Rally tomorrow @ NYPL, 11 a.m.

Update: Read Brian Montopoli's report on the rally at CBSNews.com.

On the steps of the New York Public Library: Hilma Wolitzer, A.M. Homes, Edward Albee, E.L. Doctorow, Honor Moore, Jessica Hagedorn, Steve Eisenberg, Don DeLillo, and Victoria Redel. More photos here.

Tomorrow at 11 a.m., on the steps of the New York Public Library, E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Edward Albee, A.M. Homes, Honor Moore, and others will read briefly from Liu's writings and call for his release.

Liu was sentenced on Christmas to 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power." Read the verdict; learn more about the case; then email Hu Jintao and tell him to release Liu Xiaobo.


When: New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2009
Where: Front steps of the New York Public Library, 5th Ave. at 42nd St., New York City
What time: 11:00 a.m.

With E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Edward Albee, A.M. Homes, Honor Moore, and other PEN Members

Press who plan to attend should RSVP to sarah@pen.org


Liu Xiaobo's So-Called Crimes

Yesterday, the Chinese government sentenced writer Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison and an additional two years’ deprivation of political rights for “inciting subversion of state power.” PEN American Center President Kwame Anthony Appiah released this statement when the verdict was announced early on Christmas day.

As we have frequently noted, Liu is not only one of China’s most important and acclaimed dissident voices, he is also a PEN colleague. Liu was one of the founding members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), and he served as the center’s president from 2003 to 2007 and afterwards continued to serve on its board of directors.

Yesterday afternoon, Liu’s colleagues at ICPC sent us the first bits of the official verdict of the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court—the exact passages from Liu’s writing that were judged to be subversive.

Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for seven sentences from five articles he posted on the Internet and two sentences from Charter 08—a total of 224 Chinese characters. Here they are:

From “Further Questions about Child Slavery in China’s Kilns” (2007):

Since the Communist Party of China (CPC) took power, generations of CPC dictators have cared most about their own power and least about human life.

From “The CPC’s Dictatorial Patriotism” (2005):

The official patriotism advocated by the CPC dictatorship is a fallacious system of “substituting the party for the country.” The essence of this patriotism is to demand that the people love the dictatorship, the one-party rule, and the dictators. It usurps patriotism in order to inflict disasters on the nation and calamities on the people.

From “The Many Aspects of CPC Dictatorship”:

Thus, all of the tricks used by the CPC are stop-gap measures for the dictators to preserve the last phase of their power and will not be able to support for long this dictatorial edifice that is already showing countless cracks.

From “Changing the Regime by Changing Society” (2006):

Changing the Regime by Changing Society

From “Can it be that the Chinese People Deserve Only ‘Party-Led Democracy’?” (2006):

For the emergence of a free China, placing hope in the ruler of a “New Deal” is an idea far worse than placing hope in the continuous expansion of the “new force” among the people.

From “The Negative Effects of the Rise of Dictatorship on World Democratization” (2006):

[Nothing was actually quoted from the article]

From Charter 08 (2008):

“One-party monopolization of ruling privileges should be abolished….”; and

“…to establish China’s federal republic under the structure of democracy and constitutionalism.”

I can't imagine a clearer violation of the right to freedom of expression as it is guaranteed under both international law and China’s own constitution, than to send someone to prison for 11 years for subversion on the basis of these sentences.

In a statement released yesterday in London, International PEN President John Ralston Saul responded this way to China’s claims that international protests over Liu Xiaobo’s trial amounted to interference in its internal affairs:

“Liu Xiaobo's case is about agreed international human rights standards, not merely the internal affairs of China. China is signatory to international treaties and conventions, and cannot be given a free pass when it acts against its own and international standards.”

He is absolutely right. We have entered a new phase in the fight to win Liu Xiaobo’s release; stay tuned for more information about what you can do to help in the days and weeks ahead. Meanwhile, one of the first things we all can do is read more of the essays these supposedly subversive words are taken from in their full context. Human Rights in China has excerpts, with links to the full original pieces in Chinese, here.

Then we should repeat the offending phrases over and over and send them around the world.


Email Hu Jintao, tell him to release Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo, poet and dissident, will be tried tomorrow morning in China (8 p.m. tonight Eastern Standard Time) for “inciting subversion of state power.” He was charged after helping to write Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms, and he faces up to fifteen years if convicted.

Over on the main PEN website, you'll find a very easy to use form for emailing Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Cao Jianmin, the Procurator General, demanding Liu Xiaobo's release.

So help us flood their inboxes. And stay tuned.


“...past get-ready, almost at get-set...”

Stephen Burt’s review of Easy, Marie Ponsot’s sixth collection of poems, is in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Burt closes the review with lines from “Dancing Day II,” which, along with “Dancing Day I,” closes our latest issue.

