores the profoundly complex and challenging issues involved in this dissolution of the public and the private in more than 70 events of discussion, public address, poetry, readings, performance, and testimony.
We will showcase literary examples of disclosure in sessions such as It Happened to Me, in which seven writers from different genres tell highly personal stories of trauma, loss, or dislocation. In The Cost of an Education best-selling memoirist Tara Westover (Educated) talks to novelist Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) about her extraordinarily harrowing childhood in a survivalist family in Idaho. In Secrets and Lives writers Dani Shapiro (The Inheritance) and Bridgett M. Davis (The World According to Fannie Davis) tell New York Magazine books editor Boris Kachka about the extraordinary secrets that defined their families. And The Laws of Desire sees writers Masha Gessen, Edouard Louis, and Carolin Emcke team up with choreographer Bill T. Jones to explore how, over time, our desires often evolve beyond simple matters of orientation to more multifaceted longings.
Our exploration of the double-edged sword of the digital revolution will include political discussions such as Siri, Where’s My Democracy, which brings together The Guardian’s acclaimed investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr (who broke the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal), Sue Halpern, and internationally recognized privacy expert Danielle Citron to examine the utopian potential against the often dystopian reality of the interaction of technology and politics. In Orwell’s China, I have scored a bucket-list opportunity to speak with acclaimed novelist Ma Jian, here for the launch of his latest novel China Dream, and Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother, to examine China’s growing surveillance culture. The Big Chill: Creativity in the Era of Data Mining will be a timely examination of how digital surveillance impacts creative expression with Recode Decode host Kara Swisher, novelists Dave Eggers and H.M. Naqvi, and students Ifeoma White-Thorpe and Iman Abdul, while in Surveillance Capitalism, Human Autonomy and You, Shoshana Zuboff (author of the defining text The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) will team up with writer Douglass Rushkoff (Team Human) to explore the limits to free will and autonomy when every move you make is monitored and monetized.
The Festival will also honor the extraordinary moment in China, 30 years ago in June, when students led a mass uprising at Tiananmen Square and across China in favor of democracy only to have it brutally repressed by the military. Rise Up: Tiananmen’s Legacy of Freedom and Democracy will be an uplifting evening of commemoration, readings, music, and political inspiration that will be held in New York’s iconic Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a place of worship and of sanctuary for those in need. The evening will bring together Chinese dissidents who were at Tiananmen in 1989 with Rev. William Barber, leader of the revival of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, and possibly the greatest orator alive today.
And that’s just the beginning. We could not be prouder of this year’s lineup of exemplary novelists, playwrights, and poets from around the world as well as renowned American writers. They include Marlon James, Tommy Orange (who has just won this year’s PEN/Hemingway award), Sheila Heti, Jennifer Egan, Rodrigo Fresan, Ma Jian, Raúl Zurita, Sonia Sanchez, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Liao Yiwu, Jennifer Clement, Mohammed Hanif, Elif Shafak, Miriam Toews, Pajtim Statovci, Scholastique Mukasonga, Niviaq Korneliussen, Isabella Hammad, Morgan Parker, and many, many more.