Dispatch from Oslo: Larry Siems

I had the honor of attending the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo today as an official representative of PEN American Center. The ceremony, with its empty chair representing imprisoned writer and laureate Liu Xiaobo, was stunning and perfectly pitched in an especially Norwegian way—austere and straightforward, principled and direct. There were three particularly sustained, heartfelt ovations: when Nobel Committee Chair Thorbjørn Jagland said, early in his speech, that the response of the Chinese government to the award has in a sense validated the award; when he said Liu has done nothing wrong and must be released; and when he placed the Nobel medal and citation on Liu’s empty chair. I sat near many of our Independent Chinese PEN Center colleagues and other legendary dissidents and activists, and right next to the daughter of Wang Bingzhang, a prominent pro-democracy activist now in his eighth year of a life sentence in China; you can just imagine what the ceremony meant to her and to them.

Two other huge highlights, post-ceremony: I visited a preview of the exhibition on Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center that will open tomorrow. I was overwhelmed when I walked into the room, glanced over to the first wall you see, and there were three video monitors playing, from left to right, Liu Xia speaking in Beijing in March 2010, PEN’s New Year’s Eve rally, and Liu Xiaobo talking about freedom of expression. Across the room, flanking an enormous, beautiful photo of Liu, were two banners, one with Jeffrey Yang’s translation of Liu’s poem “Daybreak” and one with Don DeLillo’s text for Liu. There it was, for the world, so much of all of PEN’s amazing work.

Also touring the exhibition preview was Nancy Pelosi; as she was leaving she gave an impromptu press conference, in which she spoke with incredible humanity and passion about what this day means for so many who have worked (as she has) for so long to bring attention to China’s human rights record. Generous, eloquent, clearly moved by the ceremony and the exhibition, she did us all proud.

Here’s to Liu Xiaobo. Here’s to freedom of expression in China.

Larry Siems is the Freedom to Write and International Programs Director at PEN American Center.

Photographs, from top to bottom: Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, Larry Siems; Nobel Peace Prize Exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center, Larry Siems; Torchlight Procession outside Oslo's Grand Hotel, where the laureate typically greets well-wishers, Marian Botsford Fraser.


More poetry by Liu Xiaobo

Today, The New York Times ran an excerpt from “Experiencing Death,” a poem by Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang.
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I’ve drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring’s
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

Deep in the night, empty road
I’m biking home
I stop at a cigarette stand
A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle
some enormous brutes seize me
I’m handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged
thrown into a prison van heading nowhere
Read the rest. The poem is from a collection of elegiac poems remembering the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, and Jeffrey will be translating the whole book for Graywolf Press, as reported today in the Star Tribune:
June Fourth Elegies is an intense collection, its translator, Jeffrey Yang, said Wednesday. It is divided into 20 sections, each relating to the June 4, 1989, massacre at Tiananmen Square.

“The way the book is structured, the poems were written kind of at the same time every year, when Tiananmen happened,” Yang said. “Each one is a kind of recollection of a certain aspect of June 4. They’re very elegiac. The original title of the book in Chinese is literally something like Remembering Six Four.”
You can learn more about Liu Xiaobo at www.PEN.org/liu. You can read more of his poetry here and here—at that second link you can also hear his poems read by Paul Auster, Edward Albee, Don DeLillo, and E.L. Doctorow. (That second group of poems was first published in PEN America 11: Make Believe.) An essay he wrote about the internet in China was published in the (London) Times. (Update: a collection Liu’s political writings will also be published in English next year, by Harvard University Press.)

You can also watch Liu Xiaobo himself discuss freedom of expression here, and here you can watch several PEN writers read both his poetry and the seven sentences cited by the court in China when sentencing him to eleven years in prison.

(Photo from December 31, 2009 rally at the New York Public Library by Brian Montopoli.)


All Along the Silk Road: Music and Literature from China

This Saturday, PEN, WNYC, and PianoCulture.com present the second installment of their literary and musical collaboration: “All Along the Silk Road,” featuring a piano performance by Fei-Fei Dong, a reading by Gish Jen, and a tea tasting that will include Chinese snacks.

The event will take place at 7 pm in WNYC’s lovely and intimate Greene Space at 44 Charlton Street in downtown Manhattan. Tickets are available here, and full details are below. Hope you can make it.

When: Saturday, December 4, 7 pm
Where: The Greene Space at WNYC, 44 Charlton St., New York City
Who: Fei-Fei Dong and Gish Jen; hosted by Ina Parker-Howard


PEN America 13: Lovers

Who is dear to you? The new issue of PEN America—at the printer now; you can order it here—considers that question through fiction, poetry, short essays, comics, and conversations. Among the highlights:

* Patti Smith talks with talks with Jonathan Lethem about her love for William Blake, John Coltrane, Allen Ginsberg, and more.

* Don DeLillo’s 1983 “Human Moments in World War III” imagines the loneliness of a man in space, meditating on his fading connection to his old planet. Alongside this story is a Q & A on writing, technology, religion, and paranoia, conducted by fax (as you can see, DeLillo crafted his elegant answers on a typewriter).

* Writers salute their literary loves in the issue’s forum (and, online, readers can describe their own). Among the contributions: Yusef Komunyakaa on Frederick Douglass, Anne Landesman on J.M. Coetzee, Lily Tuck on Joan Didion, John Barth on his four fictional “navigation-stars,” and Jessica Hagedorn on Roberto Bolaño.