We’ve put both poems online, and I’ve posted the second one below, along with video of Marie reading an untitled poem by Scott Walt that received honorable mention for poetry in PENs 2004 Prison Writing Contest. Marie has worked closely with the Prison Writing Program for years, and her thoughts on the “inner exile” of prison appear in PEN America 9: Checkpoints.

Burt praises "Dancing Day II” as “tender, alert, self-ironized and finally unillusioned,” noting that its “coming event is at once the end of a life and the sociable delight of another night out.”

Dancing Day II

Once, one made many.
Now, many make one.
The rest is requiem.

We’re running out of time, so
we’re hurrying home to
practice to
gether for the general dance.
We’re past get-ready, almost at get-set.
Here we come many to
dance as one.

Plenty more lost selves keep arriving, some
we weren’t waiting for. We stretch and
lace up practice shoes. We mind our manners—
no staring, just snatching a look
—strict and summative—
at each other’s feet & gait & port.

Every one we ever were shows up
with world-flung poor triumphs
flat in the back-packs we set down to greet
each other. Glad tired gaudy
we are more than we thought
& as ready as we’ll ever be.

We’ve all learned the moves, separately,

from the absolute dancer
the foregone deep breather
the original choreographer.

Imitation’s limitation—but who cares.
We’ll be at our best on dancing day.
On dancing day
we’ll belt out tunes we’ll step to
till it’s time for us to say
there’s nothing more to say
nothing to pay no way
pay no mind pay no heed
pay as we go.
Many is one; we’re out of here,
exeunt omnes

exit oh and save
this last dance for me

on the darkening ground
looking up into
the last hour of left light
in the star-stuck east,
its vanishing flective, bent


“Reality cannot be copyrighted”

The other day an email was forwarded to me by David Shields, whose “Mimesis” appears in PEN America 11: Make Believe. The author of the email was another writer (and reader of the journal) who found “Mimesis” inspiring; it helped him, he said, to think about his own work.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece we published:
The novel has always been a mixed form; that’s why it was called “novel” in the first place. A great deal of realistic documentary, some history, some topographical writing, some barely disguised autobiography have always been part of the novel, from Defoe through Flaubert and Dickens. It was Henry James (especially in his correspondence with H.G. Wells) who tried to assert that the novel, as an “art form,” must be the work of the imagination alone, and who was responsible for much of the modernist purifying of the novel’s mongrel tradition. I see writers like Naipaul and Sebald as making a necessary postmodernist return to the roots of the novel as an essentially Creole form, in which “nonfiction” material is ordered, shaped, and imagined as “fiction.” Books like these restore the novelty of the novel, with its ambiguous straddling of verifiable and imaginary facts, and restore the sense of readerly danger that one enjoys in reading Moll Flanders or Clarissa or Tom Jones or Vanity Fair—that tightrope walk along the margin between the newspaper report and the poetic vision. Some Graham Greene novel has the disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction. No person in it bears any resemblance to any actual person living or dead, etc., etc. London does not exist.”
An endnote adds: “[Jonathan] Raban assures me that Greene’s disclaimer... exists, but I can’t find it.”*

“Mimesis” is part of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which will be published in February. The book consists of numbered sections of various lengths (the one above is roughly medium-sized; some are a few lines, some a page or two), and, according to the jacket copy, it “argues that our culture is obsessed with ‘reality’ precisely because we experience hardly any.” According to Zadie Smith, on the other hand, who wrote about the book recently in The Guardian, the book “argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real—of what we might call ‘truthiness’—over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives.” (Smith says the book is “thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.”)

However one chooses to summarize it, the book certainly argues (hence that subtitle), and many readers will argue with it in return—something Shields clearly welcomes, striving as he does to provoke thought about fiction, writing, and modern life. Some readers, like the one I mentioned above, will feel not simply provoked but inspired: “Reality Hunger,” another reader writes, “has got me excited about thinking about novels and about the possibilities of fiction, in 2009 no less, and that’s more than worthwhile in my book.”

If, like some people, you can’t wait to read it, get started with what’s already out there: first, this 2006 essay from The Believer; then “Mimesis,” of course, in PEN America 11; and “All the Best Stories are True,” from issue #9 of A Public Space. After supporting those three literary magazines, you might check out two online excerpts: “Collage,” over at Kneejerk magazine, and “DS” (a PDF).

You should also check out this short essay by Shields, with video accompaniment, about a fight outside a Vietnamese restaurant, captured by videophone and uploaded to YouTube. Not to mention Shields’s contribution to the great “Year in Reading” feature over at The Millions, along with this footnote to that list from John Williams at The Second Pass.

