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In a 2005 article on the first PEN America World Voices Festival, Salman Rushdie wrote of the need for Americans to listen to the voices of the globally oppressed. “Those voices — Arab or Afghan or Latin American or Russian — need to be magnified, so that they can be heard loud and clear just as the Soviet dissidents once were.” This was, of course, long before the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the surge of white nationalist rhetoric into the mainstream discourse, and the global reckoning of the #MeToo movement. This year’s PEN World Voices Festival: Resist and Reimagine promises to interrogate America’s own dissident histories and power dynamics.
The director of the festival, Chip Rolley, says that, partially, this year’s festival aims “to look squarely and directly at our own problems, from the rise of fake news, to the resurgence in white supremacy, to nativist policies at odds with the United States’s growing diversity, which is integral to the very idea of America.” This year some 165 writers representing more than fifty nationalities are scheduled to participate. Village Voice president and CEO Peter Barbey, a co-sponsor of the event, will speak alongside Yamiche Alcindor and William Kristol on the panel “Fighting Fake News” (April 21, $15).
The festival, which runs April 16–22, spans more than sixty events in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. It kicks off at Cooper Union with “Resist and Reimagine: An Opening Night in Three Acts” ($35). Australian performance poet Maxine Beneba Clarke, American author Colson Whitehead, and Franco Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani will discuss the refugee crisis, the legacy of slavery, and the importance of immigrant narratives respectively. These themes will be expanded upon in later events, which will touch on #MeToo’s international context (“Us Too,” April 17, $12 in advance, featuring Clarke, Dunya Mikhail, and Tishani Doshi, and moderated by Mona Eltahawy) and reclaiming the art of coffee making (“Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali: Good to the Last Drop,” April 16, $15). Rushdie will share a panel on writing about New York with Paul Auster and Sergio De La Pava, moderated by Colum McCann (“New York Stories,” April 21, $30).
Resist and Reimagine also speaks to the burgeoning political interest young Americans have displayed in recent years. This year, the festival debuts its “Next Generation Now” series, geared toward children and young adults. “Little Activists: A Protest and Mini March” (April 21, free with RSVP) is aimed at pre-K to third-grade students. Also on the docket: writing workshops and panels from young-adult authors and comic creators, including Charles Waters, Innosanto Nagara, and Daniel José Older.
The festival’s outreach to children and young adults seems timely. Young people have increasingly become part of the political landscape, especially as debate around civil issues has heightened on campus politics. In October 2016, PEN America released “And Campus for All,” its survey on free speech and discrimination on U.S. college campuses. The study surveyed invitations to speakers, safe spaces, and campus civility, noting that while “there have been some troubling instances of speech curtailed, these do not represent a pervasive ‘crisis’ for free speech on campus.” On April 21, PEN America director Suzanne Nossel will moderate a conversation between Masha Gessen and Patrisse Cullors on the state of open discourse in America in “Resistance Report Card: Grading the Groundswell” ($15).
Speech has also been a divisive subject online, where the alt-right frequently targets activists and marginalized communities. Anita Sarkeesian, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and Porochista Khakpour will gather to discuss their experiences battling harassment at “Take Back the Net: Fighting Online Hate” (April 21, $15). Tensions concerning free speech and the internet crested in the targeted series of attacks on women in the video gaming industry now dubbed “Gamergate.” Sarkeesian, best known for her Feminist Frequency videos that analyze pop culture through a feminist lens, was one of the primary targets of these attacks. Antagonists sent her death and rape threats, released her home address, threatened terrorist attacks at her speaking engagements, and created a computer game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. She says internet harassment remains an issue that needs to be seriously addressed. “It’s still not unusual for people to respond to stories of online harassment with statements like, ‘Why don’t you just log off?’ Well, because my whole life is online, because my work requires me to be active in online spaces, and why would I concede my right to be in those spaces to anyone?”
Sarkeesian says that while legal reforms and social media companies can help fight this issue, we also need “a shift toward listening to, believing, and honoring women and marginalized people and our experiences, both online and off.” In this spirit, PEN America will release its Online Harassment Field Manual on April 21 to help writers and journalists navigate this increasingly hostile terrain.
The festival concludes with Hillary Clinton delivering final remarks on Sunday, April 22, at the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, where she and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will discuss the future of women and girls around the world. In 2005, Rushdie wrote of attending the 48th Congress of International PEN in 1986, where “many women at the congress demanded, with much justification, to know why there were so few women on the panels.” The recent years’ emphasis on women and their experiences in literature and the larger political landscape is a cheering and notable change from the days when women were not considered “intellectual” enough for public conversation.
“The cold war is over, but a stranger war has begun,” Rushdie wrote. “Alienation has perhaps never been so widespread; all the more reason for getting together and seeing what bridges can be built.” Somehow, it seems we have found ourselves with more bridges, and an increasing sense of alienation.
“There’s a strong irony that the more connected we are, the more alienated we might feel,” says festival director Rolley, in regard to our current political factionalism. But the PEN World Voices Festival aims to overcome that by bringing together poets, authors, and journalists. “Stories have the power to convey empathy,” he says, “to heighten our awareness of what makes us human and what makes us connected with each other.”
Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org.