PEN WORLD VOICES - The Power of Conversation:
David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer - The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture
“ This book was such an act of choosing life.”
David Grossman on finishing writing his latest book To the End of the Land after his son was killed in the Lebanon War in 2006.
© Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center
As one of my favorite college history professors used to repeat in almost every class, “You can’t kill ideas.”
On that note, Wild River Review reprises, The Power of Conversation, covering David Grossman’s PEN World Voices Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in April of 2007, during which he spoke about the importance of writing in the face of fear, "rapid and repeated media flashes," heartbreaking violence, and “the suffocation of the cliché.”
For Grossman, although the role of the writer will never be as visible as explosions in the street, their importance is no less vital.
A mother’s terrified concern for her son’s safety is the central theme of David’s Grossman’s most recent novel, To the End of the Land (Knopf, September 2010) about which Israeli author Amos Oz remarked, “I believe this is the essence of great literature: the more parochial it is, the more universal it is.”
THE POWER OF CONVERSATION
It's a tribute to the depth and richness of conversations during the weeklong PEN World Voices Festival, that on the very last night - the last of 67 events (over the course of six days) with over 150 authors from all over the world - that a full house sat in rapt attention.
PEN American Center's president Francine Prose introduced Israeli novelist David Grossman - this year the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecturer - and South African Nobel Laureate-Nadine Gordimer - two writers who have forged the severe and violent realities of their landscape into unflinching works of literature.
The air buzzed with the power of ideas and words by authors compelled to record and reflect upon the lives beneath the surface of newspaper headlines...beneath the blast of gunshots and explosions, alongside laughter and lovemaking, inside the nuances of everyday life.
In his speech, Grossman referred to Kafka's short story, "A Little Fable," and echoed the sentiments of the character of the mouse who, confounded by the limitations of its view (and a nearing trap) lamented, "Alas the world is growing narrower everyday." In a world of tangled accusations, rapid and repeated media flashes, and seemingly unsolvable problems, Grossman had to agree that "sadly, Kafka's mouse was right."
Grossman spoke about the numbing void that grows between the individual and the violent chaos which surrounds his life. "This void never remains empty, but fills rapidly with apathy and cynicism and despair. the despair of the distorted situation...."
To illustrate this narrowness, Grossman talked about the language often employed to describe the complex and terrifying affairs in his own country, Israel. Language that quickly becomes "a sequence of clichés and slogans" and ultimately all that is left are "mutual accusations between enemies" while the mass media "aims to tell a story easiest for digestion." As Grossman emphasized, the protective layers we build out of fear end up suffocating us.
But, his message was also one of genuine hope.
As an alternative to narrowness, he pointed directly to the liberty he's experienced in the process of writing. "When I write, the world is not closing in on me." For even amongst conflict and uncertainty writing - for Grossman - keeps alive the truth that there is another life.
"As soon as we lay our hands on the pen, we already cease to be a slave," he said.
Grossman, whose son - a member of the Israeli army - was killed on duty last summer, described the manifold ways in which writing not only enlivens the "power of memory" but renews and reclaims us..."It is a gesture of opening up. I am not frozen and paralyzed before the predator...I can breathe with both lungs....a natural full breathing where I manage to escape the claustrophobia of the cliché."
Novelist, Nadine Gordimer joined Grossman on stage for conversation, and began with an appropriate Proust quote. "Do not be afraid to go too far...because the truth lies there." When I spoke with her in the hotel, Gordimer mentioned another quote she paraphrased from Flaubert that seems relevant to the conversation. "I wanted to live in an Ivory Tower, but the shit kept getting all over the walls."
Gordimer posed a particularly honest and difficult question to Grossman. "What influence can writers really have?"
Though, Grossman admitted the power of words seemed feeble next to the reality of violence, he concluded that writing was nevertheless essential because it "allows people to know there is an alternative."
Grossman and Gordimer agreed that the role of good literature is to force readers to look at reality from different points of view. To, as Grossman put it earlier "identify even a little with the suffering of others and suspend moral judgement."
Gordimer disagreed with Grossman's claim that he had turned away from writing about his country for many years (until his oldest son joined the army) for, she claimed, he actually wrote about it anyway, "if you live in an age of conflict, your characters are imbued with the cage of politics and even when a man and a woman are in bed, politics is in bed with them."
At the end of the discussion, Gordimer asked Grossman how he saw the future of his country, and Grossman agreed when she stressed that justice for the Israelis must mean justice for the Palestinians. Grossman talked about the need for a border, "but not a border that imposes." He went on to say, "I want to have hope for the future of my country."
Salman Rushdie ended the final event of the World Voices Festival applauding the "use of the high language of literature used in the service of human beings." He publicly hoped the dialogues initiated during World Voices would continue, and that we "continue to listen and continue to engage."
When I look around me at so many writers, I think of a panel I saw earlier today called "What Makes a Home" and the words of Lee Stringer, author of Grand Central Winter: Stories from The Street, who lived on the streets for 12 years. Stringer commented that one upside to living on the street was that he began to define home differently - as a place to be found deep inside of himself rather than an emotional state dependent on any four walls.
Tonight, Grossman's words for writers pointed to a mandatory vulnerability and a brave vital awareness with which to exercise their innate voice. A place where we might not always feel comfortable but nevertheless where (thankfully) so many of our finest writers do feel most at home
Note: PEN serves as one of the oldest humans rights organizations and upholds a longstanding tradition of opposing censorship and defending writers around the world. The PEN American Center hosts PEN World Voices Festival every Spring in New York City.
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