Happy reading.

* A note about this note, and others from the book: Among the many subjects Shields explores are plagiarism and originality; one of the places he addresses those subjects is a preface to the endnotes—which he was apparently disinclined to include:
This book contains many unacknowledged quotations; it contains little else. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs had but that we have lost. The uncertainty about whose words you are reading is not a bug, but a feature.... Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Reality cannot be copyrighted.
Shields seems to be thinking along lines similar to Jonathan Lethem (who has written a blurb for Reality Hunger), who considered the matter in “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”


Human Rights Day 2009: the Good, the Bad, and the Hopeful

Most of us tend to measure a year's passage by our birthdays, but in the human rights world, each year is marked and measured by December 10: International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the birth of the Declaration of Human Rights. Each December 10 has meaning, of course, but 2009 is particularly poignant.

We've witnessed the murders of more writers, journalists, and human rights defenders than we'd ever want to count this year, including Natalia Estemirova, the courageous Chechen activist who was abducted outside her home in Grozny and murdered on July 15.

We've also witnessed the mass arrests of writers and scholars in places like Iran, which responded to popular protests over this year’s election results by handing out outrageous sentences to people like Kian Tajbakhsh, who is now serving 15 years in jail.

And we've witnessed countries blatantly defying their own laws, such as in China's arrest and detention of our own PEN colleague, Liu Xiaobo, who is now spending his second Human Rights Day in silence.

Just two days ago, on the anniversary of his detention, Beijing police handed over Liu's case to the prosecution, which means that he may now be tried for "inciting subversion of state power" within the next month and a half. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

In a statement PEN American Center released along with the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), of which Liu is a former president, Tienchi Liao, ICPC's newly-elected leader, said:

“In order to protect their right to freedom of expression, our brave colleagues are willing to risk their physical freedom. But the authorities cannot put all people who want to express their own thoughts into prison. We are too many.”

And herein lies the good of this story, this troubling year of deaths and arrests and long sentences: people around the world are standing up even straighter, even taller, for their own rights, and are linking arms to protect and fight for the rights of others.

Liu Xiaobo's colleagues, who joined with him last year in signing Charter 08, today released another open letter supporting him. In it, the signatories challenged authorities to arrest all of them as well, for signing this groundbreaking declaration, for sharing the same ideas, for invoking their right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by their own constitution.

And so here at PEN in New York, we are commemorating Human Rights Day by paying tribute to all these brave men and women, in China and all over the world, who are using their pens, using their voices, to stand up for human rights, regardless of the consequences. We stand with them, we stand behind them, and we will continue to fight for them until all our pens, our voices, are free.

As of this morning, at great personal risk, 164 of the original 303 signatories of Charter 08 had added their names to the open letter, entitled "We Are Willing to Share Responsibility with Liu Xiaobo."

JOIN US in taking action for Liu Xiaobo: >> Send a letter to the Chinese government.

photo of Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, courtesy of the Independent Chinese PEN Center.


Translate these books

The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation includes a wonderful feature called “Translate This Book!” The editors talked to “some of the top translators into English working today,” to “publishers big and small,” to “agents, journalists, and foreign-language authors,” and then compiled their thoughts on “the best books that still aren’t in English.” It's a great list, with illuminating commentary from those surveyed. Here’s Enrique Vila-Matas on a book by Rodrigo Fresán (whose very funny conversation with Jonathan Lethem ran in PEN America 8: Making Histories, along with part of Fresán's novel Kensington Gardens):
In El fondo del cielo (The Bottom of the Sky), Fresán writes the book that will come immediately after the era of apocalyptic books—the era that began with the Bible and the Aeneid, and culminated with postmodern books about the end of all possible worlds. It’s the book of the future, the book that begins to write itself when everything has ended: the story of two young people in love with planets, and of a disturbingly beautiful girl. Between Bioy Casares and Philip K. Dick, but with a voice all its own, it is both powerful and artistic.
Check out the rest.

As the eagle-eyed (and long-memoried) M.A. Orthofer points out, we did something similar in PEN America 2: Home and Away, asking members of PEN “What great books have never been translated into English?” We got great responses from Ariel Dorfman, Lily Tuck, Harry Mathews, Geoffrey O’Brien, and many others. (Dorfman, by the way, managed to sneak in another recommendation in our latest forum: Ayer ya es maňana, or Yesterday Is Already Tomorrow, by Eduardo Vladimiroff).

That forum led to PEN Recommends, an updated feature on the PEN website which lists books not yet translated into English.