* Several new short stories, including “The Pretty Grown Together Children,” in which Megan Mayhew Bergman conjures the voice of conjoined twins, and “Before the Next World Cup,” Eshkol Nevo’s story of friends who consider the future with the aid of the world’s favorite sporting event.

* John Ashbery translates Rimbaud's Illuminations (print only), and also contributes a beautiful new poem, “Resettlement.” The issue also features poems by Faraj Bayrakdar, Akinwumi Isola, Natalia Sannikova, and more.

As an exclusive online feature, we’ve also put together a gallery by Daisy Rockwell, aka Lapata, called “The Rasas of Terror.” Rockwell’s painting Couple graces the cover, pictured above.

There’s much more in the issue itself, which you can order here—or better yet, subscribe, and get a free copy of the 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, featuring Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and other great writers.


Talib Kweli, Junot Diaz, Wally Lamb and more: Prison Writing Benefit, November 1

On Monday, November 1, at 7 pm, in New York City, Talib Kweli (pictured right), Junot Díaz, Lisa Dierbeck, Wahida Clark, Barbara Parsons, Sean Dalpiaz, Wally Lamb, and more will gather for a benefit reading and reception to support the PEN Prison Writing Program—which, since 1971, has sponsored an annual writing contest, published a free handbook about writing for prisoners, provided one-on-one mentoring to inmates whose writing shows merit or promise, conducted workshops for former inmates, and sought to get inmates’ work to the public through literary publications and readings.

(We have frequently published work by the finalists and winners of the contest in PEN America; see, for example, Chris Everley’s excellent “Hook Island Traveler,” published in PEN America 9: Checkpoints.)

A reception will follow the reading of fiction, poetry, and memoir by men and women who have participated in the PEN Prison Writing Program. We hope you’ll join us. Full details are below.

Breakout: Voices from Inside

When: Monday, November 1, 7 p.m.
Where: Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St., New York City
Tickets: Collaborator: $75 (limited quantity); Friend: $50. Please be advised that there is a 2 item order minimum. Purchase tickets at lepoissonrouge.com.

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.


Tomorrow night: Censorhip by Bullet in Mexico

Tomorrow night, American and Mexican writers and journalists—including Paul Auster, Calvin Baker, Don DeLillo, Laura Esquivel, and Francine Prose—will gather at Cooper Union to call attention to and discuss “censorship by bullet” in Mexico—the silencing of reporters investigating violence and corruption connected with the drug trade. At least eight journalists have been murdered in Mexico in 2010 alone; many more have been kidnapped, threatened, or disappeared.

Also reading tomorrow evening are Jose Zamora, Víctor Manuel Mendiola, and Luis Miguel Aguilar. After the readings, Carmen Aristegui of CNN en Español, Rocio Gallegos of El Diario de Juárez, and José Luis Martínez of Milenio Diario will talk about the situation in their country; the conversation will be moderated by Julia Preston of The New York Times.

State of Emergency: Censorship by Bullet in Mexico

Tueday, October 19, 7 p.m.

The Great Hall Cooper Union, 7 East 7th Street, NYC

Tickets: $15/$10 for PEN Members and students with valid ID. Visit www.smarttix.com or call (212) 868-4444. Tickets also available at the door. Seating is by general admission, on a first-come, first-served basis.


Liu Xiaobo receives Nobel Peace Prize

Read the seven sentences that landed him in prison.

Watch Edward Albee, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, and others rally for Liu Xiaobo last New Year's Eve, reading those sentences, along with some of the poems he wrote while in a "reeducation camp."

Listen to Paul Auster read those poems.

Write to the Chinese government to demand his release.

Learn more here.


The Nobel and other news

This morning, Mario Vargas Llosa, former president of PEN International, received the Nobel Prize for Literature. You can listen to his conversation with Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco, which took place at PEN World Voices 2008, here.

Tomorrow, the Nobel committee will announce the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. PEN is urging the committee to confer the award on Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned writer who would be the first citizen of China to receive the award. You can read all about PEN's campaign on his behalf here.

Next Wednesday, PEN will holds its annual awards ceremony. Anne Carson, Susan Choi, Don DeLillo, Paul Harding, Theresa Rebeck, and many others will be on hand to receive their awards, and the event is free, though seating is limited. If you would like to attend, RSVP to awards@pen.org.

The following Tuesday, October 19, PEN will presentState of Emergency: Censorship by Bullet in Mexico, an event seeking to call attention to and discuss the silencing of Mexican journalists investigating drug violence in their country. Participants include Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Laura Esquivel, José Luis Martínez, Víctor Manuel Mendiola, Francine Prose, and Carmen Aristegui.


PEN round-up: Don DeLillo, World Voices, Mexican journalists, and more

As we put the finishing touches on the fall issue, the PEN office is bustling.

Today, the 2010 PEN Literary Award winners were announced. Among them, Don DeLillo, who answered questions from PEN (via fax) on the occasion:
PEN: Thanks to e-books, blogs, and social media, writers are arguably using new technology as never before. Stories are written using Twitter, novels as text messages, and there seems to be a reemergence of serial narratives. Do you think technology will have a considerable influence on fiction? Do you think it already has?

