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On my blog The Great Gray Bridge, I’ve put up a preview post for visitors to my site and others who may not be familiar with World Voices, or don’t know it’s starting in just a few days. Mentioned the Margaret Atwood and Mona Eltahawy events I’ll be covering the night of May 3. Also, put a plug (below) for PEN in to my post and have shared the whole thing out via Facebook and Twitter. 

«PEN encourages active literary citizenship so if you are a writing or publishing professional, and have been considering getting involved, I suggest you do so. The international and domestic work PEN does on behalf of free expression is extremely effective and important.»

Speaking of Facebook and Twitter, if fellow Festival Correspondents are on FB and/or Twitter, please ‘friend’ or follow me there so we can keep track of one another before and during World Voices. On Fb, you can friend me at ‘Philip Turner,’ ‘like’ my blog The Great Gray Bridge, or on Twitter follow me at @philipsturner. Lilly at PEN has told me the Twitter hashtag we’re using for World Voices is #PENFest12. Thanks. 

The National Book Award finalist My Name Is Not Easy is Debby Dahl Edwardson’s third book for young readers. With each of her books, Edwardson has engaged increasingly older readers, and people have asked her if her next book will be for adults. She responds that writing for children and young adults is her calling. Great children’s books create the readers of tomorrow. And coming from an Inupiaq community in Barrow, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle (where residents now enjoy nearly 24 hours of daylight), she sees her mission as that of bringing the heritage and experiences of the people of her community to a wide audience. “We are a multicultural country, and our books should reflect that,” Edwardson says.

My Name is Not Easy explores the lives of several Inupiaq and Athabascan children sent in the early 1960s—shortly after Alaska’s statehood—to a Catholic boarding school in the interior of the state. At Westbeth, Edwardson read two brief passages from this powerful story, both centering on an experiment that the U.S. Army conducted on unsuspecting Inupiaq children, experiments that involved drinking radioactive iodine in the belief that X-raying the children would reveal how they survived in such a cold climate. Luke, whose story is based on the boarding school experiences of Edwardson’s husband, submits to the dangerous experiment. Another Inupiaq boy, Amiq, tries to escape and is aided by Sonny, his rival at the school who is not exposed to the radiation because he is Athabascan, from another part of the state.

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Editor and author David Levithan’s conversation with Caldecott Medal winner Brian Selznick began with an introduction by PEN Children’s Committee chair Susanna Reich. Reich invited the 50 attendees to join the Children’s Committee and help with its valuable work of organizing presentations and panels, sponsoring authors to speak in schools and prisons, publishing conversations with notable authors on the PEN blog, and administering two awards.

The conversation itself and the audience questions afterward focused on three themes: 1) Selznick’s attraction to history and technology, 2) the ground-breaking interaction of pictures, text, and film in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, and 3) his openness about being a gay children’s book creator. Addressing the place of history in his books, Selznick said that what most fascinates him is how his characters can make their way through the world without the technology on which we have come to depend today. That doesn’t mean he has banished technology from his stories; rather, he has sought to explore the technology that existed at the time his characters lived. Like writers of steampunk, Selznick is especially interested in the technology of the early 20th century, “where you could make everything…with your own hands.” Many of those inventions that were made by hand were also given ornate decorations, which showed the care that went into them and the personalities of their inventors. Selznick also talked about his decision to set part of Wonderstruck in the 1970s, when he was a child living in suburban New Jersey. That part of the novel is set in New York City at a particularly difficult time (a time that included the financial crisis, the blackout and riots, and a serial killer on the loose), and he said that “If you can fall in love with a place at the worst time, you can fall in love with it at any time.”

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Yesterday’s panel on Children’s Rights at Cooper Union featured authors who write for both young people and adults, though with its majority of YA authors it brought home the message that young people are concerned about more than shopping, sports, and vampires. Moderated by PEN Children’s Committee chair Susanna Reich, the panel included Polish journalist and novelist Wojciech Jagielski, children’s/YA author Debby Dahl Edwardson, YA author Patricia McCormick, and Cambodian human rights activist Arn Chorn-Pond, whose story of surviving the Khmer Rouge is the subject of McCormack’s forthcoming book Never Fall Down.

McCormick set the tone of the panel by observing that, in the years since the publication of her award-winning YA novel Sold about child prostitution in Nepal, she has seen a tremendous response among teens who want to hear about their peers around the world. (As the author of a historical novel set during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, I second her observation about the natural curiosity of teens and their willingness to think about issues outside their immediate experience.) Edwardson, author of My Name Is Not Easy about indigenous children stripped of their language and culture at a boarding school in Alaska in the early 1960s, connected the issue of children’s rights around the world to the right of parents in the United States to have control over their children’s education. Arn spoke about being relocated from war-torn Cambodia to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he saw children carrying guns as part of gangs. At that point he decided to devote his life to becoming a peacemaker and to healing the effects of war.

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 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.