Programming notes

Two participants in Friday's World Voices event launching the new issue of the journal -- Kathrin Röggla, who lives in Berlin, and Guillermo Fadanelli, from Mexico -- are unable to make it to New York and will miss this year's festival. Happily, some of our special guests will fill their proverbial shoes, among them Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Paul LaFarge, and Patricia Spears Jones.

This also means that Kathrin will miss tomorrow's event with Yoshihiro Tatsumi, which I mentioned last week. Instead, I will interview Yoshihiro -- and it will still be great, so please come! Both this event and the journal launch are free and open to the public; details here and here, respectively.


Notes before a busy week

Congratulations to Cynthia Ozick, whose essay "Ghost Writers," published in PEN America 9: Checkpoints, has been selected by Mary Oliver for the next edition of Best American Essays. "Ghost Writers" is based on Cynthia's "no-holds barred great speech" accepting the PEN/Nabokov Award. Here's how the essay begins:
Writers are hidden beings; you have never actually met one. If you should ever believe you are seeing a writer, or having an argument with a writer, or going to lunch with a writer, or listening to a talk by a writer, then you can be sure it is all a mistake.
Of course, we at PEN are hoping many such mistakes will be made this week during the World Voices festival, which begins in earnest tomorrow. If the past is any guide, there will be a lot of online coverage, but here's a good place to start: PEN's own World Voices Blogs. Among the PEN bloggers this year are Jane Ciabattari and Mary Ann Caws (editor of the book Manifesto: A Century of Isms, selections from which appeared in our third issue, Tribes.)

Scott Esposito notices an upcoming book by past World Voices participant Shahriar Mandanipour: Censoring an Iranian Love Story (that's the cover on the right). The novel, I believe, grew out of a story he mentions in an essay published in PEN America 8: Making Histories, entitled "The Life of a Word" (adapted from a talk given during the World Voices festival):
One of my love stories, "East of Violet," is set in a public library. The characters are a boy and a girl who are in love, but becase of cultural and familial restrictions and religious prohibitions, they cannot even meet on the street. To communicate, the young man checks out a book and puts purple dots under certain letters in the text. He returns the book and the girl checks out the same book. She finds the letters with the purple dots and connects them -- she decodes them -- and they become a love letter. The letters are all different depending on which book they have checked out, whether it is Anna Karenina or The Little Prince or The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
And speaking of Scott Esposito and Making Histories, he also flags a piece by Rodrigo Fresán on "the Mexican novel as written by foreigners," which inevitably discusses Roberto Bolaño. Fresán's very funny conversation with Jonathan Lethem took place at the 2006 World Voices festival and appears in PEN America 8; you can read Fresán's essay about Bolaño, whom he knew well, in the March 2007 issue of The Believer.


A “comic book rebel” and a “very normal person”

Yesterday in The New York Times Dwight Garner reviewed Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s epic autobiographical graphic novel, A Drifting Life. “Its pleasures are cumulative,” Garner writes, “the book has a rolling, rumbling grandeur. It’s as if someone had taken a Haruki Murakami novel and drawn, beautifully and comprehensively, in its margins.” (You can read an excerpt from A Drifting Life at Words Without Borders, as well as an interview with the book’s American editor -- who also designed and lettered the book -- Adrian Tomine.)

I’ve been reading a lot of Tatsumi lately: his story “Hell,” which was first published in the Japanese edition of Playboy in 1971, appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself (read the first half of “Hell” here), and, on Thursday, April 30, I’ll be moderating a conversation between Tatsumi and the Austrian writer Kathrin Roggla on the subject of “modern day salarymen” (and, more broadly, ideas about work and the working life). Many of Tatsumi’s first mature stories (c. 1969-1972) are about people who do thankless jobs in Japan; the title piece in The Push Man and Other Stories is about a man who does this for a living.

In his review, Garner scrupulously notes the work of the translator, Taro Nettleton. Translating Japanese comics into English is a tricky business, and not just for the translator: since Japanese books are read from right to left, the order of the panels must be reversed. A publisher can simply print a mirror image of the original, but, as Tomine points out in his introduction to The Push Man, this approach is often not kind to the artwork, which has been composed with a different arrangement in mind. For The Push Man, at least, Tatsumi “painstakingly re-arranged the panels on each page so that they would be read in the proper order.”

