Great writers in surprising venues

When Philip Gourevitch led a book club discussion of Standard Operating Procedure over at Talking Points Memo, I was impressed by his inclusion of the novelist Robert Stone and the poet and essayist Mary Karr among the contributors.

Now there's another TPM Book Club with a literary bent: Joseph O'Neill discussing his new book Netherland with novelist and critic Dale Peck, novelist and radio impresario Kurt Andersen, UT Austin professor Mia Carter, and Will Buckley of The Guardian.

And yesterday I pleasantly surprised to discover Aleksandar Hemon on the op-ed page of the Sunday New York Times and Doris Lessing in the Times Magazine. Here's Hemon on a terrifying 1991 speech by the recently arrested Radovan Karadzic:
Watching the news broadcast covering the session, neither my parents nor I could initially comprehend what he meant by “annihilation.” For a moment or two we groped for a milder, less terrifying interpretation — perhaps he meant “historical irrelevance”? For what he was saying was well outside the scope of our middling imagination, well beyond the habits of normalcy we desperately clung to as war loomed over our irrelevant lives.
And here's Lessing discussing lighter matters (the response to her Nobel by Harold Bloom) with Deborah Solomon:
When you won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, he described the choice as “pure political correctness,” presumably because you are female.

Yes, I remember. It was a very malicious thing. If he gets the Nobel Prize, believe me, I won’t be as bitchy.
(PEN America 9, by the way, will include Hemon's conversation with Rabih Alameddine from the most recent World Voices festival-- along with new new fiction by Anya Ulinich, Joshua Furst, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, Young-ha Kim, and others; new poetry by Kimiko Hahn, Wayne Koestenbaum, Fady Joudah, and others; and more. Stay tuned.)


Friday morning links

The literary magazine Opium is “putting together a series of quotes about what authors have learned from other authors (or other sources)—something another writer once said to you that's really stuck in your head and encouraged or influenced your work. For instance: “The secret of making [art] is simple: Discard everything that is good enough” (James Salter). If you've got one, send an email to opiumwritersexperiment@gmail.com. (Via the NewPages blog.)

Michael Emmerich and Daniela Harezanu have a terrific exchange on a subject of personal importance: the editing of translations. (Via Three Percent.)

Andrew Saikali flags a story on censorship in Iran, a subject you can read more about in PEN America 8: Making Histories.

And PEN is going to court to challenge the new surveillance law.

(The photo above is an oldie but goodie from Amitava Kumar's blog: his daughter in a Susan Sontag t-shirt made out of The New York Times.)


PEN online

If you read this blog regularly, you already know that the main website for PEN American Center is www.PEN.org, where you’ll find podcasts, poetry, fiction (by Bolaño!), and much more.

You may not know, however, that PEN is now on Facebook, Myspace, Flickr, and iTunes. Or that PEN.org has added several RSS feeds.

So have a look. Comments and questions welcome, as always.


Albee, Banks, Hagedorn et al

A formal announcement for PEN's August 7 event, "Bringing down the Great Firewall: Silenced Writers Speak on the Eve of the Olympics," is now online. That Thursday night, at the New School's Tischman Auditorium (66 W. 12th St.), at 7 pm, PEN will honor the more than 40 writers and journalists currently being held in Chinese prisons for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Edward Albee, Russell Banks, Barbara Goldsmith, Jessica Hagedorn, Rick Moody, Martha Southgate, Francine Prose, and others will read statements written by leading Chinese writers including Ma Jian and Xiaolu Guo, along with new and previously untranslated statements and writings by several of the writers currently imprisoned in China.

The event was put together with the Independent Chinese PEN Center. If you'll be in New York, please come and "hear the voices the Chinese government doesn’t want you to hear."

PS. PEN member Jess Row wrote a shrewd and intriguing review of Ma Jian's novel Beijing Coma for last Sunday's New York Times Book Review. The book describes in great detail the 1989 student uprising in Tiananmen Square, and it is "not only an extraordinarily effective novel," Row says, "but also an important political statement, appearing as it does immediately before the 2008 Olympics and a year before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre."


The Great Firewall

As you may have heard, PEN centers in the US, Canada, and China have come together to investigate the state of free expression in China, and have published their findings in a report: "Failing to Deliver: An Olympic-Year Report Card on Free Expression in China." PEN American Center is now following the cases of 51 writers in China, 44 of whom are currently incarcerated.

In order to raise awareness of the matter, PEN will be hosting an event on August 7 called “Breaking Down the Great Firewall: Silenced Writers Speak on the Eve of the Olympics,” which will feature new and previously untranslated statements and writings by several of these jailed writers, as well as other leading dissidents and members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. We need help translating 10-12 pieces of writing, averaging 3-6 pages in length, for the event. These pieces include thoughts on the current state of free expression, experiences in prison and writing under the Great Firewall, and other statements by prominent writers. Translators are welcome to work anoymously, if that is their preference.

If you're interested, please contact Andrew Proctor, the Membership Director of PEN American Center, at aproctor@pen.org or 212 334 1660 × 101.

The image above is taken from a striking essay by Jed Perl over at The New Republic. Perl argues "that the global art world's burgeoning love affair with Mao and the Cultural Revolution makes a very neat fit with the current Chinese regime's efforts to sell itself as the authoritarian power that everybody can learn to love," and labels this convergence "a globalized political whitewash job, with artists and assorted collectors, dealers, and sycophants pouring a thick layer of avant-garde double-talk over the infernal decade of suffering, destruction, and death that Mao unleashed on his country in 1966."


Reading for the long weekend

Paper Cuts has posted a timely passage from Richard Ford's second Frank Bascombe novel, Independence Day:
Best maybe just to pass the day as the original signers did and as I prefer to do, in a country-like setting near to home, alone with your thoughts, your fears, your hopes, your “moments of reason” for what new world lies fearsomely ahead.
And if you are fortunate enough to be "in a country-like setting near to home, alone with your thoughts," here are some reading suggestions, courtesy of two of the best critics around, Albert Mobilio of Bookforum and Geoffrey O'Brien of The Library of America (a great conversation between the two of whom was published in the second issue of PEN America). Both have made especially thoughtful contributions to the "Critical Library" series that runs on the NBCC blog: O'Brien's list is decidedly international, and kicks off with the Collected Works of Borges; Mobilio's has a few of my own favorites, including Kill All Your Darlings by Luc Sante.

And as a postscript to the Paper Cuts post, here's an old interview with Ford in which he acknowledges the influence of one of Bruce Springsteen's better songs on his novel:
I was very attracted to Bruce Springsteen's song "Independence Day," in which a son sings a kind of lament to his father, especially the line, "Just say goodbye, it's Independence Day." I hadn't ever realized that independence in the most conventional sense means leavetaking, putting distance between yourself and other people, getting out of their orbit.
Happy reading.


Prison writing postscript

On Monday, Cat Radio Cafe hosted a reading in celebration of the 2008 PEN Prison Writing Contest. Marie Ponsot, Sapphire, Jackson Taylor, Michael Keck, Claudia Menza, and Ennis Smith read from this year's winning works in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama. You can find links to the recording both here and here.

PEN America 9 will feature both this year's excellent winning story and one of the recent poetry winners. Stay tuned. And, in the meantime, read up on the PEN Prison Writing Program.