More memoir fakery and atrocity kitsch

While putting together PEN America 8: Making Histories, we thought a lot about the way writers engage with historical fact. The smartest writers seemed to agree that narrative was never strictly factual-- that fiction creeps into any kind of storytelling. Maggie Nelson, for example, in her beautiful and brilliant memoir/book-of-poems Jane, confesses, “I don’t know what to say,” when asked by her father if the book will be “a figment of your imagination.”

A now-scuttled book that had been planned for early next year brought these matters back to mind over the holiday: Herman Rosenblat’s Holocaust memoir, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived, was cancelled by Berkley Books after Gabriel Sherman reported serious doubts about its veracity in The New Republic. In the memoir, Rosenblat told the story-- as he has many times before, on television and elsewhere-- of “his reunion with and marriage to the girl he says helped him survive the Holocaust by bringing him apples through the fence of Schlieben, a subdivision of the Buchenwald concentration camp.”

In the commentary that followed, one of the more striking responses came from Professor Ken Waltzer, director of Michigan State University’s Jewish Studies program, who found the episode saddening in many ways, not least because of the picture Rosenblat’s story paints of the Holocaust. “Holocaust experience is not heartwarming, it is heart-rending,” Waltzer writes.

That comment reminded me of Anya Ulinich’s story “The Nurse and the Novelist,” from PEN America 9: Checkpoints. As Anya told Maud Newton recently, the story satirizes “atrocity kitsch fiction”:
What’s appealing about atrocity kitsch is that there is always a strong hero. There is also a record keeper, a paper trail, an old love letter, an old key, what have you. At the end of the story, somebody becomes stronger…. The nurse character is a curmudgeon and a nut, and her grandmother’s history is a fine example of what happens to ordinary people come times of atrocity. The weak scramble to survive when they’re in a pickle. Their weaknesses come to the fore, betrayal goes unpunished, people would rather forget, ordinary life continues in utilitarian apartments.
I suspect that Anya has a kindred spirit in Aleksandar Hemon (whose conversation with Rabih Alameddine also appears in Checkpoints), judging from his most recent book, The Lazarus Project-- which addresses, in a similarly merciless fashion, more recent atrocities: the war in Bosnia, the torture at Abu Grhaib, human trafficking in Moldova. Hemon interweaves the narrator’s experiences with and reflections on these events with a fictional account of Lazarus Averbuch, a historical figure, and the victim of his own personal atrocity. Thinking of The Lazarus Project again (with some help from Anne Yoder’s post yesterday at The Millions), a point of contact appears between the purveyors of false memoirs and atrocity kitsch, respectively. Both groups of writers exploit the wishes of many readers to see redemption in the worst the world has to offer, rather than merely facing it for what it is. This is, perhaps, its own kind of lie, the kind that has nothing to do with historical fact.


PEN calls for release of Chinese dissident

The New York Times is reporting on the calls from PEN and others urging the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, pictured left, “a 53-year-old literary critic who has directed the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a group of writers who advocate for broader free speech." He "was taken by security officers from his home on the night of Dec. 8 and has not been heard from since.”

More than 160 prominent writers, scholars and human rights advocates outside mainland China have signed an open letter to President Hu Jintao asking him to release.... Liu Xiaobo—one of the driving forces behind a bold manifesto demanding democratic reforms that has received worldwide attention.

Among the writers signing the letter are three Nobel laureates in literature—the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney and Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian novelist—as well as other writers who regularly champion freedom of expression, including the Italian novelist Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.

You can read the letter here, and you can use this template provided by PEN to send your own letter to the Chinese president.

You can also now listen to the "Voices Against Torture" event from last week, and read writings on the subject from panelists Scott Horton, Elisa Massimino, Anouar Benmalek, and Jane Mayer.


Reminder: “Voices Against Torture” tomorrow at 6:30

What: Voices Against Torture: Writers and Lawyers on the Way Forward
Tuesday, December 16, 2008, 6:30 pm-8:30 pm
Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, NYC

Tomorrow evening, Dahlia Lithwick will moderate a panel of writers and lawyers on the roles that members of these two professions have played and continue to play in exposing human rights abuses and in reminding nations of their human rights responsibilities. Joining Dahlia will be

The panel will be hosted by PEN and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS). The panel will begin promptly at 6:30 p.m on Tuesday, December 16th, and will end at 7:45 p.m., followed by a wine and cheese reception.

This event is free and open to the public. If you'd like to come, please register today.

Note: you can also RSVP on Facebook.


Monday morning miscellany

On Friday, Michael Idov of New York magazine, spoiling for a literary feud, suggested that the excellent Anya Ulinich story we published in our latest issue might be “a barely disguised personal attack.” Anya then explained to Maud Newton that the target of her story is “atrocity kitsch fiction” and not one particular author. She cited the much-acclaimed movie The Lives of Others as a possible example of this genre; as it happens, A.O. Scott also tackled this subject recently from a film critic’s perspective. (By the way, Anya just won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers for her novel, Petropolis. The prize is given annually to an American fiction writer of exceptional talent and promise for a first or second book.)


