The baldheaded man leapt to the stage at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village. Tommy Wieringa, a highly respected author from the Netherlands, chatted amiably with the largely American crowd about his visit to their city, telling them in perfect English, “Now I am going to read in Dutch — it’s a language. I understand it was spoken in New York for quite a while. Maybe you should have stuck to it and then I wouldn’t sound so foolish.” The listeners, recalling that New York once was New Amsterdam, laughed. Mr. Wieringa proceeded to read from his novel, Joe Speedboat, a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old wheelchair-bound boy. Behind him, projected on a screen, the English translation floated in white letters on black background. When his reading was complete, the audience burst into an appreciative round of applause.

The reading at Joe’s Pub was one of the many events at the Sixth Annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, which took place April 26 through May 2, 2010, in New York City. Sponsored by the PEN American Center, the weeklong festival, which played to packed audiences, included interviews, panel discussions, performances and authors’ readings. The festival program stated the events were designed to “to foster international understanding and promote literary culture” by bringing together 150 authors from around the world.

The acronym “PEN” stands for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists. The 85-year old PEN organization, which currently includes 3,400 members, has spearheaded international efforts opposing censorship and fighting for the rights of writers around the world to speak with a free voice. At each event during the festival, an empty chair was placed on the stage dedicated to a writer who is in prison somewhere in the world for expressing his/her ideas.

The event this particular night, entitled “An Around the World Reading,” featured nine authors from countries including Holland, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Germany, and Australia. Readings by authors covered a wild range of topics that included love and parenthood, sexuality, and the environment and natural disasters.

Karl Knausgaard, a tall, lanky man with a beard, read a selection in Norwegian from his novel A Time for Everything. Hishighly praised book recasts various biblical stories in a manner that conveys an immediacy not typically found in traditional scripture. His selection dealt with the story of the great flood and its aftermath. The tale was particularly anguished, noting “300 foot high walls of water,” miles of dry land changed into ocean, and people searching for loved ones. American listeners could not help being reminded of the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Anne Landsman, a writer originally from South Africa who now lives in the U.S., read a selection from her critically acclaimed novel The Rowing Lesson, which tells the story of an adult daughter maintaining a deathbed vigil by her father. Sitting beside the now-comatose man in his hospital room, the daughter relates her father’s own life story to him. The excerpt Ms Landsman read recounted a boating trip taken by the man and the then-10 year old girl. The story, written in the unusual second-person present tense, was enormously touching and drew upon the commonality of the parent-child bond. Her closing words (“This rainy afternoon will paste itself into your life as a special day ….”) caused more than a few people in the audience to dab tears from their eyes. 

Not all the international authors chose to read in their native tongues. Monique Proulx, who is from Quebec, stated that she would read her selection in English, saying, “I speak and write in French, but I will read in English… You will find my accent charming.” Ms. Proulx, a vibrant woman with a mane of blonde curls, said that most of her writing usually involves cities and the urban landscape. Her most recent work, however, was atypical in that it dealt with the countryside. She smiled at the audience and said, “I think it is important to share with you this incredible joy it is to know that we are part of something so big, so vast that we call ‘nature’. But it is such a little word to talk about this living organism that is helping us to survive.” She then read a selection from her novel, Wildlives, about a couple’s summer stay at a lake cottage in an isolated rural area replete with bears and enormous insects. She read, “it was impossible to ignore that this place was a paradise, a sacred garden to which [they] had mercifully been granted the key.” At the close of her reading, the audience clapped wildly. Beaming, she departed the stage and said, “Long live the earth.” 

Lee Stringer is a U.S. citizen who overcame a 12-year addiction to crack cocaine and a life in the streets to become a celebrated author. Before his reading, he spoke about his indecisiveness over what passage to select. Saying that he liked each piece of writing to be different, he noted, as he reviewed his past works, that “Everything I had written seemed to be about our struggle, in an increasing different world, to remain human. And then I thought about it some more and I thought – ‘Wait a minute- that’s at the bottom of every story.’ That is the part of all literature and the basis of all art; it is the stuff of life.” 

The other authors in the festival, who write of similar universal themes, would most likely concur with Mr. Stringer.