DeLillo: The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense. Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customized, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write, and read. Here’s a stray question (or a metaphysical leap): Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words? Does poetry need paper?
To celebrate DeLillo’s award, our fall issue will include his 1983 short story “Human Moments in World War III,” the beginning of which you can read on PEN.org. For the rest, pre-order your copy of the issue (or subscribe!).

And, if you’re in New York, join us for the 2010 PEN Literary Awards ceremony on October 13.

News of this year’s winners followed just a day after PEN announced its new Director of the World Voices Festival and Public Programs, László Jakab Orsós, who joins PEN from the Hungarian Cultural Center. Jakab is also an accomplished journalist and screenwriter. You can read more about him here. The 2011 World Voices Festival will be held from April 25 to May 1.

Lastly, a trio of announcements from the Freedom to Write department: Liao Yiwu (discussed previously on the blog) has finally been permitted to travel outside China; PEN writers urged the U.N. to abandon efforts to legally prohibit the defamation of religion; and several writers from Mexico and the United States (including DeLillo) will gather next month to discuss and call attention to the violent suppression of journalists in America’s neighbor to the south. Please join us if you can.


PEN Quiz Night + the Brooklyn Book Festival

It’s busy here as we finish the fall issue; details coming soon.

In the meantime, join me this Friday, at 7 pm, along with a great group of writers—Jami Attenberg, Jane Ciabattari, Lisa Dierbeck, Rivka Galchen, Tayari Jones, Joseph O’Neill, Wesley Stace, and Justin Taylor—for the first PEN Quiz Night, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, on 38 Water Street in DUMBO in Brooklyn.

The quiz will start promptly at 8 pm, but you should arrive early for drinks and to be matched on an author’s team. That way you can compete both with and against some terrific writers. All the questions will be literary.

Quiz Night is PEN’s kickoff for the Brooklyn Book Festival, which takes place on Sunday. PEN will have a booth there, and has also put together a reading to mark the 50th Anniversary of PEN’s Freedom to Write program, which will include Cathy Park Hong, Roxana Robinson, Sarah Schulman, Xiaoda Xiao, and more.

Hope to see you there. (Pictured above: Joseph O’Neill, Rivka Galchen, Tayari Jones.)


“All these funny expressions” — Melissa James Gibson

Starting with PEN America 8: Making Histories, each issue of PEN America has included at least one excerpt from a play. In the last few issues we’ve published dramatic work by Petr Zelenka, Sarah Ruhl, George Packer, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Nilo Cruz, and most recently, Melissa James Gibson.

I’m surprised more literary magazines don’t publish drama; while scripts are written to be performed, the best ones tend to work beautifully on the page as well. That’s certainly the case with This, the play by Melissa James Gibson that we excerpted in PEN America 12: Correspondences.

Gibson has a wonderful ear for the everyday absurdities of colloquial speech:
All these funny expressions
Just Got The Baby Down
It’s like the baby’s depressed or
or like you’ve finally succeeded in oppressing the baby
I Just Got The Baby Down
I Just Got The Baby Down

This is from the opening scene; Alan is at the apartment of two college friends, Tom and Marrell, whose newborn baby never stays asleep for long. Another college friend, Jane, has joined them for a dinner party, along with Jean-Pierre, a French friend of Tom and Marrell’s.
Jean-Pierre’s a doctor
(with emphasis) Without Borders

I always think that sounds like the doctor has a messy personal life

That’s frequently the case actually

I’m a cabinet maker without borders

Tom and Marrell are trying to set Jean-Pierre up with Jane, a teacher and poet. When a surprisingly involved discussion of whether a “Brita” water filter should be pronounced with a short ‘i’ sound or a long ‘e’ sound (like “Rita”), Jean-Pierre turns to Jane as the expert on language:
You’re the poet

More of a standardized test proctor these days actually
And I teach a bit

She’s being modest Don’t be modest

I’m an aMAZing standardized test proctor
The scene is full of funny, awkward, and tense exchanges, especially after the characters begin to play a parlor game—one that brilliantly highlights the way language can carry meanings other than the ones we intend. One person (Jane, as it hapens) must leave the room, while the others allegedly create a story in her absence. Then she must return to the room and piece the story together by asking a series of yes-or-no questions. But, as Tom and Marrell inform Alan and Jean-Pierre after Jane has left the room, the real game is that there is no story, and that Jane will construct one herself through her questions. I’ll simply say that this does not go well.

In Gibson’s work, as Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times, “even the drabbest constellations of vowels and consonants—words like ‘this,’ in other words—are made to soar and leap like ballet dancers in full, ecstatic flight, or alternately stand alone in a sea of silence, ominous and resonant, like those pregnant pauses in a Pinter play.”

You can read some of the excerpt we published at PEN.org; for the rest, pick up a copy of PEN America 12. And keep an eye out for Melissa James Gibson’s next play.


The underappreciated Sergei Dovlatov

Like PEN America contributor Amitava Kumar, I knew nothing of Sergei Dovlatov (pictured right, with one-time Vice President of PEN Kurt Vonnegut, who has the lighter of the two mustaches) before I heard this New Yorker fiction podcast with David Bezmozgis (who has a novel excerpt in The New Yorker this week; he’s on their “20 under 40” list). I loved Bezmozgis’s story “Natasha,” published a few years ago in Harpers, and so was particularly curious to hear what past New Yorker contributor he would choose to read and discuss with Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor.

