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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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"Writers don’t like to talk about censorship,” said Salman Rushdie, as he gave the closing lecture at the PEN World Voices in Literature Festival.  “If writing is the act of creation, then censorship is the act of non-creation.” It is, to put it simply, the very opposite of what original writing strives to be—a revolution in thought and expression.

Rushdie emphasized that original art is never made “in the middle.” It is created on the edge, which by definition means it is both dangerous and as many media outlets like to proclaim, “controversial.” It challenges the status quo, which a growing number of political regimes across the globe, are fearful of and disdainful towards. They—often far from democratic in governance—believe the silencing of words, of art, of ideas is the only means to maintain their reign of power.  And so they engage in the act of non-creation, their censorial lie replacing the artist’s truth.

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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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