Orthofer also flagged a response to the same question by the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in an interview for The Millions by Anna Clark. Surprisingly, Pevear and Volokhonsky—best known for their translations of Anna Karenina and other Russian classics—did not focus on Russian writers in their reply, but Italian ones, singling out Alberto Savinio, Cristina Campo, and Guido Ceronetti.

And yet another reply appeared on the film blog that Richard Brody—who won the 2009 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography* for Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard—maintains for The New Yorker. In The Quarterly Conversation, Turkish writer Murat Nemet-Nejat suggested Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Brody seconds that suggestion before adding:
...another Godard-related book is desperately in need of translation: “En Attendant Godard” (“Waiting for Godard”), the journalist, novelist, and (later) screenwriter and director Michel Vianey’s account of accompanying Godard through the production of “Masculine Feminine,” in 1965-66. It’s the most illuminating and evocative book about movie-making I know; it came out in 1967 and has never even been reissued in France. (The author, who became a close friend of mine, died last December at the age of seventy-eight.)

* The deadline to submit a book for the 2010 award is Monday. Deadlines for other PEN awards are mostly in January. More information


The Private Lives of Trees

Over at Three Percent, Chad Post of Open Letter has been running a series of brief profiles with accomplished translators called “Making the Translator Visible.” Each post includes a photograph of the featured translator and a short Q & A. The idea was hatched by Chad and Megan McDowell, herself a translator—the first to be profiled in the series (note: that is not Megan on the right; see below).

Chad asks the translators for their favorite words (in any language) and the best translations they feel they’ve done so far. Megan McDowell’s favorite word is murcielago, Spanish for “bat” (a popular choice, it turns out), and the best translation she’s done so far, she says, is The Private Lives of Trees—which, as it happens, will be published by Open Letter in May and is excerpted in the new issue of PEN America.

The Private Lives of Trees is by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra (pictured above); it’s a beautiful, beguiling book that centers on a young, self-deprecating professor named Julián:
Lately he has started to think he should have been a dentist or geologist or meteorologist. For now, his actual job seems strange: professor. But his true calling, he thinks now, is to have dandruff. He imagines himself answering that way:

“What do you do?”

“I have dandruff.”
Julián has a stepdaughter named Daniela, and one night, while he waits for his wife Verónica to return home, he “distracts the little girl with a story about the private lives of trees.”
The poplar and the baobab are talking about the crazy people who visit the park. They agree, beforehand, that there are a lot of crazy people who go to the park. The park is full of crazies, but my personal favorite crazy person, says the baobab, is a woman with very long arms who came to talk to me one time. I remember it like it was yesterday, although it was long ago, I must have been barely two hundred fifteen or two hundred twenty when she came, you hadn’t even been born yet.

Immediately Julián realizes he has made a mistake: Daniela awakes from her doze, surprised by the poplar’s age, and especially because she thought that the poplar and the baobab had always lived together, that’s why they were such good friends, because they had spent their lives planted in the park together. To get out of it, he makes up a nervous string of dates, from which is gathered that the baobab is one thousand five hundred years old and the poplar barely forty. Daniela is still confused and Julián continues, conscious that he will have to work hard to recuperate the tale.
Zambra’s work has also been featured in Zoetrope: All Story and discussed at length in The Nation by the critic Marcela Valdes. His first book, Bonsai, won Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award for Best Novel; it was translated into English by the American writer Carolina de Robertis and published by Melville House. Zambra’s writing is lyrical and funny and smart; check it out.


“A crackpot chemist of words”: Nam Le talks with Richard Ford

“Is literature about ‘understanding’? Does that make sense to you?” So Richard Ford asks Nam Le (pictured left, in a photo by Nigel Parry taken for Esquire) in the pages of PEN America 11: Make Believe. The conversation is called “Fabrications,” and part of it is online (for the rest you'll need to buy the issue).

Nam tells Ford no, it doesn’t make sense to him; Ford says that makes him happy. To which Nam replies: “You shouldn’t take any comfort in that—a lot of things don’t make sense to me.” “I take my comfort where I take my comfort,” Ford responds.

The conversation is full of such quick, barbed, and illuminating back-and-forths. Ford asks Le about writers and place (“I think we’re all in an eternal nowhere all the time,” Le says), writers and lying (“what you’re doing as a writer is engaging in a big con”), writers and science (“I think of myself as an unashamed vitalist, a crackpot chemist of words”), writers and politics (“I think we use the word ‘politics’ the way we use the word ‘emotion’... ‘Aw, I got really emotional at that point,’ we say, as though emotion is something that exists on the edge of experience... but we’re awash in an ocean of emotion all the time”).

Eventually Le gets going about the problems with “character-based fiction.” He doesn't want readers, he says, to think that “a story between this person and that person is the ambassadorial story for their time and place in history.” And they go on to discuss writing reviews (or not), Nam’s story “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” and the way that writing fiction can be, as Ford puts it, “a kind of clerical nightmare.”