So how should writers respond to atrocity? Next Tuesday, come discuss this subject with Dahlia Lithwick (legal correspondent for Slate), Jane Mayer (author of The Dark Side), Anouar Benmalek (author of The Lovers of Algeria), Scott Horton (law professor and contributor to Harper's), and Elisa Massimino (Executive Director of Human Rights First). “Voices Against Torture: Writers and Lawyers on the Way Forward” is hosted by PEN and ACS and will focus on the roles that lawyers and writers have played and continue to play in exposing human rights abuses and in reminding nations of their human rights responsibilities. The panel will begin promptly at 6:30 p.m and will end at 7:45 p.m., followed by a wine and cheese reception. This event is free and open to the public. If you'd like to come, please register today.


On a lighter note, PEN triumphed in a closely contested “Literary Trivia Smackdown” at the Small Press Book Fair yesterday, against litbloggers Levi Asher, Sarah Weinman, Ed Champion, and Eric Rosenfield. There was a dramatic finish, but, as Ed explains, former PEN president Arthur Miller nudged our team to victory. Clearly, Arthur Miller thinks that these litbloggers should all join PEN, and was just doing what he could to make this happen. (Unless, that is, they don't want to support free expression and writers who are imprisoned around the world.) Levi has some kind words both for us and for the Small Press Book Fair itself, which is now twenty-one years old.


Small Press Book Fair and more

This Saturday and Sunday is the Small Press Book Fair in NYC at the lovely General Society building on West 44th Street. It closes with the “Literary Trivia Smackdown 2.0,” on Sunday at 4 pm, which was supposed to feature folks from the New York Review of Books, but, due to a scheduling conflict, will instead send staffers from a certain literary and human rights organization up against a fearsome group of literary bloggers: Levi Asher, Sarah Weinman, Ed Champion, and Eric Rosenfield. Come cheer us on against these daunting foes. Should be fun—especially since the gauntlet has already been thrown.

“Gabriel Garcia Marquez from Colombia, Toni Morrison from the United States and Seamus Heaney from Ireland offered their support for the Aura Estrada Prize in memory of a Mexican writer who died in 2007 at age 30.” The prize was established by Aura’s husband, Francisco Goldman. (Via the Literary Saloon.)

Obama’s literary name-dropping grows ever more impressive. If you, too, must prep
are for a meeting with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, you can brush up on Borges and Cortázar by reading PEN America 4: Fact/Fiction, which features writing by both men, as well as PEN America 1: Classics, which features Paul Auster, Robert Stone, and others offering their thoughts on Borges. (Via A Different Stripe.)

The Curious Mind of Jeffrey Eugenides,” via The Millions. Eugenides talks to Daniel Kehlmann in our latest issue, which also features a witty piece from Kehlmann’s first novel, just published in English this month. And Eugenides reads Robert Walser in PEN's Year in Review, which also includes fiction by Etgar Keret and Horacio Castellanos Moya, poetry by Fady Joudah and Mahmoud Darwish, and much more.

(Photo of Borges by Diane Arbus.)


Iraqi interpreters betrayed again

Last week, The Washington Post reported on the Pentagon’s decision to prohibit Iraqi interpreters from wearing masks. Many wear masks to hide their identities from those who wish to kill them. George Packer-- whose stunning article on Iraqi interpreters for The New Yorker became the play Betrayed (which is excerpted in our latest issue)-- borrows a famous Daily News headline to title his response: “Military to Interpreters: Drop Dead.”
Exactly what code of conduct is being maintained here? Iraqis aren’t in the American chain of command. They don’t take an oath; they don’t fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If they did, they would be given regulation uniforms. They wouldn’t be allowed to use aliases. They would be housed on bases rather than obliged to make the dangerous trip home every night. They would receive pensions, health insurance, and death benefits. When one of them gets killed, the military would hold a ceremony. The widow would receive a flag. A grateful nation would remember.
Fortunately, “thirteen members of Congress and an association of interpreters” are urging the Pentagon to rescind the ban. But 13 out of 435 is not a very good percentage. You can write to your congressional representative here, and you can find additional resources here.

You can also read the first-hand account of an Iraqi interpreter, Ahmed Ali, in our latest issue and online. Ali worked with news organizations, not the military, but the resulting danger was similar:

In the summer of 2006 I was in the Green Zone covering Saddam’s trial when I got a phone call saying my brother-in-law had disappeared. He went to his job, and left his two kids in the house, and he didn’t come back. I tried to call him on his cell phone, but it was switched off. Later, in the offices of The Telegraph, his captors called me using his cell phone. They had abducted my brother-in-law after stopping him at a checkpoint.

I tried to introduce myself. “We know,” they said. “You are Ahmed Ali.”

I asked if they wanted money. “No.”

I asked if I could see my brother-in-law. “Don’t worry,” they said. “You will see him at the morgue.” But we never found the body.

Read the rest.

(In the photo above, by James Nachtwey, an Iraqi interpreter wears a mask to conceal his identity while helping a soldier deliver an invitation to an Imam for a meeting with an American colonel.)


“Gods can fight forever because they do not die—but we die.”