He did not disappoint. Dovlatov’s “The Colonel Says I Love You” is witty and wise; it demonstrates what Joseph Brodsky once said about Dovlatov (as I would later learn, thanks to Amitava): “The decisive thing is his tone, which every member of a democratic society can recognize: the individual who won’t let himself be cast in the role of a victim, who is not obsessed with what makes him different.” Dovlatov writes direct but surprising stories that draw heavily from his life; Bezmozgis aptly compares him to David Sedaris, though Dovlatov’s humor is less broad, and his circumstances—living and writing in communist Russia—give his stories a kind of moral weight, even if he handles it lightly.

So why isn’t he read more in the United States? Soon after the podcast, Sonya Chung pointed out on The Millions how hard it has become to get copies of his books in English, though they were all translated and published once upon a time (he died in 1990). “Why is Dovlatov so little known or read in the West today?" she asked, repeating a question Triesman had asked Bezmozgis. His answer: “I have no idea. It’s hard to understand these things.” As Chung notes, “Dovlatov couldn’t have said it better himself.” (Responding to Chung’s piece, the blogger languagehat, who reads Russian, said: “Dovlatov is one of the funniest and most likable writers I know, and I’m sure Americans would love him if he were properly introduced.”)

So when we were putting together PEN America 12, we decided we would re-publish one of Dovlatov’s stories. Happily, one of his translators, Antonina W. Bouis, is a generous member of PEN; I still have her copy of The Suitcase (though I’ll be returning it soon, promise!), from which we selected “A Poplin Shirt.”
When I was a child, my nanny, Luiza Genrikhovna, did everything distractedly. Once she dressed me in shorts and shoved both legs into one opening. I walked around like that all day. I was four. I knew that I had been dressed wrong, but I kept quiet. I didn’t want to change. I still don’t.
So the narrator tells us near the beginning of the story; he goes on to recount his first outing with his future wife (she speaks first in this bit):
“You can be trusted. I understood that immediately, as soon as I saw Solzhenitsyn’s portrait.”

“That’s Dostoyevsky. But I respect Solzhenitsyn, too.” We had a modest breakfast. Mother gave us a piece of halvah after all.

Then we went outside. The houses were decorated with bunting. Candy wrappers lay in the snow. Our janitor, Grisha, was showing off his ratiné coat.

....We went to the movies to see Ivan’s Childhood. The film was good enough for me to patronize. In that period I liked only detective movies, because they let me relax. But Tarkovsky’s movies I praised, patronizingly—and with a hint that Tarkovsky had been waiting for almost six years for a screenplay from me.
Near the end, the narrator reflects on the life he and his wife have lived:
Are we alike, then? I at least have a stimulus, a goal, an illusion, a hope. What does she have? Only our daughter, and indifference. We have twenty-five years of marriage behind us—twenty-five years of mutual isolation and indifference to real life. In those twenty-five years, our friends fell in love, married, and divorced. They wrote poems and novels about it all. They moved from one republic to another; they changed jobs, convictions, habits, became dissidents and alcoholics, tried to kill others or themselves. Marvelous, mysterious worlds arose and collapsed with a roar all around us. Like taut strings, human relations snapped. Our friends were reborn and died in the search for happiness.

And we? We faced all the temptations and horrors of life with our only gift—indifference. What is more solid than a castle built on sand? What is more durable and dependable in family life than mutual lack of character? What could be stabler than two hostile states each incapable of defending itself?
To read the rest, pick up PEN America 12: Correspondences, or try to find a copy of The Suitcase at your local used bookstore. And then maybe blog about it. Eventually someone will get the point and start publishing Dovlatov’s books in the U.S. again.


Billy Collins on poetry e-books (and in PEN America)

The AP writer Hillel Italie published an interesting piece this week on poetry and e-books that was picked up by a number of outlets.

“Poetry,” Italie writes, “the most precise and precious of literary forms, is also so far the least adaptable to the growing e-book market. A three-line stanza might be expanded to four if a line is too long or a four-line stanza compressed into three if the second and fourth lines have sharp indentations, as with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hymn to the Night.”

Or as happened with some poems by Billy Collins when Collins took a look at his newest book on his Kindle. He found that, as he tells Italie, “if the original line is beyond a certain length, they will take the extra word and have it flush left on the screen, so that instead of a three-line stanza you actually have a four-line stanza. And that screws everything up.”

Collins goes on to say, rather poetically, that “prose is kind of like water and will become the shape of any vessel you pour it into. Poetry is like a piece of sculpture and can easily break.”

Collins contributed two news poems to the latest issue of PEN America, “Horoscopes for the Dead,” parts I & II, and, as it happens, they begin with the experience of reading that great emblem of print, the newspaper—specifically, the horoscopes of a departed friend. I think I can reproduce their stanzas faithfully on this blog, so here’s how the first one begins:
Every morning since you fell down on the face of the earth,
I read about you in the newspaper
along with the box scores, the weather, and all the bad news.

Sometimes I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you,
nor will you be challenged by educational goals
nor will you need to be circumspect at the workplace.

Another day, I learn that you will miss
an opportunity to travel and make new friends
though you never cared much about either.
I can’t imagine you ever facing a new problem
with a positive attitude, but you will definitely not
be doing that or anything like that on this weekday in March.
And the same goes for the fun
you might have gotten from group activities,
a likelihood attributed to everyone under your sign.
In the second, he puts the paper away:
I am better off closing the newspaper,
putting on the clothes I wore yesterday
(when I read that your financial prospects were looking up)
then pushing off on my copper-colored bicycle
and pedaling along the road by the shore of the bay.
To read the rest—along with poems by Paul Muldoon, Anne Carson, and many others—you’ll have to pick up a printed copy of PEN America.


