Reading (and Spelling) to the Death: Literature Gets a Pop-Culture Boost at Literary Death Match
If literature could use, as Adrian Todd Zuniga says, “a boost from pop culture,” it got one Wednesday night at his Literary Death Match, part of this week’s PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.
Mr. Zuniga and his producer partner, James J. Williams III, set four sparring writers on stage at the Ace Hotel to read their work for seven minutes each. Parker Posey, Michael Ian Black and Wall Street Journal contributor Jay McInerney then judged them on literary merit, performance, and “intangibles.” The contestants were split into pairs. The novelists Alona Kimhi and Bae Suah faced off in round one. For round two, author Kevin Barry challenged poet Saeed Jones. After each round, the panel selected a winner to advance into the finals. Mr. Jones was the sole American. Ms. Kimhi hailed from Tel Aviv. A translator read the work of Ms. Bae, who is Korean.
“It sounds terrible,” said Ms. Kimhi before the games began. “But I’ll sacrifice myself on the altar of literature.”
Did she have a secret weapon? “Yes,” she said. “I’m fearless and intense.”
Mr. Barry, an Irishman who wrote “Dark Lies the Island” and “There Are Little Kingdoms,” was the “odds on favorite,” Mr. Zuniga said. “He’s maybe the greatest reader of literature on earth. He won a death match in Miami.” (Literary Death Matches have been held in more than 50 cities.)
Over the course of the evening, Mr. McInerney offered praise to the contestants, selecting phrases he admired. One favorite came from a poem that Mr. Jones wrote about the aggressive vine kudzu. “If I ever strangled sparrows,” Mr. McInerney re-recited, wistfully, “it was only because I imagined better songs.”
Ms. Posey and Mr. Black were more irreverent in their commentary. Of Ms. Kimhi’s somewhat clumsy entrance on stage, Ms. Posey said, “I saw her sauntering and not knowing where she was going. I love that.”
Said Mr. Black of Mr. Jones, “In a week of Donald Sterling , you were black tonight, and I applaud you. Very smart. Keep that.”
Ms. Kimhi and Mr. Jones won their respective preliminary rounds, and for the finals, competed in a spelling bee with a literary twist: They were given the names of writers appearing at various events in the PEN festival.
The names started off fairly easy, like Octavio Paz, and Mo Yan, but round to round, became more difficult: Binyavanga Wainaina, Wislawa Szymborska.
Mr. Jones emerged victorious and was adorned with a gold medal. Said Mr. Zuniga: “He also wins literary immortality.”