Amitava Kumar and E.J. Van Lanen have both called attention to this in-depth review of Elias Khoury’s Yalo written by Siddartha Deb for The Nation. Deb places the book in “a long tradition of Arabic novels concerned with prison and torture, including Saudi-Iraqi novelist Abdelrahman Munif's East of the Mediterranean (1975) and Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz's Karnak Café (1974).” His high praise for an earlier Khoury novel, Gate of the Sun, reminded me of a story Khoury told back in May in conversation with Nuruddin Farah (a conversation included in our latest issue):
Just after Gate of the Sun was published I was teaching at NYU. A young man said he wanted to take my class because he read the novel, which had been translated into French and Hebrew, but not yet English. This young man was Israeli and he had read the novel in Hebrew. I asked him what his name was, and he told me that he had changed his name to Naji. Naji is the name of a small child in the novel who, during the exodus of the Palestinians, was left under an olive tree by his mother, because she had many other small children and couldn’t take care of him. Another woman picked him up and gave him back to his mother at the Palestinian and Lebanese border. The Israeli student told me he identified with this Palestinian boy. And I think a moment like that gives all the dimensions of what it means to take sides in literature. Essentially, it was an act of identification, where the reader became part of the story—he became part of the writing of the story. Because the story does not finish when the writer stops and gives it to the publisher. The story only will begin with its readers, and then it will be rewritten in the deepest way.
Later in the conversation, we get another glimpse of Khoury in the classroom:
I was discussing this with my students. We were reading a Palestinian novel and an Israeli novel and comparing them. I told them, “Look, in two hundred years a historian will say, ‘What was this? This is so stupid! People are continuing to kill each other because someone thinks that God gave him this land and the other one thinks that the prophet came from that land,’ and so on. And we are wasting our lives. Gods can fight forever because they do not die—but we die.”
Nuruddin Farah also tells some wonderful stories in the course of their conversation—like the one about how he came to write in English:
If I chose not to continue writing in those two languages, it was mainly to do with typewriters. English had sophisticated, strong, American-made, Royal Typewriters. People my age will remember Royal typewriters. They didn’t break down. Afterwards I learned Italian and started writing short stories in Italian—but every Olivetti I had broke down continuously. So I decided to write in English because of the typewriter.
Plus this remarkable story, which he offers as explanation for how he learned to write from the perspective of female characters:
To earn a bit of pocket money I started writing letters for elderly men and women who couldn’t read. I was writing in Arabic at that time. One day a man came and he asked me to write a letter to his wife for him. He said to his wife in the letter, “You have been gone for a very long time and you are my wife. I want you to come back and if you do not come back in three months, I will come to the town where you are living”—which was about three hundred kilometers away—“and I will break every one of your bones and drag you all the way back to this town.”

So I changed what he told me—because the power of writing gave me the authority to do so. I wrote, “If you do not come back in three months, you may consider yourself divorced.” She took the letter to her brothers, and they waited for three months. Then they went to a judge and he declared her divorced on the basis of the letter—a very respectful letter, the judge must have thought. Six months later, the husband went looking for his wife and found her married to somebody else. And he was told that he had written a letter that the she could consider herself divorced if she hadn’t returned in three months. He came back to the town in which we were living. He told my father, and I was then forbidden to write letters from that point on. No more pocket money.
The transcript is not online, but you can order the issue here.

(Photos of Khoury and Farah by Beowulf Sheehan.)


Voices Against Torture: Writers and Lawyers on the Way Forward (12/16)

A few years ago, PEN launched the Campaign for Core Freedoms to protect personal privacy and governmental transparency and to promote U.S. policies that preserve and defend human rights here and abroad. The election of Barack Obama last week has led to some promising reports, but other indications (noted below) suggest this campaign won't run out of work to do any time soon.

So next month, Dahlia Lithwick will moderate a panel of writers and lawyers on the roles that lawyers and writers have played and continue to play in exposing human rights abuses and in reminding nations of their human rights responsibilities. Joining Dahlia will be

The panel will be hosted by PEN and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS). The panel will begin promptly at 6:30 p.m on Tuesday, December 16th, and will end at 7:45 p.m., followed by a wine and cheese reception.

This event is free and open to the public. If you'd like to come, please register today.

When: Tuesday, December 16, 2008, 6:30 pm-8:30 pm
Where: Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, New York, NY

(The drawing by Fernando Botero above was published in the Virginia Quarterly Review.)


Writers and surveillance, then and now

Media Mob, over at The New York Observer, points to two articles from this past week about FBI surveillance of writers: “The FBI’s 15-Year Campaign to Ferret out Norman Mailer” ran in The Washington Post yesterday, while the AP reported a few days ago that David Halberstam was also spied on. “The FBI monitored Halberstam’s reporting, and at times his personal life, from at least the mid-1960s until at least the late '80s,” the AP reports, noting that “only 62 pages of a 98-page dossier on the writer” have been released.

