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Working Words: Writers Try to Fix It at the PEN World Voices Festival

Is the pen mightier than the sword, or any number of other challenges? That’s what “A Working Day,” at the PEN World Voices Festival set out to explore on April 28.

In the morning, an eclectic array of writers, activists, and philosophers presented a smorgasbord of issues and ideas at the Desmond Tutu Center — a fitting venue for contemplating change — while the afternoon was devoted to closed working sessions on a variety of pre-selected areas of focus including education, New Orleans, the de-gentrification of New York, a call to revolutionize publishing, solitude and community, and the legacy of great books, which took place at the St. Patrick’s Old School.

Festival Chairman Salman Rushdie recalled the event that inspired this year’s concept, “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State,” which was a legendary conference put together by Norman Mailer in 1986 during his tenure as PEN’s president. Rushdie remembered it as being both exciting and volatile, and seemed to hope that PEN could offer up — 25 years later — a comparable mix of foment and strategy.

"Let the battle commence," he concluded playfully.

Other speakers during the working day included Amsterdam-based journalist Frank Westerman, who discussed the unsettling parallels between the Nazi and Communist manipulations of concepts of biology to serve their own ends, and current immigration laws and attitudes. Mischief + Mayhem publishers Lisa Dierbeck and Dale Peck also spoke on the tyranny of corporate publishing.

During the second session of the morning, PEN America Center president Kwame Anthony Appiah introduced PEN International President John Ralston Saul, the Hungarian philosopher G.M. Tamas, and novelist Toni Morrison.

If these writers and speakers were called up to judge the past and engage the present, the future was also heard from. Three students from Bard High School Early College (Benjamin Goloff, Avital Mandil, and Sasha Jason) called for writers to incorporate an awareness of global issues such as economic disparity, education, and the environment in their work. 

Everyone in attendance was asked to sign a "Manifesto," reminiscent of the calls to action issued by the Futurists in the 1930s, which began strategically:

Rehabilitate commitment
Rehabilitate public service

But ended provocatively:

Writing is chaos. The state is order
People need chaos more than order
Democracy is chaos. Hierarchy is order
Foster disorder. Be unpredictable.

In other words, as Diaghilev said to Cocteau, “Etonne moi!” 

Bon Mots:

Salmon Rushdie on the origins of the PEN International Voices Festival: “We felt … that there was a role for writers in re-starting a public conversation between the U.S. and the rest of the world.”

Frank Westerman on Stalin’s state-inspired biology: “Genes? There were no such things. Had anyone ever seen one? They were a fabrication of the defenders of the status quo.”

Toni Morrison on writers’ diffidence: “I sometimes think that writers don’t know how valuable they are. I don’t mean the personal pride that we take in our work, but value to the culture, to the world, in making language work.”    

Listen to some of the speeches from "A Working Day" here:

Salmon Rushdie

Frank Westerman

Bard High School

Mischief, Mayhem and Manifesto

John Ralston Saul

G.M. Tamas

Toni Morrison