Celebrating World Literature
Patti Smith read poetry, Salman Rushdie talked supermodels as international writers from Estonia to Afghanistan to Mexico gathered to celebrate the PEN World Voices festival. Emily Stokes reports.
PEN week got off to a flying start with the opening celebration of the sixth PEN World Voices Festival. Salman Rushdie initially launched the celebration in 2004 as a way of “keeping the world in touch through literature”; hearing him introduce his favorite authors to read stories in their own languages, it was hard not to think of Saleem, the protagonist of Rushdie’s acclaimed Midnight’s Children (1981), who organizes a gathering of 1,000 supernaturally gifted children through a kind of telepathic conference-call.
Fittingly for a festival promoting freedom of speech, many of the authors read passages about the difficulties of communication. Daniele Mastrogiacomo, an Italian journalist, launched off with a passage from Days of Fear—his gripping memoir about being abducted by the Taliban in 2007. Yiyun Li read from her epic debut novel The Vagrants, in which a Chinese Nationalist suspects his first wife of being a Communist spy. In The Stone of Patience, a dramatic novel by Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan woman attempts to speak to her husband in a coma. Later, Miguel Syjuco read a riveting passage from his debut novel Ilustrado, in which a Filipino author is found dead in the Hudson River, leaving behind only pages of near-incomprehensible notes.
When Finnish novelist and playwright Sofi Oksanen came to the stage, she worried that some scenes from Purge—her controversial novel set in Estonia during the Soviet occupation of the 1940s—were so disturbing that they would prevent the audience from sleeping that night, so she opted for a love scene. Others followed suit; in The Secret Gardens of Mogador, Mexican writer Alberto Ruy-Sanchez told the story of a man being educated by his wife in “gardening” (which, in his book, sounds suspiciously like sex). In Nine, an “existential crime novel”, Andrzej Stasiuk—who read in Polish, a very sensual language if you were wondering—read a passage about a teenager’s very real crush on Kurt Cobain.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s punchy and symbolic novel that was nominated for a Booker, made love and politics sound rather similar. Hamid read a passage in which the Pakistani protagonist is recounting his experiences of America to an American tourist-and gets on to American women. What is the best strategy, he asks, when you are on a beach and a woman catches you staring at her breasts? It’s a fine metaphor for foreign occupation: Do you suddenly avert your eyes, or wait a moment and then casually shift your gaze? Or do you just keep staring?
When Rushdie returned to the stage, he was, he said, “too lazy” to read all of the pages he had printed—an essay recently published in Granta magazine, “Notes on Sloth.” Instead, he cut to a passage that imagined the most indolent couple imaginable, Linda Evangelista and Goncharov’s Ilya Oblomov. The model refused to get out of bed for anything less than $10,000; Oblomov refused to get out of bed at all.
The evening was clearly winding down; even Patti Smith’s breathtaking prose-poem in memory of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives evolved into an impromptu lullaby. “Black leaves, black leaves, black leaves are falling…” she sang to a hypnotized audience. Outside the auditorium, tables were set up for book-signing—but, by the time the applause had faded, most people just wanted to curl up under the covers with their favorite author.