As for (former PEN President) Norman Mailer:
Agents questioned his friends, scoured his passport file, thumbed through his best-selling books and circulated his photo among informants. They kept records on his appearances at writers conferences, talk shows and peace rallies. They noted the volume of envelopes in his mailbox and jotted down who received his Christmas cards. They posed as his friend, chatted with his father and more than once knocked on his door disguised as deliverymen.
None of this is terribly surprising: as the AP report mentions, “the agency’s now-defunct counterintelligence programs known as COINTELPRO monitored and disrupted groups believed to have communist and socialist ties in the 1950s and '60s.” Among the FBI’s targets in the 1960s was Andy Warhol, and we included a rather comical FBI report on the artist in our latest issue. In 1968, concerned citizens notified authorities about lewd behavior in Oracle, Arizona, where Warhol was filming a movie. The FBI sent two agents to spy on these activities, which led to paragraphs like the following being sent back to headquarters:
The men played with each other’s rear ends. One had flowers sewed on the seat of his trousers in the shape of a diamond. One fellow was hanging by the knees, face down, out of a tree, and kissing on the lips one of the other men on the horse. All the men looked like hippies and all were very vulgar in their conversations. The men were trying to kiss each other.
After the agents saw the finished (and mildly pornographic) movie at the San Francisco Film Festival, they noted in their report that "there was no plot to the film and no development of characters throughout." Your tax dollars at work.

While the reports about Mailer and Halberstam are unsurprising, they should nonetheless remind us that the progress made in the late 1970s on the matter of privacy has largely been reversed since 2001. For the last several years PEN has been fighting to restore the safeguards that were first established after the abuses of the 1950s and 60s came to light.

Just this summer, PEN joined the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other leading international human rights organizations, journalists, and attorneys in filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the newly enacted FISA Amendments Act, a law that grants the Administration the power to carry out and expand the illegal eavesdropping activities it has engaged in secretly since 2001. As you may have heard, Barack Obama voted in favor of this disappointing legislation, so there’s no guarantee that the next administration will be a stronger ally in this particular fight than the current one is. In other words, there is much more work to be done.

Bonus: Two minutes of highlights from the Warhol film so eloquently described by federal agents above. It's called Lonesome Cowboys. Enjoy.


Day of the Imprisoned Writer: 11/15

In the past year, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN has monitored the cases of more than 1,000 writers and journalists in 90 countries, 200 of whom are serving long prison sentences, and the rest of whom have been detained, summoned to court, threatened, harassed or attacked.

Since November 15, 2007, 31 of these writers have been killed, many clearly for practicing their professions, others in murkier circumstances.

Each November 15, PEN marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer by calling attention to writers around the world suffering persecution for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

This year, PEN is focusing on five writers from five different regions of the world. PEN invites its members and friends around the world to send appeals on their behalf. Go here to read more about what you can do.

This year's Day of the Imprisoned Writer will focus on five priority cases:

Azerbaijan: Eynullah Fatullayev

Burma (Myanmar): Zargana Journalist serving an eight-and-a-half-year prison term for his political commentary and investigations into the murder of a fellow journalist.

China: Tsering Woeser

Cuba: Normando Hernández GonzálezTibetan writer and poet who writes in Chinese and has suffered repeated and sustained harassment for her writings on Tibet since 2004.

Iran: Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand

Gambia: Fatou Jaw MannehJournalist and Kurdish rights activist serving an 11-year prison sentence.

Peru: Melissa Rocío Patiño Hinostroza

Iran: Yaghoub YadaliA student and poet currently on trial for alleged links to a terrorist organization, despite a lack of evidence.

Zimbabwe: Writers, Cast and Crew of The Crocodile of Zambezi

Uzbekistan: Dzamshid Karimov A play that has been banned and led to actors and crew being beaten, and the playwrights threatened.

In other Freedom to Write news, Larry Siems has an excellent post about Tariq Ramadan and his ideological exclusion from the US over at the ACLU blog.

Thursday update: PEN USA is sponsoring a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles to commemorate the day and raise awareness about these and other persecuted writers.


"Blogging is not a crime": rally for imprisoned Egyptian blogger tomorrow

Tomorrow, November 6, PEN will hold a rally in New York, from noon to 1:30pm, at the Egyptian Mission to the UN (304 East 44th St., between 1st and 2nd Avenues) to raise awareness and support for Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, better known as Kareem Amer.

Amer was convicted of "disparaging Islam" and "defaming the Egyptian president" because he published "critical writings about Islam and Egypt's highest religious authorities" on his personal blog. He was sentenced to four years in prison. He is the first blogger in Egypt to be tried and convicted for his work, and "there are fears that this case may set a precedent."

The NYC rally is one of three in the US; the others are in Rhode Island and Washington, DC. Rallies are also planned in Paris, London, Brussels, Stockholm, Berlin, Bucharest, Rome, and Berne. You can read about all of them here.

If you can't make it to any of the rallies, but are, like Amer, a blogger yourself, consider reading up on his case, and publishing your own thoughts tomorrow, as an expression of support.


Studs Terkel on John Steinbeck, etc.