Read the online portion, then pick up a copy and enjoy the rest.

PS. There are two PEN events coming up soon. The first is on Wednesday, December 2, at Housing Works at 7 pm. Uwem Akpan, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lily Hoang, and Brendan Curry will talk with Jane Ciabattari of the National Book Critics Circle in celebration of the 2009 Beyond Margins Awards.

Then, a week from today, at 6:30 pm at NYU Law School, a group writers, legal scholars, and advocates including Nadine Strossen, Laura W. Murphy, Walter Dean Myers, Jonathan Todres, Deborah Ellis, Uzodinma Iweala, and Susan Kuklin will discuss the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted in 1989 and which was instituted as international law in 1990. The U.S. and Somalia remain the only two U.N. member nations that have not ratified this document.

Both events are free and open to the public.


Congrats to Colum

Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, excerpted in PEN America 10: Fear Itself, won the National Book Award for fiction last night.

As those who come to the PEN World Voices Festival know, Colum is also a great conversationalist, and he has talked with several writers in our pages. In PEN America 8: Making Histories, he talked with Arthur Japin*, Laila Lalami, Imma Monsó, and Michael Wallner about “inventing the past” and with David Grossman, Milton Hatoum, Anne Provoost, and Jeanette Winterson about “writing myth now.” Fear Itself includes not only “A Code for the Disappeared,” the piece adapted from Let the Great World Spin, but also Colum’s great conversation with Michael Ondaatje, in which Colum asked Ondaatje, “Do you have fun?

In that conversation with Ondaatje Colum describes his job as a writer in a way that will likely resonate with those who love Let the Great World Spin:
My responsibility, I think—which I’ve learned from you and John Berger and other writers I love and admire—is to talk about the dark, anonymous corners of human experience and about the value of those dark, anonymous corners. And intersecting with those dark, anonymous corners you have these famous lives, these big desires, and big issues.
Congratulations to a wonderful writer.

(Photo of Colum McCann and Michael Ondaatje by Beowulf Sheehan.)

* Speaking of Arthur Japin, his novel Directors Cut, narrated by a filmmaker not unlike Federico Fellini and excerpted in Making Histories, will be published by Knopf in English in February.


Obama in China & other links

As you may have heard, Barack Obama has addressed the matter of press freedom on his visit to China. PEN American Center has been calling for Obama to speak up for free expression on this visit (see the letter signed by PEN president K. Anthony Appiah). It appears that Obama’s comments are being censored from Chinese news reports.

A “leading” member of president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party in France, one Éric Raoult, is arguing that the latest winner of the Prix Goncourt, the nation’s highest literary prize, should “be censured and asked to recant” for comments she made back in August about “the climate of heavy policing and surveillance [under Sarkozy].” Marie Ndiaye won the Goncourt for Trois femmes puissantes (Three Powerful Women), and she is the first black woman to win the award.

Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, excerpted in PEN America 10: Fear Itself, is up for the National Book Award this week, and it also tops Amazon’s “Best of 2009” (via The Millions).

Back around Halloween, Gigantic talked with Brian Evenson about horror movies. (Evenson’s brilliant and eerie story “Windeye” appears in PEN America 11: Make Believe and is also available on the PEN website.)

Lastly, The Rumpus has several good literary pieces up:
a long interview with Paul Auster, whose latest novel, Invisible, was deemed his finest ever by Clancy Martin in The New York Times Book Review

excerpts from a piece by Sigrid Nunez on Susan Sontag (who said, “I saw the best writers of my generation destroyed by teaching,” Nunez recalls) that was recently published in Tin House (read Nunez's story "Rapture Children" in our new issue)

and a tribute to An African in Greenland by Terese Svoboda (“I understand my curiosity about sex but why do I adore reading about bad food?” she asks), whose lovely contribution to our “Make Believe” forum is up on the PEN website, along with a bunch of other interesting responses (post your own!)


Poems by Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang, read by Paul Auster

I’ve mentioned Liu Xiaobo before. The renowned literary critic, writer, and political activist was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in 1989 when he decided to return to China to support the pro-democracy movement. He staged a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square and led calls for a broad-based, sustainable democratic movement. He helped prevent further bloodshed by supporting and advancing a call for non-violence.

He spent two years in prison for his troubles, and three years of “reeducation through labor” beginning in 1996 after he publicly questioned the role of the single-party system and called for dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

More recently, he co-authored Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform that has been signed by hundreds of individuals from all walks of life throughout China. He was detained in December of last year and formally arrested in June, charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison. Liu Xia, his wife, has only been permitted to visit him twice.

