PEN WORLD VOICES
PEN WORLD VOICES FESTIVAL OF INTERNATIONAL LITERATURE: The Future is Now:
Opening Night at the 11th Annual PEN World Voices Festival
May 4, 2015, marked the launch of the eleventh annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. We attended the opening night event, The Future Is Now, a panel of ten writers from around the world. Each writer presented their best-case and worst-case scenarios for the world in 2050.
Suzanne Nossel, PEN’s Executive Director, kicked off the evening by introducing the event and talking about her own years living in Africa.
Lázló Jakab Orsós, World Voices Festival Director, followed, starting off with a note of thanks to Salman Rushdie, who was in attendance. Rushdie began the festival in 2004 and this was his first year handing off its execution to Orsós, Colm Tóibín, and co-curator Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Orsós went on to say that this is the first year the festival has chosen to focus on a specific region of the world, mentioning that they were “brave and ambitious enough” to begin with the African continent. Africa was chosen because of its multileveled narratives and fits the festival’s mission of featuring writers who present uncomfortable and challenging topics and questions for its attendees to grapple with.
In an earlier interview with Wild River Review, Orsós noted, “The reason we’ve decided to highlight Africa this year is…simply because there are very interesting works being done in different regions of Africa. The approach of these works, the lucidity and freshness of them, is so inspiring and relevant that it’d be a mistake for a Festival director not to recognize it.”
The writers presented previously unpublished pieces that compared their visions of 2050 with present-day realities. The themes spanned violence, tolerance, freedom, advancement, discrimination, feminism, and opportunity, and they spanned scenarios both real and imagined.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o from Kenya began by reading a fable about “a time before time where the word came before the word.” In his imagined future world, a world of knives and microchips that is disrupted when one person decides he wants more at the expense of others, “we were sworn to maintain our new world with words, not swords.”
Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian American journalist who focuses on women’s rights in the Islamic world and whose book Headscarves and Hymens has just been released, imagined a 2050 in which three middle-aged feminist women who had met on Twitter in 2015 were celebrating their inagurations as leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and America. She envisioned a world where Saudi Arabia became a feminist country, thus turning the rest of the Middle East upside-down and starting a feminist domino effect. She ended her piece with a quote by Harriet Tubman: “I freed a thousand slaves. I would have freed a thousand more if they had known they were slaves.”
Zanele Muholi of South Africa played a short film and then read the names of South African lesbians who had been the victims of hate crimes. Her best-case scenario for 2050 was that no one would ever again have to bury their LGBTQI loved one and that all leaders of homophobic movements would be long gone. Her worst-case scenario was more grim: people being denied justice and falling victim to hate crimes. She touched upon the loss of innovative minds from countries that persecute their LGBTQI citizens, and hoped for a future where all people can be open and queer culture and art can be celebrated. “Our voices matter,” she pointed out. “We are you.”
Richard Flanagan elicited laughs with his prediction that the 2050 PEN Festival will be titled “Is The Novel Dead?” and quoted a novelist who will be writing from the beachside resort of Denver, Colorado. He painted a future where corporations have become Big Brother, where our currency is called Zuckerbergs and the US is just a memory—the world’s most successful third-world country. But despite the fact that we’re already living in the future in 2015—with our cult of gadgets and loss of privacy—Flanagan did point out one positive: that imagination survives plagues, environmental disasters, and political uprisings.
Aminatta Forna told the story of the spread of ebola in Sierra Leone—one of the countries she was raised in—and made the point that the disease was a problem money from rich countries couldn’t fix. In speaking with someone there, she was asked why help was so long in coming. “We must wait for a white person to catch ebola.”
“The hardest part of this assignment was the best-case scenario for 2050,” she said wryly, “because writers are pessimists.” She did spin a beautiful fictional tale of a future where animals were brought back from extinction as an example of how many people are currently turning to science as a frontier of hope.
Ukrainian poet Fedor Alexandrovich read two humorously absurd pieces in Russian and Ukrainian while English translations were projected onto the screen behind him. He stated that “Russian is the language of dystopia,” and read a tale of the violent destruction of the Earth. As the audience applauded upon its conclusion, he urged us to wait, then removed his black shirt—revealing a cream-colored one underneath. “Ukrainian is the language of utopia!” he said, to an appreciative round of laughter, and proceeded with a story of a far rosier future.