Studs Terkel died on Friday at the age of 96. A few years back, he praised John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath in PEN America 4: Fact/Fiction. He did so very much in his own fashion, finding echoes of Steinbeck in the conversation of American farmers speaking fifty years later-- such as Carl Nearmeyer, a fourth-generation farmer who, in 1989, was losing the family farm he worked twenty-three miles southeast of Des Moines:
Grapes of Wrath: “‘Sure,’ cried the tenant farmer, ‘but it’s our land. We were born on it, got killed on it, we died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours, being born on it, working on it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a piece of paper with numbers on it.’” Iowa, 1989: “There were several times I had a gun to my head. . . . and then I got damn mad. I got to thinking about it and I got madder. These people don’t have the right to do this to me. I’ve worked the land, I’ve sweated, and I’ve bled. I’ve tried to keep this place going, and they take it away from me.”
See also: an appraisal in The Chicago Tribune with remarks from Stuart Dybek.

David Lipsky, who jogged my memory below, wrote a long, excellent article for Rolling Stone about David Foster Wallace, and the whole thing is now online. (Thanks to Garth Hallberg for pointing this out.)

Sarah Weinman flags this admiring piece about the wonderful Graywolf Press. As noted below, they published one of this year's National Book Award finalists, Salvatore Scibona's The End.

Milton Hatoum, a Brazilian writer of Lebanese descent, dismantles the simplistic, "Clash of Civilizations" view of East and West over at Words Without Borders. You can read his take on myth and magical realism in PEN America 8: Making Histories.

Afternoon update: On Thursday, November 6, rallies will be held around the world for Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, better known as Kareem Amer, who published "critical writings about Islam and Egypt's highest religious authorities" on his personal blog.

In February 2007, Amer was found guilty of "disparaging Islam" and "defaming the Egyptian president" and sentenced to four years in prison. He is the first blogger in Egypt to be tried and convicted for his work, and "there are fears that this case may set a precedent."

PEN will hold a rally in New York, from noon to 1:30pm, at the Egyptian Mission to the UN (304 East 44th St., between 1st and 2nd Avenues). If you can't make it, and if you have your own blog, consider reading up on him yourself, and sharing your own thoughts November 6, as an expression of support.


Beyond Margins, Brooklyn, Obama, etc.

Jane Ciabattari, president of the NBCC and PEN Member, has written an excellent recap of "Beyond Margins: The Critical Perspective," held in connection with the PEN Beyond Margins Awards.

Those PEN podcasts from the Brooklyn Book Festival, mentioned here a few weeks back, have gone online.

The Somali-Speaking Center of International PEN is holding a literary festival, "The Word and the Way to a Better World," in London.

Amitava Kumar and Chad Post have nice things to say about the new issue. Chad particularly enjoys the conversations-- a couple of which I've mentioned before. One I've not yet mentioned features Ian McEwan and Steven Pinker, and was recently noticed by www.IanMcEwan.com.

And the Literary Saloon flags this article in which McCain and Obama are each asked to name a favorite book. They both choose novels: Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Toni Morrison's The Song of Solomon, respectively. Morrison expressed her own admiration for Obama back in January, and Obama has discussed his literary side before. In fact, the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín recently compared him to James Baldwin. (Image above via the New Pages blog.)


“A Wake-Up Artist”: Celebrating David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown organized a memorial to and celebration of David Foster Wallace this past Thursday at NYU. It was “not a short program,” as Jonathan Franzen noted, adding, “That would not have been fitting.” It was however, quite moving, and often funny—especially, of course, when people read Wallace’s own writing, whether it was fiction or an essay or a letter or notes to his editor.

Donald Antrim read from "Up Simba." Deborah Treisman read from "Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley." Colin Harrison, who assigned and edited some of Wallace’s essays for Harper’s, read from "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and described what it was like “to be cleverly ridiculed in the pages of one’s own magazine.”

George Saunders described Wallace as a “wake-up artist” and a “celebrationist,” and called him “the first among us.” Don DeLillo spoke of “the offsetting breeze of Dave’s plainsong,” all the colloquial phrases that popped up casually but perfectly throughout his writing. Zadie Smith spoke of Wallace’s work as a gift to us that hangs "like Federer’s serve" between its deliverer and its recipient; he wrote a lot about prayer, she observed.

Gerry Howard called Wallace “the most idealistic of ironists.” Michael Pietsch said Wallace’s relationship to language was “one of the great romances of our times.” Bonnie Nadell mentioned that Wallace was going to write about Obama and rhetoric for GQ, leaving many, I’m sure, thinking about all the work that will never be written (what might he have made of Sarah Palin?). Mark Costello, a college roommate and lifelong friend, spoke of “a mind in splendid overdrive” for whom “humor was a bridge to the world.” And his sister, Amy Wallace-Havens, described an imaginary heaven designed just for her brother, where he can always eat Chocolate Pop Tarts and no one ever says he's “nauseous” when he has an upset stomach.

See also: Sarah Weinman, The New York Times, and the AP.


“Regardless of the Cost”: Judith Sollosy on Péter Esterházy’s Revised Edition

Back in August, I mentioned a conversation with Judith Sollosy, who translated Celestial Harmonies, and has begun work on another novel by Péter Esterházy, No Art! Below, she discusses Revised Edition, subtitled “Appendix to Celestial Harmonies,” and centered on the amazing discovery Esterházy made after finishing that book: his father, Mátyás, was an informer for the Communist secret police. (Esterházy discusses this revelation with Wayne Koestenbaum in our latest issue.)

