Every year PEN America presents its World Voices Festival, a literary festival in New York City featuring at least 200 writers and artists from over fifty countries in conversation about some of the most important literary, cultural, and political topics of our age. This year the event spanned six days, from May 6th to May 12th, and Guernica writers were able to attend four of the events. These are their dispatches from the festival.
On Sunday, May 12th, the residents of Delhi cast their votes in the country’s national elections, which began on April 11th and will run through May 19th. Arundhati Roy, who now lives in Delhi, was not amongst them—instead, she was standing at a lectern on the stage of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. “I agreed to deliver this lecture before the election dates were announced,” she told the audience, who had gathered to hear her deliver the annual PEN Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. “If Mr. Modi wins by just one vote, remember you all share the blame.”
Roy talks like she writes: her voice is almost surprisingly soft, but undergirding the soft-spokenness is an unmistakable rage. The target of Roy’s rage in her lecture was clear from the very beginning: as we enter an era in which we will be at the mercy of both nature and machines, said Roy, “we have the steady hands of white supremacists in the White House, new imperialists in China, neo-Nazis once again massing on the streets of Europe, Hindu nationalists in India, and a host of butcher-princes and lesser dictators in other countries to guide us into the unknown.”
She followed this with questions about literature’s role in society: “In this blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook ‘likes,’ fascist marches, fake-news coups, and what looks like a race toward extinction,” Roy continued, “what is literature’s place? What counts as literature? Who decides?”
According to Roy, not the governments—the Indian embassy refused to help PEN organize the event—nor any sort of literary intelligentsia, which received her political writing with, in the author’s words, “baleful suspicion.” But even as the Indian literary elite were unsure of how to categorize Roy’s work, her writing was making its way into what she calls “the places off the highways.” The essays, Roy told the audience, took on a life of their own: they were translated into dozens of Indian languages, printed on pamphlets, and distributed for free in the villages and universities and river valleys fighting against the Indian government, making their way into the homes of people who, “already being singed by the spreading fire, had an entirely different idea of what literature is or should be,” said Roy.
“The place for literature is built by writers and readers,” Roy continued. “It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When it’s broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter.”
After the lecture, Roy sat down with Siddhartha Deb and discussed why she made a conscious decision not to worry about readability or international reach, either in her writing or in her lecture. “I didn’t want to be that interpreter of the East to the West,” she explained. “I didn’t want to end up having to explain things in some sociological way to Western audiences. They’re going to walk that extra mile if they want, or won’t if they don’t want, and it’s okay.” It was an impulse, Roy said, that also came out of a “peculiar lack of ambition”–she simply decided to write about the place she lived in, and trusted the readers to make up their own minds about whether or not they wanted to read her books.
Happily, they did–which, in a way, Roy didn’t find too surprising. “I think readers have a radar. I don’t need to cater to them,” she said. “There’s something wonderful about how universal things can be. Readers are as mysterious as writers.”