One last note: in a brief interview between Tomine and Tatsumi (who will also be speaking together at the festival) appended to The Push Man, Tomine asks, “Is there anything you'd like English-speaking readers to know about you or your work?” Tatsumi’s reply is endearing, particularly if you’ve read some of his darker stories from the early ’70s:
Since my work has been largely unavailable in English-speaking countries, I doubt most readers have heard of me. I myself am a very normal person. Please do not interpret these stories as representative of the author’s personality.


Next week: New York Round Table Writers' Conference

On April 24 and 25, the New York Center for Independent Publishing is sponsoring the fifth annual New York Round Table Writers' Conference. The conference takes place at the beautiful building of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, site of a notable PEN triumph.

Wally Lamb, best-selling writer and also a great champion for writers in prison, will give the keynote address. PEN America favorites Soft Skull Press (currently in the midst of big changes) and Tin House will also be there, along with many other publications, writers, agents, and literary organizations.

Check it out.

PS. And tonight, go see Maud Newton, Lizzie Skurnick, and Kate Christensen at Housing Works.


Conversations @ World Voices

A late addition to the World Voices schedule: new Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio will talk with Adam Gopnik on April 24. (That's Le Clezio in the AP photo on the right, with his wife Marina in 1963.) Gopnik, who will also talk with Muriel Barbery on April 30, proved himself a deft interviewer last year when speaking with Umberto Eco -- the conversation between Eco and Gopnik is in our new issue.

One-on-one conversations between writers are among my favorite festival events -- and we’ve featured several of them in PEN America: George Saunders and Etgar Keret, Aleksandar Hemon and Rabih Alameddine, Elias Khoury and Nuruddin Farah. (Our next issue features a terrific conversation between Colum McCann and Michael Ondaatje.)

This year’s festival features several intriguing pairings, perhaps none more intriguing than Enrique Vila-Matas with Paul Auster:

For years Enrique Vila-Matas and Paul Auster have been engaged in an extended literary conversation, spanning continents and several languages. And in the ingenious short story by Eduardo Lago, which borrows its title, Brooklyn Trilogy, from Auster, the two are even brought together as fictional characters. Two years ago, they met in person for the first time and discovered that they do, indeed, share many common obsessions.

For more on Vila-Matas, the place to go on the web (besides his own website) is Conversational Reading.

Other conversations I’m particularly excited about: Richard Ford talking with Nam Le (if you haven’t read any of Nam’s work, read this); Adrian Tomine with Yoshihiro Tatsumi (a great Tatsumi story appears in PEN America 10); Mark Z. Danielewski with Rick Moody; and Péter Nádas with Daniel Mendelsohn (whose long essay on Susan Sontag’s journals I hope to read soon).

See also: Music @ World Voices

PS. Other interviews and one-on-one conversations to look forward to: Nawal El Sadaawi & Anthony Appiah; Meir Shalev & Daniel Menaker; Neil Gaiman & Caro Llewellyn; David Grossman & Philip Lopate; Domenico Starnone & Antonio Monda; Sebastian Barry & Roxanne Coady.


Edwidge Danticat on “the dark realities of the moment”

While putting together PEN America 10: Fear Itself, we asked several writers to comment on the issue’s theme -- to write something brief about what they were afraid of, or how they've confronted fear in their work or in their lives. We printed these in the journal along with newspaper headlines from the past year about some of the fears that have been particularly prominent lately. We’ve put about half of the responses up online, including the one below from Edwidge Danticat.

