Audiences packed venues throughout New York City, from an East Village basement to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, May 6–12 to hear more than 200 writers, artists, and activists speak about the blurring boundary between private and public spaces. Now in its 15th year, PEN World Voices has distinguished itself as an international literary festival with a focus on human rights. Founded by Esther Allen, Michael Roberts, and Salman Rushdie in reaction to 9/11, the festival aims to expand dialogue between the U.S. and the rest of the world—a mission that PEN America said “has never been more relevant.”
PEN recruited Chip Rolley as senior director of literary programs in 2017, and last year he began to direct the festival with an approach that links literature and current events. “My hope is that festivals can provide a bridge between the ideas and issues that we’re confronting in the news or talking about with our friends and loved ones with the literature that we’re reading,” Rolley said. “I try to execute a theme that creates a through line so that the festival itself is a kind of a story. I think I’ve done that both years, and this year in particular.”
For the 2019 festival, the theme was “open secrets,” and many authors from around the world described how they’ve resisted oppression to speak the truth and reach large audiences in the process.
Onstage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, as he introduced keynote speaker Arundhati Roy, Rolley pinpointed the way that the Indian author’s literary fiction and political essays “incorporate what she has witnessed into her work,” making her emblematic of the writers whom PEN seeks to support. “For PEN, this is the work of a public intellectual and this is the responsibility of the writer,” Rolley added.
Roy’s lecture and subsequent conversation with author Siddharta Deb criticized an India whose nationalism promotes a nuclear arms program and whose Brahmanism has become an inspiration for white nationalist groups seeking institutional models for racial dominance. Roy also noted the danger in the ruling BJP party’s use of voter data: “In an era of surveillance capitalism, a few people will know everything about us and will use that information to control us,” she noted.
This year’s media partners included WNYC and the Guardian, which copresented seven events and helped realize Rolley’s vision of connecting dystopian concerns about data collected about the public online and the “flowering of personal testimony behind the #MeToo movement.” The Guardian’s partnership “really made some of those shine,” Rolley said, in part because Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian reporter who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, spoke on a panel titled, “Siri, Where’s My Democracy?”
Also during the week, tech journalist Kara Swisher spoke about creativity’s role in technology with H.M. Naqvi (Home Boy) and Dave Eggers, who invited two members of the International Congress of Youth Voices to the stage to discuss their relationship with technology and social media. Sparks flew when Naqvi claimed that American novels tend to be insular and that no writers predicted Black Lives Matter, the rise of Trump, or citizens’ surrendering of private information. When members of the audience reminded Naqvi that he was seated next to Eggers, whose novel The Circle anticipated technology’s role in the culture, Naqvi credited him as an exception. Harvard student Ifemona White-Thorpe cut through the simmering debate by questioning the traditional definition of author and claiming that it’s now possible for a tweet to make a greater impact than a book.
The festival included perspectives that are not often heard in literary conversations. At an event titled “Intimate Terrorism,” Rachel Louise Snyder said she wrote her new book No Visible Bruises because she noticed that the subject of domestic violence was rarely written or talked about. She spoke with Miriam Toews (Women Talking), Gerður Kristný, and Shiori Itō about the power of fiction, poetry, and journalism to bring hidden stories of domestic and sexual violence out into the open. Itō’s book Black Box—which has not yet been translated into English—chronicles the Japanese authorities’ refusal to prosecute her rapist because he was a powerful man. Rape is a taboo subject in Japan, she said, and “if media and society don’t talk about it, I have to talk about it.”
In other PEN panels, Tara Westover spoke with Min Jin Lee about education and self-determination; Carolin Emcke, Masha Gessen, Édouard Louis, and choreographer Bill T. Jones discussed how desire evolves beyond borders of sexual orientation; Elif Batuman and Sheila Heti talked about autobiographical fiction; and Tommy Orange spoke about the links between art and violence.
Karen Philips, executive director of the online platform Words Without Borders, which publishes many authors in translation before their books are released in the U.S., told PW that the PEN festival “is most exciting—and adds most value—when it lets us discover writers who have mostly been overlooked in the U.S.” She added, “I love the sense of discovery and difference. It’s also incredibly valuable to put writers from the U.S. and elsewhere on the stage together and experience many more perspectives on a particular issue.”
Idra Novey, a translator and the author of Those Who Knew, which has been hailed as the definitive #MeToo novel—though she believes the book’s themes are timeless rather than timely—said that “translated books are often relegated to a separate literary conversation but less so than they were 15 years ago.” She added, “I think the PEN World Voices Festival has played a role in demonstrating how illuminating it can be to read about the pressing issues of this century from writers working in different languages and in other countries.”
After 15 years, the festival shows no signs of slowing down. “The box office pattern is in line with previous years, which is heartening, because we brought the overall event number down from 90 to 75,” Rolley said. “We wanted to make it more manageable both for us and for the audience, and we’re still in the same sales range of 12,000–13,000 [tickets], so I think we’ve hit our mark.”