icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


World Voices Festival # 2: Highlights

It’s been a busy week and impossible, logistically, to get to all the events I had circled in my program. I worked at three of them and attended others at four different venues. The opening night, as described in my previous entry, remains unsurpassed. Personally, I prefer to hear a writer speak about his or her work/process before a reading or, if the author does not speak English, to hear a brief introduction by someone on the PEN staff, as in previous years. Unfortunately, the introductions were eliminated this year, possibly in the interests of time. Context is essential for understanding brief excerpts and appreciating the author’s effort and standing. I found myself referring to the program too much rather than following the on-screen translations at the 92nd Street Y and Cooper Union events, both with several readers entering and exiting the stage one after the other. Oddly monotonous despite the vividness of the works themselves.

Highlights: On Wednesday, April 29 at Cooper Union, Edwidge Danticat made a choice not to read her own work. Instead, she read two poems in Haitian Creole by Félix Morisseau-Leroy, “Tourist” and “Boat People.” You can find his poems in translation online. Powerful work.

On Thursday, April 30, at a panel discussion at the Institute Cervantes, co-sponsored by Peter Gabriel’s human rights organization, “Witness,” Iraqi-American performance artist Wafaa Bilal, who lost both his brother and his father in bombings and spent his childhood years in a refugee camp, spoke eloquently about the transformation of traumatic life experience into art. Emmanuel Guibert, a graphic artist from France, also spoke eloquently about his new work, “The Photographer,” soon to be released in the US, and how the work began for him-- with a friendship. In a long discussion about the uses of new technologies to tell stories—he said that if the internet brings us closer together, that’s fine. If we remain in our isolated, virtual worlds, the new technologies are useless. The philosopher, Josep-Maria Terricabras added a deeper ethical dimension: Does merely witnessing and recording bring change?

There was much to think about during the presentations, but little opportunity for questions or dialogue among the participants, or with the audience. PEN might want to consider training the facilitators of the panels, who may not be educators. The logistics of such preparation might be as daunting as the festival itself, as facilitators arrive in NY for one week from faraway places. But some preparatory work via email might be possible.

The Saturday night Cabaret was more satisfying with readings introduced by the authors themselves, extemporaneous comments, and yet another opportunity to hear writers from overseas as yet unknown or little known in the US. Nick Laird, the Irish poet and fiction writer (married to Zadie Smith who he met at Cambridge) was wonderfully funny and personable with the large audience as was Walter Mosley who reads his own work beautifully. That’s rare and perhaps one of the drawbacks of authors reading their own work; not all writers are good readers. Then onto the stage bounced Slam poetry artist Sekou with his collaborator Steve Connell, a high energy performance with plenty of stimulating content about love and free speech. The dramatic reading of a short play by Jonathan Franzen was a wash despite formidable actors such as Parker Posey and James Franco. The audience of writers, it seemed, was disappointed by this mediocre work and unimpressed with the celebrity of the actors; the work did not stand on its own. Laurie Anderson and her husband, Lou Reed, concluded the evening with a challenging, strange half-hour of music and words. I had never seen Ms. Anderson in performance before. I think one needs a flotation device though what this might be I don’t know. The last piece in particular was haunting. It was about problems and how we create them when they are not there or transform them into commodities. At least I think that’s what it was about. It was a pleasure to see a couple of older-timers still so active and innovative.

Despite some disappointments this year, I look forward to next year’s event. PEN is a formidable organization dedicated to “defending writers and promoting the free exchange of literature for more than 85 years,” according to their brochure. For more information go to: www.pen.org where you'll also find some recordings of the events.

Be the first to comment