In others’ worlds, in other words
PEN World Voices Festival opens borders between writers

By David Callicott

By invoking the confessional, the theme of the 2008 PEN World Voices Festival—“Public Lives/Private Lives”—addresses the shifting boundaries in modern media, literature, and society, and the impact those limits have on free speech and human rights. This year’s festival, which takes place April 29 – May 4, hosts more than 50 authors from across the globe as they converge to discuss, among other issues, government surveillance in the U.S., the crisis in Darfur, and oppression in China. While this may seem more the territory of Amnesty International than of a group whose acronym stands for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists, it is not.

“What’s unique about PEN is it’s both a human rights organization and a writers organization,” explains Francine Prose, the award-winning author and current president of PEN. “And there’s a lot of genuine overlap in those two areas.” For instance, this year PEN has been very active in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics to publicize human rights abuses in China, and will honor writers imprisoned there by placing an empty chair on stage at every festival program, symbolic of the voices silenced.

PEN is just as concerned with problems here in the States. “Our own borders are becoming increasingly closed,” says Prose, citing how English author Sebastian Horsley was recently refused entry to the U.S. on grounds of moral turpitude. “So the festival is very much about opening those borders and encouraging an exchange and dialogue with all writers.”

While the majority of the week will be devoted to lectures and panel discussions that tend toward these serious matters, the fest’s program also offers slightly lighter fare with storytelling slams, concerts, and films. As always, there is an impressive list of participants, including authors whose work has gone from the page to the silver screen—Annie Proulx (“Brokeback Mountain”), Jeffrey Eugenides (“The Virgin Suicides”), Ian McEwan (“Atonement”), Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient”)—and popular locals such as radio host Leonard Lopate, New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik, and humorist Andy Borowitz, whose fake news reports have recently made real headlines.

Here are but a few daily highlights of the more than 30 events (for a complete schedule, visit www.pen.org):

Crisis Darfur: A Conversation with Mia Farrow and Bernard-Henri Lévy

Tuesday, 4/29 at 8 p.m.: The French Institute, Alliance Française ($15/$10)

For years now, we’ve seen the name Darfur everywhere. It is the subject of news programs as well as fashion-industry ad campaigns. Still, a surprising number of people have no idea where or what Darfur is. This is an opportunity to learn about this African region’s genocide, and the role artists, intellectuals, and other witnesses can play to stop the killing.


Readings: Public Lives/Private Lives

Wednesday, 4/30 at 8 p.m.: Town Hall ($15/$10)

This event might just be the best bang for your buck, if being in the presence of literary world superheroes is your thing. Francine Prose, Michael Ondaatje, Ian McEwan, and others will be on hand to talk about their craft as they “peel back the layers of their literary selves in a rare group appearance.”


The Moth: Award-Winning Storytelling

Thursday, 5/1 at 7 p.m.: The Museum at Eldridge Street ($30/$25)

At 9 p.m.: Something to Hide: Writers and Artists Against the Surveillance State

Joe’s Pub ($10/$8)

Most local bookworms know about The Moth, the nonprofit arts organization dedicated to the art of storytelling, and turn out in droves for every one of their sold-out events. Tonight’s raconteurs include Andy Borowitz, Annie Proulx, and, if Homeland Security allows, Sebastian Horsley. Later, at the intimate and charming Joe’s Pub, celebrate the First Amendment by discussing how it is being eviscerated by our current administration. Brave scribes will read from their works, sounding off against surveillance and other unpatriotic acts.


The Three Musketeers Reunited

Friday, 5/2 at 7:30 p.m.: 92nd Street Y ($20/$15)

If you weren’t at London’s Royal Festival Hall on October 10, 1995, this is a second chance at a once-in-a-lifetime evening. Umberto Eco from Italy, British-Indian Salman Rushdie, and Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru gather together again and swashbuckle with sharp sentences.


A “Believer” Nighttime Event

Saturday, 5/3 at 6 p.m.: Tishman Auditorium, The New School

If a literary festival sounds as dull and gray as the tip of an old pencil, this program, designed by and for the hip lit set, should change your mind. Actor/comedian/writer Michael Ian Black hosts this McSweeney’s-inspired multi-media evening that features a musical performance by John Wesley Harding, an interactive performance in which every attendee will simultaneously watch a “picture story” through their own personal View-Master, and a panel discussion with Scandinavian authors Halfdan Freihow, Christian Jungersen, Jo Nesbø, and Kristín Ómarsdóttir. (Many of these folks will later perform at the PEN Cabaret at Webster Hall).


Sunday, 5/4 at 12 p.m.: New York Public Library (5th Ave. & 42nd St.)

At 6:30 p.m.: The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture by Umberto Eco

The Cooper Union Great Hall ($15/$10)

Starting at noon, plan on spending the whole day at the library, as the schedule is stacked with hour-long exchanges between literary luminaries. Then top the day, and week, off at the grand finale in Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where internationally acclaimed writer, philosopher, critic, and professor Umberto Eco will lecture before being joined for a discussion by Adam Gopnik.





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