For Writers, a Voice Beyond the Page
Seven years ago, Moniru Ravanipur, a novelist and short-story writer, was put on trial in her native Iran. Her supposed crime: threatening national security while attending a political conference in Berlin, where she openly discussed her country’s reform movement.
Now she plans to do it again. Ms. Ravanipur, 54, is one of more than 150 writers gathering in New York today for PEN American Center’s third annual World Voices Festival of International Literature, which runs through Sunday.
On Saturday Ms. Ravanipur, who has written eight books but is virtually unknown in the United States, will be speaking on a panel with two other Iranian writers. In an interview last week, she said she planned to discuss how, for example, the government had recently banned repeated use of the verb “to do” because it can have a sexual connotation in Persian.
“Discussion from people of different backgrounds with different problems,” said Ms. Ravanipur through an interpreter, “actually leads to the development of solutions of these problems.”
That optimistic spirit is the organizing principle of the festival, which brings together people from 45 countries to talk not only about problems directly affecting writers, but also about other issues, from global warming and the international refugee crisis to the war in Iraq and political torture.
It is that direct engagement with political topics that perhaps makes the festival — at least in the United States — stand out.
Founded three years ago in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and in the midst of the Iraq war, the festival was conceived as a way of addressing America’s cultural isolation. This year the theme is “Home & Away.” Writers of fiction and nonfiction will be speaking and reading at 66 events in 29 locations throughout the city.
Merely bringing so many international writers to the United States, where fewer than 3 percent of the books published are translations, can be seen as a political act.
But the festival’s organizers are also giving the authors a forum to address many political issues overtly, an opportunity that some writers believe has been on the decline in the United States.
“You don’t that often see writers being sought out when there are matters of great moment to discuss,” said Salman Rushdie, the novelist, former president of PEN American Center and chairman of the World Voices festival. “And I think that’s a loss.”
Mr. Rushdie, who viscerally knows all too well how politics can invade the literary sphere, added that the festival was “a way that we could rectify the absence of literary voices from that public conversation.”
Mr. Rushdie will help open the festival tonight at Cooper Union in the East Village with a panel, “Green Thoughts: Writers on the Environment,” in which authors including Pico Iyer, a British-born writer of Indian extraction, and Moses Isegawa, a Ugandan novelist, will read from others’ work on the natural world.
Given the current focus on global warming, the topic is inevitably political. But the idea is to be literary, not polemical, Mr. Rushdie said. “Audiences in the end come to enjoy themselves, and not to be preached at,” he said. “If they can hear poetry or literature which talks not just of the dangers but also of the beauty of the world that is endangered, that is an enriching way to deal with the subject.”
Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner, who is participating in two events at the festival, said writing could be political almost by default.
“Everyone is influenced by the framework in which they live, so that politics comes into everything,” she said in a telephone interview from Johannesburg. “It’s not expressed by us in a didactic way, but comes through our creation of characters who are indeed made up of the kind of world and the kind of reactions that people have toward that world.”
Ms. Gordimer, of course, is perhaps more direct than many authors in the way she introduces politics into her writing. And she is politically active in her own right.
At one time, that might have seemed more commonplace in American letters, as it still is in Europe. Two decades ago, Norman Mailer convened a group of some 150 writers in New York for a meeting of the PEN World Congress, the organization’s decision-making body. Ms. Gordimer was among those who vehemently protested the invitation to George P. Shultz, then secretary of state, to speak at the opening ceremony, and politics was very much the focus of the gathering.
For a new generation, the World Voices Festival is one way of reinserting writers into the political arena. “While novelists don’t necessarily have anything meaningful to say outside of fiction, for better or worse, we can’t help but think of our favorite writers as wise,” Jonathan Safran Foer, a novelist who helped plan this year’s event, said via e-mail. “I can’t, anyway. And when forming my political opinions, when shaping my life, I want the contribution of as many wise voices as I can have. It’s a shame if that chorus includes journalists, and politicians, and philosophers, and scientists, and economists, but not writers.”
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