PEN 2010: Women, Sex and Fiction

The bones of New York City were drenched. The neon lights of the WNYC Jerome L. Greene Performance Space beckoned. The PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature had begun.

On Monday, April 26th, the PEN festival commenced with an event originally entitled "Women, Sex and Fiction" (later renamed by the moderator, Claire Messud, to "The Diversity Test: Gender and Literature in Translation"), co-sponsored by Guernica Magazine and the Green Space. Gracing the stage were the likes of Lorraine Adams, Alex Epstein, Andrea Levy, Norman Rush and of course the moderator, Claire Messud. Throughout the PEN coverage on this blog, here is what you can expect: a brief break-down of a few of the highlights of the event and questions the discussion raised, bios of the panelists involved and links to the panelist's books within their names to become better acquainted with their work(s).

To begin: the event opened with a few words from Joel Whitney, editor of Guernica Magazine. He highlighted a few enlightening facts: only 8 women authors appear on the Modern Library Classic's list of 100 books (note that Edith Wharton appears twice) and only 3% of the total number of foreign language books are translated into English. These two facts framed the larger discussion to come over the next hour. Claire Massud, light, airy voice and black and white streaked straight hair curled around her aqua eyes, was next to speak and quickly explained that the empty chair which was placed oddly on stage right was a symbolic gesture to the over 900 writers that have been killed or disappeared in the name of war or conflict, power or politics. This seemed quickly eclipsed by the focus of the panel which, as Claire introduced in her first question, was the following: does diversity matter, does the writer matter, does it matter that a man write a book from the point of view from a woman or vice versa?

This was such a general question that I was left wondering what the panelists were going to do with it. Norman Rush, a man with bleached white hair and bushy eyebrows that seemed to be resting comfortably upon the rims of his glasses, answered first. He mentioned that he had, in fact, written a novel from the point of view of a woman and noted that while some women did not read the book as if it had a male writer, a few women's groups refused to read his novel simply based on principle. Lorraine Adams answered next and explained that she had written a novel from the point of view of a Algerian and while some readers responded that such a move was uncanny or strange, she believed it was far more problematic for a man to write from the point of view of a woman. Rumblings of imperial literary pursuits began to percolate in my mind and were quickly addressed by Esther Allen, who as a translator must constantly cross lines of national and cultural boundaries to bring to light works that otherwise would remain within their respective countries. She mentioned that while it is at times problematic to write from the perspective of the "other," the more pressing question is how well one accomplishes the task. Alex Esptein, a comical man with biting wit, responded that it didn't really matter. "All writers are different," he explained. "All poets are minorities."

Emerging often from Norman Rush, a man who increasingly resembled a reconfigured Hemmingway-like figure in my mind, were accusations of the imperial qualities of the English language and literature. As a former Botswana Peace Corps volunteer and employee from 1978-1973 it made sense that he was sensitive to the imperial qualities of English language, literature and culture, but at times his ideas seem disembodied, unfinished, lacking connection or depth. Alex Esptein, when asked how he felt when his novel, Blue Has No South, was going to be translated into English stated, "I was too drunk to remember," which was received by hearty laughter from the audience. 

A few things which stuck out from the pursuant conversation were the perplexing fact that foreign authors (particularly from Latin America and this is something Esther talks to) often become iconographic representations of their respective countries and that America can only seem to handle one author at a time (think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez who, although wildly popular, is seemingly being replaced by Bolano). Their discussions of male and female in relation to readership and more generally within the realm of the writing industry were troubling. Statistics and polls (sources and methods of course not mentioned) were often cited as evidence that men predominantly read non-fiction while women read fiction and maleness or "male character" (a phrase used by Norman Rush) as well as femaleness were spoken of as if they were given, clear-cut social and gender markers and identities. What was completely absent from the discussion (and in fact, the whole panel's foundation was based upon the assumptions of cohesive notions of male and female) was what it would mean to work at dissolving or calling into question the gendered constructions of male and female. And while at times, Lorraine Adams successfully called into question the continuing predominance of males ("gatekeepers") in the business of the written word, no one on the panel dared to exit the confines of the traditional notions of male/female. As an aside, the contributions of "gays" to the discussion of gender was noted once. 

Check out the discussion at the end of the hour where the topic of new media and technology arise. Alex Esptein seemed to strongly dislike the idea of someone reading his novel on the iPad while simultaneously receiving emails and instant messages. Esther explains how Google translator has made her life easier as a translator but notes that humans must build the framework for Google translator to operate successfully. Noting that a computer has no body and therefore no context, she reassured those in the audience that a computer cannot create a literary voice and speaks adamantly against the rising tide of people and publishers that seemed enamored with the idea of human elimination by technological advances. 

At times problematic for the fact that the discussants seemed to take for granted that the audience knew what it meant when they said male and female, a far more interesting and productive discussion may have centered on calling into question the very categories of male and female to see what work could be accomplished through the dissolution or reconfiguration of traditional categories of gender. That said, check out the video for their discussions on translation and the problems and questions that arise when transforming a text into another language, the imperial qualities of English and "American culture," the questions surrounding new media and technology as it has affected the realm of the written word, and insight into the continuing uphill battle that females face as authors, editors, and critics in the writing industry. 

Video of the Event (opens in new window)

Panelist's Bios (click on their names to go to their works):

Claire Messud (Moderator): the author of three novels and a book of novellas. Her most recent novel, The Emperor’s Children, was named one of the 10 best books of 2006 by The New York Times, was long-listed for Britain’s Man Booker Prize, and has been translated into over 20 languages.She writes articles and reviews for numerous publications, including The New York Review of BooksNewsweekBookforumThe New York Times, and The Boston Globe. She teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College, and lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lorraine Adams: a novelist, critic, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Her second novel, The Room and the Chair, is set in Iran, Afghanistan, Dubai and Washington. Her novel Harbor, about Algerian stowaways, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, was a finalist for the Orange and Guardian First Book prizes, and was selected as a New York Times Best Book, as a Washington PostNotable Book, and as Best Novel of the Year byEntertainment Weekly. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum and was a staff writer at The Washington Post for eleven years. She lives in New York City.

Esther Allen: co-founded the PEN World Voices Festival six years ago, and has guided the work of the PEN Translation Fund for the last seven years. An assistant professor at Baruch College, CUNY, she is currently a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Her most recent translation,Rex, by José Manuel Prieto, is short-listed for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award in fiction.

Alex Epstein: born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1971 and moved to Israel at the age of eight. He is the author of three collections of short stories and three novels; his work has been translated into French, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, and Italian, among other languages. His short-short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in English in Words without Borders, the Iowa ReviewRhinoZeek, and Natural Bridge. In 2003, he was awarded Israel’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature. In 2007, he participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He writes literary reviews for several newspapers and teaches creative writing in Tel Aviv. His short story collection from Clockroot Books to be published in the U.S. is titled Blue Has No South.

Norman Rush: born in San Francisco in 1933 and raised in Oakland, California. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 1956. His short story collection Whites was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His novel Mating was the 1991 National Book Award winner for Fiction and received the International Fiction Prize (Irish Times/Aer Lingus) in the same year. He has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio residency). He has published essays and reviews in The New York Times Book ReviewThe New York Review of BooksThe Nation,The New Yorker, and other periodicals. Norman Rush lives with his wife, Elsa, in Rockland County, New York.

J. K. Fowler is an adjunct professor in the sociology and anthropology department at Rutgers University Newark, the founding and managing editor of the nomadic sojourns creative collective based in Oakland, CA and Brooklyn, NY, a full-time editor, and a doctoral candidate at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.