Cuban journalist freed, Burmese poet speaks, Colombian journalist excluded

Journalist Normando Hernández González (pictured right) was freed from prison in Cuba Saturday morning. He was arrested in 2003—one of 75 writers and activists jailed in a major crackdown on dissent—and sentenced to 25 years in prison for criticizing the government’s management of tourism, agriculture, fishing, and cultural affairs. His prison conditions were reportedly deplorable and he was hospitalized repeatedly over the past seven years.

As his health declined, PEN mounted an increasingly urgent campaign on his behalf, awarding him the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2007 and pressing the Cuban government to provide adequate medical care and grant him a humanitarian release. He was finally released as part of an agreement between Cuban authorities and the Catholic Church to free 52 political prisoners, all jailed since the March 2003 crackdown. He will reportedly fly to Spain with his wife and daughter today.

Meanwhile, Saw Wei, whose subversively acrostic poem “February the Fourteenth” we published in PEN America 10: Fear Itself, has given an interview to the The Irrawaddy, a magazine that covers Burma and other parts of southeast Asia (it's named for a river in Burma; credit to The Literary Saloon for spotting the interview). As previously noted, Saw Wei was jailed for disturbing public tranquility with a poem; happily, he did more writing while in prison:
I wrote some poems and essays while I was in prison. I have to make some final revisions to an essay called “Modern Art and Modern Images.” Before I was put in jail, I had already written about 50 short stories and planned to publish the stories in one go. But I couldn’t finish that, because I was imprisoned.

For the community work, we have a group called “White Rainbow.” We need more members. I want to go everywhere to help our people. If there are no restrictions, I will continue this work.

Meanwhile, a Colombian journalist, Hollman Morris, who was recently selected to participate in the Nieman fellowship program at Harvard, has been denied a visa by the United States. “We were very surprised. This has never happened before,” the Nieman curator, Bob Giles, is quoted as saying in an AP story about the case. PEN, the ACLU, and the American Association of University Professors have sent a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton protesting Morris’s exclusion.

On a lighter note, if you’re having a hard time letting go of the World Cup, here’s a possible antidote: 32 books to add to your reading list, one from each finalist nation—courtesy of Anderson Tepper. For Brazil, he selects Clarice Lispector, and suggests you join in the discussion of her final work, The Hour of the Star (New Directions), at PEN.org/penreads. That discussion has been quite interesting so far; “Clarice is not mysterious or (worse) obscure,” writes one participant in the conversation, who seems familiar with her work in Portguese, “she is intense.”

Update: The AP has the first photographs (taken by Arturo Rodriguez) of Hernández landing in Madrid.


PEN Reads starts today + other links

PEN Reads has begun with this short essay by Colm Tóibín. Check it out and weigh in with your own thoughts. And if you haven’t already, get a copy of The Hour of the Star and stay tuned to PEN.org/PENReads for more in the weeks ahead. (It’s a short book so you needn’t worry too much about falling behind—or resort to watching the movie... though apparently it’s pretty good?)

The Rumpus also has a book club and until Friday they’re giving away free books.

Also via The Rumpus: Etgar Keret (beloved contributor to PEN America) describes for the online magazine Tablet his practice of writing fake dedications. When “a total stranger” asks you to sign a book, he says, what can you write that doesn't sound smarmy or false? Which leads him to this conclusion: “If the books themselves are pure fiction, why should the dedications be true?” One book he inscribes: “To Avram. I don’t care what the lab tests show. For me, you’ll always be my dad.” And in another, which someone has asked him to sign for his girlfriend, Keret writes: “Bosmat, though you’re with another guy now, we both know you’ll come back to me in the end.”

Keret’s countryman and fellow short-short story writer Alex Epstein has just published in the United States a collection of his really wonderful stories (translated by Becka Mara McKay)—ten of which were featured in PEN America 12: Correspondences. Words Without Borders has both a review of the book and a video interview with Epstein. He participated in the PEN World Voices Festival this year, so you can also watch him converse with Norman Rush, Claire Messud, et al; listen to him discuss the short story with Aleksandar Hemon, Yiyun Li, and others; and hear him participate in the PEN Translation Slam.

And you can read the stories we published in PEN America 12: Correspondences. Here’s the shortest one:

In ’83, the horoscopes are never wrong. After ten years, she moves the rotary telephone from the living room into the bedroom. Every morning, upon waking, she lifts the receiver and listens to whispering and rustling and rattling, as at a window. Maybe this is time, suddenly returning. Maybe this is rain. Maybe this is already her mother tongue.
Read the others here.


New online reading group: PEN Reads

This week PEN American Center announced the creation of PEN Reads, an online reading group that will focus on books connected in some way with PEN’s mission—to protect free expression and promote international literary fellowship. The discussion will be built around short essays by writers, translators, scholars, and others, and participation will be open to anyone.

The short essays will be posted at www.PEN.org/PENReads, and readers will be able to comment on each post, participating in a conversation with the discussion’s contributors and with each other.

