Notes before the deluge

World Voices kicks off today, with five events, from “Crisis Darfur” with Mia Farrow and Bernard Henri-Levy (co-sponsored by Guernica) to the “Literary Film Feast” (not “fest,” apparently) co-presented by Ratapallax. Then: seven events on Wednesday, twenty-four (!) events on Thursday, fourteen events on Friday…

So, before I (very happily) lose myself in the rushing literary waters, a few notes:

The recipients of this year’s PEN awards have been announced. Among the winners: Cynthia Ozick, Sarah Ruhl, Kimiko Hahn, Dalia Sofer, and many more…

The indispensable Complete Review flags this piece from the Lebanese Daily Star about The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran—which has just issued a statement that writers wishing to be published in Iran must censor themselves. As it happens, we have a great short piece by Iranian novelist and story-writer Shahriar Mandanipour about just this sort of thing in PEN America 8.

A choose-your-own-adventure story from Mohsin Hamid (via Amitava).

Lastly, the PEN gala was last night, and I’ll try to flag some coverage of it later. Toni Morrison gave a stirring acceptance speech for the PEN/Borders Literary Service Award, and a wonderful Iraqi translator who goes by the pseudonym Ahmed Ali spoke movingly about fleeing Iraq and re-locating, eventually, to Atlanta, with the help of PEN’s Larry Siems. There was also a heartbreaking video tribute to this year’s PEN/Barbarba Goldsmith Freedom to Write honoree, Yang Tongyan, who is currently incarcerated in China.

Though not quite so important, another satisfying part of the evening was hearing nice things about the journal from Nathan Englander (who raved about the Etgar Keret stories and the George Saunders piece) and Gary Shteyngart (who described it as “muy caliente”) and Sidney Offit (who praised the Grace Paley tribute), among others. If you haven’t already, check it out (or just subscribe).

Update: Coverage of the gala here, here, here, and here.


Fact, fiction, and Ryszard Kapuściński

Over at Three Percent, Chad Post has some complaints about a review of The Rebels’ Hour, by Lieve Joris. The book is categorized as history, but includes an unusual note: “the facts in this book have all been researched in minute detail, but in order to paint a realistic picture of my characters I’ve had to fill in some parts of their lives from my own imagination. It was the only way to make the story both particular and general.”

Which got me thinking, once again, about Ryszard Kapuściński—who, as I mentioned before, looms large in PEN America 8. (As a participant in the first World Voices festival, in 2005, he also appears in PEN America 7, which is devoted to that event). Following his death, on January 23, 2007, a tribute was organized for the World Voices festival that April.
Lawrence Weschler moderated the event, which also included Breyten Breytenbach, Carolin Emcke, Philip Gourevitch, Adam Michnik, and Salman Rushdie.

After we had settled on “Making Histories” as the theme, we knew that some of these tributes would end up in the issue (ultimately, the ones by Rushdie, Gourevitch, and Emcke). Kapuściński’s last book to appear in English, after all, was Travels with Herodotus, a meditation on the “father of history” and on Kapuściński’s own experiences traveling the world, recording what he saw. PEN America 8 ended up featuring an excerpt from that book, in which Kapuściński considers the stated purpose of Herodotus’s Histories: “to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.”

He pops up elsewhere in the issue, too:
In “Voyage and Voyeur,” Paul Holdengräber quotes Kapuściński, leading to this exchange between Ilija Trojanow and Alain de Botton. In “Imaginary Geographies,” Daniel Alarcón cites The Emperor as one of the most imaginatively constructed books he’s ever read. Perhaps his then-recent death had sent everyone back to his books, but for whatever reason, Kapuściński kept inspiring conversations.

Which brings me back to Joris. For one aspect of Kapuściński’s work that has long inspired conversation is the occasional fiction in his otherwise nonfiction books. Rushdie mentions this in his piece, and he and Lawrence Wechsler expanded on the subject for VQR. (Neither of them gets nearly as angry about it as Jack Shafer did.) Kapuściński’s books are presented as reportage, and we expect facts in that genre. But it seems crazy (and, perhaps, distinctly American) to damn his work generally on this account. Perhaps some of his books—like The Emperor, which famously re-imagines Hailie Selassie’s death—should carry a note not unlike that in the Joris book?

(See also: Nick Owchar heralds the otherwise unheralded collection of poems by Kapuściński just published in English. The photo above, by the way, is yet another of the entries in the Public Lives/Private Lives mixed media project.)


