Sebastian Horsley, World Voices, and other news

As you may have heard, British memoirist Sebastian Horsley was denied entry into the US on account of "moral turpitude." As mentioned here before, PEN has long opposed ideological exclusion, and even if Horsley is no Doris Lessing, laws like this shouldn't be abided.

And so Horsley has been invited to this year's World Voices festival, April 28-May 4 in New York (with satellite events in Boston-- i.e., Cambridge-- and Rochester). With any luck, the US government will get the chance to exclude him once again, and draw further attention to this frankly un-American policy.

If they do so, though, he'll miss some great events: Ian McEwan and Steven Pinker; Rushdie, Eco, and Vargas Llosa together again; Rabih Alameddine talking with Aleksandar Hemon; Susan Bernofsky, Deborah Eisenberg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Michael Krüger paying tribute to Robert Walser; the list goes on and on.

For some less partial-- but no less favorable-- responses to the lineup, see here, here, and here (that last link includes a great write-up by James Marcus of the "launch" event held last week aboard the Queen Mary 2; by the way, the unidentified kazoo player Marcus mentions, who joined Dale Peck and Jonathan Ames on stage, was the indefatigable Fran Manushkin).

Also, if you missed it, the winners of the PEN Translation Fund's 2008 grants have been announced. A bunch of great projects that shouldn't be without publishers for long.

Update: more write-ups of the Queen Mary 2 event here, here, and here.

Late update: PEN's letter to Condoleeza Rice and Michael Chertoff concerning Horsley. Also, the press release.


The Discovery of America

While we were working on PEN America 8, I came across an anthology published in 2006 by the wonderful Akashic Books called A Fictional History of the United States (with Huge Chunks Missing), edited by T Cooper and Adam Mansbach. In it, seventeen terrific authors re-imagine moments in American history. The first piece is a little different from the rest (though the variety throughout is impressive): written by Paul La Farge, it presents eleven different stories about "the discovery of America." We liked the piece so much, we asked La Farge to let us reprint it in the new issue of the magazine. Here's an excerpt:
According to another story, America was discovered by the Basques, who sailed the Atlantic in fishing boats, in search of cod. The Basques may have been blown across the ocean by a storm, because in those days storms were more frequent than they are now. Indeed, in the earliest times, when Europe and America were so close that you could practically jump from one to the other, the air between them was a perpetual storm, vast and greenish black, which shot lightning into the narrow body of water that would one day become the Atlantic. Imagine how each continent must have looked to someone standing on the other shore in those days: a black land, lit only in flashes, where it seemed always to be raining. Nonetheless, the Basques took to their boats and crossed the ocean to America, where they left artifacts: wool caps, leather wineskins, and sturdy Basque shoes. None of these artifacts have survived, but when the French arrived in Louisiana, hundreds of years later, they found a tribe of Indians there whose language was unlike any they had ever heard, with the possible exception of Basque.
This week, La Farge has an essay in the online journal of Poetry magazine that is partly about faits divers-- "short accounts of horrible and mysterious events" that ran in cheap French newspapers early in the last century. The essay focuses on Luc Sante's new translation of Novels in Three Lines, by Félix Fénéon-- of whom LaFarge says, "One might suspect that Fénéon was a fictional character, if only his biography did not contain so many improbable contradictions"-- as well as a new translation of Victor Segalen’s collection of prose poems, Stèles.

La Farge doesn't mention it in the essay, but his lovely third book, The Facts of Winter, itself re-imagines this bygone literary form. In it, La Farge presents a contemporary of Fénéon, whom one suspects is a historical figure-- and he is no less fascinating for being fictional: Paul Poissel is an "exceedingly minor author," and his book, "translated" by La Farge, is a "series of dreams, all dreamed by people in and around Paris during the winter of 1881, which is to say that it is a fictional account of the imaginary lives of people who may or may not be real."

Adam Mansbach, meanwhile, one of the editors of A Fictional History, has a new book out, The End of the Jews, about "a young Jewish man in the 1930s and a young Czech woman in the 1980s." It's also about jazz, race, writing, and many other things. There's a new interview with Mansbach by Buzz Poole over at The Millions.


Do "American writers prefer the past to the present"?