When FDR said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he also said, “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.” I fear not being able to deny the dark realities of the moment. I fear an absence of fear, the kind that leads to recklessness. When people have nothing to fear they can act carelessly, irresponsibly. They can Ponzi-scheme away people’s livelihoods and retirement funds without giving it a second thought. I fear global warming. If polar bears can’t survive, do my two little daughters even have a chance? I fear the silence that allowed these things to worsen, the gradual boiling of frogs that Al Gore talks about in An Inconvenient Truth. I fear that I am one of those frogs. I fear another terrorist attack, like the kind that happens in other countries all the time, the kind that residents of besieged cities eventually get used to and learn to live with. I fear world hunger, because it would mean genocide for people in countries like my birthplace and homeland, Haiti, the oft-designated “poorest country in the western hemisphere.” At the same time, I fear cloned meat, genetically engineered crops, and outbreaks of salmonella. I fear peanut allergies and MSG. I fear plagues of locust, rivers turning into blood. I fear “the withered leaves of industrial enterprise.” I fear the closing of borders, each country redefining its identity by excluding others. I fear right-wing conspiracies. I fear left-wing conspiracies. I fear guns of all kinds. I fear cameras in public toilets. I fear small talk at parties. I fear uncaring little children who grow up into uncaring little adults. I fear the end of the word—not the world, which in the end can probably take care of itself, but the word, which we all have to be around to keep alive. I fear that when FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself, he might have been kidding, but no one got the joke.

Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous books, including Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist, and most recently, Brother, I’m Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. She lives in Miami with her husband and daughter.


PEN America 10: Fear Itself

The online feature accompanying our new issue is now up at PEN.org. As the feature says: “At this moment of unease and anxiety, PEN America 10: Fear Itself examines -- through fiction, poetry, drama, essays, and conversations -- the subject of fear in all its guises.”

Several pieces from the issue are available online: fiction by Lucy Corin, Petina Gappah, and Rawi Hage; poetry by Nicole Cooley, Christian Hawkey, and Tomasz Rozycki; and drama by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. We also put up the first half of a great story by "gekiga" artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi (to read the rest of the story, you’ll have to order the issue -- or this great collection of Tatsumi's work available from Drawn & Quarterly). And we put up part of “Fear Itself: A Forum,” about which more next week.

The cover art, by the way, is by David Polonsky, who will -- along with ten other contributors to this issue -- appear at World Voices in May. Polonsky is the illustrator of Waltz with Bashir; the cover image originally appeared in the graphic novel adapted from the film.

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


Our contributors elsewhere

FSG’s fall catalog, which just arrived in the mail, is accompanied by a separately printed pamphlet announcing The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, to appear in October, and rightly hailed by FSG as “an event in American letters.” A new story by Davis, called “The Landing,” will appear in our upcoming issue. In the meantime, read Davis’s tribute to Marcel Proust, from PA 2: Home and Away, or check out PA 7: World Voices, to see how Jonathan Franzen approaches the questionDoes Writing Change Anything?” through two of Davis’s stories. (You can also watch Davis read Borges on PEN's YouTube channel.)

Other happy inclusions in the FSG catalog: If I Were Another, a book of poems by Mahmoud Darwish translated by Fady Joudah (both Darwish and Joudah appear in PA 9: Checkpoints), and Interesting Times, a collection of essays by George Packer (another Checkpoints contributor).

Lastly, “Teenager,” by Wislawa Szymborska, is the second in the new online series from Granta “showcasing important contemporary poets.” A portion of Szymborska’s Nonrequired Reading ran in PA 5: Silences.

(Drawing above of Lydia Davis by Tony Millionaire; taken from this interview of Davis by Sarah Manguso, conducted for The Believer.)


Music @ World Voices

As you may have heard, and as I mentioned last week, the full World Voices schedule is now available. (I recommend Garth Hallberg's list of highlights over at the Millions; among other happenings, he singled out the first event to be curated by the editors of the journal, an event connected with our upcoming issue.) You should also check out Words Without Borders, which currently features writing by and interviews with many of this year's participants.

For now, I'll just highlight the music at this year's festival. The biggest names on that front are Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, who are headlining the PEN Cabaret, along with some terrific writers and actors (including James Franco, currently portraying Allen Ginsberg; by the way, a documentary about Ginsberg will also be shown during the festival).

Music lovers should also check out "Jazz: The Revolution of Beat," at which Gary Giddins, Jayne Cortez, Bill Zavatsky, and others will discuss jazz and the written word, with musical accompaniment by the Diane Moser Quintet -- as well as a "night of musical exploration" with the composer Daniel Felsenfeld, and the writers Mark Z. Danielewski, Rick Moody, and Wesley Stace.

