(LOS ANGELES)— On Wed., May 10, PEN America will kick off the annual World Voices Festival events in Los Angeles with four days of conversations among great thinkers, authors, screenwriters, film producers, scholars, and activists focused on the power of storytelling and literature to transform the world. Bestselling novelist John Irving will headline the series with a talk looking back on social issues in his books and the evolution of sexual politics over his decades-long career. Other events to be held throughout the city will center on Black environmental consciousness; art and resistance in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere; and the impact of our contentious times on creative voices with author-scholar Reza Aslan and Franklin Leonard, the film and television producer and founder of The Black List.

Events in Los Angeles will run through Sat., May 13 and will be held at venues including the Los Angeles Central Library, the James Bridges Theater at UCLA, the Skirball Cultural Center, California African American Museum, and the garden splendor of The Huntington, featuring a guided outdoor celebration of poetry and bird song.

In addition to Irving, Asian and Leonard, speakers will include: Crystal Bayat, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Camille T. Dungy, Jean Guerrero, Eloise Klein Healy, Priyanka Kumar, Tala Madani, Nesar Mohammadi, Nazanin Noroozi, Amir Soltani, and Leah Thomas.

Allison Lee, PEN America’s Los Angeles managing director, said: “Bringing writers and creatives together with perspectives from across the globe makes this annual literary festival uniquely inspiring and aligned with PEN America’s global reach. The festival invites audiences to witness the power of narrative to change the world as we defend our basic rights to free and creative expression.”

Alireza Ardekani, executive director of the Farhang Foundation, which is supporting the opening night event on the role of artists, and especially women, in the struggle for human rights, said: “Farhang Foundation is extremely proud to join forces with PEN America in helping present this year’s World Voices Festival and the Woman, Life, Freedom panel. We applaud PEN America for their commitment to amplifying and exploring the role of art in the struggle for human rights.”

Journalist, author, and human rights advocate Amir Soltani, who will moderate the May 10 event, said: “Woman, Life, Freedom” has awakened and mobilized the Iranian diaspora like never before. For me, PEN’s World Voices Festival is not an event–it’s oxygen.  We are gathering to breathe life into a movement that binds culture and creativity to new visions of community and democracy. Our task goes beyond honoring the voices and visions of women and girls on the frontlines of freedom.  What PEN America–this ceremony–allows us to do is to bolster collaboration around the principles, institutions, technologies, and platforms that make free speech the key to imagining a post-fundamentalist future.” 

View the schedule of events and purchase tickets here:


  • Novelist Claire Vaye Watkins speaks with John Irving, the three-time National Book Award winner and Oscar winner for best adapted screenplay (The Cider House Rules), about his interest in gendered power structures and how his understanding of a writers’ artistic freedom has changed over the course of his decades-long career.
  • Woman, Life, Freedom: The Role of Art in the Struggle for Human Rights, featuring award-winning visual artist Tala Madani, Afghani women’s rights activist Crystal Bayat, multi-media artist and member of the Art/Culture/Action collective Nazanin Noroozi, Iranian poet-in-exile Nesar Mohammadi, and writer, filmmaker, and human rights activist Amir Soltani. The program will be co-presented by The Skirball Cultural Center, and will be followed by a reception.
  • Award-winning poet Camille T. Dungy, editor of the first anthology to bring African American environmental poetry to national attention, will explore with environmentalist Leah Thomas how gardening can be inseparable from questions of family, history, race, nation, and power, and her new book SOIL: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.
  • Reza Aslan, author and scholar of religions, and Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List and a film and television producer, will be joined by journalist and author Jean Guerrero to discuss the polarized climate in the United States and around the world and its insidious impact on writers, scholars, and creators.
  • An afternoon outdoors at The Huntington gardens with observing, listening, and celebrating birds through readings by Priyanka Kumar, author of Conversations with Birds; Eloise Klein Healy, L.A.’s inaugural Poet Laureate and life-long birdwatcher; and award-winning songwriter and poet Julian Talamantez Brolaski.

Renowned author Salman Rushdie, a former PEN America president, is the creative and visionary force behind the World Voices Festival, which he founded in New York City post-Sept. 11 to keep dialogue alive between the United States and the world; the festival first expanded to Los Angeles in 2019.  Festival events in New York may be viewed here: 

Ayad Akhtar, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and PEN America president, is chair for the 18th annual festival, with celebrated authors Marlon James and Ottessa Moshfegh as guest chairs.

NOTE: Some festival events scheduled in NYC will be available to view as remote sessions, including the May 11 keynote by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a MacArthur “genius” grant honoree, who will deliver the annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on the book bans and censorship sweeping schools across the United States. Another remote session will be curated by Ottessa Moshfegh, guest chair of the festival, who will address the question: “Why Write?” with panelists Min Jin Lee, Rachel Kushner, and Akhil Sharma, on May 10. Tickets to these remote events will be available later in April. Check back to buy remote session tickets here.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Visit pen.org for more information.