Weekend notes

English PEN is creating an Online World Atlas that will, eventually, tell you “everything you need to know about the world’s great writers and emerging voices.” Here’s the thing: “All the content is added by you: readers and writers who want to pass on your tips and create a new global community of readers.” It’s a work in progress, so, if you’re interested, go help out.

Triboro Pictures is producing a movie, The Fragile Mistress, based on Leora Skolkin-Smith’s novel Edges, which was edited and published by the late Grace Paley. They’ve gotten permission to shoot the movie in Jordan and Israel, and now just need to raise the money...

FENCE is emulating Radiohead: Donate any amount between now and the end of April and get a subscription to the excellent magazine for one year.

Amitava Kumar posted a lovely write-up of the Philip Roth birthday tribute:
All this while, the panelists were aware that the man himself was sitting in the front row, looking at them, the fingers of each hand lightly pressed against the other in front of his mouth. He was like a judge watching the lawyers presenting their case, all the young men appearing to be in agreement with each other on the court floor.
You can also listen to the event.

Lastly, Bill Johnston won a much-deserved award from the Polish Cultural Institute for his terrific translation of New Poems by Tadeusz Rozewicz, published by the excellent Archipelago Books. One of my favorite poems from the collection appears in PEN America 8: Making Histories (which you can order here); it’s called “Regression in die Ursuppe” (that last word is German for something like “primordial soup”). Here’s how it begins:

the beginning was a thick
soup which under the influence
of light (and heat)

produced life

from the soup emerged a creature
or rather something
that transformed itself into yeast
into a chimpanzee
eventually god came along
and created humans
man and woman
sun cat and tick

humans invented the wheel
wrote Faust

and began printing
paper money....

PS. The photos above were submitted by Boria Sax and Susan Shapiro for the mixed media project mentioned below. And don't forget to check out the online confessional, too...


Whose sex dolls are those?

In advance of this year’s World Voices festival-- the theme of which is Public Lives/Private Lives-- PEN’s wonderful web editors are curating a mixed media project.

Part I: Private Lives

PEN Members send us photographs documenting the intimate details and privates spaces in their lives.

Part II: Public Lives

PEN.org posts the photographs and invites visitors to write short narratives, poems, vignettes, or characters sketches based on the images.

Part III: Results

Written submissions are instantaneously posted at PEN.org. A selection of submissions will be featured on the PEN homepage.

So go take a look and get writing.

By the way, the brave contributors of photographs so far are Kurt Andersen, T Cooper, Joshua Furst, Shelley Jackson, Wayne Koestenbaum, Janna Levin, Chuck Palahniuk, Gregory Pardlo, Boria Sax, Susan Shapiro, and Lorin Stein. Some of the photos are beautiful, some witty, and some weirdly suggestive.

Can you guess which of those people submitted the photo above? I bet you can.

Update: There's also an online confessional ("In 20 words or less, tell us a secret"), which has already prompted confessions about love, incest, and the corruption of Nigerian leaders; and some poems by Tina Chang and Forrest Gander.


Poem by Chinese dissident stalks Olympic torch; Billy Collins passes it on

Today, the International PEN Poem Relay, following the path of the Olympic torch, hits the US, with Billy Collins reciting the poem “June” by Shi Tao, translated into English by Chip Rolley, from PEN Sydney.

My whole life

Will never get past “June”
June, when my heart died
When my poetry died
When my lover
Died in romance’s pool of blood

June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
Revealing the true nature of my wound
June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea
Toward another place to hibernate
June, the earth shifts, the rivers fall silent
Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead

Here is the story of Shi Tao and “June”:

Shi Tao is a Chinese journalist, poet and PEN member, serving 10 years in prison on the charge of “revealing state secrets abroad.” In April 2004, Shi Tao (Shi is his family name) attended an editorial meeting of the Contemporary Commerce News, where he worked, and where a document was read out from the Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party warning the media on their reportage during the upcoming 15th anniversary of the June 4 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests and Beijing massacre. Using a Yahoo! Email account and another name, Shi Tao sent notes he took of this document, to overseas pro-democracy websites that publish news and information from China. His notes were published on Demoracy Net, Democracy Forum and others. He was convicted and sentenced for that email. According to court documents, Yahoo! (Hong Kong) Holdings Ltd provided the Chinese authorities with Shi Tao's identity. Shi Tao wrote the poem “June,” a meditation on the 1989 protests and massacre, less than two months after he sent that fateful email - on June 9, 2004.