“Regardless of the cost, human or otherwise, we will continue as long as we have raw material.” This is how Péter Esterházy’s Revised Edition begins, a quote from fellow writer Miklós Mészöly. And the raw material of Revised Edition shocked a nation, especially affecting those who had read the author’s previous book, Celestial Harmonies, a prose tribute to his father Mátyás as well as a work conceived in the tradition of the novel as total literature, claiming everything as its field of play. (Once, when Esterházy was asked by a TV reporter what one of his novels was about, he responded that if a novel can be summarized, there’s something very wrong with it.)

The boundaries of Celestial Harmonies are exceptionally broad and kaleidoscopic, just like the boundaries of the main protagonist of the book, “my father” – the generic phrase that the author applies to every male Esterházy of the past few centuries. With reference to his own father, the author closes his 841 page magnum opus with these words: “When we enter the apartment, my father is already sitting by the Hermes Baby which is clattering steadily, like an automatic machine gun, he’s pounding it, striking, it, and the words come pouring out, going pit-a-pat on the white sheet, one in wake of the other, words that are not his own, nor were they ever, nor will they ever be.” – A painful vision of dispossession, but also a magical mirage of a father’s words dancing their way toward the Spheres.

When the manuscript of Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies was at the typist, he decided to take a break from work (“I had reached the limits of my … capacities. It feels good, reaching your limits, except you’re just a wee bit helpless,”) and have a look at his files in the Historical Archive to see if they had anything on him, and while he was at it, to glance at his father’s dossiers as well to see if they had been wiretapped. (“Around here, everybody thinks that half of the secret police were set on their trail.”) But when a good natured official gently and hesitantly pushed three brown dossiers towards him (“a slight motion, but alarming just the same”) and he opened them, what he saw were not reports on his father, but rather by him. Mátyás Esterházy, who had always shown a refusal to have anything to do with the communist regime that was stifling his country, had been coerced into spying for the notorious “Section III/III” of the secret police. We have that sickening moment of realization on the part of his son to thank for the existence of Revised Edition, which is subtitled “Appendix to Celestial Harmonies”, and about which the author says in his Preface, “If I had my way, I would like only those people to read [it]… who have read Celestial Harmonies. Of course, the reader does whatever he wants, and as for begging, forget it,” – a typical Esterházy attempt to distance himself from his material.

Since Revised Edition is not available in English, there is a misconception that it is a novel. But it is not. It is a happening. (In his Preface, Esterházy simply calls the book “a diary of sorts,” but he clearly doesn’t mean it.) The text proper is set in two colors; the excerpts from the father’s reports are indicated in red ink, the son’s comments and spontaneous reactions as he is reading them are indicated in black. Everything in this book is in the present tense, including the realization that “until [something] is really finished anything can happen, everything is left wide open.”

In retrospect, there is no knowing: the father’s words at the end of Celestial Harmonies, words that were not his own, nor would they ever be, were they part of a translation Mátyás Esterházy was working on (he made a meager living as a translator), or, were they part of an agent’s secret report? In retrospect, there is also no knowing whether the intriguing opening sentence of Celestial Harmonies, “It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth,” was part of the original manuscript and is meant to refer to literature as an elaborate lie, or whether it was added after the fact, and just before the novel was actually printed – in the second page proofs, let’s say? Be that as it may, taken together, Celestial Harmonies and Revised Edition come very close to approximating the everything that total literature claims as its playing field, achieving a closure that leaves us wondering whether we are witnessing art imitating life, or life imitating art? Knowing Péter Esterházy’s mischievous side, I would opt for the latter. Still, be that as it may, to “revise” a beloved father is no small thing.

Judith Sollosy is an editor at Corvina Books in Budapest and the translator of Péter Esterházy, Mihály Kornis, Lajos Parti Nagy, and István Örkény.


Prison Writing Benefit: Monday

As I mentioned last week, the Prison Writing Program is having its first-ever benefit reading this Monday at 8 pm at the Parsons School of Design on 5th Ave. between 11th & 12th Streets in Manhattan. There's been a slight change: Colum McCann cannot make it, so Francine Prose will be reading in his place, along with Breyten Breytenbach, Suheir Hammad, Susan Kuklin, Wesley Stace, and other special guests.

You can purchase tickets at www.pen.org/pwpgala, and you can RSVP on Facebook.

Since 1971, PEN's Prison Writing Program has sponsored an annual writing contest, published free handbooks for prisoners, provided one-on-one mentoring to inmates whose writing shows merit or promise, conducted workshops for former inmates, and sought to get inmates' work to the public through literary publications and readings.

By the way, two terrific pieces (one story and one poem) from the 2008 PEN Prison Writing Contest can be read in PEN America 9: Checkpoints.

Friday update: The poem published in Checkpoints will be read on Monday evening, and is now online here; I've also pasted it below. The author is Joe Rickey Knight, who is currently incarcerated at the Kentucky State Penitentiary.