World Voices always features a wonderfully diverse array of participants, but this year seems especially eclectic, in the best sense. Stay tuned.


Guest post: John High on Osip Mandelstam

Over the weekend, Calque posted a translation of Osip Mandelstam’s “Ode to Stalin,” which provided the perfect opening for this guest post by John High, whose translation of Mandelstam’s short poem “Now We Sit at the Kitchen” ran in PEN America 9: Checkpoints. In addition to translating Mandelstam’s work, John has been researching Mandelstam’s life – in particular, his relationship with Stalin.

Exile: Osip Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks

Mounds of human heads travel into the distance,

I diminish there—no one notices anymore,

But in embracing books and children’s play

I’ll arise from this death and again speak the sun’s light.


In 1934 Joseph Stalin sent Osip Mandelstam into exile because of a poem he wrote depicting the dictator’s body with references to “worms” and “cockroaches.” Mandelstam had read the poem only to a small group of close friends -- but one turned informant, and Mandelstam was arrested.

When Stalin learned of the “counter-revolutionary” poem, he called Boris Pasternak. (Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda describes the now infamous conversation in her memoir, Hope Against Hope.) Stalin told Pasternak that Mandelstam’s case had been reviewed and everything would be fine. Then he reproached Pasternak for not intervening. “If I were a poet and a poet friend of mine were in trouble, I would do anything to help him,” Stalin said. Pasternak explained that the writers’ organizations hadn’t bothered with cases like this since 1927 and that Stalin himself would never have been told of his efforts.

Stalin interrupted: “But he’s a genius, he’s a genius, isn't he?” When Pasternak suggested that they meet to talk, Stalin asked, “About what?” Pasternak replied, “About life and death.” Stalin hung up. For the moment, at least, Pasternak’s response probably saved Mandelstam’s life. The darkest period of the purges was about to commence, but by calling Pasternak Stalin revealed his anxiety over the power poetry still held in the Soviet Union. The poets were not all as frightened as Stalin needed, though they soon would be.

New information from previously confidential NKVD/KGB archives confirms that Pasternak and other friends did much to intervene on Mandelstam’s behalf and that Nadezhda’s account of the phone conversation is accurate. But as Gregory Freidin and others have pointed out, Mandelstam later did all he could to save himself and his wife. He wrote letters and poems (including his infamous “Ode” to Stalin), and made frantic efforts to redeem himself with the regime. He doubted his own certainty and the path of Soviet history. Perhaps Stalin and the Bolsheviks were only doing what was necessary to transform the past? He wanted to save himself and his family, yes—and he wanted his poetry published and accepted by the regime that eventually made him vanish.

After her husband’s death, Nadezhda altered his poetry to create the illusion that he never yielded to Stalin. Who would blame her? They both had struggled to retain a sense of dignity and individuality in an era when neither was tolerated. Yet her changes to Mandelstam's final work in exile about Stalin affected the poet's image in the west and even led to translations that smoothed over the complexities of his politics -- and his atttiudes toward the Soviet state. His infamous “Ode” painfully reflects this. The poetry of Mandelstam’s final years is immensely complicated by his own uncertainty as to what power should achieve in the wake of revolution -- a revolution he embraced in 1917 as a liberating force.

As far as we know, he spoke to no one about the torture he endured after his arrest. He attempted suicide twice, once while in the infamous Lubianka Prison after writing the Stalin epigram, and then in Cherdyn before his relocation to Voronezh. He came to see his own fate bound to the “mounds of human skulls.” To endure the circumstances of his banishment, his fear, and his remorse at having betrayed Anna Akhmatova and others during his interrogation and torture, he immersed himself in the black earth’s vast landscape. His exilic poems are vibrant with the objects around him, the inanimate taking on a breath of its own.

Mandelstam wrote The Voronezh Notebooks from 1935-1937, primarily by composing them in his head while walking; his poetry by then was strictly forbidden and Stalin’s reign of terror was at its height. He never relinquished hope of returning to publication, but, unlike Pasternak, he was never able to navigate his poetry into “acceptable” Soviet culture. He wrote under the constant threat of death, which finally came in a transit camp near Vladivostok on December 27, 1938. Last year, a monument in his memory was erected in Moscow marking its 70th anniversary.