Friends of Liu gave some of his poems to Larry Siems and Sarah Hoffman, who have been spearheading PEN American Center’s China Campaign, last year, and for the most recent issue of PEN America, the excellent American poet Jeffrey Yang (who earlier this year won the PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry) translated four of them. Liu dedicated each one to his wife, Xia. Judging from the dates, most (and perhaps all) of the poems appear to have been composed during his three years of “reeducation.” Paul Auster read the poems at our launch party, and later recorded his readings. Here is the first of the poems that he read:

One Letter Is Enough

for Xia

one letter is enough
for me to transcend and face
you to speak

as the wind blows past
the night
uses its own blood
to write a secret verse
that reminds me each
word is the last word

the ice in your body
melts into a myth of fire
in the eyes of the executioner
fury turns to stone

two sets of iron rails
unexpectedly overlap
moths flap toward lamp
light, an eternal sign
that traces your shadow

8. 1. 2000

You can both read and listen to all the poems here. The U.S. Congress, by the way, passed a resolution calling for Liu’s release just a few weeks ago. You can sign a petition calling for his release here, and you can hear, and watch, Liu himself talking about democracy and free expression here.


Nov. 9: Bogosian, Gaitskill, Turturro & others read prison writing

Next Monday, November 9, PEN’s Prison Writing Program will hold its second annual benefit reading and reception, with readings by Mary Gaitskill, Eric Bogosian, John Turturro, Patricia Smith, Jamal Joseph, Lemon Andersen, and other guests. As an installment of WNYC’s signature series “The NEXT New York Conversation,” this event will be broadcast and live-streamed, allowing incarcerated men and women with radio and/or internet access to listen to the event and join our audience.

Tickets available here. Full details below.

Breakout: Voices from Inside

When: Monday, November 9
Where: WNYC Greene Space, 44 Charlton Street, NYC
What time: 7 p.m.

With Mary Gaitskill, Eric Bogosian, John Turturro, Patricia Smith, Jamal Joseph, Lemon Andersen, and other guests

Tickets: Collaborator: $75/Friend: $50

Collaborator ticket covers the expenses of one-on-one mentoring services between a PEN member and an incarcerated man or woman for one year. This premier ticket includes the best views and a reception following the program.

Friend ticket covers the postage and printing costs to provide eight incarcerated men and women with a free copy of PEN’s Handbook for Writers in Prison. This ticket includes a reception following the program.

At “Breakout: Voices from Inside,” PEN Members and friends will read award-winning work from PEN’s Prison Writing Program. For more than 30 years, the Program has been dedicated to helping make the harsh realities of American imprisonment part of our social justice dialogue. The Prison Writing Program has also been on the front-lines of prison reform, helping inmates in federal, state, and local penitentiaries cope with life behind bars, gain skills, and have a voice while they are there. “Breakout: Voices from Inside” will help raise much-needed funds to enable our important program to continue its most important mission into the future—helping incarcerated men and women to see themselves in a new way: as writers.


Our contributors elsewhere

Cynthia Ozick’s essay “Ghost Writers,” which was published in PEN America 9: Checkpoints, is in the new edition of Best American Essays.

José Rubén Zamora’s description of a raid on his house by the Guatemalan military, published in PEN America 10: Fear Itself, is in the new issue of The Utne Reader.

Over at The Reading Experience, Daniel Green is disappointed by the new Tin House anthology, but praises the contribution of Lucy Corin (“the only essay in this book that makes it worth having”), whose “Seven Small Apocalypses” ran in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.

Lynne Tillman, whose contribution to our forum on “make believe” has just gone online, is interviewed at The Millions.

Rabih Alameddine, whose contribution to our forum on “make believe” I mentioned on Monday, writes about The Twilight Zone, V.S. Naipaul, and creativity for The Rumpus.

On November 9, Mary Gaitskillwho contributed to the forum in PEN America 3: Tribeswill join Eric Bogosian, John Turturro, and others at the second annual benefit reading for the PEN Prison Writing Program. As an installment of WNYC’s signature series “The NEXT New York Conversation,” this event will be broadcast and live-streamed, allowing incarcerated men and women with radio and/or internet access to listen to the event and join our audience. More details here.

And there’s a free PEN event tomorrow: Salman Rushdiewho paid tribute to Ryszard Kapuściński in PEN America 8: Making Histories—will join Keith Gessen, Tanya Lokshina, and others in honoring Natalia Estemirovathe award-winning human rights activist and journalist murdered on July 15, 2009and discussing the state of dissent and press freedom in Russia. Full details below.

