PEN World Voices: Words Without Borders at Columbia University

Thursday at PEN World Voices brings me uptown to Columbia University, which I don’t visit often enough, to catch a variety of international writers associated with Words Without Borders or the new Words Without Borders anthology. There’s a nice turnout and a feeling of excitement in the room, because the combination of diverse talents and histories represented by the writers sitting patiently in the front row is truly something special.

After a quick Russian-doll-like unpacking of introductions (Esther Allen introduces Dedi Felman who introduces Margo Jefferson) we hear Marilynne Robinson recite Children of the Sky, a dreamily tragic prose poem by Seno Gumira Ajidarma of Indonesia. This contrasts nicely with the irreverent next piece, an excerpt from Revulsion by Horacio Castellanos Moya of El Salvador in which a couple of citizens critique their nation’s grand monuments (one of which looks like a giant urinal).

I’m not sure of the title of Haitian author Dany Laferriere’s story, which he reads in a deep gravelly rumble (he finally gives up on his attempt to read in English, and Dedi Felman gamely joins him to complete the reading). We then travel to China, where the esteemed Ma Jian and his interpreter treat us to a Where Are You Running To?, first in Chinese and then in English (interestingly, as his interpreter notes, the English version of the same piece somehow adds up to a much longer text). I’m intrigued enough by this piece, and by Ma Jian’s soulful countenance, that I can’t help buying a copy of his book Stick Out Your Tongue (I’ll let you know how I like it later). I’m also intrigued by Jian’s comment that he did not know, until he arrived in America, that there was such a thing as a “live reading” in which an author recites from his or her own work. The concept, he says, does not exist among Chinese writers.

The globe-trotting continues as Heidi Julavits presents a very affecting and lyrical piece, Vietnam. Thursday. by Johan Harstad of Norway, followed by a performance of the first few pages of African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou (who I also enjoyed hearing at the Town Hall event yesterday). I’m not sure how to place this powerful and sinister novel (about a wannabe serial murderer who idolizes a more famous murderer who once terrorized his city) in the context of African literature, but I catch top and bottom notes of Camus, Dostoevsky and Edgar Allen Poe in these clever words. I get a chance to chat with Mabanckou after the event, and I ask if he’s aware of Bret Easton Ellis’s similarly-titled American Psycho. Mabanckou smiles conspiratorially and says that, yes, he is fully aware of both the book and the movie.

Indonesia to El Salvador to Haiti to China to Norway to Congo-Brazzaville — not bad for an hour and a half! You can’t help but feel enriched after an event like this.

5 Responses

  1. good vibrationsIt sounds very
    good vibrations

    It sounds very enriching, but I have to press, regarding your Tuesday rant. Do you feel like there’s some hope for humanity and their planet? If so, why. I visit various writing sites; find that 99% of writers are concerned with getting theysef’s published, nothing else. Like winning American Idolatry – what would be the point? Better restaurants, better sex, better apartment, better than someone else.

    I see them as winning. The Carlyle Group’s picnic gots more weight than Pen Voices. The stupid huddled masses yearning to drink Pepsi don’t know any better. And no one’s telling them which path makes all the difference. McCarthy wins the Pulitzer, why not Stephen King?

  2. Thanks, Stokey — and yes, I
    Thanks, Stokey — and yes, I absolutely do see hope for humanity. I always have — optimism comes naturally to me. Maybe that’s why I am so constantly disgusted by the reality around me, because I know most of this bullshit does *not* have to be.

  3. African PsychoI’m going to
    African Psycho

    I’m going to actually ask a question about something you mentioned from the reading … shocking I know.

    But … African Psycho seems to beg to be compared/contrasted to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in a more complete way … can you speak to this a bit more and was this allusion intentional at all, as far as you know? You mention he was “aware” … but … that doesn’t really resolve either way.

  4. Good question — well, if
    Good question — well, if this book had been written by an American author, I’d have guessed that the title “African Psycho” would have to be a reference to the Ellis phenomenon. But Alain Mabanckou doesn’t seem like the kind of writer who sits around reading hip postmodern American novels, and I considered it possible that the similarity of the titles was coincidental. But it’s not, and I guess it’s a smaller literary world than I thought.

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