The first book chosen for PEN Reads is The Hour of the Star, a short, classic novel by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, who lived from 1920 to 1977 (that’s her above, in Paris in 1947; photograph by Bluma Wainer). The book was translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero. Here, in English, is how it begins:
Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe never began.
You can read more here. And you can read an excerpt from Benjamin Moser’s biography of Spector (the NBCC Award-nominated Why This World) here.

Moser will be participating in the online discussion, which will be kicked off Tuesday, July 6 at noon with a contribution from the great Irish novelist Colm Tóibín.


Correspondences elsewhere

Our spring issue, Correspondences, has received some kind attention from some great websites—and one of its stories, or part of that story, has taken on a new and fantastic form online.

The blog Like Fire at Open Letters Monthly calls attention to the very smart and very funny short essay by Anya Ulinich (whose very smart and very funny story “The Nurse and the Novelist” was published in PEN America 9). That essay is part of the Correspondences forum, which you can still contribute to yourself.

Also part of that forum: Sam Lipsyte’s letter to Barry Hannah, mentioned here previously and praised by the blog of American Short Fiction, along with the rest of the issue.

The email exchange between Jonathan Lethem and David Gates, also mentioned here before, was highlighted by the Book Bench blog run by The New Yorker and was called “absolutely wonderful” by The Rumpus.

(Update: GQ spotlighted the Lethem/Gates exchange as well.)

Finally, part of the story in the issue by Lily Hoang, “Sonata for a Ragdoll Without Eyes,” which is not available online—and which, appropriately for our Correspondences issue, is based on a letter Lily found—has been beautifully adapted for the web here, here, and here by W5RAn. (That’s the opening to the story above.)


The poem that threatened “public tranquility”

Saw Wei, pictured left, whose “only ‘crime’ was writing a poem,” has been released from prison in Burma, “nearly five months after his sentence expired and two and a half years after he was sent to prison for ‘inducing crime against public tranquility’.”

How did Saw Wei, according to the government in Myanmar, threaten public tranquility? He wrote “February the Fourteenth,” an eight-line poem about Valentine’s Day, which was published in Love Journal, a weekly magazine based in Rangoon. We published an anonymous English translation in PEN America 10: Fear Itself (the translation was later reprinted in Harpers):
Arensberg said:
Only once you have experienced deep pain
And madness
And like an adolescent
Thought the blurred photo of a model
Great art
Can you call it heartbreak.
Millions of people
Who know how to love
Please clap your gilded hands
And laugh out loud.
“February the Fourteenth” is an acrostic poem: When the first letters of each line are put together in Burmese, they read “General Than Shwe is crazy with power.” Than Shwe is Myanmar's 77-year-old military dictator. The issue of Love Journal in which “February the Fourteenth” was published sold out quickly after word of the coded message spread.

PEN continues to work with the Open Society Institute to pressure the government in Myanmar to follow the rule of law and release the “many other writers, journalists, and bloggers still imprisoned in that country today, including Nay Phone Latt,” who received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award this year. Learn more about (and get involved in) the campaign here and here.


Alain de Botton, Thomas Beller, and Rick Moody reflect on Twitter

Over at Guernica, Joel Whitney says that “Alain de Botton has humanized the mechanical beast that is Twitter.” As de Botton himself writes in PEN America 12: Correspondences, that is precisely the goal:
The moral, as always, is that we have to find ways of making technology work for us... the best inventions tend to have flexibility built into them, they should be able to accommodate a whole range of responses—not least, some idle philosophical maxims.
Joel has selected a few of his favorites maxims from de Botton’s Twitter feed, such as: “Modern romanticism: we go in search of one person who will spare us any need for other people.” You can read de Botton’s reflections on Twitter in our forum.

There you’ll also find Thomas Beller’s thoughts on the platform. Twitter, Beller says, has allowed him “inside a poetic process that was previously unknown to me.” Before, he explains, poetry “had a slightly medicinal quality to it... a faint aftertaste of self-improvement.” But the 140-character boxes of Twitter force you “into a realm of brevity,” and even “insist on a kind of cadence.” So he has found himself writing little numbered riffs (I call them postcards)... Sometimes,” he adds, “I’ll even go nuts and rhyme.”

The “postcard” Beller shared for our forum recounts the time his band opened for Blur in 1992. It ends with him signing a girl’s jeans, then seeing her father in a minivan waiting to her and her friends home. This gives Beller, in the present, pause:
9 Now I’m a dad, too, with a little girl who rushes to strange men to grab their leg, and smile. I think, Oh God. What are you going to do?

10 That is a memory from the Marquee, 1992.

Rick Moody also reflects in the new issue on the formal constraints of Twitter. As was widely discussed at the time, Moody published a short story on Twitter, and in a short essay (written in 140-character segments), he explains, first, his motivations:
there is something about the character-counting box that I find really thrilling, really exciting. So I got this idea that I should
attempt to write something, a narrative something, within the confines of the permitted 140 characters of Twitter. A postmodern haiku cycle..
He goes on to describe the publicity that was generated before the story began to appear, and the frustrations people expressed afterward.
Before the story was “published,” which is to say before it was “tweeted,” it got attention for its chutzpah. Still, no one had yet
read it. It existed in a publicity-oriented space, which I don’t think is a literary space, exactly. Forty thousand read it on Twitter,
more than have read most of my books. And I suppose that is good. But then there was a significant backlash, owing to “retweets.”
He concludes with a personal lesson he’s taken from the experience:
I love experiment. I love challenges. I love language as it mutates. But I also think that books are the most stable home for what we do.
And so fittingly, perhaps, the print copy of our new issue, perfect-bound like a paperback, is the only place where you can read the rest of his reflections. And if you’d like to read the story he tweeted, “Some Contemporary Characters,” on printed pages or otherwise, check out Electric Literature.

