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Haiti in Two Acts- May 5 @ Cooper Union
When an earthquake, or rather The Earthquake, ripped through the bowels of Haiti in January 2010, 300,000 people lost their lives. Among them were the the President of PEN Haiti, Georges Anglade, and his wife Mireille Neptune.
Today, PEN Haiti is helmed by the novelist Jean-Euphèle Milcé and his wife, the poet and novelist Emmélie Prophète. Milcé, Prophète, and the rest of the PEN Haiti staff and volunteers will conduct much of their future activities from the newly opened Maison Georges Anglade, a beautiful mountainside facility named in honor of the organization’s fallen father. Already there are plans in motion to cultivate new youth programs, writer’s residencies, reading series, and inter-cultural exchanges.
However, wonderful as these plans may be, Milcé and Prophète had their minds on more incendiary concerns on Sunday afternoon. Namely, the largely destructive intervention of northern NGO’s in the wake of perhaps the greatest natural disaster their country has even witnessed. Both Milcé and Prophète no doubt have unique and fascinating insights into the literature of their country and its place in the wider global cannon. Understandably though, both they and the author and long-time Haiti scholar, Amy Wilentz, felt compelled to share with us all the road to hell that has been paved with so many misguided good intentions. 
Wilentz began by describing the drastic changes she witnessed in the types of people making the pilgrimage to this historically troubled and complex land. Publicity-ravenous charitable organizations, growing hordes of perky Christian youngsters psyched for their ‘Awesome Adventure in Haiti’, militarised bureaucrats, they all came in their droves without an adequate understanding of how Haiti operates or how to best deliver money to those who really needed it. 
Speaking through interpreter Daniel Sherr, Milcé described the two-sided war that the country has been fighting for so long. On the one hand, it has the geographical misfortune of being criss-crossed by earthquake fault lines while also sitting in the middle of a hurricane pathway, not too mention its susceptibility to the unpredictable twin afflictions of flooding and drought. Arguably more maddening however, is the political shitshow which Haitians have been forced to watch play out down through the decades. The murky political realm has conjured up dictators, narco War Lords, and now an ongoing struggle between competing NGO’s for who can make the most use of this blighted place. 
Prophète, when pressed on the question of what happened to all the donated funds, did not mince her words: “Not a single concrete humanitarian project has been carried out fully.” She explained how the bulk of all monies donated ended up in the hands of the U.S military to maintain security or to fund the lavish lifestyles of the functionaries who were more interested in securing various creature comforts than in making a realistic contribution to the reconstruction effort. 
Despite their anger at how skewed the world’s passive perception has been with regard to the ground-level realities of “aid” in Haiti, Milcé and Prophète both recognize that there are also truly good, useful outsiders who can be of benefit to the country. Unfortunately, these people are often the first victims of this toxic, post-quake, interventionist state of affairs.
It is difficult to hear just how naive the developed world can be in its efforts to fix the so-called broken nations of this planet. How misguided the best laid plans of Clinton, the Red Cross, and the thousands of disaster tourists who pour into natural disaster zones every year truly are. But it’s necessary. All too often we fool ourselves into believing that we can pacify entire regions of wounded, grieving people with a flurry of disorganized hand-wringing. In truth the world does not work that way.
PEN Haiti seized a rare opportunity to cut through the bullshit and speak to us about what they knew to be the reality, however unpleasant it might be to hear. We would all do well to dwell upon their advice. 

Haiti in Two Acts- May 5 @ Cooper Union


When an earthquake, or rather The Earthquake, ripped through the bowels of Haiti in January 2010, 300,000 people lost their lives. Among them were the the President of PEN Haiti, Georges Anglade, and his wife Mireille Neptune.

Today, PEN Haiti is helmed by the novelist Jean-Euphèle Milcé and his wife, the poet and novelist Emmélie Prophète. Milcé, Prophète, and the rest of the PEN Haiti staff and volunteers will conduct much of their future activities from the newly opened Maison Georges Anglade, a beautiful mountainside facility named in honor of the organization’s fallen father. Already there are plans in motion to cultivate new youth programs, writer’s residencies, reading series, and inter-cultural exchanges.

