15 Years Later, PEN World Voices Festival Is Still Trying to Unify the World
The novelist Salman Rushdie co-founded the PEN World Voices Festival 15 years ago, when he was president of PEN America, but it has roots in a conference that occurred decades earlier. In 1986, more than 600 prominent writers from around the world, including Rushdie, gathered for a PEN Congress in New York City.
“It was sort of exciting for a young writer to be there amongst all these giants yelling at each other,” Rushdie said. “There were lots and lots of really terrible arguments.”
Women writers felt underrepresented in the conference’s panels. South African writers were upset that a government official who supported apartheid had been invited to speak. It was this sort of cross-cultural dialogue that Rushdie hoped to emulate when he started the PEN World Voices Festival in 2005, in the wake of 9/11 and amid a resurgence in isolationist attitudes.
“We felt that that kind of distance between America and the world was not good for America, and not good for the rest of the world either,” Rushdie said.
Since then, the festival has convened hundreds of authors and intellectuals from dozens of countries to sit in conversation with American writers. Every year, the festival — a week’s worth of public events across New York City — is organized around a theme tied to issues dominating public discourse. After Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election, the following year’s events revolved around the subject of gender and power. Last year, following Donald Trump’s first year in office, the theme was “resist and reimagine,” and panelists discussed how other parts of the world had handled their own political unrest.
Chip Rolley, the festival’s director, said his goal was to draw a connection between what we’re reading and “the stories in the news, the things we’re talking about to our friend over dinner, what we’re reading about on the subway station, the things we’re tweeting about.”
The theme of this year’s festival, which kicks off Monday, is “open secrets,” with events devoted to exploring the positive and negative effects of the increasingly blurred lines between public and private information.
Some of the events highlight social movements that have emerged anchored by personal testimony. “It Happened to Me” for instance, will bring together seven writers, poets and essayists, including the French memoirist Édouard Louis and the Japanese journalist Shiori Ito, to share personal traumatic experiences. “Siri, Where’s My Democracy?” will focus on the decrease of privacy online, with several journalists and a privacy expert discussing foreign intervention in the 2016 presidential election and what it means that our lives can now be monitored online.
“It’s not about trying to hammer out an agreement or settle differences necessarily,” Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America, said. “But rather using literature and dialogue as a way to shift perspective, spark new ideas and ways of thinking.”
PEN America, founded almost a century ago, is both a literary and an advocacy organization, which means its content is “much edgier” and more political than that of many other literary groups, Nossel said. The organization’s international reach also allows the conference to introduce attendees to new writers. Ito’s book “Black Box,” for instance, has not yet been translated into English.
“It’s oxygenating,” Nossel said, “to hear these different perspectives and to consider how our country looks from the outside.”
The festival starts on Monday, and will close with a keynote lecture by the Indian writer Arundhati Roy at the Apollo Theater on May 12. More than 200 writers will participate, including Marlon James, Jennifer Egan and Masha Gessen.
If in the past PEN World Voices was meant to unify American writers and intellectuals with the rest of the world, it’s now also trying to do the same within the United States’ borders. This year, for the first time, there will be additional days of programming in Los Angeles — part of an attempt to nationalize the festival, Nossel said.
“After the 2016 election, there were threats that we were used to combating around the world, but we never thought we would encounter on our own doorstep,” she said, adding that it’s essential that we “keep the channels of connection and communication, people to people, alive.”