Bearing Witness in Chechnya: The Legacy of Natalia Estemirova

When: Thursday, October 29
Where: Proshansky Auditorium, CUNY Graduate School, 365 Fifth Ave., NYC
What time: 7 p.m.

With Salman Rushdie, Michael Arena, Ann Cooper, Keith Gessen, Tanya Lokshina, and Elena Milashina.

Free and open to the public


“Imagine a book you wish had been written...”

First: If you’re in New York, don’t miss our launch party tonight.

Second: As I mentioned before, we asked a bunch of writers to imagine books they wished had been written, either by themselves or by others, living or dead, real or imaginary. Alternatively, they could tell us something they believed about books and their power (or lack of it).

Aleksandar Hemon said, “If I could imagine it, I could write it,” but acknowledged that he wished he had “written Lolita, or at least ‘Spring in Fialta.’ A few of Chekhov’s stories too.” He added that “Literature—books—provide access to the areas of human knowledge that are not available otherwise. Therefore,” he said, “I am interested exclusively in the things that literature alone can do.”

Rabih Alameddine, whose conversation with Hemon ran in PEN America 9: Checkpoints, was one of several contributors who got to thinking about a beloved author whose writing life was cut short:
I wish Bruno Schulz had written a third book, or a fourth. Maybe he did and it got lost. No one knows for sure. Many writers have died before their time, but because of the horrific manner in which he was killed, and the genius of the two books he left us, I never cease to wonder what could have been. Imagine.
Schulz is a major presence in PEN America 5: Silences, which includes excerpts from his Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, David Grossman’s See Under: Love, and Jerzy Ficowski’s “biographical portrait” of Schulz, along with a conversation between Alan Adelson and Henryk concerning the author. (Grossman paid tribute to Schulz at the World Voices festival—and in the pages of The New Yorker—in the spring. One of Schulz’s self-portraits is reproduced above.)

So what books do you wish existed? Tell us here.


Subscription offer & launch party

This year, PEN partnered with the long-standing O. Henry Prize, which annually selects twenty of the year’s best stories written in English. The latest edition of the anthology includes stories by Junot Díaz, Nadine Gordimer, Ha Jin, and many other excellent writers.

While supplies last, we are giving copies of The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009 to all new PEN America subscribers. A one-year subscription is just $18, and you can subscribe online at www.pen.org/subscribe.

Subscriptions begin with our brand new issue #11, Make Believe, which we’re celebrating on Monday in New York City. Paul Auster and Roxana Robinson will read short selections from the issue, and several other contributors—including Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Cynthia Cruz, and Lynne Tillman—will also be there. The event is free and open to the public. Details below.

PEN America #11 Launch Party
When: Monday, October 26
Where: Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street (between Sullivan & Thompson), NYC
What time: 6:30–8:30 p.m.

With Paul Auster, Roxana Robinson, and other special guests

Free and open to the public


Faith and fiction: ‘must believe’ vs. ‘make believe’?

One of the inspirations for PEN America 11: Make Believe was a conversation from the 2009 World Voices Festival moderated by Albert Mobilio of Bookforum and called “Faith and Fiction.” “If we think of fiction as ‘make believe’ and religion as ‘must believe,’” Albert asks, “how might novelists reconcile the ambiguities and uncertainties of their craft with an attempt to express or characterize religious faith?”

The question yields a number of interesting thoughts from panelists Benjamin Anastas, Nadeem Aslam, Brian Evenson, and Jan Kjærstad. Anastas says that while some novelists may be “heretics from belief,” a believer is “a heretic from reality.” Evenson says, echoing Kjærstad, that it’s his job, as a fiction writer, “to be profane, to disrupt or work against the sacred in some way.” All the panelists discuss, at length, the differences and similarities between literature and scripture.

You can read a part of the conversation here (for the whole thing, you need to buy the issue); you can also listen to it.

The conversation is preceded in the issue by a wonderful new short story by Evenson, which, though it doesn’t address religion, is very much concerned with fiction and belief (and which is available online). It’s a subject to which Evenson has given much thought, having been more or less forced out of Brigham Young University, the Mormon school where he was teaching, because of his fiction. Evenson was a practicing Mormon at the time, but what happened at BYU precipitated his later deparature from the church—and religious faith—entirely. (You can read all about what happened in this 2003 Believer essay by Ben Ehrenreich—and you should also check out Evenson’s novel The Open Curtain, begun while he was a believer and finished when he was not.)

There are three other pieces from the issue that both address religious belief and have been made available online: a story adapted from Sigrid Nunez’s novel Salvation City, forthcoming from Riverhead next year, entitled "Rapture Children”; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brief remembrance of a Catholic priest named Father Chinedu; and an excerpt from Khaled al-Berry’s memoir, Life is More Beautiful Than Paradise, forthcoming in English later this year.

