April 30, 2007
THE ARTHUR MILLER FREEDOM TO WRITE LECTURE: DAVID GROSSMAN AND NADINE GORDIMER
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 very 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 speach, 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. 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.” In her interview with Wild River Review (to be published in full next month), 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.”
For our part, Wild River Review heartily agrees. WRR plans to pursue the conversations embarked upon in the World Voices Festival with an ongoing series on our website featuring interviews, essays, and in this series of blogs.
When I look around me, 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
April 29, 2007
For me, to remember Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski is to recall Africa in rich, exploratory detail, especially as it appears in his book The Emperor
and in his collection of essays in The Shadow of the Sun
. Having grown up in Africa, I am unable to feign the impartial here, yet in truth, the reason that the brilliant and beautifully written works of Kapuscinski appealed to me in the first place is precisely because of the sensitive and uniquely “human” way he reported on his experiences in Africa, whether they were in Congo, Angola, Nigeria or even Ethiopia.
When I heard of Kapuscinski’s passing early this year, I found myself tremendously saddened by this — and yet, at the same time, in the mood to celebrate his life and work. At PEN World Voices tribute to Kapuscinski at the New York Public Library, the duality of my own private response to the news of his death was echoed in the speeches given by distinguished writers, most of whom knew Kapuscinski (and/or his work) intimately. And as each writer took to the podium, one thing was clear: there is a whole lot to celebrate in the very man himself as well as in his work.
In unanimous agreement, all of the writers mentioned the admirable human qualities that defined Kapuscinski not only as a writer but also as a person — his modesty, his vulnerability, his self-effacing generosity, and his gentleness.
For German journalist Carolin Emcke, for instance, who confessed to having little or no interest in the topics that Kapuscinski covered, it was the man behind the written words that intrigued her the most even before she met him — and the way, she said, “he brought his vulnerability into his writing, never claiming to be unmoved by what he saw and writing about the fragility of judgment, about not knowing anything about other people or even himself.”
In his introductory speech, Salman Rushdie noted similarly, saying that Kapuscinski had “the ability to become a zero” (or, as in Kapuscinski’s own words, “to make himself not worthy of a bullet” in dangerous situations) — and that this single gift allowed us to have the unquestionably beautiful work of Kapuscinski. Hearing this, one might wonder as did a journalist interviewing Kapuscinski in a brief documentary shown at the tribute, if an attraction to danger fueled his unrelenting pursuit of the story under some seriously life-threatening circumstances. Kapuscinski’s response to this, in a soft but resolute tone, is simple: that danger is a terrible thing and that he never saw people who don’t feel fear.
If it wasn’t an attraction to danger, then what was it that drove the lone journalist to risk everything, including life itself? The Polish writer Adam Michnik, who gave some context to Kapuscinski’s early life in Poland as a communist, might have given us the best answers to this question at the tribute. Kapuscinski, he said, “rebelled against the world of privilege, choosing to side with the poor and the powerless.” Thus he was fascinated by the postcolonial world where he could write about the “silence of dictatorships” in all its gruesome and tragic effects on human lives. He chose to write, Michnik continued, about “worlds in which great hopes were being brought down.” And write he did, with what American journalist/writer Philip Gourevitch accurately described as “a clear fine-tuned sense of the absurd.”
At some point during the tribute, Michnik had to remind us that Kapuscinski was Polish, as none of the writers who had already spoken mentioned it — and a “cosmo-pole.” The audience laughed, and I took note, remembering once again what might have been one of Kapuscinski’s main ambitions and his greatest achievement. Through his exquisitely poignant work, he showed us, simply, that there are others who have different stories and life experiences.
Emcee Nona aka New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts
Musician/Poet Oliver Lake and Chinese Poet Huang Xiang
Argentinian/Uraguayan Novelist, Carlos Maria Dominguez
Poet, Saul Williams
Playwrigt/Actor, Sam Shepard
Poet/Musician/Activist, Patti Smith
photo by Dale Cotton
“Inchworm, inchworm, measuring the marigolds…”
OLIVER LAKE AND XUANG XIANG
photo by Dale Cotton
1. Wild Beasts
I am a wild beast hunted down
I am a captured wild beast
I am a wild beast trampled by wild beasts
I am a wild beast trampling wild beasts…
What colors I use to paint you
From far away you are impenetrable
Like a lake of black lacquer…
3. The Wisp of Light
There is a sort of space
That’s a different vastness
There is a heavenly body
That’s a different great arch
Each cell in my body
Is an unattainable distance…
CARLOS MARIA DOMINGUEZ
photo by Dale Cotton
Arises from the audience. Removes his hat and humourously pays tribute to Nona, then reads:
The dead girl lies on the ground, naked, her arms spread open…
photo by Dale Cotton
Love is an art form surely removed from its element…
Pyramids are first made of flesh and hisses, portals…
The greatest Americans have not been born yet, they are waiting for the past to die…
photo by Dale Cotton
I used to buy Nina Simone ice. She was always nice to me. She called me, “Dahling…”
Her performance was aimed directly at the throat of a white audience…and then she aimed for the heart…
My mom carried a 45 for a while — a child on one hip; a pistol on the other…
photo by Dale Cotton
Sam and I are old pals. We met in 1970 — we were staying in the Chelsea Hotel in close proximity (laughs).
