Opening Night of PEN World Voices Festival

The 10th annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature kicked off Monday night to a packed audience, with an evening of provocative and stirring talks by world famous authors, including Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky and Sofi Oksanen. Held in Cooper Union’s Great Hall, the same venue Lincoln gave his famous “right makes might” anti-slavery address, one could sense some of the same momentous urgency in the air. Given some of the speakers’ accents, it was at times slightly difficult to discern every word spoken, but their messages were uniformly clear.

The theme of this year’s Festival is On the Edge, and many of the speakers pondered the phrase’s meaning and implications in their talks. For Salman Rushdie, that meant an informative speech about the perilous state of free expression in his native India. General elections there are coming up, and he declared “the election is largely fair, largely free…voting is peaceful…and the results will be a trustworthy expression of this gigantic electorate.”  But, he countered “democracy is more than mere majoritarianism…In a truly free democratic society, all citizens must feel free all the time… free to express themselves as they choose, free to worship or not worship as they please, free from danger and fear. If freedom of expression is under attack, if religious freedom is threatened, and if substantial parts of society live in physical fear for their safety then such a society cannot be said to be a true democracy.  In contemporary India all these problems exist and they are getting worse.”  In addition to myriad attacks against literary works described, Rushdie pointed to attacks against famous Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain who was driven out of India “because of threats from Hindu goon squads who disliked his nude portraits” of a Hindu goddess “despite the long sculptural and artistic tradition [of depicting such goddesses in the nude] from the most ancient times” as among the most absurd and troubling examples.  He went on to say that official authorities were adding to the problem by often times blaming the victims instead of investigating and prosecuting those responsible for these attacks on free expression.

Salman Rushdie (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

Salman Rushdie (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

For Finnish author Sofi Oksansen, who spent some of her childhood in Iron Curtain era-Estonia, “on the edge” inspired her to expound on Russian’s invasion of Ukraine–paralleling the current state of Russia’s government with that of the Communist era, even claiming that “some [Russians] say the propaganda is worse than it was during the Soviet years.”  In reference to the invasion of Ukraine, she points to how important it is to hold people and governments accountable for past human-rights crimes saying “if that had happened you wouldn’t have trusted a government ruled by KGB men.”

Sofi Oksansen (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

Sofi Oksansen (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

Noam Chomsky painted perhaps the most dire vision of the evening, with talk of a planet “on the edge”–stating “for the first time in history humans are now poised to destroy the prospects for a decent existence and much of life.” He went on to say “we might consider the remarkable paradox that the most oppressed segments of the global population, those considered to be the most backwards and primitive, the indigenous peoples of the world…are the only ones to recognize the rights of nature…while the race towards the cliff is lead by the most advanced, wealthy, privileged societies in the world,” namely the United States and Canada.

Syrian poet Adonis, the only speaker to speak in his native language, read his poetry while it was projected behind him in both English and his native Arabic–ending with the beautiful line, “The culture of our belief in oneness has led us to a world, a land in which meaning has dried up, where springheads shed tears of only steam.”

Adonis (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

Adonis (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

The political cartoons of Gado from Kenya, were also projected behind him as he spoke. Brutally satirical, most dealt with the politics and corruption of African as well as IMF leaders, and had the audience laughing hysterically at points.  The widespread problem of African homophobia was another subject tackled in his work, as in the cartoon below showing a Catholic Father decrying that “Homosexuality is un-African and foreign.”  To which, a woman points out “so is the Bible, Father.”

Gado (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

Gado (Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center)

Paul Berman and Judith Butler both gave wonderful, philosophical talks–about the dangers of conspiracy theories such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and grief as a precursor to violence, respectively. Irish author Colm Tóibín ended the night on a more personal note, describing how he found freedom as a gay man in Franco-era Spain behind closed doors.

The festival continues with over 45 events throughout New York City through Sunday May 4th.  See our festival highlights here, or a list of all events on the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature website