Literary sophisticates like to complain that there’s not enough international literature published on these shores. Unless it’s a French novel about sex or a Holocaust memoir, American publishers typically shy away, citing the realities of the marketplace, the timidity of American readers, etc. If you’re shaking your head in weary agreement, you should be in New York this weekend for the PEN World Voices Festival, a robustly international (and mostly free) celebration of readings, lectures, and parties around the city. The roster of participants, 160 writers from 41 countries, lists a few familiar names— Adam Gopnik, Rick Moody, Paul Auster—but most are exotically accented, hard to pronounce, and enticingly unknown to you and me.
For instance: Last night’s gala reading at Cooper Union in Manhattan’s East Village, a counterbalancing dose of world lit if ever there was one, served up nine readers from nine countries. Nine. (My attention span causes me to balk at even double-billed readings—but this was a briskly paced and thoroughly enjoyable hour-forty-five.) Kudos if you can claim familiarity with the work of more than two of the following: Muriel Barbery, Nicole Brossard, Narcís Comadira, Jose Dalisay, Edwidge Danticat, Péter Nádas, Sergio Ramírez, Salman Rushdie, Raja Shehadeh.
No speechifying, no debates, no scolding of American provincialism, just a welcome view of what the rest of the world is reading.
The event was titled Evolution/Revolution, which sounds terribly serious, but what transpired better engaged the senses than the brain. This was because the writers read (mostly) in their native language while English translations appeared projected on two large screens on either side. The result was like listening to music. You could compare the sound of Nicole Brossard’s Québécois French with that of Parisian Muriel Barbery with the Haitian Creole of Edwidge Danticat (who read not her own work, but two poems by Felix Morisseau-Leroy). Barbery’s reading—the opening scene from her international bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog—was a highlight, a funny, engaging portrait of a concierge in an elegant Parisian apartment building. The Filipino writer Jose Dalisay’s novels don’t seem to be published here, but the scene he read, about a police officer in a vividly described Manila, drew me in as well. There was a mild frisson of tension in the air during Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh’s reading—a scene of a confrontation between a Palestinian from Ramallah and an Israeli settler—but the parable-like episode ended in a friendly cloud of dope smoke, and everyone applauded. At the end, Salman Rushdie read a brief scene set at a Pakistani madrassa from his 2005 return-to-form novel Shalimar the Clown. He was a low-key headliner—though after the event, the entryway was mobbed with fans toting Rushdie novels. It was clear who the superstar was.
And that was it. No speechifying, no debates, no scolding of American provincialism, just a welcome view of what the rest of the world is reading. PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature continues through Sunday.
Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.