An Escape Artist

At eight, I was a magician
able to slip from any confinement.
After my stepfather beat me
and imprisoned me in my bedroom,
I decided to disappear,
sneaking into the passageway
between the left brain and the right,
dropping through a trap door
and sliding down a chute
to the bottom of the cortex
where I searched a maze of memories
for a safe place to hide
and ended up at grandpa’s farm
where we flew kites all afternoon
on a hill behind the house.

And now, thirty-nine years later,
I slip out of my cell
here at the Kentucky State Pen
each time I write a poem.
Last week, I slipped out a window,
climbed down a rope, eluding guards,
then scaled the perimeter wall.
I wandered along the Cumberland riverbank,
happened upon an abandoned boat
and rode the currents to the Ohio,
Mississippi, and the Gulf, where I watched
a man hanging from a bright red canopy
above the rocking waters
parasail into the sky.


NBA fiction finalists in PEN America

Congratulations to this year's National Book Awards finalists. It's great to see Aleksandar Hemon on the list for The Lazarus Project, a book mentioned on this blog before. One of the highlights of PEN America 9 is a conversation between Hemon and Rabih Alameddine. Hemon and Alameddine are friends and have a great comic rapport, which came across in person and survives on the page. The conversation is not online, so you'll have to order the issue to read it. Here’s a snippet (they're discussing Alameddine's 2008 novel, The Hakawati):
HEMON: There are a certain group of writers—and you would call them intellectuals if you were drunk—who suddenly took up the banner of Western civilization, defending it from Islamists and Islamic fascists, which is just about anybody who is not part of the crowd. Is this book a repudiation of their position—

ALAMEDDINE: What do you think?

HEMON: —and if so in what way?

ALAMEDDINE: I hope in a very subtle way. The book is not a repudiation, actually. It is a changing of the subject. The book started a bit earlier, but I was hit at a particular point—when George Bush said "They hate our freedoms."
Marilynne Robinson, an NBA finalist for Home, appeared in PEN America 8: Making Histories, with some remarks about memory and amnesia in Iowa, very apropos of her new novel. She also appeared in PEN America 2: Home and Away, paying tribute to Proust.

The other finalists for fiction are Rachel Kushner for Telex from Cuba, Peter Matthiessen, for Shadow Country, and Salvatore Scibona, for The End. (While I haven’t read any of these, I did hear Scibona, an acquaintance, read part of his novel at a Happy Endings reading, and the section he read, at least, was terrific.)

On the subject of literary awards, here's a (somewhat belated) link to a piece about Nobel Prize secretary Horace Engdahl’s comment that “Europe still is the center of the literary world … not the United States.” This particular piece has very sane responses by Edward Albee, Junot Díaz, and the current president of PEN American Center, Francine Prose. It’s true, as Engdahl noted, that more literary translations should be published in the United States. But the notion that the literary world has one geographical center seems dubious, to say the least. I certainly didn't get that feeling at this year's World Voices festival.


This week's events: Beyond Margins

Don't forget about this week's events, starting tonight at 7 with "The Present Past: Celebrating Writers of Color," the 2008 Beyond Margins Award Ceremony, and continuing tomorrow with "Beyond Margins: The Critical Perspective," co-presented by PEN and the NBCC.

You can also now read work by this year's winners (Chris Abani, Amiri Baraka, Frances Hwang, Joseph Marshall III, and Naeem Murr) over at PEN.org.

Update: Tomorrow's event, which is at Housing Works, also begins at 7 pm, and should last about an hour. So there will be plenty of time to get home for the last presidential debate.


Launch party photos & video

Every fall, PEN holds a New Members/New Books Party at Housing Works celebrating the work of the past year with those who have recently joined PEN and members who've just published new books.

This year, that party also served as a formal lauch for PEN America 9: Checkpoints. Several of our contributors—including Colum McCann, Anya Ulinich, and Joshua Furst—were there, and another, Wayne Koestenbaum, said a few words about the new issue, highlighting the poem by Joe Ricky Knight and the FBI surveillance on Andy Warhol (these excellent pieces are not online: you’ll just have to order the magazine).

Someone from mediabistro was there with a video camera: watch Nick Trautwein talk about the all-editor jazz band and Joshua Henkin (author of Matrimony and frequent guest-blogger at The Elegant Variation) talk about the writing life. And the talented Beowulf Sheehan was snapping photos: on the left, PEN members survey the new books; above, Jonathan Burnham, publisher of HarperCollins, plays the keys, and author Will Heinrich chats with publicist Lisa Weinert and agent Melissa Flashman.


Prison Writing Benefit

Please join us at the first-ever benefit reading for PEN's 37-year-old Prison Writing Program. This is an enormously worthy cause: Since 1971, PEN's Prison Writing Program has sponsored an annual writing contest, published free handbooks for prisoners, provided one-on-one mentoring to inmates whose writing shows merit or promise, conducted workshops for former inmates, and sought to get inmates' work to the public through literary publications and readings.

Prison Writing Program: A Benefit Reading

Monday, October 20

Kellen Auditorium, Parsons School of Design: 66 5th Ave., between 11th & 12th Streets

What time:
8 p.m.

