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.
Fear of sharing the truth, along with the power and relief and freedom of telling it, marked the stories of all six writers who spoke at a panel called “It Happened to Me” at Saturday night’s PEN America’s World Voices Festival. When the Filipino American writer Grace Talusan got up to read from her recently published memoir The Body Papers, she said, “I will read something I’ll probably never read again. But I’ll read it tonight, in the company of these brave writers.” Talusan then shared a passage about being sexually abused by her grandfather for much of her childhood, and her fear about telling anyone the story. She knew, even at age seven, that the story could hurt her family, and, as an immigrant, she didn’t trust the police.
Talking aloud about the truth had, in some cases, changed these writers’ lives. Nigerian poet Romeo Oriogun, who was also on the panel, told us he once thought, “I could love someone in the dark and survive in the dark and exist in the dark.” But then, he started to write poems about being queer in Nigeria, where, as he writes in “How to Survive the Fire,” “the only freedom for a man who loves another man is to leave.” In Nigeria, gay men can be imprisoned for twenty-four years, if they are not lynched first. Now Oriogun, who received death threats after he started publishing his work, is a Fellow at Harvard, supported by the Institute of International Education Artist Protection Fund.
Another participant was Shiori Ito, a Japanese journalist and filmmaker, who also no longer lives in her home country. She does not feel comfortable even talking about her experience in Japanese. English is easier, she says. Before she spoke, Ito’s translator, Allison Markin Powell, read an account of Ito’s rape by a powerful man who told her, “you’ll never win, you’ll never be believed.” Ito’s activism has helped change the rape law in Japan: instead of three years, rape is now punishable by five years, the same sentence levied on those who steal things. Even though a warrant was issued for her attacker, at the last minute his arrest was called off; Ito was never given an explanation. She says hers is “a story I wish I could bury under the soil,” but she feels that she has to speak out, despite threats. At one point she struggled to find a word to express how she felt the rape had affected her. She lost, she says, “my life in Japan, my family.”
Another author who spoke about being forced to flee her country was Scholastique Mukasonga, a Rwandan writer who now lives in France. Mukasonga, who lost twenty-seven members of her family in the Rwandan genocide, read in French from her memoir The Barefoot Woman. Her interpreter, Isabelle Dupuis, read from the English translation, which is by Jordan Stump. We learned how Mukasonga’s mother made Mukasonga and her sisters rehearse hiding from armed men, and how her mother ultimately made the terrible decision to send her children away. Her mother always insisted that the children cover her body when she died, but Mukasonga wasn’t there when her mother was hacked to death by machetes. Instead, she writes, “my sentences weave a shroud for your missing body.”
Mukasonga, like many of the other speakers, expressed admiration and gratitude for her fellow writers on stage that evening, expressing her optimism that sharing stories would help all of them. “What is spoken often hurts less,” she remarked. This hope animated the evening, running through all the readings, especially a particularly powerful one by the first-generation Vietnamese American poet, Paul Tran, who often performs their poetry as spoken-word work. Tran spoke about how their attitude toward writing poetry had changed: molested and then abandoned by their father as a child, they at first wrote poems of enemies and victimhood. But, Tran asked us, “Would I know how to live if I took the enemy out of the equation?” They explained how their focus shifted away from simpler depictions of victimhood to treat the issue more complexly. Tran then read an electrifying poem from the point of view of Judith killing Holofernes, inspired by the seventeenth-century painting by one of Italy’s only early modern woman artists, Artemisia Gentileschi. Raped by her art teacher at the age of eighteen, Gentileschi was tortured with thumbscrews at the trial in order to verify her testimony; although her rapist was convicted, he was never punished.
Injecting a note of humor, however rueful, into the evening, the Kosovo-born Finnish novelist Pajtim Statovci read from his two novels, My Cat Yugoslavia and Crossing. In the former, the gay, immigrant protagonist falls in love with a racist, homophobic cat after they meet at, of all places, a gay bar. Statovci’s work ranges from surreal to poignant: the protagonist of Crossing bemoans the indignities of life in a refugee camp, telling a new friend, “You can’t believe how humiliating it is to walk up to a hatch at a certain time to fetch the food they had prepared; they decided when we ate and what we ate and when we had showers, and we were given strange people’s clothes to wear, shoes with someone else’s sweat in them.”
After hearing the stories of others, Mukasonga said, “What wealth. What richness. I bow in front of your force and your courage.” At the end of the night, I also found myself moved by the bravery and talent these writers displayed.
Read more from the PEN World Voices Festival here:
Two “Artists of the Air” on the Limits of Time and Space by Alan Scherstuhl
Five Poets Reflect on the Life and Work of Yusef Komunyakaa by Spencer Green