(By the way, we’ve re-booted our now annual subscription offer celebrating the publication of a new PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, which this year features stories by Alice Munro, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Annie Proulx, William Trevor, and many more. Get the collection free with a subscription to PEN America, while supplies last.)


Guest Post: Ben Greenman on writing letters to fictional characters

One of the options in our latest forum is to write a letter to a fictional character (you can read Pico Iyer’s letter to Thomas Fowler, from The Quiet American, here). The writer Ben Greenman, who published a book called Correspondences in 2008, had a similar idea: In connection with an expanded version of that book called What He’s Poised to Do, he launched the blog Letters With Character; we asked him to write about it here.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Correspondences. It was published by Hotel St. George, a visionary small press in Brooklyn, and it was more a box than a book—a banded, folded assemblage that contained three small pamphlets, each with two short stories. The stories all dealt directly or indirectly with the art of letter-writing, and how it both aided and impeded human communication.

There was a seventh story printed directly on the outside of the box, and it was intentionally uncompleted: I left lacunae in the story in the form of unwritten postcards sent between the main characters, and I invited readers to imagine them and send them to me. The Postcard Project wasn’t entirely new, of course: it was a mix of Mad Libs and Choose Your Own Adventure and crowdsourcing. But the postcards that came in had a strange energy: people took up arms against one character, or strove to create sympathy for another, or hijacked the narrative entirely.

Early last year, Correspondences migrated over to Harper Perennial and evolved into a longer collection called What He’s Poised to Do, named for the intentionally uncompleted story. My editors and I briefly debated reviving the Postcard Project, but decided instead to come at the question of letters and readers and fiction, and how they collide and collude, from an entirely different direction. The result was Letters With Character, a blog that invites readers to write letters to fictional characters. We launched the site at the beginning of May, and the letters trickled, and then poured in. Within ten days we had more than a hundred submissions: letters to Austerlitz and Tyler Durden, to Karen and Amir, to Charly and Brett and even Blue Coat. A few authors (Conan Doyle, Melville, Murakami) surfaced frequently, and certain genres (fantasy and particularly vampire fiction) were disproportionately represented.

But this is just demographic data, and the sample size is fairly small. What is more apparent is that almost from the first, readers perceived the site’s purpose in vastly different ways. A significant minority of the submissions were simple letters of devotion to characters, fan mail thanking Harry Potter for inspiring children to read, or congratulating Holden Caulfield for holding his own against a tide of hypocrisy, or praising Jane Eyre for just being herself. They could not all be published, in part because there were too many of them and in part because they were not, in the end, particularly interesting. They stayed outside the work, interacted with it only insofar as they pointed and smiled. Others were quick hits, brief missives criticizing a character’s choices, and usually romantic choices. This seemed like a valid approach—all of us have been busybodies when we read—but it was not always the most rewarding one.

The meatier letters approached reading not as a passive experience, but as an active one—and, moreover, as an equivocal one. They admitted that the best characters are difficult to locate too precisely: attractive characters, because they are ultimately unavailable to us, can cause us to feel a longing that verges on repulsion; and inoffensive characters, precisely as a result of their ingratiating nature, can inspire surprising upjuts of aggression. These better letters recognized that literature always touches us in many places at once, and they used the conventions of the epistolary form (address, signoff, highly personal voice) to control this welter of emotions.

Often, this led to comedy. A letter to A.A. Milne’s Winnie-The-Pooh demonstrates an almost sadistic curiosity regarding the puffy little bear’s dressing habits (“I noticed that you’re wearing a shirt, not just into the pool anymore but all the time. You’ve changed. Are you embarrassed or something?”), and a short, sharp letter to Jay Gatsby chides him for his indiscriminate carousing (“Can I make a suggestion? Cancel the band. Turn off your lights. Lock your doors, for once”).

Not every submission resorted to humor. There is a pained, naïve challenge to Mearsault. There is a melancholy commiseration with Magnus Derrick. There is a lovely romantic overture, of a sort, to Eva, the doomed heroine of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” There’s a brief statement of brotherhood to Xuanzang, from the sixteenth-century Chinese epic Monkey. And there is a wonderfully desperate appeal to Nicholas Payne, from Tom McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano (one of my favorite books, and one I was inspired to reread as a result of the letter). As the site grows—since I started writing this post, we’ve received letters to Jesus, to Werther, to Ma Joad, to Dracula, to Seymour Glass, and to Dare Wright’s Lonely Doll—the individual cases begin to feed a larger consideration of the psychological process at work. What does it mean to address a fictional character directly, and to consider him or her independently of the author? Are people more honest writing when they write letters to fictional characters? Are these letters diaristic at one remove? Do the letters adopt the style of the work they’re writing to, or adopt a contrary style to establish independence? The project continues, so the answers to these questions will, I hope, come into sharper focus.

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including Superbad, Please Step Back, and the forthcoming What He’s Poised to Do. He lives in Brooklyn.


“Why in God’s name would I be on Facebook?”—Jonathan Lethem & David Gates on writing right now

For our new issue about writing as a form of correspondence, we asked several writers to exchange emails about being a writer at the present moment, about the public and the private aspects of the writing life, and, well, whatever else interested them.

