PEN World Voices: A Mid-Week Schedule

As you, my avid readers, will doubtless be aware, the PEN World Voices Festival is generally one of the highlights of spring for me. Alas, this year’s festival–currently in progress until Sunday, May 6–falls right after I returned from a week long vacation, and life-catch-up being what it is, I haven’t been as free to dash out for daytime ‘literary conversations’ or nightly events.

I will admit, however, that the opening days’ events did not make even my earliest schedule–I’m not much for opening processions or gala dinners, and I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way for the Christopher Hitchens tribute or the Clockwork Orange Operetta. Every year’s PEN WV has a certain flavor to it, a particular tone. And this year’s seems to actually be less about literature and more about linking literature to either political-social awareness/resistance/dialog/action (this has always been a focal point of the PEN organization, of course, but it seems more pronounced this year, with events like “A Reporter’s Perspective on War,” “Children’s Rights,” “Writings from the Domestic Workers United Workshop,” “Thoughts on Freedom in an Era of Pervasive Surveillance” and “Occupy a New Debate” filling the schedule) or, kind of oddly for a literary festival, sexy multi-media, multi-disciplinary tie-ins.

This year’s printed PEN schedule is divided into sub-categories, one of which is “what else is literature?” According to the booklet copy, “…there are many ways to tell a story. The 2012 PEN World Voices Festival will explore the art of narrative through various mediums, such as theater, photography, and puppets [Ed: puppets?] …No matter what we do, we are always telling a story.” Examples:

  • The Kronos Quartet: Exit Strategies: “Can literature and music overlap and enhance one another?”
  • Elevator Repair Service with Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin: “…a look back on ERS’ last three pieces  through the lens of creative data analysis…” (FYI: ERS is the theater group behind the Great Gatsby-theater piece, Gatz.)
  • An Evening with Doon Arbus, Francine Prose, and Michael Cunningham–and Diane Arbus: “How might a photographer’s precise use of language illuminate and expand the perception of her pictures and the singular nature of the mind behind them?”
  • Three (admittedly, very cool sounding) events called A Citywide Event: Food for Thought, Food for the Palate

So, okay, I understand that having tie-in events with theatrical groups, musicians, chefs (!) etc. is a great way to expand a festival and add some texture to it. But by shifting PEN WV so completely toward these more politically-oriented/exploratory events, I wonder if the organizers aren’t getting a little too far afield from the wonderfully unlikely author talk pairings, readings, and interviews that made PEN WV so great in the past. A really literary literary festival is, I think, kind of a rarity.

That said, for us kvetchers out there, there are some solidly literary events worth looking forward to, and there is a whole day of translation-themed events on Thursday all around NYU. Some highlights:

Wednesday, May 2 (Today)

Lunchtime Literary Conversations: Eugène Nicole and Lila Azam Zanganeh

I don’t know either of these authors, but I always enjoy these short talks, often between authors with totally different styles/thematic concerns etc.

Thursday, May 3: NYU International Houses Mini Festival

There are, again, a heap of translation-related events on Thursday. If I were able to take a day off, I would attend most. But being confined to lunch hours and the after-work events, I’ll be particularly looking forward to:

Fame and the Writer

The public image of today’s international literary stars is more often defined by the Internet and worldwide book tours than by what they write. Many successful authors feel that their celebrity has little to do with their work, and even less with themselves and their personal lives. In this conversation, three successful European writers engage in a conversation about the alienating effects of seeing one’s life reflected in the public eye.

Reviewing Translations

This one has my name on it.

When a translated work is under review, what exactly is being critiqued? Is it the work itself or the quality of its translation? How does reviewing a translation differ from reviewing a work in its original language? Should the critic be bilingual? An expert in the literature and history of a foreign culture? Join an expert panel of international authors, critics, and translators as they explore the nexus of translation and criticism.

Friday, May 4

A Literary Safari

Here’s an example of a creative and unique event that is still very grounded in the literary. I attended this last year and it was literally the Best Thing Ev-Er. There are still tickets available–I got mine this morning–so I’d highly, highly recommend shelling out the $15 for this. Totally worth it, even if you don’t know a lot of the authors.

Saturday, May 5
(Coincidentally, events this day have the honor of taking place on Cinco de Derby Day, which being deeply studied in both Mexican history and the ponies, you of course, already knew.)

Best European Fiction

Following two years of sold-out events, the “Best European Fiction” program hosted by Aleksandar Hemon has become a staple of the PEN World Voices Festival. This year the event returns with three new authors—Noëlle Revaz (Switzerland), Patrick Boltshauser (Liechtenstein), and Róbert Gál (Slovakia)—reading from their work, discussing their ideas about writing, and sharing their perspectives on what’s happening in literature in their parts of the world.

In Conversation: Brian Selznick

This is a paid event and I probably won’t make it, but I so loved Wonderstruckand I bet that Selznick is a really interesting guy, especially when interviewed by YA editor extraordinaire/authorial sensation David Levithan.

Sunday, May 6

A Place Out of Time: Gregor von Rezzori’s Bukovina Trilogy

In the early 20th Century, what is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine was Czernowitz, Bukovina, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the birth place of the dazzling writer Gregor von Rezzori. For Rezzori, this city was a place full of color and laughter, but also of terrible uncertainty and latent violence, a polarity captured in his Bukovina trilogy Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, The Snows of Yesteryear: Portraits for an Autobiography, and An Ermine in Czernopol. Explore Rezzori’s lost worlds and enduring works in a discussion with some of today’s finest writers.

So, happy PEN WV, everyone! I’ll recap those events that I can get to.

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