So says Molly Gilles, a critic and writer and teacher, in describing what she learned as a judge for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Among the lessons:
That American writers prefer the past to the present: the bulk of the novels I read were historical fictions, many of them based on real people. While I enjoyed reading about Woody Guthrie, Florence Nightengale, Errol Flynn, Rilke, Hitler, Byron, Pocahontas, Stephen Crane, Edward Curtis and William Blake, among others, I wondered why…why rely on the known instead of the invented? Some novels even recycled fictional characters: Huck Finn’s father, Gregor Samsa. My conclusion: it’s easier for novelists because this way they know the end.
More evidence?


History plays: all the rage?

Whether or not historical fiction is on the rise, at least one theater critic, Mark Blankenship in The New York Times, thinks that history plays are in fashion, as he argued in yesterday's paper:
History plays — a venerable theatrical genre that now seems to be in vogue — often appear to be veiled comments on current events. Take the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, which made its debut in January at Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. It recasts the seventh president as an alternative-rock star and suggests audiences draw parallels between, say, his treatment of American Indians and the current immigration debate.
Blankenship also mentions Richard Nelson's Conversations in Tusculum, which “imagines Brutus and others deciding whether to assassinate Julius Caesar,” and Tanya Barfield's Of Equal Measure, an “epic-minded, 10-actor piece about a woman who sees injustices in Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.”

One of my favorite pieces in PEN America 8 is a scene from Theremin, Czech playwright Petr Zelenka's witty, Stoppard-esque play about Léon Theremin, the Russian inventor and spy who created a musical instrument you play simply by waving your hands between two metal antennae (as Theremin himself is doing in the photo below). In the scene we included, Theremin is a guest on a radio show, where he explains this bizarre instrument (later featured in many horror movies and one or two Beach Boys tunes):
THEREMIN: It is an instrument that can be played by just about anybody.

RADIO HOST: And the other instruments can’t?

Not really. Let us assume that the Russian Revolution in 1917 abolished inequality between people in Russia. Possibly not entirely in practice, but certainly in theory. What followed was land reform, collectivization, and the nationalization of industry…

RADIO HOST: Mr. Theremin, this is a Catholic radio station.

THEREMIN: Of course. But we still have to deal with the last remaining inequality between people. Talent. If we are to draw the argument about inequality to its logical conclusion, we must consider talent as something that continues making people fundamentally unequal.

RADIO HOST: This is a very… remarkable idea.
The English translation is by Stepan Simek, who received a grant from the PEN Translation Fund, and who has also translated Zelenka's Tales of Ordinary Madness.

And no, this isn't the only play based on the life and work of Léon Theremin, in case you were wondering.



And speaking of Ilija (pictured left; photo by Beowulf Sheehan), the Complete Review puzzles over Faber & Faber's decision to publish The Collector of Worlds, his novel about Richard Burton (excerpted in PEN America 8 as "Bwana Burton's Binoculars"), under the differently transliterated name of Iliya Troyanov:
Of course, Bulgarian is written in Cyrillic letters, and were one to transliterate his name from those into English one would do so differently than into German: the German w is the English v-sound, and a y is the obvious choice where the Germans use j. And, apparently seeking to get the pronunciation right, Faber is publishing The Collector of Worlds as by: Ilya Troyanov. Which does give English-speaking readers a better idea of how to pronounce his name.

The problem with this is that Ilya Troyanov is better-known as -- indeed, very well known as: Ilija Trojanow. Even in the English-speaking world.

Two of his books have even been published in English translation -- Mumbai To Mecca and Along the Ganges -- and they were published under the name: Ilija Trojanow.
I came across this alternate spelling when we were putting the magazine together, and it momentarily caught me short. Is this other version better? As the Complete Review blogger (M.A. Orthofer? Elizabeth Morier?) points out, Google could have provided some advice: "Ilya Troyanov" yields "about 30 results," and "Ilija Trojanow" "about 46,300."

But shortly after I noticed the problem, I noticed the way Ilija signed his always endearing emails (sent from Bombay, from Capetown-- probably one or two other places): "Ilija Trojanow." If it works for him...

(By the way, he's currently working on a novel that "re-imagines the Bulgarian gulag and the complex shape-shifting of 1989.")


A question for literary scholars...