You might also check out Benjamin Anastas’s essay on this very subject for Bookforum; a long excerpt from Jan Kjærstad’s novel The Discoverer, newly available in English from Open Letter; Nadeem Aslam’s discussion of Islam in relation to his second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers; and a list of good books on doubt from Maud Newton, from which the image above, Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, was taken.


PEN America 11: Make Believe

The online feature for PEN America 11: Make Believe is now online at PEN.org. The new issue focuses on the question of belief in various forms—religious faith, political commitment, the “willing suspension of disbelief,” and more.

Several pieces from the issue are available online, and I’ll have more about them soon. For now, I want to point your attention to the forum. We sent a number of writers the following prompt:
1 Imagine a book you wish had been written, either by yourself or by someone else, living or dead, real or imaginary;


2 Tell us something you believe about books—their power or lack of it, how they change the world or don’t, what they’ve done for you or failed to do.
We published seventeen responses in the issue, and we’ll be posting those at PEN.org over the next few weeks (the first two up are by Terese Svoboda and Amitava Kumar). We’re also looking for your responses. So have a look.

And while you’re there, you can read some haunting fiction, brilliant poems, insightful conversations, and more.

The cover art, by the way, is by the young artist Tyler Bewley.

Check it out. And order your copy! Better yet, subscribe.


George Saunders, Jonathan Ames, Ishmael Beah & others join Tuesday’s lineup

Regular blogging will resume here later this month, with news about PEN America 11, our contributors appearing elsewhere, and other items of note. In the meantime, an update concerning “Reckoning with Torture: Memos & Testimonies from the 'War on Terror',” taking place Tuesday, October 13, at 7 pm, at the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City.

Jonathan Ames, K. Anthony Appiah, Ishmael Beah, David Cole, Nell Freudenberger, A.M. Homes, Susanna Moore, and George Saunders have joined the roster of readers that already included Matthew Alexander, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Eve Ensler, Jameel Jaffer, Jack Rice, Art Spiegelman, and Amrit Singh. They will read together and separately a variety of documents attesting to acts of torture committed on behalf of the U.S. government since 9/11. The evening will also feature three short videos and a special installation by the artist Jenny Holzer, whose work you can see here and here.

We hope you’ll join us. Tickets are available here (and at the door), and full details are below.

When: Tuesday, October 13
Where: The Great Hall at Cooper Union, 7 East 7th St., NYC
What time: 7 p.m.

$15/$10 for PEN/ACLU Members and students with valid ID at www.smarttix.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.


DeLillo et al read torture memos, 10/13

On October 13, PEN American Center will team up with the ACLU to stage a public reading of recently-released government files—memos (like this one: PDF), declassified communications, and testimonies by detainees—documenting acts of torture carried out on behalf of the U.S. government since September 11, 2001. Tickets are on sale here.

The event is part of an ongoing effort by writers associated with PEN to call attention to and reflect on these abuses. Among the participants are writers Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Eve Ensler, and Art Spiegelman. They will be joined by former U.S. interrogator Matthew Alexander, former CIA officer Jack Rice, ACLU lawyer Amrit Singh, and the artist Jenny Holzer.

I'll be sharing more news about this project in the future; in the meantime, full details for the October 13 event are below.

When: Tuesday, October 13
Where: The Great Hall at Cooper Union, 7 East 7th St., NYC
What time: 7 p.m.

$15/$10 for PEN/ACLU Members and students with valid ID at www.smarttix.com. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.

(The note card pictured above is explained here; click on the photo to enlarge. The lines on the card are from "To Be Human," a short piece by Anouar Benmalek published in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.)


This Sunday: Brooklyn Book Festival

The day after tomorrow, PEN will (as in years past) spend a September Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival, a wonderful event full of bookish people and organizations of all kinds.

PEN also has a public program at the festival, which we're co-sponsoring with Tin House. Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia will feature readings (from this new anthology of new Russian fiction) by Dale Peck, Francine Prose, Anya Ulinich (whose excellent and much-discussed story "The Nurse and the Novelist" was in PEN America 9: Checkpoints), and Vadim Yarmolinets. Also, Emily Gould, who has written about Russian-American writers for Russia! magazine, will interview Rasskazy contributor Dmitry Danilov about the literary scene back in the mother country.

: New Fiction from a New Russia

Sunday, September 13
Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza: Brooklyn Heights, NYC
What time:
1:00–1:50 p.m.

Free and open to the public.

This event immediately follows "Name that Author," a game of literary trivia sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle in which I'll represent PEN America and attempt to carry on PEN's proud trivia tradition by dethroning last year's champion, Brigid Hughes of A Public Space.

Hope to see you Sunday.