However, wonderful as these plans may be, Milcé and Prophète had their minds on more incendiary concerns on Sunday afternoon. Namely, the largely destructive intervention of northern NGO’s in the wake of perhaps the greatest natural disaster their country has even witnessed. Both Milcé and Prophète no doubt have unique and fascinating insights into the literature of their country and its place in the wider global cannon. Understandably though, both they and the author and long-time Haiti scholar, Amy Wilentz, felt compelled to share with us all the road to hell that has been paved with so many misguided good intentions. 

Wilentz began by describing the drastic changes she witnessed in the types of people making the pilgrimage to this historically troubled and complex land. Publicity-ravenous charitable organizations, growing hordes of perky Christian youngsters psyched for their ‘Awesome Adventure in Haiti’, militarised bureaucrats, they all came in their droves without an adequate understanding of how Haiti operates or how to best deliver money to those who really needed it. 

Speaking through interpreter Daniel Sherr, Milcé described the two-sided war that the country has been fighting for so long. On the one hand, it has the geographical misfortune of being criss-crossed by earthquake fault lines while also sitting in the middle of a hurricane pathway, not too mention its susceptibility to the unpredictable twin afflictions of flooding and drought. Arguably more maddening however, is the political shitshow which Haitians have been forced to watch play out down through the decades. The murky political realm has conjured up dictators, narco War Lords, and now an ongoing struggle between competing NGO’s for who can make the most use of this blighted place.

Prophète, when pressed on the question of what happened to all the donated funds, did not mince her words: “Not a single concrete humanitarian project has been carried out fully.” She explained how the bulk of all monies donated ended up in the hands of the U.S military to maintain security or to fund the lavish lifestyles of the functionaries who were more interested in securing various creature comforts than in making a realistic contribution to the reconstruction effort. 

Despite their anger at how skewed the world’s passive perception has been with regard to the ground-level realities of “aid” in Haiti, Milcé and Prophète both recognize that there are also truly good, useful outsiders who can be of benefit to the country. Unfortunately, these people are often the first victims of this toxic, post-quake, interventionist state of affairs.

It is difficult to hear just how naive the developed world can be in its efforts to fix the so-called broken nations of this planet. How misguided the best laid plans of Clinton, the Red Cross, and the thousands of disaster tourists who pour into natural disaster zones every year truly are. But it’s necessary. All too often we fool ourselves into believing that we can pacify entire regions of wounded, grieving people with a flurry of disorganized hand-wringing. In truth the world does not work that way.

PEN Haiti seized a rare opportunity to cut through the bullshit and speak to us about what they knew to be the reality, however unpleasant it might be to hear. We would all do well to dwell upon their advice. 

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judithbenetrichardson:

The following blog was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Judith Benét Richardson.

Jeremy McCarter was the skillful moderator of this fascinating panel, introducing immediately the Festival’s theme of bravery.

Colm Tóibín, the author of the novel TESTAMENT OF MARY, replied that in a now more secular Ireland, he had only needed private bravery, to face the lurking Catholic attachments of his own youth. Fiona Shaw, the actress who plays Mary, also looked beyond what she felt was the arid Christianity of her childhood to old stories of the goddess. Deborah Warner, director of the play and raised a Quaker, felt it was extraordinary that no one had written as Tóibín has about Mary.

My notes are written like dialogue, but of course I am only paraphrasing and hope I don’t do these dynamic speakers an injustice.

JM: How did the novel become a play?

CT: It was better for them (FS & DW) that it was a novel, as it gave them more scope. They had to create the imagery.

FS: CT is a visionary like Blake, but the theater is more crude. It has to be more rooted, developing in action.

JM: how long did developing the play take?

FS: Months.

CT: MUCH longer. We talked about it for years, but they had to leave me out of most of it. “Writer go home. Writer shut up.”

FS: You have to see what will stand up theatrically.

CT: They needed to get down to 5 or 6 stories.

DW: High energy stories. It is so great to have a novel behind you.

CT: I was writing for a voice.

FS: But Mary doesn’t speak the way she would have, because there was a literary mind behind her voice. You get strange tenses when Mary tells stories as “what I heard.”

JM: The Reverend Jane Shaw described the play as a sermon.

DW: It is not a sermon, but it is definitely a spiritual work.