One night I had a strange dream and he said, “You should write it down.”
So I did: “Have you seen Dylan’s dog? It’s go wings…It can fly…”
Sam got me this guitar in 1970. I still have it and we’re still friends…a 31 Gibson..it’s priceless but most of all because Sam got it for me…
photo by Dale Cotton
This song is for William Blake…he went through his entire life with no success…but he kept his vision…
So throw out your stupid cloak,
embrace all that you fear,
‘cause joy will conquer all despair in my Blakean year, in my Blakean year.
Mercy hath a human heart, pity a human face, love a human form divine, peace a human dress.
Mercy and pity and peace and love, we pray in our distress,
and mercy shall embrace, mercy shall embrace,
is the mercy,
April 28, 2007
NEW YORK, NY — The synchronized daily rhythm of the life of the world’s greatest metropolis is conducted by the interaction
of people and place… of commerce and dreams… of art and life. The calculus of collaborations great and small work together to give
this place its tempo and its pulse.
And sometimes, this pulse quickens… as it has this week. The influx of 162 writers from 45 countries for the Third Annual PEN World Voices International Literary Festival has brought a shot of adrenaline into the cultural epicenter of America. This gathering of thinkers from around the planet are here in unison — a collaboration of voices having serious conversations about how we all work together… at home and away in far-off lands.
And on this particular cool April evening on West 37th Street — that’s just the topic of conversation tonight: Collaboration.
Neil Gaiman (see “Myth, Magic, and the Mind of Neil Gaiman”) and Marguerite Abouet brought insight and delight to an appreciative audience in an intimate performance space at Midtown Manhattan’s
37 Arts at this 26 April PEN World Voices event. This dialogue, moderated by Novelist
Sean Wilsey, featured a wide-ranging discussion about the collaborative process in the creation of graphic novels as well as working in other media
and of the expatriate experience.
Gaiman (a 20-year veteran of the comics industry with Sandman, The Eternals, 1602, Violent Cases and many more —
as well as New York Times bestselling novelist, children’s book author and screenwriter) and Abouet (whose freshman outing with Aya
has drawn international acclaim), with the aid of an interpreter, had some intriguing responses to one of Wilsey’s intial questions about the desire to draw their own comics as
well as working with an artist.
MARGUERITE ABOUET: I would like to be able to draw myself — but it’s like the English language… I don’t speak it very well.
Neil Gaiman discussing the collaborative process and experiencing his work as visualized by an artist.
NEIL GAIMAN: I used to wish I could draw as well as some of my artists do. And then I made the fatal mistake of trying to draw — and it was a thing
called the “24 Hour Comic.” It was an invention of Scott McCloud. You had to write, draw and letter a 24 page comic in 24 hours.
And I saw the type of comics that my friends who could draw were doing and I thought that I could do something as good as this. I tried… and
failed. In fact I did a 14 page comic in 24 hours. But, by the end of that I was definitely cured of any desire to draw my own comics.
I realized that part of the fun of writing comics is to be able to say, “And then 5000 spaceships come over the hill.”
SEAN WILSEY: And you’re done.
NEIL GAIMAN: And I’m done.
And the idea that five hours later that you’re sitting there still drawing spaceships going, “What idiot wrote this? My hand hurts.”
I’m also think I’m very, very fortunate that I get to work with brilliant artists that can draw some of what’s in my head.
And when I want to have complete control, I go off and write a short story or a novel. But I take no pleasure in novels. I take no pleasure
in my own prose. I can’t pick up a prose work that I’ve written and look at it and think what a wonderful piece of work this is. Whereas, I look at something that I’ve scripted with pleasure — and think what a great job they did. This is great. I can be proud of it in a way I can never be with my own prose.
Wilsey also inquired about the expatriate experience as a citizen of a colonial power now living in its former colony (Gaiman) and a denizen of a former protectorate residing in the former patron state (Abouet).
Marguerite Abouet on Aya as a hopeful and spirited coming of age story in Ivory Coast.
NEIL GAIMAN: I think it’s very good for a writer to be an expatriate in a way. I think it’s good for a writer to be out of their own environment because it’s good for a writer to be anywhere that makes them feel slightly uncomfortable and watch things.
SEAN WILSEY: Creatively speaking, does that distance inform what you’re doing?
MARGUERITE ABOUET: As a citizen of a colonized country who emigrated to the dominant country, I’m very proud to write a story about my country about the good side of my country and show that to the French people.
NEIL GAIMAN: When I moved out from England to America I found myself writing for the first 8 years fiction all set in England it was in some ways easier to write about the place that I had left now that I had distance.