Some of the correspondents—Claire Messud and Mohammed Naseehu Ali, for example—had never met, while others had known each other for years. In this latter category are Jonathan Lethem and David Gates, whose long friendship led to a frank and funny exchange that includes the line above. After Lethem asked Gates why he wasn’t on Facebook, Gates replied thusly, then quoted, with tongue no doubt in cheek, a famous exchange attributed to two earlier American writers:
“Henry, what are you doing in there?”
“Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
(This is supposedly what Ralph Waldo Emerson said to Thoreau during the latter’s prison stay chronicled in “On Civil Disobedience,” followed by Thoreau’s reported reply.)

The whole exchange between Lethem and Gates is a smart, searching, and witty back-and-forth about their experiences as writers, teachers—and readers. In Gates’s first email (just posted at PEN.org; more of the emails will appear throughout the week), he brings up David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, excerpted in PEN America 11: Make Believe and much discussed (you can even watch Shields talk about the book with Stephen Colbert):
It’s helped clarify for me why I can read so little fiction these days, and why I can’t stand most of what I’m now writing myself. It doesn’t, however, explain to me why fiction works for me when it works for me—not that this is an explanation I need.
Stay tuned for Lethem’s reply—or get the whole exchange now by ordering the issue.


Sam Lipsyte writes a letter to Barry Hannah

Our new issue, Correspondences, tries to examine the ways all literature is a form of correspondence—letters from writers to readers, from writers to the world. It features a work of fiction by Lily Hoang based on a letter she found; an excerpt from Anne Carson’s new “book in a box,” made in part of old letters from her late brother; and Rick Moody’s reflections on “tweeting” a story (he reflects in 140-character segments, of course).

It also features a forum in which writers either compose a short letter to another writer (or a fictional character) or tell a story about their experience with one of the new technologies of correspondence (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

We’ve begun posting some of their pieces on PEN.org, and the latest to go up is a letter from Sam Lipsyte to Barry Hannah:
I was a Jewish kid from New Jersey. My literary heroes were meant to be Roth and Bellow and maybe Updike, for ethnic variety. Their accomplishments rightly endure. But your books burned me down. You sang, you startled, you dreamed, you mourned and exulted and laughed with new sounds, new sentences. Perhaps they bore the magic of the languages your character Ned Maximus (“thirty-eight and somewhat Spanish”) speaks: “white, Negro, some Elizabethan, some Apache.” And no matter how reckless your leaps, your sentences and your paragraphs, like tiny genius gymnasts, stuck every landing.
Read the whole thing. And write your own letter while you’re there. Oh, and buy the issue, too.

(The image above is a Barry Hannah manuscript, found here.)


Pushcart Prize for Hari Kunzru’s fiction from PEN America 10

“At the beginning of the Decadence it was easy. Although we were bored, and though everything had been done before, we were seized with a peculiar sense of potential. Our anomie had something optimistic to it. This was the golden age of our decline.”

So begins “Memories of the Decadence,” an older story by Hari Kunzru that we published in PEN America 10: Fear Itself. Today we were alerted that Hari has won a Pushcart Prize for the piece, which will be included in the next Pushcart Prize anthology, to be published in November. Hari’s short fiction has been collected in the UK, but not in the United States—yet. Perhaps someone will decide to rectify that.

This is the second year in a row that a work of fiction from PEN America has been selected for the Pushcart anthology; last year, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s “Soap and Ambergis,” from PEN America 9: Checkpoints, was tapped for the honor.

So, congratulations to Hari. And more about our new issue, and the just completed World Voices Festival, soon.


PEN America 12: Correspondences

Copies of our new issue just arrived in the PEN office. I’ll have much more to say about what’s between the covers after World Voices is over, but for now, a brief preview (by the way, you can order your own copy here—or, better yet, subscribe):

First, I want to mention pieces by 2010 World Voices participants—including fiction by Alex Epstein (translated by Becka Mara McKay), travelogue by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (translated by John Lambert, whose thoughts on translating Toussaint can be read at The Elegant Variation), and an email exchange between Claire Messud and Mohammed Naseehu Ali which is being posted in installments this week at PEN.org.

I also want to mention the beautiful excerpt from Zeina Abirached’s Mourir partir revenir: Le jeu des hirondelles (To Die, to Leave, to Return: A Game for Swallows), translated by Edward Gauvin. This is one of two comics from the issue, one from Lebanon, the other from Iran; I'll have more to say about the other comic soon.

Lastly, I want to point your attention to the forum. For this issue, we asked writers to respond to one of two prompts:
1 Write the first paragraph of a letter you’d like to send either to another writer, living or dead, or to a fictional character.


2 Describe your experience with the new technology of correspondence: Twitter, e-mail, Facebook, etc.
We got replies from Siri Hustvedt, Sam Lipsyte, Terry Castle, Pico Iyer, and many others. We’ll be posting those responses online over the next couple weeks. In the meantime, we’d love to get your your own replies.

More soon. In the meantime, don’t miss “Literary Magazines: Here and Abroad, Now and in the Future,” tomorrow at 7 pm at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, and featuring M Mark, John Freeman of Granta, Rob Spillman of Tin House, Swiss writer Peter Stamm, and Argentinean writer Rodrigo Fresán. Hope to see you there.