PEN World Voices: An Interview With Salman Rushdie
From New York Press
PEN World Voices Through Fri., April 22
One hundred twenty-five writers from 45 countries have converged on New York City to launch PEN World Voices: the New York Festival of International Literature, a weeklong series of readings and discussions showcasing literature and ideas from around the globe. New York Press spoke with Salman Rushdie about World Voices, and why they matter.
How did PEN World Voices come about? I have to say it was my idea. But it came out of a general conversation at PEN on wanting to do more to highlight the international nature of literature and the way in which it crosses frontiers. Another imperative: It’s ridiculous that New York doesn’t have an international literary festival. The city has international festivals for every other area of the arts: dance, film, music. It was an obvious hole in the cultural calendar we wanted to fill. Our hope was that we could demonstrate there was such a large audience for something like this that it could become annual. The response of the first two days has been so colossal that there’s no question we’ll try to make it yearly.
The dearth of world literature being translated in the U.S. has been of major concern to PEN. Why, in the richest country in the world, is this an issue? There’s an historical reason. The U.S. is a big country, and there’s enormous diversity within its borders. Historically, American readers, and thus American publishers, have been more interested in that than in the rest of world. That’s part of it. An obvious problem has to do with the cost of translating literature. There’s a difficulty, in this bestseller-led culture, in recouping those costs. We’re doing a number of things to help. Sometimes, with so much out there, it’s hard for readers to find writers. But if you can show readers where the writers are, that in itself is a major step. A conference like this can showcase writers, and that will attract readers and publishers. Even in the past couple of days, some writers who didn’t have publishers now do. It’s a little of the act of opening a window. Also, PEN received an enormous, anonymous bequest in part intended for remedying the lack of translation, and we are now able to launch our own little translation project. PEN is also talking to various international cultural organizations that have a basis here, and we’re hoping to soon announce a joint translation effort with the French government. It’s something that very much concerns us as writers; I don’t know what my imagination would be like without the work of Russian or Latin American writers, which of course came to me in translation.
One of the events of PEN World Voices is titled “The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything?” How would you answer that question? Does the answer change depending on the country one’s writing in? In countries with tyrannical or authoritarian regimes, somehow people do seem to turn to writers and intellectuals to serve as the conscience of those countries. If you look at Cuba, China, Iran, Iraq, various African countries like Somalia, Sudan, you can see the writers of those countries occupy a very public role. In the free societies, Western democracies, there are enormous differences in how people see the world of writers. In France, writers are still very central, and that country’s prominent writers still very much participate in political dialogues. In the U.S., in the heyday of Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, there was a similar phenomenon. That’s less so now. In England, it’s somewhere in between. But it’s seasonal, cyclical. If you look at the success of books like The Kite Runner and Reading Lolita in Tehran, it’s almost as if what people are getting from the news media isn’t enough. It doesn’t give you the means to fully understand what’s going on in the greater world. Iranian writers, Iraqi writers, Afghani writers, are giving readers something they can’t get from any other source.
What was PEN’s intent in terms of the scope, the issues to cover, of this first conference? Well, the scope was pretty much determined by the money we could raise. We were anxious that PEN’s normal budget not be encroached on; we had to raise additional funds. In less than a year, what we raised was quite substantial. It’s been very encouraging. We got a lot of support from people who felt, like me, that it was important for New York to have a festival like this. All sorts of corporations and individuals gave substantial amounts of money. My view is that we’ll hopefully be able to make this conference grow, and my fantasy is that it doesn’t have to be confined to NYC. Perhaps in five years, we could take some of this as a kind of road show to other parts of the country.
What about taking it to other parts of the world? Other parts of the world have literature festivals. We’re filling a cultural gap here. The real delight we’re all feeling is seeing these huge enthusiastic crowds packing out everything. The audience agrees with us that this is necessary. Another reason this has been important is that the more significant an organization PEN is, the better it can do its work on behalf of persecuted writers, on addressing free-speech issues. The festival feeds back into the core work of PEN.
With the world so rife with horror these days, what is the role of fiction that blends realism and elements of the fantastical? I’m thinking of your work and that of Angela Carter. It’s precisely that the real world has become fantasmagoric. The real world is no longer describable inside terms of naturalistic fiction. It’s become too big, ugly, strange, distorted, weird. Every age in literary history needs to forge the tools with which to describe the reality outside the window. Right now, that reality is so bizarre that it’s not surprising writers have used bizzare means. Angela certainly believed she was writing about the real world, the real darkness that lies behind our facades. The fact that she used methods of the fairy tale, fable, the strange tale from the Black Forest, witches and werewolves—it’s not a form of escape. She wrote about witches and werewolves because they’re out in the streets. What’s happening now is not so much that writers work in that field, but it’s become one of the available techniques to respond to what they see in the world. People come in and out of it. The category has disintegrated because now everyone’s a magic realist sometimes—and they’re often not, much of the time. It’s just one of the instruments in the orchestra now.
Why do you think nonfiction is so popular these days? People seem to want memoir and creative nonfiction, books that go into strange corners of the world and bring back factual information. The art of the imagination endures. It’s always there. And there’s an enormous hunger to have that art expressed. The panel about literature and power was bursting at the seams. So is the panel on Thursday about sex. In this conference, we can talk about fairy tales, politics and sex and feed many parts of people’s imaginative need. And we’re really grateful to the New York reading public for showing up in such numbers.