PEN World Voices festival: writers imagine the future
What will the world look like in 2050? For the opening night celebration of its weeklong World Voices festival last night, PEN American Center asked 10 writers, including Tom Stoppard, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Mona Eltahawy to predict the future. Indirectly and often playfully, the stories, poems and talks delivered from the stage at Cooper Union’s cavernous Great Hall in New York’s Greenwich Village sounded the alarm about the state of the world.
For anyone concerned that literary authors exist in a rarefied realm divorced from politics, last night’s ceremony was a powerful reassurance that what festival chair Colm Tóibín called the “literary tongue” was “both modest in its aims, but ready to insist that we have a duty to change the world”.
The recent controversy around PEN’s decision to honour the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage award, and the protest of several high-profile writers to the paper’s alleged anti-Muslim stance, has overshadowed the run-up to this week’s events. But on opening night, the controversy was mentioned only by allusion, in PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel’s speech affirming the organization’s commitment to the “vigorous” defense of free speech – “Some might say too vigorous,” she added ruefully. Nossel, whose past State Department connections made her the target of protests in this same auditorium two years ago, pointedly highlighted PEN’s work on behalf of imprisoned writers, whose cases have struggled to gain a fraction of the media attention devoted to the Hebdo debate.
The World Voices festival has always had a global and political outlook. Founded in 2005 by Salman Rushdie, who was honored from the stage but did not speak at this year’s ceremony, the festival this year will focus for the first time on a place: Africa. Director László Jakab Orsós, who co-curated the festival with the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, emphasized that the lineup of events aimed to “address Africa now”, beyond the stubborn clichés and misunderstandings. That, he said, would mean recognizing that “Africa has multilayered narratives, just as we do, and their narrative is not any darker than ours, believe it or not”.
Yet the focus on Africa is not exclusive, and the speakers claimed roots from Kenya to Kiev. Predicting the future inspired some writers to fantasy, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who shared a warm-hearted fable of life on a peaceful satellite that is ruined by the appearance of weapons. In a wild and energetic pair of stories, their English translations projected behind him, the Ukrainian poet and filmmaker Fedor Alexandrovich spoke first in “Russian, the language of dystopia” and then in “Ukrainian, the language of utopia.”
Stoppard, succumbing to the “almost irresistible pull of allegory,” told a story that he said could be optimistic or pessimistic, depending on whether, like its shipwrecked characters, we are able to learn to cooperate and put others first. The Booker prize-winning Australian novelist Richard Flanagan delivered a funny and biting satire – in his 2050, we all wear “iNecklaces” that measure our physical state and risk being “garroted” if we don’t keep up our allotted exercise regimens.
The younger writers on the evening’s lineup, including Egyptian Eltahawy, Nigerian Lola Shoneyin, and American Jackie Wang, addressed the promises and perils of the future in directly political terms. South African activist Zanele Muholi prefaced her talk with a powerful short film depicting women walking to a funeral across a desert landscape, scored to wails that echoed like sirens. Her speech contrasted a pessimistic future vision – in which LGBT people throughout South Africa and across the continent continue to suffer violence and murder – with a more optimistic world in which “activists on the continent are no longer forced to flee to other countries because of homophobia, lesbiphobia, transphobia and xenophobia.”
For those of the evening’s writers who had traveled from Africa or further to New York, the dislocation of the journey, both physically and culturally, was a recurring theme. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina joked that jetlag had put him in “that perfect zone – fuzzy and vague, which is as close to being Audre Lorde mashed up with James Baldwin as I can humanly get.” The novelist Aminatta Forna eloquently described the strange experience of inhabiting two worlds, London and Sierra Leone, during the recent ebola outbreak: “The past in a poor country is not so far away, and in a rich country seems so much further away.”
Prefaced with an excerpt from Albert Camus’ The Plague, Forna shared a series of text messages she received from a cousin in Sierra Leone as the crisis took hold: “We are in trouble. We are dying like rats.”
Forna acknowledged that writers tend to be “natural-born pessimists”. But on the strength of this vibrant, funny and diverse panel, there is plenty of cause for both writers and readers to be optimistic about the future.