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Perhaps the program was meant to illustrate how dialogues are not always harmonious; indeed the writers’ personalities shown forth in their relation to the sounds of the string quartet. A strident Rula Jebreal, whose story is perhaps best known in Julian Schnabel’s film adaptation of her book, Miral, did not seem to notice the music and talked over it, asking key questions of Americans, not provocative, she insisted, but to provoke national debate: why is there no real national debate about Iran, why are the poorest left behind for health care, why are the Republicans so obsessed with women’s bodies? Satrapi free-formed, recounting the plot of Persepolis, her graphic memoir of waking up one day in Teheran to find the mullahs ruling the day, making little school girls such as herself confine themselves to traditional dress and behavior. Distracted by the beautiful music, she stopped talking. The consummate man of theater, Tony Kushner managed to tuck his reading of a dramatic monologue into the music’s folds. Self-conscious about this effort’s success, he announced that he would be bringing the Kronos Quartet to his therapy session.
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To be honest, there are a number of reasons I have been reluctant in posting all of my reactions to this year’s PEN Festival (thankfully, as the email explained—“Live” is a relative term). For starters, there’s the caliber of the present company. That level of intimidation carried me through the first event—Kronos Quartet: Exit Strategies. I thought, “How did I end up here?” Not for lack of interest—that was clear. But, still—I thought—why on earth are they trusting me to cover this event? That was still very much unclear.

In an effort to rationalize the experience, I decided that it was because PEN is not just for authors—rather, it’s for authors and readers. And well, I’m a reader, so that must be it. Then the event started and it really didn’t matter.

I had no idea what to expect at first—how is a quartet going to collaborate with a bunch of authors? As the Kronos Quartet began playing, Rula Jebreal started things off for the authors. Are they really going to just sit on stage and talk over each other? But at some point during Jebreal’s reading, I realized I hadn’t taken a breathe in about 5 minutes. The musicians and authors didn’t talk, or play, over each other at all. It was the perfect complement. For the things that the authors couldn’t show us, the music described the scenes to the point that it almost took on the role of the characters.

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I am on the 2 train headed to Madison Square Garden. I have Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. It’s a hard copy so I can’t squeeze it into my pocket. I have to hold it proudly, which I do. It is a brilliant book about the human spirit. Last week, I attended a conversation between Ward and Paul Holdengrabber at the New York Public Library. Ward finds Faulkner inspiring. Holdengrabber introduced Faulkner’s Noble Prize Acceptance Speech as a topic of discussion.

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

Last night, I attended Politics As Story, a discussion between Tony Kushner and Paul Auster. Auster wasn’t there. I arrived late (no excuse) so I don’t know where he was. But it was May 5th, my mother’s birthday, Cinco de Mayo, so maybe Auster was drunk, with plastic beads and sorority sisters strung around his neck, their vaginas holding him by the throat, forcing him to pontificate on what it means to be a writer in Brooklyn these days. Or maybe he wasn’t at my mother’s birthday party, but celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the way American beer company’s have taught Americans to celebrate Cinco de Mayo so he was overstuffed on Tostitos and guacamole or vomiting Corona in an alley, or nursing a brain freeze caused by drinking his frozen margarita too fast. 

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If someone asked me what this week’s festival was about, my answer would be fairly simple: “it was a celebration of the arts for social change.” Kronos Quartet: celebrating music as a way to connect across borders, as a way to define oneself and one’s nation, as a way to express oneself when words are censored. Tony Kushner, Politics as Story: celebrating theatre’s ability to transform peoples’ thoughts, beliefs and actions. Salman Rushdie, Freedom to Write: celebrating our (relative) freedom of expression, and rallying for those who are without. All of these events recognized and celebrated the arts as activism.  

As he was talking about the power of theatre, Tony Kushner explained that theatre could impact the audience in a way that a well-written novel, or essay, could not. Theatre has the ability to change the world—slowly—it is not a tidal wave; it changes people’s thoughts through their feelings and emotions, to help them understand the world they live in. As he put it: “any true representation is going to show that justice is a desirable thing, that injustice is a terrible thing, that inequality is a problematic thing,” and so on.

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