You can follow the path of the poem here, and read more about the relay here and here. And here is the press release from PEN American Center.

Update: The New York Times has a good write-up of the torch's bizarre path through San Francisco today: The torch was lit at a park outside at AT&T Park at about 1:17 p.m. Pacific time, briefly held aloft by Chinese Olympic officials and promptly taken into a waterfront warehouse, where it stayed for a half-an-hour as confusion spread crowds along the oft-changing relay route.” Apparently the Olympic officials were dodging the protests, so they could film the torch's travels with minimum embarrassment. As Jason Zengerle writes, over at The New Republic: the torch relay is pure propoganda, both for the benighted International Olympic Committee and for the Chinese government. There's no reason that the U.S. has to be a party to it.


Blind, or just grumpy?-- on Paul Theroux's travel writing

Paul Theroux had an essay about travel writing in the Guardian recently, as noted by the Complete Review. He's been in the news elsewhere, too, thanks to Patrick French's new biography of V.S. Naipaul (noted by Amitava Kumar), and just yesterday C. Max Magee wrote about The Old Patagonian Express. (The picture of Theroux to the left, with V.S. Naipaul in 1986, is from The Telegraph.)

I haven't read any of his books, but seeing Theroux's name out there reminded me of a spirited exchange between Ilija Trojanow and Alain de Botton from one of my favorite conversations in PEN America 8, "Voyage and Voyeur," which occurred at the New York Public Library in 2007 and also featured Ma Jian and Paul Holdengräber. Trojanow deplores Theroux's style (and champions Naipaul), while de Botton defends it.

The full text isn't available online, but the relevant passage is below. (Ryszard Kapuściński, also mentioned below, looms large in PEN America 8-- the subject of a future post.)

Travel writing must involve a journey which overcomes the ego, a journey where you become an instrument to capture testimonies and voices of “the Other”—voices that usually are not heard. That’s one of the beauties of Kapuściński’s writing—you hear people talk that you normally never hear.

DE BOTTON: Part of what’s nice about Kapuściński is he’s intensely neurotic. He’s always going on about how he hates mosquitoes, how he’s frightened of the dark, he can’t sleep—

I completely disagree. I think those are exactly the sections of Kapuściński where he’s weak. Because it sounds like Paul Theroux, and if I want to read Paul Theroux—

DE BOTTON: What’s wrong with Paul Theroux?

TROJANOW: Oh, I’m sorry—is he a compatriot of yours?

DE BOTTON: No, no. I’m asking a purely innocent question.

TROJANOW: Well, Paul Theroux is the kind of guy who travels to Malawi in a train and looks out the window and then writes about how the people outside all look very dumb and bored and unhappy and Malawi is an unhappy country... I think it’s utterly uninspiring, both as language and as perception... Günter Grass wrote a book about India, for example. I actually went through the book and counted how often he described shit. There are 289 mentions of shit in this small book. If you’re so obsessed with shit, there’s no need to go to India, just describe your own latrine—that would be just as representative of your neurosis. But if you are claiming to describe something out in the world, that’s another matter.

If the people described by Paul Theroux were to read what he’s written about them, they would be absolutely shocked. Because he does violence to them in not showing the diverse dignity of their existence, and in not even trying to understand the way they look at the world.

DE BOTTON: But simply because someone’s rude doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

TROJANOW: It’s not simply rudeness. Blindness is worse than rudeness.

DE BOTTON: But there is the tradition of the travel writer who a) talks about himself and b) is quite grumpy about the countries and people he sees, or she sees, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing... It’s refreshing to read a first-person account that admits there are a lot of awful things—the place might be ugly and limited, et cetera... When people try to write “objective” travel writing, then we’re really in trouble, because what does “objective” even mean?

TROJANOW: It’s not about objectivity, but about disrespecting the culture or the people that they are describing. And how often—just take the body of work of Western travel writing—how often do local people actually speak in their own voices? There’s a beautiful passage in Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now, where Naipaul goes into the Dharavi slum in Bombay and asks one of the people living there, “Can you please describe this lane to me?” He has already described the lane himself, but then the person living there describes it, and his description is completely different. This person sees wealth, he sees social mobility, he sees success, he sees a different world than what the Theroux-type of author would have seen—who would have simply said, “There’s dirt and shit and all these people are useless and can’t get their act together.”