PEN World Voices Festival – On Africa: Behind the Scenes with Director László Jakab Orsós
This year, from May 4 to May 10, the 11th Annual PEN American Center World Voices Festival, celebrating international literature, will focus on the contemporary literary culture of Africa and its diaspora.
Festival Director László Jakab Orsós will present the African program with co-curator Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian-born writer whose novel Americanah won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Ms. Adichie will also deliver the festival’s prestigious closing-night lecture, named for Arthur Miller.
Colm Tóibín, who is serving as chairman of the festival for the first time this year — a position he took over from Salman Rushdie — said in an email interview that “there is a great deal happening culturally in Africa that we don’t know about. Africa is also a big place, and there are large differences between Kenya and Nigeria, Somalia and South Africa.
“Part of the task of the festival is to recognize that not experiencing the full range of the world’s culture, living in a narrow culture, is a form of censorship,” Mr. Tóibín said. “Thus the task is to bring in writers who deserve to be better known, to move eloquent voices to the very center.”
Festival participants include Michael Ondaatje, Tracy K. Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Teju Cole, Luc Sante, Richard Flanagan, Alain Mabanckou, Achille Mbembe, Sigrid Nunez, and Craig Seligman.
The festival will also include panels on the African diaspora, the future of Africa’s queer communities, and poetry scenes around the continent.
WRR: The key word in PEN World Voices Festival is VOICE, and your theme this year is “On Africa.” How does PEN American Center provide an authentic platform for underrepresented countries to connect and be heard in community?
László Jakab Orsós: This year the Festival takes a new curatorial approach as we start focusing on regions or countries while the Festival maintains its usual broad international framework. The first in this series is sub-Saharan Africa. The reason we’ve decided to highlight Africa this year is not that the region would be “underrepresented” but simply because there are very interesting works being done in different regions of Africa. The approach of these works, the lucidity and freshness of them, is so inspiring and relevant that it’d be a mistake for a Festival director not to recognize it.
WRR: How do you view your role in facilitating that?
Orsos: The Festival in its eleven-year history traditionally juxtaposes better- and lesser-known authors so our audience can get a wider scope of international literature have the chance to recognize synchronicities, differences among various cultures and authors.
My role in this process is to always refresh the approach when it comes to literature; in fact always to question what constitutes literature.
WRR: Tell us about working with the dynamic award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as co-curator of PEN, who is also giving the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Speech this year on the closing night of the Festival.
Orsos: Very early on in the project, I decided that I needed a co-curator as I was certain that living in New York wouldn’t allow me to see certain layers of African culture. Working with Chimamanda Adichie was an important learning curve. In our emails and phone conversations, we constantly questioned and requestioned the usual stereotypes about the continent so much so that at an early stage in our conversation we just decided not to deal with them at all.
These stereotypes are always false and hinder the larger view, so we just focused on what seemed relevant in different countries of Africa in terms of names, works, issues, movements. We drafted and redrafted lists trying to create a program that presents an accurate take on contemporary Africa.
Chimamanda’s uncompromising view, intelligence, and sense of humor will have a huge impact on this year’s programming.
WRR: In past years, there has been pressure to increase the number of international contributors who don’t speak English as a first language. How do you respond to that question? What percentage of this year’s festival participants fall into this category?
Orsos: This is an ongoing effort. I would say we’re trying to focus on languages and works which deserve more attention, but we heavily rely on English translations. In fact it’s quite essential to have a translation to be able to successfully present a work. From time to time we do feature authors whose work hasn’t been translated yet in the hope that Festival participation will shed light on their works and they’ll find a publisher.
WRR: You’ve been devoted to the arts and literature for decades as an internationally recognized curator of events as well as a writer and scriptwriter. You also founded Hungary’s leading contemporary literary journal. Do you remember the first literary event in your life that sent chills up your spine?
Orsos: Every year the day before New Year’s Eve, the literary journal I cofounded in Hungary has held a reading/intellectual variety show that I’ve conceived and hosted. The very first of this event was a sold-out evening in popular alternative theater in Budapest. Hosting and running a show in front of hundreds of people was a decisive experiment: It was clear that such an enterprise is a huge responsibility and, of course, can provide ecstatic satisfaction.
WRR: There is direct crossover between writing and international activism at the Festival in the tradition of PEN International to “dispel national, ethnic, and racial tensions and promote understanding among all peoples.” How have you seen conversations born at PEN World Voices Festival lead to change in different areas of the world?
Orsos: The Festival traditionally facilitates dialogues about sensitive social/political issues as part of a larger narrative of any relevant art. Our events of course are not providing ultimate solutions, rather trying to trigger extended dialogues which then, hopefully, can lead to profound changes.
To read the PEN World Voices Festival Schedule and to purchase tickets, click here: PEN World Voices.