PEN World Voices: Friday Dispatch

I took Thursday off to rest, and then I jumped back into the madness of PEN World Voices. And madness it is — but quiet madness, because we are writers. I stood at the crowded top step of the New York Public Library tonight and watched bemusedly as a security guard nearly roughed Salman Rushdie up.

“If you don’t got a ticket you’re not getting in,” the cop said, blocking the door, until Salman leaned forward and whispered soothing magic words that may very well have been “I’m president of this whole fucking thing, now let me in.”

Or more likely Rushdie’s words were better than those. Either way, I applaud this PEN leader and everybody else at PEN for making this excellent festival happen. Here’s the latest dispatch from the trenches:

Friday Afternoon Multi-culturalism is the theme at the New York Public Library’s gilded auditorium, which sets a theatrical tone with sloping ceilings, exquisite dark marble walls and punchy German neo-romantic classical background music. Kwame Anthony Appiah is the moderator, and he turns the mic immediately over to German-Turkish sociologist Necla Kelek, who dives right in with a bitter story about the failure of Turkish immigrant communities in Germany to integrate themselves in any way to German culture. Kelek quotes another German-Turkish writer who had been asked if Germany were her homeland. “‘The Germans do not even call it their homeland,’ she responded.”

French author Pascal Bruckner also has European culture — or lack thereof — on his mind. He states that national awareness is much less prominent in Europe than in the USA, and states that many French and other Europeans are jealous of the USA’s legacy as “the great washing machine” that spins different ethnic groups together so that they come out American.

Mexican-American journalist Richard Rodriquez is a powerful speaker, and he waxes poetic about the fates of Mexicans who want to or try to emigrate to the USA, and who often trade in their own culture for a raw deal. “We raise our children to leave home in this country”, Rodriquez says, suggesting that the acceptance of modern mores is not always a benefit. The ironic thing, he says, is that “the Christians are coming in to the USA, and they are bringing a work habit that is quite scary to the people who are here”. The guy has got a point.

The panelists banter back and forth, and then we move on to the question/answer section, which turns out to be a bit of a mess. The first questioner seems to be struggling to figure out exactly what she’s trying to say. She goes on and on, and listening to her is kind of like watching a car go downhill at 10 MPH — you know it’s not going very fast, but you also know it’s not going to stop anytime soon. Kwame Anthony Appiah listens patiently, trying to piece together a semblance of a question from her vague comments, and then the panelists bauble it around for a while. It’s a mediocre ending to an excellent panel, but that’s okay.

Friday Evening Christopher Hitchens is in the house, and revolution is in the air. The meaning of the term “Revolution” is the topic, and the library room is a sellout (it is at this time that the Salman Rushdie altercation described above takes place).

I’m going to yield to my colleague James Marcus to cover this event, but I will say that I found it fascinating, and that I especially enjoined Adam Michnik, who is quickly becoming my favorite Polish dissident after this performance and his previous one. “All revolutions begin beautifully,” he tells us. He’s seen a few revolutions come and go, and so have the other panelists including the defiant G. M. Tapas from Hungary, the utopian Gioconda Belli from Nicaragua and the impressive judge Baltasar Garzon of Spain. This is an evening of important ideas illuminated by those who’ve suffered to learn them, and I’m really glad it’s taking place.

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