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Marjane Satrapi in conversation with New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly.

The PEN World Voices Festival event included a screening of Satrapi’s new film Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Plums), based on the graphic novel of the same name.

Co-sponsored by The Museum of Modern Art

Image © Susan Horgan / PEN American Center

Betsy Mead: Panopticon

Panopticon: a prison envisioned by English thinker Jeremy Bentham in which guards could keep constant watch over prisoners…with the subjects perpetually unsure whether they are being monitored or not.

This description does not seem to align with the democratic world and its strong beliefs in freedom of speech and freedom of press. The idea of surveillance 24/7 may more readily spark a comparison with Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany or any fantastical science fiction world.

It may be more widespread, albeit less visible, than you think.

On Saturday, May 5, a panel of experts gathered to discuss the intrusion of authority in our society and how that has, or will, affect an individual’s ability to express him, or herself. Catherine Crump of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, Russian author Ludmila Ulitskaya and several others were in attendance to debate key issues about the increasing elusiveness of total privacy.

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"There's so much to say...": Writings from the Domestic Workers United Workshop


On Saturday, May 5, I attended a powerful and moving panel by members of the Domestic Workers United, moderated by poet and activist, Mark Nowak.  Titled ‘There’s so much to say…,” the event, at the PEN World Voices Festival 2012, gave voice to and showcased the writings of participants who’d completed a poetry workshop with Nowak, meeting Saturday mornings at the Domestic Workers United office, in downtown Manhattan, over the course of five months.

         Nowak, a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, and the author of Coal Mountain Elementary and Shut Up Shut Down has conducted similar workshops in collaboration with a number of labor unions.  On Saturday, he began the panel by screening a short documentary about a workshop he’d led in South Africa with workers at the Pretoria Ford plant.  The video segment ended with the choral poem, “Oh! What a Life!” written by six of the Ford workers.

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Judith Benét Richardson: Herta Müller: CAN LITERATURE BEAR WITNESS?

This extremely crowded event in a small room of Deutsches Haus in Washington Mews could certainly have been held in a larger venue, but was riveting to those who managed to squeeze in the doors.

The dramatic-looking Müller, who in her photos can resemble a Japanese noh actor, revealed her personal side as an impassioned partisan of language and truth.

The Nobel speech, which she read, is posted on the Deutsches Haus website and I believe a video will be also. Though she made intellectual points, the thoughts were grounded in imagery which dramatized her stories.

When we arrived, the words on the screen were:

When we don’t speak,/we become unbearable,/and when we do,/we make fools of ourselves./ Can literature bear witness?

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Best European Fiction 5/5/12

Aleksandar Hemon was a wonderful moderator for this interesting group of writers, as he takes so seriously the idea that we must read works from other countries, translate them, discuss them, and understand where they are coming from.

Róbert Gál from Slovakia, Nöelle Revaz from Switzerland and Patrick Boltshauser from Lichtenstein each in their own way, made us see the rewards of making this effort. Appropriately enough, we met at the New School, in a classroom.

Gál studied philosophy for many years and prefers to write aphorisms. Hemon joked with him about the impossibility of publishing a book of aphorisms in Slovakia and reaching readers. Gál said that for this reason he embedded his aphorisms in a novel and published in English; he feels philosophy is useful to any writer, as it is the art of asking questions.

Noëlle Revaz wrote WITH THE ANIMALS in a kind of invented French with “mistakes,” to forge her identity as a Swiss writer. Some French readers believed she was writing in a Swiss dialect. She travels widely in Europe and teaches at a bilingual Institute, which  helps to enlarge her world.

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Graphic novelist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi at MOMA for a screening of her film Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken with Plums), a fanciful, elegiac love story set in 1950s Iran that moves between animation and live action. Satrapi spoke with New Yorker art editor Francoise Mouly before the screening.

Photos © PEN American Center / Susan Horgan

In Conversation: Herta Müller and Claire Messud

In the cavernous auditorium of the 92nd St Y, a large audience hung on every word uttered by the petite Herta Müller. At first soft-spoken, she told more of her personal life, than she had a Deutsches Haus earlier in the week. As the evening progressed, her answers became more impassioned and she appeared like a small eagle - powerful and focused.

Language is nothing without humans, she said, and then it can do anything. Writing is hard work, as life is one thing and language another; it is hard to force words to truly express your meaning.

Her question is always: how does one live?

Writing gave her stability and helped her to endure life; it became her work.

Codes are a way of hiding. They can be the language of fear.

Lies are hideouts. In a dictatorship, you can’t even call them lies, as they are necessary for survival.

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Carol Bergman: Margaret Atwood

It makes sense that an established prize-winning author might view social media, new platforms, and the complicated challenges of contemporary publishing with indifference if not disdain. Jonathan Franzen, for example, claims that social media leaves nothing to the imagination. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear Margaret Atwood talk about new technologies with wit, irreverence, curiosity and respect. The new technologies are, after all, human artifacts. We have created them and whether we put them to good use (the light side) or abuse them (the dark side) is entirely up to us

In conversation with Amy Grace Loyd, Executive Editor of Byliner, the two women seemed to be friends in casual conversation at a café. Loyd, in fact, is one of Atwood’s editors—there  were quips about commas—and  Byliner is a relatively new online publication, another testament to Atwood’s innovative approach to her own career. She has a strong business sense and clearly believes that writers should be able to earn a living.

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Humera Afridi: Best European Fiction 2012

I had the pleasure of listening to a lively panel moderated by Aleksandar Hemon at the PEN World Voices Festival.  Titled Best European Fiction, after the jewel of an anthology of which Hemon is the editor, the panel included contributors Patrick Boltshauser, Robert Gal and Noelle Revaz, as well as Martin Riker, Associate Director at Dalkey Archive Press, which publishes the anthology.

            The overarching theme of the at-times humorous discussion revolved around language, citizenship and the gap that frequently exists between mother tongue and nationhood and how this impacts the writer’s identity.  Hemon probed each of the panelists to speak about how they reconcile the often-contradictory impulses that spark their writing.

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Jennifer Egan: How to Create Your Own Rules

What shapes a novel beyond its beginning, middle, and end? Does structure trigger narrative? Author of 2011’s genre-defying, A Visit From The Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan has said of her process, “I don’t know what I’m doing. That’s the price you pay for doing something different every time.” The Pulitzer Prize–winning Egan explores the role of structure in writing and reading, sharing her perspective on the “rules” and her process in bending them.

This event took place as part of the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival.

Co-sponsored by The New School for Social Research