With: Breyten Breytenbach, Colum McCann, Suheir Hammad, Susan Kuklin, Wesley Stace, and other special guests

Tickets are $50, and include post-event wine and reception.

>> Buy tickets now

All proceeds will go to PEN's Prison Writing Program.


October events in NYC

This Sunday, October 5, at 1:30 pm, a number of writers will gather at the Bowery Poetry Club to celebrate the poetry and life of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008). This is part of the worldwide reading devoted to Darwish that has been spearheaded by The International Literature Festival Berlin.

The event will feature readings, words, and memories from Breyten Breytenbach, Pierre Joris, Semezdin Mehmedinovic, Chuck Wachtel, Farah Ghniem, Ghassan Nasr, Danae Elon, Lila Azam Zanganeh, Ala Alryyes, Ammiel Alcalay, and Archipelago Books. Zafer Tawil will present a musical performance on the oud, and refreshments will be served following the event.

(You can read Fady Joudah’s translations of Mahmoud Darwish here, and his tribute to the Palestinian poet here.)

On Tuesday, October 14, PEN America 9 contributor Xiaolu Guo will talk with Ian Buruma about the legacy of the Cultural Revolution on contemporary China. They’ll speak at the Asia Society and Museum at 7 pm.

(You can read Xiaolu’s story about a call girl in contemporary Beijing, “Reunion,” here.)

Also on Tuesday at 7 pm, PEN will hold this year’s Beyond Margins Celebration at the Bruno Walter Auditorium. “The Present Past: Celebrating Writers of Color” will feature Amiri Baraka, Joseph M. Marshall III, and special guests for an evening of readings and discussion on how cultural history affects writers’ perceptions of the present and the future. The event is free but seating is limited. RSVP to awards@pen.org or (212) 334-1660, ext 108. Please give your full name and indicate whether or not you will be bringing a guest.

The next night, PEN and the National Book Critics Circle will present “Beyond Margins: The Critical Perspective,” a panel discussion about the critic’s role in championing the works of writers of color moderated by PEN Member and NBCC President Jane Ciabattari and featuring Joseph Marshall III, Ibrahim Ahmad, Margo Jefferson, and Rigoberto González. At 7 pm at Housing Works Used Bookstore Café. Free and open to the public.

This, by the way, is Banned Books Week.


“Airport Security,” by Joshua Furst

Joshua Furst has an excellent short story in our new issue. To read it, you’ll have to buy the issue or, even better, subscribe. In the meantime, I asked him to send something we could post here that took the theme of issue 9, “checkpoints,” as a point of departure. Enjoy.

In 1979, I escorted the GI Joe doll that my grandparents had given me for Christmas onto the airplane that was to take my family home to Wisconsin. When we got to security, the doll was detained and frisked. His pistol was confiscated. He wasn’t interrogated or otherwise humiliated, but I, as his representative, was told in slightly scary, slightly condescending terms that, without clearance, carrying guns on planes was prohibited. Confused as to why this was happening to me, and sensing that I’d somehow done something criminal, I promptly started to bawl.

My lawyer, who also happened to be my father, interceded on my behalf and a battle of wills ensued. My father-lawyer explained the obvious to the security guard who’d detained us, that the pistol wasn’t a real gun; it was a toy, made of solid plastic and barely an inch and a half long. If GI Joe and I planned to hijack the plane with it, we surely wouldn’t get very far. “Don’t you think you could let him keep it, sir? You see how upset you’ve made him.” The man wasn’t accustomed to being challenged, at least not here in the lane behind the airport-security metal detector; this was his domain—he was the authority here. He knew every sub-clause of the regulations he was charged with enforcing. He believed in them. Reason was not something that interested him. Logic was an affront to his power. The longer my lawyer tried to argue, the more truculent the guard became, and eventually, he broke off all engagement with us. “Move along now before I have you forcibly removed,” he said. My father couldn’t argue with that.

Once I’d calmed down, I began asking questions—well, one question, the same question I always asked, the question that’s gotten me in trouble throughout my life: Why? But there’s no room for why when confronted by the raw exertion of power. There’s only capitulation or conflict. I can choose to think this man had a goal in mind, that he was trying to show me how safe I was, how scrupulous and unswerving he was in his mission to protect the citizenry as they travel the airways. I can choose to believe he was standing on principle, that he was making his small contribution to a noble cause. What I do believe is that he sensed somehow that my family and I were skeptical of power and those who serve it, and by choosing us to arbitrarily punish, he proved our skepticism to be well founded.

My GI Joe doll abandoned the army soon after this incident. He stripped off his cammies and started wearing the flared trousers and pirate cut shirts that my twelve-inch Star Wars figurines had laying around. As the years went by his disillusion and embitterment grew exponentially with the rightward turn of our country. He’s hiding in some box in a dark basement now, shouting hysterically, but no one is listening.

Joshua Furst is the author of The Sabotage Café, a novel, and Short People, a collection of stories that Jay McInerney called "scary, funny, brilliantly observed." He has received fellowships from the James Michener Foundation and The MacDowell Colony, and was awarded the Nelson Algren Award for his short story "Red Lobster." He lives in New York and teaches fiction and playwriting at The Pratt Institute.