A Crowd That’s Seldom at a Loss for Words
It was one of the largest international gatherings of writers in New York since the PEN international congress of 1986. All this week, some 125 writers from 43 countries participated in events throughout the city. There were sold-out readings, panel discussions, sessions of drinking, dining, gossiping – all part of the first PEN World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature. And PEN officials say that from now on, it will be an annual event.
There were the famous writers, including Salman Rushdie, president of PEN American Center, sponsor of the festival; Wole Soyinka; Breyten Breytenbach; Jonathan Franzen; Margaret Atwood; E. L. Doctorow; and the not so famous, those whom Mr. Rushdie called “the hot kids,” like the novelists Shan Sa, born in Beijing, and Tsitsi Dangarembga, from Zimbabwe.
The idea behind the festival, Mr. Rushdie said in an interview, was to bring attention to America’s cultural insularity at a time when there has never been a greater need for the exchange of ideas. “It is uniquely important at this point for the U.S. and the rest of the world to be in a dialogue,” he said. “It’s been a dialogue of the deaf.”
Statistics seem to bear him out. Andrew Grabois, the senior director of the R. R. Bowker company, which keeps track of publishing industry figures, said this week that of the 185,000 books printed in English in the United States in 2004, only 874 were adult literature in translation. Mr. Rushdie called the low number of translated books “shocking.”
Michael Roberts, the executive director of the PEN American Center, one of the 141 centers of International PEN, the human rights and literary organization, tried to sum up the festival’s purpose. He quoted William Carlos Williams: ” ‘It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.’ “
To that end, there was every variety of cultural exchange during the festival week, which ended yesterday. A main event was a tribute to Cervantes last Saturday at the New York Public Library on the 400th anniversary of the publication of “Don Quixote” – “the greatest novel ever written,” Mr. Rushdie said. No novel, he added, shows more clearly the essential internationalism, the lack of boundaries, of cultural works. “Don Quixote” is a book by a Spaniard, told by an Arab narrator. And, of course, said the Indian-born Mr. Rushdie, “the Arabs got it from India.”
Inevitably, politics crept in. On Tuesday at New York University, The New York Review of Books sponsored a panel on Iraq, which resulted in a spirited debate over American intervention, between Mark Danner, the American author of “Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror,” and the Iraqi-born writer Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis and the author of “The Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq.” Mr. Danner was against the invasion, Mr. Makiya in favor of it. Mr. Makiya said that history had borne out his position: “This is a country that now has a hope it never had before.”
A highlight of the week was an evening of readings on Sunday at the KGB bar in the East Village. Titled “Banned Voices,” it included the reading of a letter from the Vietnamese novelist Duong Thu Huong, who has been critical of government corruption in her country. She was invited to New York but said her passport had been revoked. “I have been a prisoner in this country, my native land,” she wrote, “where I am sentenced to be a rebel.”
Underlying all the events, though, was an anxiety about whether writing can actually transform the world. Monday night’s program, “The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything?,” at Town Hall, had a line of people waiting to get in. Mr. Rushdie knows something about the power of the pen. He was forced into hiding for a time because of death threats over his novel “The Satanic Verses.” He gave a rousing speech intended to answer the evening’s question in the affirmative: ” ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ changed attitudes toward slavery, and Charles Dickens’s portraits of child poverty inspired legal reforms, and J. K. Rowling changed the culture of childhood, making millions of boys and girls look forward to 800-page novels.”
At the end, Mr. Rushdie pronounced, “Literature is a loose cannon.” This, he said, “is a very good thing.”
Copyright 2005 New York Times. All rights reserved.