The 2018 PEN World Voices Festival boasted a theme of Resist and Reimagine, with events, panels, and readings exploring various modes of resistance (to intolerance, fascism, racism, sexism, to name a few), as well as different modes of communication and creativity. The festival (now in its 14th year) has a continual devotion to international and multicultural voices coming together, letting new writers be heard, and bringing established writers and activists together in conversation. Its events are also invitations to the diverse population of New York to join in the conversation and be exposed to a variety of ideas about what it means to be an active participant in a global community. I attended three events this year that were particularly enlightening in the ways they explored the ideas of resistance and reimagining.
Activism and Resistance
The overlap of art/literature and activism/resistance was purposeful at these events: it is a literary festival, but many panelists were not necessarily writers. At the event Resistance Report Card: Grading the Groundswell on April 21, the discussion was focused less on writing and more on organizing and activism, with representatives from Black Lives Matter (co-founder Patrisse Cullors) and ACLU (director of the Voting Rights Project, Dale Ho) along with the writer and PEN trustee Masha Gessen. The grade these panelists gave to the resistance was mixed: in the A-B range, extra points for effort, but (according to Gessen) still lacking in original contribution. The overall mood of this event was largely positive—Cullors lauded the public for getting involved and showing up, Gessen called the resistance “expansive,” and Ho listed important court battles that the ACLU has won. But there was no mincing of words about the work yet to be done in the face of many problems: the obstinate mentality that immigrants are the “other,” human rights violations such as voting disenfranchisement, and a Democratic party continuing to play it safe. The panelists agreed that reaching over the symbolic aisle would do nothing for the cause, but popularizing a bold vision (Cullors), firing up the progressive base (Ho), and influencing the dominate conversation (Gessen) would.
The audience was a crowd of politically-engaged citizens (including myself) wondering how lead organizers and thinkers deemed the current movement(s) and how to continue to move forward. But it was not without its critics: one man stood up and asked why there were no straight white men on the panel. The moderator, Suzanne Nossel, informed him this was just one of nearly 80 events; Gessen initially asked “are you kidding me?” to applause, then later discussed the misperception that majority groups in this country are underrepresented. Other questions from the audience addressed concern about getting more people involved, and how to focus on the most important issues rather than be distracted by headlines. Gessen responded to questions about how to deal with so many issues and viewpoints in one movement with “you don’t always have to cohere around a single message” and that the diverse ideas and opinions happening on the (larger) progressive side of America is one of our strengths that makes us more capable of defeating these various issues together. Cullors insisted that “now is not the time to play it safe,” denoting that the answer is not to return to the same singular issues and run from the complexities of our problems.
If people were looking for simple answers and tactics, the panel may have disappointed, but I found it rooted in fact and experience from the front, as it were, and an encouraging affirmation of action taken thus far. The resounding message, to continue the conversation and strengthen the movement, was heartening.
Transcending Time and Language
Many events at the festival were more purely literary: literary launches, student readings, workshops on craft. One such event was Resonances, presented at Baruch College on April 19, which included a panel of writers reading from works they deemed classics and speaking on how the works influenced them. These diverse writers included Rowan Ricardo Phillips (American), who read from Borges, Xiaolu Guo (Chinese), who read from Wu Cheng’en, Alicia Kopf (Catalan), who read from Clarice Lispector, and Aminatta Forna (British), who read from Robert Graves. The idea of written works transmitting “fluidly and freely across time and language,” as Phillips put it, was a theme of the evening. The writers discussed how the works affected them personally, how the narratives and languages influenced their own writing, and why the works still resonate today. More than one question from the audience touched on the definition of “classic” and whether one’s idea of classics change, as well as one’s relationship to them. As Kopf said, a classic is “a work of art that is always contemporary” and in which one can “always find something new.”
The subject of translation also came up, as both Kopf and Guo write in their second or third languages. Rather than this being an issue for them, they both asserted that it’s a great writing exercise—translating your writing polishes and enriches it. Guo added how she appreciated the elasticity of English, its different accents and forms. Forna, who initially had nothing to add since she only writes in her native language, then joined in about how she has her students write in different voices or styles, which is a kind of translation.
The event left me pondering the possibilities for creativity and the power of the written word—the reimagining of what makes a classic, and how writers might use language and translation.
Poetry as a Life Force
The last event I attended blended art and resistance beautifully. On the evening of April 21, I hiked southwest to Tribeca, where the Poet’s House sits on the edge of the Hudson River. Inside, there was standing room only for the event Pablo Neruda: The Poetry of Resistance. Enthusiasts of Chile’s most famous poet came out to hear readings and discussions about him by various writers: Mark Eisner, a biographer of Neruda; Forrest Gander, translator of his poems; Idra Novey, poet and Spanish translator; and Cecilia Vicuña, a renowned Chilean artist, poet, and activist, whose family knew Neruda.
The theme of resistance was at the forefront here, as it was in much of Neruda’s poetry. Eisner and Gander both discussed the importance of political discord in Neruda’s life starting with his experience in Santiago during student-led movements, then the Spanish Civil War, which prompted him to stop writing love poems and begin political poetry. The assassination of Frederico Garcia Lorca, in particular, prompted him to write “I’m Explaining a Few Things,” the last lines of which were quoted by Eisner: “come and see the blood in the streets” (repeated three times). The issue of Neruda’s personal and ethical flaws was also addressed—Novey called for a feminist re-reading of his and other less-than-ethical artists’ works, to read them with new eyes and see them for who they were, but concluded that we can still celebrate Neruda’s work, even if our relationship with it is complicated. Gander also pointed out that Neruda identified with the oppressed only when they resembled himself, stating that “it is possible to be progressive in one way but not in another.” As with many artists, Neruda’s political radicalism did not always extend to liberalism and progressiveness in his own life.
As enlightening as these discussions were, the highlight of the night was Vicuña. She spoke into the mic with a whisper that made everyone in the room lean forward and listen with every fiber of our being. She told fascinating anecdotes about her grandfather speaking at a student protest in Santiago that Neruda attended, and how, as a teenager, she dismissed Neruda’s work that covered her father’s bookshelves as passé, until she picked one up and was transfixed. She gave a somewhat comical impersonation of Neruda’s speaking voice, which she experienced at a reading: slow, laborious, and demanding of attention. But she was also full of insights and gems of poetic advice: to “borrow and paste” from other artists, with the purpose of a “human collective” and an “alignment with justice”—values Neruda championed. She also stated that “the resistance will come if we align ourselves with the life force” in nature, just as Neruda found poetry in the jungles of Chile before he ever went to Santiago and found a political movement. When asked by someone in the audience how an urban dweller might do this, she explained that our bodies are part of that life force, that being aware of our bodies’ movements, voices, and breaths, will awaken creativity. Gander described Vicuña’s art during the political movements of the 1970s as “confronting brutality with fragility,” and I found a powerful message that evening as to how one can resist and create, whether you have the commanding physicality of Neruda or the quietly fierce persona of the 70-year-old Vicuña.
The theme of Resist and Reimagine resonated throughout these events, the ideas of activism and creative expression proven to be interconnected. These writers are resisting, these resistors are creating: writing in multiple languages is a political act just as marching in the streets is an artistic act—the common ground lies in humanity. Speaking, writing, and marching against the powers that oppress humanity is what the resistance is all about, in whatever form it takes. How do we know what is best for this “human collective?” We find our own voice, reimagine creativity, have conversations, and share stories.
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PEN 2018, PEN World Voices Festival