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On the first day of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, the sky threatened rain all afternoon long. New Yorkers carried umbrellas in their fists, the pointy ends stick out behind them like tails. Out on Pier 60 of the Chelsea Piers, the location of the opening ceremony, the waves threw grey mist into the air.
And with this theme—Written on Water—the PEN American Center kicked off its seventh season. Before the readings began, a large screen next to the podium flashed quotation from censored writers—everyone from John Donne to Oscar Wilde. Indeed, this was a stark reminder of PEN International’s core mission: defending both “freedom of expression and persecuted writers and journalists.”
But beyond that, the World Voices Festival offered, as Festival chair Salman Rushdie explained, “the chance to hear from writers from every corner of the globe.” Indeed, critics Lev Grossman, Eric Banks and Rigoberto González, were invited on-stage to share reading recommendations. (González, an associate editor for Lambda Literary, suggested Martin Solares’ The Black Minutes and Dilruba Ahmed’s Dhaka Dust.)
Some of the countries represented on this opening night: Nicaragua, Israel, Pakistan, Jamaica, Romania. It’s a Miss Universe pageant for literature. (The judges ask: What does it mean,’written on water?’) Belgian novelist Amelie Nothomb, sporting a jaunty top hat, answered with a paean to snow. “Snow is a form of water, yes?” she asked. She reminisced about her first crush, a young girl named Elena, and as she read in French, a translation beamed onto the screen beside her.
Who needs Rosetta Stone?
As the representative from the land of gays and lesbians (otherwise known as ‘Chelsea’), Evan Fallenberg read excerpts from his forthcoming novel, When We Danced on Water. Fallenberg, who lives in Tel Aviv and also translates Hebrew authors, was a finalist for the 2008 Lambda Literary Award for his debut novel, Light Falls.
Also present were two queer-by-proxy authors: Deborah Eisenberg, whose heartbreaking story “Some Other, Better Otto” (from her collection Twilight of the Superheroes) examines the vagaries and complications of family as viewed through the neurotic gay tite character, and Hanif Kureishi, the screenwriter for My Beautiful Laundrette, who read a homoerotic scene from his novel The Buddha of Suburbia.
Around the room, waiters carried glasses of wine. Listeners laughed and applauded and were freaked out by Czech avant-garde violinist Iva Bittová’s performances. Out the windows, you could see cruise ships trawling the Hudson River and the lights of New Jersey across the way. In comfortable surroundings, it’s easy to think that reading (and writing) are luxuries—something to be done in the bathtub, on the beach.
But recall the late queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s advice: “What the gay movement has had to depend on in place of any state support whatever is, quite simply, speech. It is speech and visibility that legitimate us. It is speech and visibility that give us any political power we have.”
And with this, PEN International’s ultimate purpose was never far from sight. When Salman Rushdie came to the stage, he brought with him an empty chair. The empty chair, which sat in its own spotlight all night long, was a representative of persecuted writers and artists worldwide. In particular, the chair represented the conspicuous absence of Chinese writer Liao Yiwu, who had been scheduled to speak that evening but had not been allowed to leave.
“[Yiwu] has applied for a visa to leave China fifteen times, and only once was he allowed to do so,” Rushdie said. “The manner in which you treat your artists is the manner in which you will be judged by the rest of the world.”
The World Voices Festival continues until Sunday, with many more queer authors to come.