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Written On the Water, Heard in the Wind: PEN World Voices Festival

The Pen World Voices Festival opens in New York on Monday. The annual event is a bold reminder that writing is not just a leisure art resulting in a commodity, but an instrument of change, a tool for probing everything from revolution to the human psyche, and a vital bridge between nations and individuals.

More than 100 writers from 40 countries will participate in panels, one-on-one conversations, readings and performances in venues all over the city.  Among the featured artists are Salmon Rushdie (the festival's chair), David Bezmozgis, Deborah Eisenberg, Jonathan Franzen, Malcolm Gladwell A.M. Homes, Andrea Levi, Toni Morrison, and Wallace Shawn.

Such names are eye-catching, and their owners are an important part of our literary landscape. But the festival’s character is really shaped by the dozens of writers less familiar to Americans, introducing audiences to new texts, new experiences, and shared concerns about human rights and other key issues of our time.

Dale Peck (Photo: Nick Vogelson) What makes the festival important, said novelist and critic Dale Peck (pictured left; photo by Nick Vogelson), who is co-founder of the online magazine and bespoke publishing house Mischief and Mayhem, is this diversity of voices. He compared the festival’s impact to Shannon’s Law, which says that if a system has a sufficient amount of “noise” (information), what is imparted will essentially be true.

“You get all these people talking, and what’s important will come out,” he said.

If the truth is out there, this would be a good time to find it. The past year has seen the world rocked by war, natural disaster, and historical changes of immense proportions, and perhaps for that reason there is a particular emphasis at this year’s festival on writers’ abilities to explain, and address, social and political problems.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of a watershed event in PEN’s history: a 1986 conference organized by Norman Mailer (then PEN’s president) called “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.” Mailer and a host of activist writers, alarmed at the country’s growing conservatism, “posited writing, as PEN has always done,” said Peck, “as a force of profound political power and change.”

In honor of that claim, this year’s festival includes a “Working Day” (Thursday April 28th) snarkily entitled “Writers Respond to What’s Gone Wrong and How to Fix Things.”

Following a keynote panel led by PEN President Anthony Appiah, breakout sessions, which are open to PEN members, authors, and heads of cultural agencies, will tackle a range of issues from how to reform the inequitable publishing industry, to restoring New Orleans, to “de-gentrifying” New York. Each working group will release a joint manifesto.  (All other Festival events are open to the public; click on the link above for details about specific programs.)

The rest of the festival has an equally broad palette, and as might be expected, has a strong international focus. The Arab revolts, Russia and China are all the subject of panels, but so are comic books. Poetry as “a second skin” (Laurie Anderson emcees) and a discussion of the last, unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace will also be discussed.

With an eye on the future, a number of panels target beginning writers and students. (Bard High School is also participating in the Working Day—there is nothing like a teenager for telling you “What’s Gone Wrong and How to Fix Things.”)

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka will give the Festival’s closing address called the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. And freedom, said Dale Peck, is what the PEN World Voices Festival is all about.

“You realize the importance of never taking the truth, and the ability to express it, for granted,” he said.

The PEN festival runs through May 1. Listen to an interview with Dale Peck by clicking the link above.