On the opening night of PEN America’s weeklong World Voices Festival, the Prix Goncourt–decorated Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani — whom France’s neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron tasked in November with promoting French language and culture — described to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik what she saw as the fundamental difference between journalism (a former career of hers) and fiction writing. “For me, literature is completely different,” said Slimani, “a space of absolute freedom, where I can reinvent myself.” She then dictated a quote, which she attributed to Sartre: “A writer is a free man who speaks to free men, and whose only topic is freedom.” That would of course disqualify anyone from being a writer, and even taken in the buoyant spirit in which I believe it was intended, it still could use some scrutiny. Like: How are fiction writers to reconcile this unrestrained creative freedom with their apparent obligation to attend panels where they are inevitably asked for the most part to comment on their political views? Which is just a roundabout way of asking what the act of writing fiction is free from, what that freedom entails, and to what extent it might be transferable to the circumscribed lives we all carry out off the page. The theme of this year’s festival, in which 165 authors from more than 50 countries are participating, is “Resist and Reimagine,” the expectation being that these dozens of panels and readings will illuminate how writers and writing can do that, or fail to.
The two short panels and two readings that comprised the festival’s first feature event at Cooper Union on Monday night took different approaches to this challenging, expansive framework, but one of the staunchest refrains was an affirmation of the humanist power of universalized narratives. The Afro-Caribbean Australian writer and poet Maxine Beneba Clarke read an essay by the Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been detained on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in an immigrant “processing center” for close to five years. Boochani was seeking asylum from Iran in the territory when the Australian government implemented what Amnesty International has called “its illegal ‘offshore processing’ policies” in 2013 — and now he and hundreds of refugees are essentially in exile and incarcerated, since their options are only to remain on the island for an indeterminate amount of time or be deported to their country of origin. Boochani’s essay is a reported meditation on a peaceful protest lead by his fellow refugee prisoners; he ends by extolling the virtues of humanity, love, friendship, and justice, though police of course ultimately quelled the demonstration with brute force. By collectively and compassionately organizing under these community-oriented ideals “in direct opposition to fascism,” Boochani asserts the refugees “never became mere bodies, subject to politics.” Slimani also referred to fiction writing as “a place of universality — you can cross the borders.”
Though many of the participants bandied about uplifting messages focused on forging connections and feeling compassion, it was certainly not all that was under discussion. Colson Whitehead’s relentless diversionary tactics were frequently hilarious, rivaled only by Slimani’s joyous harangues of spoiled Parisian women. The topic of the discussion between The Underground Railroad author and Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed (a fellow Pulitzer winner) was “How the legacy of slavery reverberates throughout our history,” and Whitehead averred that one of the most surprising aspects of that legacy’s persistence is “how shallowly it’s taught.… I think there were ten minutes on slavery, forty minutes on Abraham Lincoln at my [elementary] school; ten minutes on segregation and forty minutes on Martin Luther King.” He cited a sixtysomething woman who approached him recently to ask if there were ever “cave-ins” on the Underground Railroad. He also made reference to slave patrollers’ “stop and frisk” methods, drawing a parallel to his experience of getting stopped by New York City cops on the Upper East Side when he was sixteen (“If you’re writing about 1850,” he said, “you’re writing about now”).
In response to questions pertaining to his personal legacy, Whitehead was terser. At one point he responded to a question about his potential responsibility to discuss more “uplifting” subjects, saying, “If you want uplifting, go see a clown or something.” He went on, “I guess I could have written about white people from the upper middle class who feel sad sometimes.” When asked whether he ever thought about being something other than a writer, Whitehead mused that he might have been an “ad man,” like Salman Rushdie was, or Don DeLillo.
Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org