FS: We needed to make the ordinary poetical and vice versa.

CT: It was a bit like Wallace Stevens’s SUNDAY MORNING, in the effort to understand the truth of the matter, the ordinariness of the extraordinary.

FS: Must meditate on the reality of what really happens. We thought of the mother of Osama bin Laden.

In answering a question about protests against the play, the panelists felt they were nothing like previous protests in the Irish theater.

DW: Twenty-five years ago when we did ELECTRA in Derry, the audience was totally silent at the end of the play. Then someone stood up and said they wanted talk about it. It was very exciting.

CT: We’d like to do MARY in Gaza…or Tel Aviv. We need to address beliefs that lead to violence.

FS: Mary tells us she is not without sin, which makes the play humane and compassionate.

JM: Has this been a spiritual experience?

DW: Theater is a spritual experience, close to what church can be.

CT: There is a close connection between church and theater.

JM: As a child in the Catholic church, I was told every week that I was going to see a miracle - a good preparation for the theater! Is it tiring to play the part of Mary?

FS: Tiring, but worth it, if I can carry the audience with me.

Question from audience: How did you feel about the nude scene?

FS: I just do it. It has its place in the play.

JM: It’s short.

(laughter)

Q: How do you feel about your play being called blasphemous?

CT: Freedom of religion is fundamental, but so is freedom of speech. Both must be honored.

FS: MARY is a work of the imagination, not theology.

Q: Why did you have Mary feed a rabbit to a bird?

CT: I wanted an image of pure cruelty, the cruelty that is within us all.

Q: How do you reconcile your story with Mary as the handmaiden of the Lord?

FS: That was a story as well.

CT: I took my bearings from 15th century painters who tried to paint a real person. And, I taught a course here at the New School called RELENTLESSNESS. I wanted to write a relentless play. I drove along the Turkish coast and worked toward finding my rhythm. The landscape helped me find my rhythm.

Q: How did you develop the stage setting?

DW: There was only one written stage direction: NOW.

We tried hawks, rabbits and finally a vulture. We had Mary in a glass box with the vulture for awhile. It was a very long process. Production is very difficult.

End of panel.

APPLAUSE.

4

judithbenetrichardson:

The following blog was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Judith Benét Richardson.

A.M. Homes seemed to enjoy drawing Fran Lebowitz’s fire for all to enjoy. In other words, they seemed to be friends.

Fran Lebowitz, famously witty and acerbic, showed that side of herself, but her remarks reflected a search for truth. She says herself that she is an observer. She pays attention, as fewer and fewer people seem to do.

Freedom of speech? Yes, but we should also have the freedom of not listening.

Bravery, the theme of this year’s PEN festival? Americans think they are brave if they are in a triathalon.

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The following post was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Dan Sheehan.


On July 31, 2009, not long after the mass civil unrest which followed the disputed presidential elections in neighboring Iran, American journalist and photographer Shane Bauer, alongside his girlfriend Sarah and their close friend Josh, set off on a hike to find a popular tourist destination near the Iran-Iraq border in Kurdistan, the Ahmed Awa waterfall. Suddenly, a little further down the path, they found themselves being waved over by two soldiers gesturing in the distance. In walking that short stretch to the two uniformed men, Shane, Sarah, and Josh unwittingly crossed the border into Iran and were arrested. Sarah would spend the next 14 months in prison. Shane and Josh would not be released for two years. 

Shane Bauer does not have the aura of a man who has spent a decent-sized chunk of his adult life locked in a bare cell. Nor does he seem like someone who you would expect to see corresponding, visiting, and empathizing with the hardened criminals who populate the 11’ x 7’ solitary confinement cells of California’s notorious supermax prison, Pelican Bay. Yet these are the arenas in which he has been remolded.

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It’s Sunday afternoon, and two representatives of Burmese poetry are introducing us to their art. Khin Aung Aye and Zeyar Lynn, accompanied by editor James Byrne and a translator, read selections from their new anthology of Burmese poetry, Bones Will Crow. It’s a simple, no-frills presentation; two poets, a table, a stage, and an audience.

I think most in the audience, having a general knowledge of political events in Burma, are prepared for and even expectant of the seething, deep-seated anger in the poems. However, it is the poets’ generous, lively wit which brings the poems alive and forces us to confront them.

