Power to the People: A World Voices Festival Reading List
First launched in response to the 9/11 attacks, the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature was convened in the spirit of acknowledging the power of stories and storytelling to unite us across divisions and borders. The theme for this year’s World Voices Festival, “Power to the People,” is a phrase that dates back to the 1960s, a time of reckoning and revolution. It continues to resonate in our current moment, when so many of us are contending with the question of how to challenge and reframe the histories underlying today’s inequities.
This year, as we gather virtually to celebrate the works of fiction and nonfiction writers, poets, translators, thinkers, and activists, we’re also mindful of the incalculable losses and griefs of this moment, as well as the resilience and reconciliation that are possible when we can harness the power of radical imagination.
The books in this reading list push boundaries and challenge inherited narratives. From Randa Jarrar’s exuberant cross-country memoir, to Robert Jones Jr.’s stirring novel about the love between two enslaved men, the voices and characters in these works interrogate where power comes from, while rejecting the systems of oppression they face. We hope you’ll check out each of these titles and also join us for the virtual festival. Check out the full lineup, and see the rest of the books being featured in this year’s festival.
Jarrar is her own source of power in this memoir that spans the length of the United States as she travels from California to Connecticut, encountering symbols of oppression along the way that become objects of striking commentary. She traces the roots of her family history in Chicago, reclaims the autonomy of her body, and never denies a moment to assert her identity as one that is joyful, honest, and something to be celebrated.
A sister tries to save her brother from taking his own life in this exploration of the intersections between generational and present-day trauma, and how our memories of our lost loved ones remain embedded in our bones. Figueroa uses this story filled with ghosts and angels to portray how the phantoms of our past can carve out places for themselves in the present, and in doing so, enable us to reimagine our futures.
In this timely, incisive guide, Salesses contends with the idea of the craft of writing—often honed and taught from a white, western perspective—and upends the foundational rules of how stories are “supposed” to be structured, challenging the idea of a literary canon and providing new understandings of how a story can be told. This book includes advice for teachers, exercises for students, and suggestions for anyone who has ever felt unseen by the hegemonic notions of literature that so many of us grew up with.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Sympathizer explores the ruthlessness of capitalism and the interpersonal struggles that come with opposing ideologies. As our protagonist tries his hand at dealing narcotics while trying to build up a life for himself, he encounters everything from colonial authoritarianism to betrayal to the self-harm of addiction. The Committed is a searing book that asks us as readers how we might reclaim our own power and autonomy amid the ruthless expectations of a capitalist society.
A novel of hope, suffering, and the inheritance of trauma, Jones Jr.’s debut novel is a love story between two enslaved men, and the endurance of their relationship amid increasing tensions and violence on the plantation where they live. By centering the stories of Samuel and Isaiah, as well as the stories of the other slaves on the plantation, Jones Jr. tells a powerful narrative about the power of love and resilience to affirm our humanity in the face of staggering odds.