Tom Stoppard told the story of the painting The Raft of the Medusa, which depicts the fifteen shipwrecked men who survived out of almost 150 after nearly two weeks at sea on a makeshift raft. Those on the raft fought with each other, killing those they found mutinous and resorting to cannibalism to survive. “We are all aboard the raft,” Stoppard said, as he explained the powerful pull of this allegory. “Only a tenth of them survived. With cooperation, more could have survived. We have to live on the raft of generosity. If we don’t cooperate, we’re sunk.”
Poet Jackie Wang started out by asking us all to close our eyes and imagine a space where we felt safe. “Now raise your hand if there were police in your safe space,” she asked. There was an appreciative murmur from the crowd. “What?” she asked in mock surprise. “No one? I thought police are here to keep us safe!” She went on to talk about other forms of imprisonment for the Millennial Generation: being imprisoned by staggering student loan debt, finding the present so overwhelming they’re merely treading water or, worse, finding themselves dragged into the past by what they owe.
“As a poet, it is not my job to win you over with convincing arguments,” she said, “but to impart on you a vibrational experience that is capable of awakening your desire for a new world.”
Binyavanga Wainana of Kenya began by whimsically saying that he waited to begin writing his piece until he’d arrived in New York, jet-lagged and awakening from a nap that put him in “that perfect zone, fuzzy and vague, which is as close to being Audre Lorde mashed up with James Baldwin as I can humanly get.” In trying to write his way to a utopian 2050, he found that there was a lot of dying and killing happening, “ending up like Game of Thrones.” He too commented on the persecution of homosexuals in African countries, and ended his lyrical reading by saying that like everybody, he wanted someone to hold him tight and say, “Stay. Stay still. Stay here.”
The evening concluded with Lola Shoneyin, who talked about the future of Africa. “2050 seems like a long way off in the life of an individual, but not long in the life of a continent,” she noted. She wondered if its countries would be recognized for its developments and advancements or if the continent would be left behind by the rest of the world. She went on to list ten positives and negatives of her home country of Nigeria, and said that how these two lists played out against each other would determine that country’s future.
In her best-case scenario, she imagined an Africa where women took charge and overthrew and changed how things were going in their respective countries, with the continent becoming “one big happy family.” Her vision included freedom and justice, an eradication of poverty, and a way for men to carry pregnancies. And then, as all of Africa was reveling in how wonderful things were for them in 2050, a giant cloud would appear on the horizon as some other country, on some other continent, had detonated a nuclear weapon.
And so the night concluded, a fitting start to a celebration of writers who challenge us to think in new and often uncomfortable ways. All the writers’ stories, whether factual or fictional or somewhere in between, had been interwoven—regardless of how dark or pessimistic—with hope for change. This hope is ultimately what unites us despite our many differences—and is, at its core, why we read literature and why it will always matter.
Raquel B. Pidal is Managing Editor for Wild River Publishing, providing copyediting, content editing, and manuscript analysis services. She enjoys using her extensive knowledge of the writing and publishing process to provide guidance and coaching to writers every step of the way from idea to polished draft to printed book.
Raquel has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience in both fiction and nonfiction. Her projects have included ghostwriting two memoirs; content editing numerous manuscripts in the fields of memoir, fiction, and business; copyediting and proofreading manuscripts; and providing in-depth analyses and critiques of fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.
Raquel is currently the Editorial Director for Winans Kuenstler Publishing, a high-end trade nonfiction publisher that offers ghostwriting and publishing services to business and thought leaders who use their books as a platform for their professional and personal brands. She is experienced in project and content management and book distribution.
Previously, Raquel worked in the publicity department at Harvard University Press for two years. She has also worked as an editor for corporations such as ETS (Educational Testing Services) and Aramark. For three years, she served as Program and Youth Services Director at the Writers Room of Bucks County, where she and Joy Stocke worked together on the literary magazine The Bucks County Writer.
Raquel has a BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Ursinus College, where she won several awards and honors for her writing, and an MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College.
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PEN World Voices: The Future is Now – Opening Night at the 11th Annual PEN World Festival