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The following post was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Sean Kevin Campbell.

“What we’re doing here is dangerous. What PEN does is dangerous,” Naomi Wolf told us. “Telling the truth is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it changes things.” Telling the truth can be hard and uncomfortable, but for the people Naomi Wolf calls heroes, the truth is “a matter of factness, it’s taking the next step, even though it means no more status, no more job, no more recognition.”

As a passionate advocate who could feel the energy in the room, Naomi Wolf led us through a night of unbridled truthiness in Obsession: Truth with Naomi Wolf as she moved through the space of The Standard’s stage on Saturday night, connecting directly with the audience and challenging the set notions of truth.

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As I walk up to the Westbeth Center for the Arts, I run into Philip Seymour Hoffman riding a bicycle—the list of intimate encounters with stars would only grow as the evening progressed at “A Literary Safari.”

After obtaining a program, and a terrible map, I follow the crowd into the depths of the Westbeth dormitory-like hallways. Absolutely no one has any idea what was going on. Bushwhacking is the best way to describe the experience.

Here are some of the treasures I stumble across:

Kiriki Matzo has lived in Westbeth on the 3rd Floor for 41 years, pretty much since the organization’s inception, surrounded by her father’s paintings. She is hosting British author Nick Holdstock, who reads from a makeshift podium—a yellowed encyclopedia-sized book on an antique pedestal. The setting sun, reflected in the Hudson, glints off the hodge-podge collection of tea pots, skulls, masks, and cassettes gathering dusk around the room.

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At Saturday’s “Going on the Record: Resistance and Writing,” the panelists discussed the role that documentation and writing can play in exposing and resisting human rights offenses. David Frakt, previously a military defense lawyer famous for the defense of Mohammed Jawad, and Alberto Mora, former General Counsel of the Navy, spoke about documentation, ethics, and accountability involved with the cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Lazarus Project, contributed a more abstract and literary perspective, drawing on Kafka and popular media to contextualize the endorsed use of torture.

Why did the abuse at Guantánamo Bay happen and continue to when such cruel and inhuman treatment is so blatantly illegal?

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The following post was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Dan Sheehan.

Israel should be perceived as a colonial regime”- Najwan Darwish

Now that I’ve got your attention…

On Saturday evening, for the first time in the festival’s almost decade-long history, PEN World Voices brought together a panel of some of the leading lights of Palestine’s literary community: Randa Jarrar, Najwan Darwish, and Adania Shibli. Their opening readings were an engrossing mixture of the brutal and the playful: Jarrar’s painful coming of age tale, ‘The Story of my Building’, Darwish’s visceral poetry of place, and Shibli’s gleeful take-down of those who would reduce her identity to that of a powerless caricature.  

These people are creators of fictions, imagined scenarios of sometimes barbarous cruelty, of anarchy loosed on innocents, yet perhaps more so than any other group of guests this week, the work of these young writers is inescapably shackled to their home terrain, its colonisation and fragmentation. 

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The following post was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Sarah V. Schweig.

With the tag line “a wild ride into the abyss,” Diaries of Exile, a reading and conversation co-sponsored by PEN American Center and the Wild River Review, is taking place in a TriBeCa Gallery, The Double Knot, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Fine rugs, folded in piles and hanging as tapestries on the walls, line the periphery of the high-ceilinged room where, in a few moments, translator and author Edmund Keeley and the founders of the Wild River Review, Joy Stocke and Kimberly Nagy, will start talking. 

It’s Greek Easter, Stocke, informs us in her opening remarks, which explains the ouzo and olives on a long table in the back of the gallery. It is also the last day of the PEN World Voices Festival 2013, and, according to Edmund Keeley, just a few days after the 105th anniversary of CP Cavafy’s birth.  

The event is named for the new book, Diaries of Exile (Archipelago Books 2012), series of diaries-in-poetry Yiannis Ritsos wrote between 1948 and 1950, during Greece’s Civil War, while a political prisoner. Translated from the Greek into English by Edmund Keeley and Karen Emmerich, many of these poems, Keeley tells us, were written on cigarette packages and buried in bottles in the ground.

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