Speaking of Amitava, we’ve now put up on PEN.org a great conversation between him and Ilija Trojanow, a brilliant writer and publisher who writes in German but who has lived all over. We’ve also put up a bit of Ilija’s novel about Richard Burton (pictured left) called The Collector of Worlds and newly translated by Will Hobson.

Ilija is uncommonly thoughtful in the way he approaches the lives he imagines, but that effort—giving fictional life to historical figures—seems to be on the rise. We have other examples in PEN America 8: Rodrigo Fresán depicting J.M. Barrie, for instance (with cameos by Bob Dylan and others); Italian guerilla novelists “Wu Ming” dreaming up intrigue in Rome in the 1950s (the central character in the piece we included is Cary Grant, shortly to become a spy).

No doubt our readers know of many other recent examples: Russell Banks, David Leavitt, Katharine Weber, Arthur Japin, Janna Levin, Edmund White—the list is long and distinguished. The alternate histories published recently by Philip Roth and Michael Chabon also warrant mentioning.

So is this a burgeoning phenomenon? Has historical fiction really become a larger part of the literary landscape over the last few years? And if so, why?

(See also: "Inventing the Past.")


Sign the China petition

Amitava Kumar has posted Francine Prose's letter to PEN members concerning the China campaign over on his blog:
As part of our We Are Ready for Freedom of Expression campaign, PEN American Center will be delivering a petition to the Chinese Consulate in New York on April 30, 2008-- 100 days before the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies-- requesting the release of our jailed colleagues and seeking an end to internet censorship and other restrictions on freedom of expression in China...

If you have not already done so, please take a moment right now to sign this petition: www.pen.org/chinapetition

Your efforts will make a difference. Since the launch of this campaign on December 10, 2007, four writers and journalists have been released from Chinese prisons.
More information here, and also in these earlier posts about the campaign.


Fact, fiction, and things in between

The latest round of fake memoirs-- and the seemingly overheated attacks on Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone-- have engendered numerous articles and discussions about fact, fiction, poetic license, and the rest of it. (My favorite take on the subject is Luc Sante's.)

As William Maxwell wrote, "in talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw." That line (from So Long, See You Tomorrow) opens PEN America 8: Making Histories, thanks to Colum McCann. He moderated a conversation with Arthur Japin, Laila Lalami, Imma Monsó, and Michael Wallner, which is the first piece in the new issue (and which we've put online).

Even more on point, perhaps, is the piece that follows: "How She Penetrates," by Maggie Nelson. The series of poems is from Jane: A Murder, the book that Nelson wrote after becoming consumed by the unsolved murder of her aunt Jane (which took place in Michigan in 1969). In the poem "Figment," Nelson, using a dictionary, traces the seeming decline in our respect for the imagination.
When I tell my grandfather
I am writing about Jane, he says,

What will it be, a figment
of your imagination?

We are eating awful little pizzas
and my mother is into

the boxed wine. I don’t know
what to say. I wish

I could show him: between
figling (a little fig)

and figure lies
figment, from fingere, meaning

to form. As used in 1592:
The excellencie, dilicatnes, and perfection of this figment
cannot be suffi[ci]entlie expressed

But he doesn’t want to see.
Besides, that meaning

is obsolete. By 1639:
It is a sin to lie, even in God’s cause, and to defend his justice

with false tales and figments.
And by 1875:

We must not conceive that this logical figment
ever had a real existence.
If only all these memoir-fabulists had thought so deeply about fact, fiction, memory, and form. But best-sellerdom beckoned, I suppose.


PEN America 8: Making Histories

We won't have the print edition before the end of the month, but in the meantime, excerpts are available at PEN.org. This issue focuses on the ways that contemporary writers are re-imagining the past. From the editor's note by M Mark:
At the start of the twenty-first century, borders in the literary landscape continue to shift and blur: novelists mine historical archives and use imagination to fill in the gaps, essayists play with fiction’s tone and texture, memoirists turn to poetry, poets turn to reportage. And writers in all of these modes turn to the past to get a hold on the present, inventing histories for themselves and others. In the narratives and conversations collected here, they consider the countless stories, told and retold, which make up the fiction we’ve agreed to call History.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be highlighting some of the contributors. In the meantime, read some more...

(The photos above, like the new cover photograph affixed to the right, are by Jeff Brouws.)