The following post was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Molly Rose Quinn.
Monday evening’s Opening Night reading at Cooper Union was an impassioned sampling of what will play out through the week’s events and workshops. The nearly fifteen participants delivered a bold, varying portrait of bravery, intuiting the politics of literature and the literature of politics.
László Jakab Orsó, World Voices director, ignited the evening with his remarks on bravery in literature, declaring the week “the only literary festival to address political agenda alongside literary life.” To do so, he stated, is an act of bravery, but one required in order to “live a richer life.” Orsó introduction was followed by a few comments from Salman Rushdie, the festival’s founder and former PEN president. Rushdie described the festival’s origins, which he presented as “an opportunity for the voices of the world to come to New York to speak to America, and for America to speak back.”
The event consisted of four segments of readings, each diversely curated, interspersed with a group of drummers, hosted by Baratunde Thurston, formerly of The Onion and author of the best-selling memoir How to Be Black. Thurston was a passionate and humorous guide for the evening. The writing selections themselves were missives of interiority and exteriority, heralding cultural context and political agenda up against the personal life. The performance drew out the many layers of genre and discourse which characterize PEN’s mission and practice. The global exploration included drama, poetry, fiction, memoir, translation, and comedy, with readings from A. Igoni Barrett, David Frakt, Joy Harjo, Jamaica Kincaid, Ursula Krechel, Earl Lovelace, Vaddey Ratner, Mikhail Shishkin, and Najwan Darwish. The evening was most remarkable in its diversity, of literary tradition, political thought, and international reach.
Vaddey Ratner read a quietly resolute but mournful excerpt from her novel In the Shadow of the Banyan. Joy Harjo both sang and read poetry from the formidable voice of the Native American Renaissance. Jamaica Kincaid shared her desire to read Milton in place of her own work. Earl Lovelace offered a playful but penetrating tale of his childhood interpretations of war and violence, wryly remarking, “Even when I was a kid playing stick-em-up, dying was the center of my performance, I died a poet.”
A highlight for many seemed to be David Frakt, Air Force officer and defense lawyer for Guantanamo detainee Mohammed Jawad. Frakt’s presentation was a question-and-answer style dialogue between himself and prosecutor-turned-Public Defender Darrel Vandeveld (who regretfully could not attend but whose part was read by Baratunde Thurston), with an unnamed questioning voice, read by Jakab Orsó. Weaving together performative dialogue and political commentary, Frakt’s dramatized polyvocal exercise gave weight to the critical nature of the week’s discursive possibilities.
The presentations concluded with the surprise addition of John McDonough, a long time participant in the Taxi Drivers’ Workshop (which will host their own event on Saturday). McDonough’s humorous, sentimental poem was a fitting conclusion as a representation of New York life and literature in nontraditional places.