PEN WORLD VOICES
Interview – Laszlo Jakab Orsos:
Written on Water
“What writers and literature can do for the world is to not be afraid, It is our vision at PEN and our responsibility to examine the role of the public intellectual and what he or she can and should do for the world.”
Laszlo Jakab Orsos, Director, PEN American Center World Voices Festival
On a breezy Saturday morning on the last day of April 2011, Jakab Orsos, Director of PEN American Center’s World Voices Festival of Literature stood at the edge of the High Line, New York City’s first elevated park.
The festival was in its penultimate day of a successful seven-day run and Orsos, arms folded across his chest, watched a crowd of three hundred souls gather for what was billed as the High Line’s first Karma Chain.
By mid-afternoon, the Karma Chain was an ephemeral memory. With a sold-out event on the horizon featuring the writers Jonathan Franzen and Elif Shafak, Orsos, who was warding off a cold, took time to talk with Executive Editor Kim Nagy and me about the festival’s mission to promote freedom of speech and to integrate writers and literature fully into the fabric of New York City.
Before moving to New York in 2005, Orsos was a well-known artist and public intellectual in his native Hungary. He was a columnist for Hungary’s biggest daily newspaper, a professor at the Budapest Academy of Film, and an award-winning filmmaker. In addition, he co-founded a literary and philosophy journal, and created a popular cabaret called Sugar. But as much as Orsos accomplished in Hungary, he felt pulled to leave.
“The reason was partly personal,” he said. “I loved my life, I felt that it was a bit narrow; that I still needed to grow. I felt then as I do now, that New York is the richest city in the world as far as culture and diversity are concerned.”
WRR: You began your career in New York in 2005 as the Director of the Hungarian Cultural Center, which has hosted PEN events.
ORSOS: While I was still living in Hungary and teaching in Budapest, I had the opportunity to become a visiting scholar and taught in the graduate film program at NYU, so I was familiar with New York City.
I arrived with the goal of expanding the vision and visibility of the Hungarian Center. It was amazing, enlightening and very sobering to understand myself as a Hungarian citizen and to put aside my personal political agenda for a broader agenda, one in which I had to represent my country full-heartedly.
At the Hungarian Center, I saw my curatorial position as a way for Hungary to deal with issues of race, class and corruption. And believe me, my vision was not welcome by all politicians. We brought an inspiring, edgy, and I believe honest Hungary to the public. And given the nature of New York, there was a large audience for this.
I rented a loft in Soho that worked not only as an office, but also as a space for readings and film and conversations; and this is where we co-hosted events with the PEN American Center.
WRR: How has your view of Hungary changed now that you’ve been in New York for nearly seven years?
ORSOS: Hungary is a peculiar country. It is small and landlocked and our borders have changed over the years, so our history isn’t direct or clear. Anything and everything is questionable including our relationships to minorities, our cultural heritage, even the vision of our own artists. When I was very young, I found it to be an exciting challenge to break down stereotypes. But later, it became an ordeal, then tiring, and finally boring.
However, I think that one tends to get locked into one’s own culture, no matter how big that culture might be. And while my culture was very rich and offered the advantage of being in the middle of Europe, I realized that I needed new challenges.
WRR: The PEN World Voices Festival seems a natural fit for you.
ORSOS: Yes. When my term at the Hungarian Center ended, I felt that I still had something to do in this city. When PEN World Voices former director Caro Llewellyn left to run the New York Public Library’s Centennial Celebration, I felt that to be a cultural diplomat on the international level, the PEN World Voices Festival is a must. First of all, literature is one of the best selling cultural items, but the challenge is to find viable venues and present literature in an entertaining way.
I think for any festival – you have to do it with a full heart. You will fail if you try to hide part of your personality, or if you don’t immerse yourself or recognize your job as its own art form. You have to open yourself up to and bravely accept all reactions to your programs.
WRR: At this year’s festival, you brought film into the mix. Why?
ORSOS: To me, the gesture of writing is a much broader phenomenon than the printed object. I’ve had the opportunity to teach at film schools around the world in Cuba, Istanbul and here in New York, and I particularly appreciate the film editors who are sitting in front of their computers and writing.
Their job is to pace the film and focus on the message. And they have to be precise all the time because in their edits, they are actually creating the story. To me, writing is about finding and defining your personality and your role in the world, and being able to present it so that others may digest it and broaden their world view.
WRR: How did growing up in a traditional Gypsy family shape you?
ORSOS: I grew up in an immense loving family. I have three older sisters, the youngest of whom is twelve years older than me. My mother was a very strong, very emotional and tough woman. My sisters were like her, so I grew up with powerful women.
My dad was the one who kept the tradition. He grew up in a village in western Hungary near the Austrian/Slovenian border where there were no other gypsies. At the end of World War II, he spent four years in a forced labor camp. When he came back, he spotted my mother who was sixteen. He said, ‘I want to marry this beauty.’ And he did.
He was offered a job with the Hungarian/American Oil Company with its own housing, a suburb with open gardens, a swimming pool and a tennis court. And into this world, he moved our gypsy family.
My father (also named Jakab) was one of the first advocates for gypsy culture. He had a God-given ability to communicate, and in addition, he wrote two volumes of short stories. Friends and family still talk about the role he played in the 70s to bring gypsy culture into politics.
He worked in an office for the oil company and he hated it. He said, “I am a gypsy and gypsies don’t work in offices.” He finally quit to pursue a traditional gypsy profession as a wood carver, but also to make time to write.
