At PEN Festival, writers come together to discuss the role of literature

In 1939, American journalist Dorothy Thompson, expelled from Germany after reporting on the rise of the Nazi movement, urgently convened a writers’ summit in response to the violence unfolding in Europe. As head of PEN America, a literary and free speech organization, Thompson has called on writers to unite against fascism and threats to free speech. The event attracted 500 writers from 30 countries.

“In much of the world today, the word itself has been taken captive,” Thompson told the assembled writers. “Those who would free him do so at the risk of their lives.”

This spring, in response to the war in Ukraine, PEN America is organizing another “Emergency Congress of Writers’ Global Voices” inspired by this first gathering to explore how literature and literary figures can help bridge geographic and cultural divides. , encourage dialogue and protect freedom of expression. in times of turmoil and brutality.

The emergency summit – expected to feature more than 100 writers including Salman Rushdie, Gary Shteyngart, Ayad Akhtar and Jennifer Egan – is part of PEN’s annual World Voices Festival, a series of literary events that will run from May 11 to May 14 in New York and Los Angeles.

“In this moment of chaos and violence, we may wonder what the role of the writer is, as we face rising authoritarianism, unleashed disinformation, widening social fissures here in this country and the upsurge in book bans and threats to free speech,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, in an interview.

On the same day as the summit, Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, who is the president of PEN Ukraine and has documented the grim toll of the Russian invasion, will deliver a speech that will address threats to democracy and freedom of expression.

The World Voices Festival was created in 2005 with the aim of fostering dialogue between authors around the world to counter isolationism and xenophobia in the United States after the September 11 attacks.

In the years since, the annual event has attracted hundreds of international and American authors to discuss themes such as gender and power, political unrest and resistance, and threats to privacy and freedom of speech.

Panels at this year’s festival will address how literature can tackle issues such as climate change, immigration, gender equality, nationalism and the future of democracy. More than 80 writers are expected, including Sheila Heti, Leïla Slimani, Mieko Kawakami, Nadifa Mohamed and Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.

The festival will conclude with an event highlighting the dramatic increase in book bans in schools and libraries across the country, with readings of banned and controversial books by literary icons like Toni Morrison, Art Spiegelman, Kurt Vonnegut and d ‘others.

This year’s gathering marks the first time since the start of the pandemic that the festival will take place in person, after PEN held it online in spring 2020 and 2021.

“Isolationism took on a new meaning during Covid,” Nossel said. “It is extremely important to bring people together face to face and to examine, in the midst of all the questions that we are currently facing, how literature can play its role as a bridge between geography, ideology and cultures.

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