The 10th annual PEN World Voices Festival got underway Monday night with a series of brief politically focused speeches by prominent international writers at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. The festival’s program promised that the evening, called “On the Edge,” would feature bouts of “unrestrained intellectual fury,” and the line to get in stretched around a corner of the building.


Some speakers unleashed more fury than others. Noam Chomsky, in a low monotone, offered an admonition about rapidly disappearing species. He called a speech given by President Obama two years ago, about opening up oil resources in the United States, “an eloquent death knell” for our own species.

The Tanzanian political cartoonist Gado spoke over a slide show of his provocative, taboo-breaking work, which lampooned everything from Chinese investment in Africa to racism, dictatorships and Africa’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund. He said, “There are things we don’t want to talk about, things we don’t want to say,” but he was a clear exception to that rule.

The Syrian poet Adonis, annually considered one of the favorites to win the Nobel Prize, read his work in Arabic while a translation of it played on the large screens behind him. His stentorian voice was the most furious element on display. The philosopher Judith Butler earned the most sustained ovation for an essay about the political effects of grief giving way to rage, and about how peace is not a passive state but “a struggle against destructiveness.” The repetitions of certain phrases and ideas gave her speech the sound of a prose poem.

The evening was bookended by the festival’s outgoing chairman, Salman Rushdie, who has presided over the World Voices festival since founding it in 2005, and his successor, Colm Toibin, who will hold the position beginning in 2015. Mr. Rushdie’s speech addressed the parliamentary election in India and the recent efforts in the country to suppress speech, including the recall of Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History.”

Mr. Rushdie said he was stepping down as head of the festival because the organization “shouldn’t have a chairman for life. There’s something a little North Korean about that. I would have to start telling everyone to have the same haircut as me.”

Mr. Toibin, who did not mention his new role with the festival, read an essay about living in Barcelona during and after the time of Franco’s death, and watching as the city tried on a new political demeanor. After Mr. Toibin finished, Laszlo Jakab Orsos, the festival’s director, took the stage to announce the event was officially “open,” like at an Olympic opening ceremony — and with dozens of international participants at readings, panels and workshops scheduled through Sunday night, this is as close as the book world gets.