Salman Rushdie, Malcolm Gladwell and a bevvy of literary luminaries presented an evening of readings, music and art Monday night to kick-start the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival, a week-long celebration of the written word that takes place throughout New York City. More than 150 writers from 40 countries will participate in panels, lectures and readings promoting the writer’s and intellectual’s place in public discourse.

The opening night festivities featured poetry and prose centered around the (very loose) theme of water. Belgian poet Amelie Nothomb, dressed in a top hat and floor-length coat with tails, read an ode to snow. Actor and playwright Wallace Shawn delivered a monologue about peeing on a book. Crowd favorite Hanif Kureishi read the opening of his novel The Buddha of Suburbia, which did not have very much to do with water but had lots of drugs and sex and was funny to boot. Czech violinist-vocalist Iva Bittova opened and closed the festivities with some avant-garde warbling, which seemed to alarm the couple seated beside me but which appeared to delight the rest of the crowd.

Conspicuously absent from the evening, however, was China’s dissident writer Liao Yiwu, who was slated to read at the event but who was barred from traveling by Chinese officials. “[Yiwu] has applied 15 times to leave China,” said Rushdie. “Only once was he allowed to do so.”

Rushdie then addressed China: “The manner in which you treat your artists is the manner in which you will be judged by rest of the world.”