MARGUERITE ABOUET: Same thing with me. I understand — that happened to me too.
I thought I would have forgotten everything that I had lived in Africa. So when I arrived in France, I could remember easily all the stories that had happened back in my country. It’s true that it’s easier.
The conversation was punctuated with Wilsey’s clelever banter, Gaiman’s gentle wit, and Abouet’s earnest remarks. The hour-long program
was followed by a book signing.
Tales laden with uncertainty, anxiety, loss, and displacement filled the room at Hunter College as the panel of speakers at PEN’s World Voices Festival spoke of their individual journeys as asylum seekers across the world.
Ishmael Beah — whose book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,
was just published in February 2007 — initiated the conversation. During the recent Civil war in his native Sierra Leone, at the age of thirteen, having lost his parents and other family members, he left one destroyed and burning village for another, running all day and night with his brother and friends, sleeping on bare floors and on tarpaulins.
In subdued tones, he recounted how he was recruited by the rebels to fight as a child soldier. “Innocence was replaced by fear,” he explained. “We could not think of a future beyond each minute. But if we lost hope, we lost faith.”
In 1964 there was a revolution in Zanzibar and although novelist Abdulrazak Guhma was in no immediate danger, he decided to leave for a new life in England. “Nobody held a gun to my head but I wanted to be unafraid.”
Gurnah looked at the refugee emergency from the point of view of the receiver and the anxiety that can cause. He pointed out that anxiety about refugees is often generated by what the press talks about and how they talk about it. And he posed questions: How dangerous does the situation have to be that you’re running away from? What can be done to help the plight of the refugee?
Gurnah also had some answers: Refuse to be ignorant. Refuse to respond reflexively. We must insist on understanding what is going on.
Laila Lalami, Moroccan born author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, discussed how she’s been around refugee emergencies all her life. The crisis of poverty creates its own refugees, she said.
The northwest tip of Africa, Morocco is the gateway to Europe. It has become both the sender and recipient of refugees as some reach Morocco, but get stuck there becaue they can’t afford to emigrate. Women, in particular, fall victim to the toll that traveling long distances puts on them. They are often abused or prostitute themselves to survive. Pregnant women or women with children can be denied a ferry ride across the straits to Spain.
Saadi Youssef, a prolific poet and novelist, was forced to depart his native Iraq as he sought to be free and independent. He had a complicated “voyage”as he described it—you have to look in an atlas to find all the places he went in his search — Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, France, Cyprus, Lebanon. But he learned that the voyage is more important than the destination, teaching him how to respect people and cultures as sources of love, art, nature, and history.
Although over two million refugees have been created in Iraq alone over the past few years, Lalami noted that a recent picture in a European newspaper showed a group of tourists sunning themselves on the beaches of the Canary Islands, oblivious to the washed up bodies of Africans on the adjacent shores. All the panelists agreed that the situation has now become a catastrophe which we cannot afford to ignore and for which we all bear some responsibility.
April 27, 2007
Older Posts »
Adriaan van Dis found out he was Dutch in Paris. Pia Tafdrup went from Denmark to Jerusalem to look for her Jewish roots. Alain Mabanckou lives in Los Angeles with the Congo in his heart and in his memories.
At Thursday afternoon’s PEN World Voices event, “Multiple Passports,” held at Hunter College, van Dis, Tafdrup, and Mabanckou generously shared what homeland and identity mean to them in conversation, and through their poems, stories, and travel books.
Van Dis had three “brown” half-sisters born in Indonesia, an Italian father, and never felt Dutch in Holland. He never identified with any of his family but said he was trained to be an outsider — “it is always the other who will tell you who you are,” he laughed ruefully. But he has never felt an outsider with language — “it is always under my skull.”
At the age of forty Pia Tafdrup, an established poet, playwright, and novelist, went from Copenhagen to Jerusalem to discover the Jewish part of herself. She wrote the poem, “Horizon” there, in an attempt to confront her Jewish identity and try to understand it. She learned that there are many ways to be Jewish and for her it is an inner feeling.
Mabanckou left home at seventeen to be educated in Paris. He joked that you have to know a minimum of seven languages to be able to date a girl where he was born in Congo-Brazzaville. All these languages are oral so when he is writing in French it can sometimes take him a week to find the right word. He can feel it in his native language but there is no written equivalent.
All three agreed that it is important for them to travel to feed their creativity. Mabanckou said, “Traveling can change an artist’s way of writing. Distance is important to give you the best means to depict your country.” Tafdrup who said she is able to live everywhere but feels at home in her language, traveled to Jerusalem to write about what she didn’t understand. For Van Dis, who is most comfortable writing in Dutch, it is all about style.
From a global perspective, Dutch, Danish, and the 200 oral languages in Congo-Brazzaville are small but they are very real languages to each of these writers. They have been the means by which they have learned who they are and what is most important to them.
Powered by WordPress