WRR: In many ways, your family was separated from its gypsy culture.
ORSOS: Yes. Since we were living in a suburban setting disconnected from the gypsy culture, my mother worked hard to have the family blend in.
No matter how much my mother wanted to blend in with the gadjo, or non-gypsies, she never quite did. But she worked hard to run the household. She taught kindergarten and earned enough money to make sure her children went to school and had opportunities to lead impeccable lives.
She would wake in the morning and sit down with a big mug of black coffee and a cigarette and stare at the garden and for an hour wouldn’t say a single word. In front of her, she had a piece of paper and made notes. She was always making notes. At 58, she had a stroke and ironically, couldn’t speak. My father took care of her the last four years of her life. I learned from her that the most that you can give to your kid is unconditional love. It is simple and difficult to provide this.
Because of my mother and father and what they experienced, I have always felt that I should serve the underdogs and those people who are helping to give voices to the underdogs, to everybody who is oppressed or not brave enough to express his or her feelings. For me, that is the right and duty of the public intellectual.
WRR: You have a reputation for organizing engaging, intellectually challenging and successful festivals. How do you put panels and events together?
ORSOS: It’s an interesting procedure. First you test the waters, meaning that you have to understand what’s going on around you and in other people’s minds. Also, you must read the artist’s work to understand what’s going on at the artistic level and what’s going on in the piece itself. This is the responsibility of the curator.
You have to be willing to get into an artist’s life and be quick and flexible. You talk to people, of course, and you are always reading. You boil down ideas and start to focus on certain issues. For the 2011 festival, I knew that I wanted to do something with China, with Russia, I knew that we had to do something with the prison system.
The international literary community presents these amazing thinkers and writers such as Vladimir Sorokin, author of The Ice Trilogy, and one of the most celebrated living writers in Russia. The festival gives us the opportunity to bring their work to a wider audience.
WRR: But without some form of entertainment, it’s difficult to bring literature to a wide audience.
ORSOS: Yes, exactly. You have to ask yourself, who are the experts? Who could be interesting and controversial?
This is the hard core of the festival. But you also have to build another layer, a shell, so to speak, of profound entertainment. Of course you have to preserve literature’s dignity and your own dignity. This is your challenge.
For the 2011 Festival’s opening event, I was adamant that we have it at the lighthouse at Chelsea Piers. I wanted to suggest to people that whatever you do with writing, with art, you must be humble because even the work of the greatest artists fades away. It’s there and not there. It resurfaces and rises again and moves with the tide. We had a tremendous response from the audience and the artists which included Giaconda Belli, Malcolm Gladwell and PEN’s past president, Salman Rushdie.
WRR: Another entertaining and moving event took place at the 92nd Street Y and featured the legendary performance artist and musician, Laurie Anderson, accompanying an international group of poets.
ORSOS: It was my dream to work with Laurie. I emailed her and she said, “Alright, let’s meet for coffee.” There we were sitting at a cafe’ at 8 a.m. sipping our coffees and she looked at me and said. “What is it you want me to do?”
I tried to explain my vision for the festival in about 15 minutes and she said, “You know that I’m in.”
And then we started selecting the poets. We spent time thinking about the event, which we were calling, “Poetry as the Second Skin.” We wanted to show how each of us walks in a skin of metaphor and dreams.
We started with a more complicated show, more music and images. But, when we read the authors’ poetry, we said. “Yes, this is more interesting. Let the poets read their work.”
It became clear to me that at this stage of her career, Laurie still focuses on the most important issues and enters into them with an enormous wisdom.
WRR: September marks your first anniversary as Festival Director. How do you envision the Festival’s future?
ORSOS: I believe that an invitation to attend the World Voices Festival should be irresistible and should continue to create a platform of ideas that will resonate throughout the year and enter into public discourse. If one takes the time to imagine a new color scheme and smell and taste, there’s no reason why creating a perfect balance of literature and political consciousness shouldn’t happen in New York City.
Ultimately, I see the PEN World Voices Festival as a player in the intellectual game, not only culturally and politically here, but internationally as well. What if we could lead our audiences back to the consciousness of the seventies and eighties when literary discourse was glamorous and desirable? I realize this is a very ambitious project, but we have to try.
WRR: Your vision speaks to your background in film as well as literature.
ORSOS: Nothing is more interesting than when you look into a true mirror and acknowledge that the world is changing. I believe that literature coupled with image is one the biggest changes of the last decade. But in my opinion, September 11, 2001 also changed many things worldwide and they are still changing.
The most intriguing part of my job is to prove that we have to recognize the narrative arc of stories in every shape and form. Graphic novels are already a given. Even the art of telling gossip is a form of literature. You have only a certain amount of time to establish your characters and reach the peak of your story in order to surprise your partner.
With the rise of the Internet, we’ve also reached a point where there won’t be the kind of literary superstars we’ve had in the past. We will have our own personal superstars in smaller circles and these circles will intersect.
WRR: As an accomplished writer, what is your next project?
ORSOS: My dream is to write a fictional story of my family. In many ways, leaving Hungary helped me to regain my innocence. I was able to step away from my life and embrace emotions that were buried within me. I realize that one of the more demanding tasks is to recognize the beauty of our emotions and give them shape through story. This I hope to do. And really, there is only one problem with my dream. To do that, I will need time.
PEN AMERICAN CENTER: Click Here.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul