Pen 2010: Opening Night Extravaganza

Let us not forget those writers whose voices are silenced because they live under repressive regimes or are in prison for their writings. I say this up front, because Salman Rushdie made the same statement up front last night at PEN’s “Readings from Around the World” at the 92Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As if to drive the point home, an empty chair graced the stage, in honor of those writers whose voices go unheard around the globe. An empty chair will be present at all PEN World Voices Festival events this year.

Remembering silenced writers is a sentiment dear to the heart of PEN American Center, which was founded in 1922 (a year after the organization started in London). One of the main programs at PEN is to promote the freedom to write and of expression of writers around the world. Colum McCann, in his speech in acceptance of the insignia of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters at the French Embassy Monday night echoed the underlying mission of PEN, foreshadowing Rushdie’s statement at 92Y. At the French Embassy, McCann expressed his humility for receiving such an award, and for his being able to participate in PEN’s literature festival in the first place, when so many of his fellow writers worldwide are less fortunate.

So, please, let us not forget imprisoned pens.

Now, onto the program at hand. Did you know that yesterday, April 28, was Roberto Bolaño’s birthday? Patti Smith knew. The singer-songwriter closed out the evening’s events with an homage to the late Chilean, all-Latin-Americans-do-not-write-in-magical-realism, literary superstar. Rather fitting, I suppose, that Ms. Smith read and then sang in honor of a Chilean writer who spent much of his life in Mexico, and who has made the North American literati ga-ga. On a night celebrating global voices, when an Afghan writer read in French, an Estonian author read in Finnish, and a Chinese scribe read in English, why not!?

The line-up for the evening: Daniele Mastrogiacomo (born in Pakistan, now Italian-Swiss), Alberto Ruy-Sánchez (Mexico),Yiyun Li (China, U.S.A.), Miguel Syjuco (Philippines, Canada), Andrzej Stasiuk (Poland), Sofi Oksanen (Finnish-Estonian), Atiq Rahimi (Afghanistan… in exile in France), Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan), Salman Rushdie (India, UK, U.S.A.) and Patti Smith (U.S.A.). Slice it correctly, and fifteen countries were represented in one way or another on stage last night. (Sixteen if you throw in Bolaño’s ghost.)

Authors followed one another, reading in the language of their choice. For those who chose to read in their mother (or adopted) tongues, English translations scrolled slowly up a screen behind the author (much smoother than last year’s operation!).

Some writers seem to come over better than others. At least in my opinion. Besides showcasing a dazzling panoply of amazing global literature (truly), the event confirmed that beauty—or literary tastes—are in the eyes of the beholder. Some writers, either in presentation or in their work, didn’t really connect with me, but when the night was over, I heard in the aisles and lobby of that great auditorium praise and claim for every single one of the writers. Each writer connected with the audience, and that’s the sign of some savvy planning on behalf of PEN (kudos goes to Festival Chair Salman Rushdie, Director Caro Llewellyn, and Manager Elizabeth Weinstein).

Before I hit some highlights, a critique. Writers/readers take note: providing context for what you are about to share with the audience will go a long way in getting them on board much quicker. And the quicker we can get on board, the quicker we can enjoy the ride. Many of the evening’s writers did this, to varying degrees. Yiyun Li jumped right into her reading, blindsiding the audience with a literary space that was completely unfamiliar: with each passing sentence we struggled to catch up to new characters, geography, time, situation. Only when she finished this short excerpt did Yiyun explain to the audience what she just read. A collective ohhhh rolled across the audience. That’s what was going on, Now I get it. Yiyun then gave some context for her next piece, which helped to get us on board with the material, and appreciate it more.

Andrzej Stasiuk pre-empted his reading (in Polish), with a simple: “I have a sad story.” He did. It was also burdened with laundry lists of objects found in the rooms of his story (taken from Nine, 1998).

But Alberto Ruy-Sánchez played it right: he spoke to audience, told them why he wrote his book, the work that went into it, and then gave context for the excerpt he read (in Spanish), which wasn’t the only reason I fell for him. Ruy-Sánchez read like he was making poetry on the spot. His rhythm was alluring, his cadence was seductive. He whispered at the right time, sped up, slowed down, in time with the love scenes he shared with the packed audience. Ever see an audience melt? If you read Spanish, put his book Los Jardines Secretos de Mogador: Voces de Tierra (2001) on your list, or better yet, on your nightstand.

Other highlights from the evening:

Miguel Syjuco read from the beginning of his first (and only novel), Ilustrado (FSG, 2010). I wrote in my notebook: “sounds like the beginning of a Bolaño novel, substituting Philippines and the U.S. for Chile and Mexico.” And this before I knew Bolaño’s spirit would be joining us!

Atiq Rahimi stole the hearts of the audience too, especially luring us in with the enigmatic statement, “I am an exile in another country, and in another language.” Why does he read and write in French? Well, just listen… and swoon we did to his smoky excerpts from The Patience Stone (Pierre de Patience) (Other, 2010). This one’s available in English. Put it on your nightstand, right next to Ruy-Sánchez’s book.

Salman Rushdie brought the house down with a reading from Granta 109. His piece, Notes on Sloth: from Saligia to Oblomov,” was witty, intelligent, and clever. His timing and delivery was spot on—a thoroughly enjoyable presentation from the literary legend.

Patti Smith closed out the evening, with the birthday homage mentioned above. But to tell the truth, Rushdie’s mirthful presentation should have been the culmination of the evening.

All in all, a terrific “opening night extravaganza.” More to come on the week’s events from myself, JK Folwer, and more writers from The Mantle.

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