BK Book Fest: My Privilege to Listen

By the time I got home, my jeans were soaked, my shoes had puddles at the toes, and shivers signaled the onset of a mid-September cold. It was so worth it. Brooklyn Book Festival 2010 may have been drenched, but that didn’t keep me from feasting on literary splendors from near and far, at a veritable buffet of authors, critics, publishers, journalists, comedians and more. And kudos to the crowd for showing up in droves to walk the outdoor bookstalls, settle under umbrellas to hear readings on the steps of Borough Hall, and splash through the rain to get from one great event to another.

True to the spirit of The Mantle, I spent most of my day at the international stage. Looking over my notes, of the seven panels I attended, six took place at this particular stage. My strategy was to find the authors and topics that would most appeal to The Mantle’s global, well-read and politically savvy audience (yup, talking to you!). Here, then, are some highlights from my day at BKBF, one for the… books.

I started the morning off with PEN American Center’s celebration of fifty years of their stellar Freedom to Write program—a laudable effort to promote the freedom of speech for persecuted writers around the world. The panel itself was a double-dip, as the great writers on stage read from the works of dissident authors from around the world, past and present. The lineup: Cathy Park Hong, Roxana Robinson, Sarah Schulman, Vera Williams, and Xiaoda Xiao.

The rain began just as the first reading kicked off; the very least I could do was let the rain drops dance on and around me. When you’re sitting in front of a panel of writers, some who have been imprisoned for years for simply writing, and they are reading the works of writers who have endured much worse than a rainy day, slinking off to an inside panel discussion just feels wrong. PEN American Center reports there are around 1,000 writers worldwide imprisoned for their writings. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again:  Do not forget that others around the world are summarily imprisoned for exercising what you and I take for granted. Take action to assist those being persecuted, it is the obligation of free writers.

Here is a video of persecuted Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo making the case for the freedom of speech.

Back to the panel: the authors at BKBF presented a series of haunting readings. My apologies for not getting the names of those whose work was read (note to BK Book Fest: please put that information in the program next year), but the sentiments and their words rang true and powerful: Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka (Nigeria) was in the mix, as were dissident writers and poets from Argentina, Iran, Uganda, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and China.

The highlights for me included the performances by Vera B. Williams, who, in her reading of the Ugandan writer, declared that “a political prisoner’s greatest fear is being forgotten.” It’s a statement that bears great weight. Imagine what it must be like to be jailed and locked into solitary confinement for an unknowable amount of time, wondering constantly have they forgotten about me? Two immense choices must be weighed: do I repent and play the game of the authority? Do I relent and renounce my writings in order to save my own life (and the lives of my family and friends)? Do I promise to give up my craft in order to escape these prison walls? Or… an equally weighty decision: Do I hold fast and true to my beliefs? Do I remain defiant and even try to write secretly in prison? Do I keep up the fight against injustice because what I stand for is right? Do I risk becoming a martyr? That decision is left to each individual, and we have no right to say which path should be taken.

We writers who are free on the outside, though, have a much simpler choice to make: do we, or do we not forget that another voice has been imprisoned? And if you choose not to forget, what will you do about it?

After the panel I made sure to introduce myself to Xiaoda Xiao. His novel, The Cave Man (Two Dollar Radio, 2009), is based on a number of true events in the lives of himself and his friends in Maoist China. Xiao was arrested in 1971 for tearing a poster of Mao. He was sentenced to five years in prison (without trial) and then spent two more years in a prison labor camp. (The least I could do was sit in the rain and listen to him!). It was especially heartening to see Xiao on stage reading the work of other writers who have been persecuted for their material. The man could have easily read from his own work. His appearance at the festival is testament to his resilience. His reading of the work of an Ethiopian dissident epitomizes the spirit of PEN’s Freedom to Write series.

Look for a review of The Cave Man on The Mantle soon. But for now… off to the next panel!

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing.