2019 PEN World Voices Festival: Open Secrets

Keynote Speaker, Arundhati Roy (b. 1961), 1997 Man Booker Prize-winner Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, My Seditious Heart). She will deliver this year’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.

“Writers imagine that they cull stories from the world. I’m beginning to believe that vanity makes them think so. That it’s actually the other way around. Stories cull writers from the world. Stories reveal themselves to us. The public narrative, the private narrative—they colonize us. They commission us. They insist on being told. Fiction and nonfiction are only different techniques of story telling. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, fiction dances out of me, and nonfiction is wrenched out by the aching, broken world I wake up to every morning.” Arundhati Roy in her speech Come September, Lensic Performing Arts Center, September 29,2009



On April 11 PEN America announced the full lineup of events for the 2019 PEN World Voices Festival: Open Secrets (May 6-12), focusing on the dissolving boundary between the public and the private in the literary, cultural, social, and political realms. The genres of literary memoir and personal testimony have flourished, in part through increased digital avenues for storytelling, revelation, and exposé. Movements like #MeToo and continuing reports of abuse within religious organizations have demonstrated the political velocity of deeply personal revelations, illuminating suppressed experiences and forcing society-wide reckonings. Personal narratives and individual stories have become catalysts for social change. At the same time, the digital revolution has enabled political micro-targeting and the leveraging of personal data in insidious ways that reshape attitudes, buying habits, and even democratic decision-making. In the seventy-plus events comprising the fifteenth anniversary of the Festival, New York and its most vital cultural institutions—from the Apollo Theater, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Nuyorican Poets Café in Manhattan, to Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to BAAD! The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance—will teem with stirring ideas and provocative debates. Fiction and nonfiction writers, poets, translators, journalists, thinkers, artists, and activists will gather to unpack the issues around what we withhold and what we reveal, and the opportunities and dangers inherent in the rapid reconfiguring of the public and the private.

“The voluntary surrender of privacy in return for convenience, access, and human connection is fast reshaping expectations of what remains personal,” says PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. “As digital technologies steamroll forward, we aim through this Festival to hit the pause button to examine why these borders are being redrawn and how writers, creators, thinkers, and individuals can influence what aspects of our lives remain truly our own as well as how to shape narratives once they enter the public sphere.”

“PEN World Voices offers an annual occasion for writers, artists, and intellectuals to pool resources for a weeklong exchange of creativity and ideas. In our era of global and national discord, such collaboration is essential—both as a refuge and a way forward.  We hope that this year’s exceptional lineup, applied to a timely theme, will prove revelatory for participants and audience alike,” says PEN America President Jennifer Egan.

Roy delivering a talk “Can We Leave the Bauxite in the Mountain? Field Notes on Democracy” at the Harvard Kennedy School on April 1, 2010

“Presenting Arundhati Roy as the keynote speaker of this festival is nothing short of a dream come true for me,” says Chip Rolley, Director of the PEN World Voices Festival. “Throughout her illustrious writing career, encompassing fiction of arresting lyricism and essays of incisive urgency, Arundhati Roy has been one of the most valiant defenders of the rights of both the individual and the collective. She caps a week of events that confront our society’s fast-evolving approach to personal narrative, exposition, and exposé. Our participants include some of the most potent exemplars of how social norms governing gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality have been up-ended by the sheer force of personal stories entering the public sphere. The festival offers audiences a ringside seat in witnessing the power of narrative in changing the world.”

New platforms of communication have enabled writers to discover the mobilizing power of their stories; simultaneously, exciting new literary voices have emerged, and established authors have been emboldened to explore highly personal territory. A signature Festival event of powerful personal testimony, It Happened to Me (May 11), hosted by The Guardian USopinion editor Amana Fontanella Khan, brings together authors Édouard Louis (Who Killed My Father), Scholastique Mukasonga (The Barefoot Woman), Pajtim Statovci (Crossing: A Novel), and Grace Talusan (The Body Papers), journalist and filmmaker Shiori Ito (Black Box), and poets Romeo Oriogun and Paul Tran. In Voices of the Silenced (May 11), Executive Director of Words Without Borders Karen M. Phillips will moderate a discussion with Scholastique Mukasonga, Idra Novey (Those Who Knew), and Marcia Tiburi (Feminismo em comum: Para todas, todes e todos) about placing survivors of assault at the center of works they’ve written. In Intimate Terrorism, on May 10, Shiori Ito, poet Gerður Kristný (Bloodhoof), authors Miriam Toews (Women Talking) and Anne Summers (Unfettered and Alive: A Memoir), and journalist Rachel Louise Snyder (No Visible Bruises) will speak of why we need to bring stories of violence against women into the public realm, and how they’ve done this in their own writings. In Secrets and Lives, memoirist Dani Shapiro (Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love) and novelist and filmmaker Bridgett M. Davis (The World According to Fannie Davis) will share the extraordinary secrets that defined their families (May 12). Tara Westover’s 2018 memoir Educated described her harrowing childhood in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho—isolated from society as they prepared for the world’s end—and her escape into the halls of Cambridge and Harvard; she will tell that story in The Cost of an Education, with author Min Jin Lee (May 6). Édouard Louis (The End of Eddy), Carolin Emcke (How We Desire), Masha Gessen (The Future is History), and choreographer Bill T. Jones (Story/Time: The Life of an Idea) will join in The Laws of Desire—a revealing discussion on sexuality and gender—and talk about how desire evolves beyond borders of orientation and can, over time, reveal its multi-faceted realities (May 6).

Open Secrets will also include those who have boldly undertaken the dangerous—and monumentally important—work of exposing the abuses they themselves have experienced at the hands of governments. Thirty years after the Tiananmen Square Protests, the Festival will feature Rise Up: Tiananmen’s Legacy of Freedom and Democracy, a celebration of the dauntless courage and youthful defiance that challenged China’s authoritarian establishment, spotlighting and honoring those who continue to fight for freedom around the world today. Leading social justice advocate Reverend William Barber II and activist artists Fogo Azul, Sonia Guiñansaca, Aja Monet, Martha Redbone, Jesse Paris Smith, and Aaron Whitby have joined a lineup that includes Students for a Free Tibet board member Chemi Lhamo, exiled Chinese-born novelist and dissident Ma Jian, poet, novelist, musician, and documentarian Liao Yiwu, translator Michael Martin Day, and Tiananmen Square student protest leaders Zhou Fengsuo, Zhang Boli, Wang Dan, and Fang Zheng. Directed by Elena Rodriguez with a script by Catherine Filloux, this special event will be held May 7 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine as part of its exhibit The Value of Sanctuary.

In a return of Cry, the Beloved Country (May 9), a stellar line-up of writers will offer eloquent accounts of the struggles in their respective countries, speaking in their original languages with simultaneous translation on screen: Ma Jian, Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, Egyptian PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recipient Ahmed Naji (Using Life), author and PEN International President Jennifer Clement (Gun Love), Ukrainian poet Marianna Kiyanovska (The Voices of Babyn Yar), Greek novelist Christos Ikonomou (Good Will Come From the Sea), and Russian poet Kirill Medvedev (It’s No Good: poems/essays/actions). Ulrich Baer (What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech and Truth on Campus) will moderate a conversation between photographer and documentarian Daniel Blaufuks (Under Strange Skies), playwright Catherine Filloux(whatdoesfreemean?), Tanisha C. Ford (Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul), and Domenico Starnone (Trick), on how authors and artists can challenge nations’ self-idealizing ways of distorting and erasing inconvenient histories (May 10).

The 2019 PEN World Voices Festival honors poets with extraordinary bodies of work that blur interiority and sociopolitical dissent—and looks toward a new generation of writers driving the form. After Raúl Zurita’s imprisonment by the Pinochet regime in 1973, the legendary poet of resistance chronicled atrocities committed against the Chilean people, including attacks on their language; on May 8, Zurita will read his poetry, and will join poet Norma Cole and poet/translator William Rowe in conversation. In Poetry to Power (May 10), Puerto Rican poet, activist, and actress Caridad de la Luz, aka La Bruja, will interview acclaimed poet Juan Felipe Herrera—the first Mexican-American U.S. Poet Laureate—and both will read their own works; the evening will also feature readings of poetry written by undocumented young adults. On May 7, celebrated poets Morgan Parker (Magical Negro), Jericho Brown (The Tradition), and Fatimah Asghar (If They Come for Us) will read from their work and join in conversation about crafting deeply personal poetry that carries the grief and pain of historical crime and ancestral trauma. On May 9, in Essex Hemphill: Remembering and Reimagining, author/activist Darnell L. Moore (No Ashes in the Fire); writer, poet, and playwright Timothy DuWhite; interdisciplinary artist, performer, and writer Ni’ja Whitson; and filmmaker and poet Michelle Parkerson will pay homage to Essex Hemphill, the incisively political poet who gave voice to the experiences of black gay men in America during the 1980s and 1990s and who is among the generations lost to AIDS. May 11 will also include a day of programming in celebration of the life and work of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa (The Emperor of Water Clocks), with events featuring many of his former students and peers. Black Arts Movement catalyst Sonia Sanchezwill perform with the Worker Writers School poets led by Mark Nowak (May 11), and in a second program (May 12), will be joined by Ras Baraka and April R. Silver to discuss revolution across generational lines and how to use art in the pursuit of justice. The Worker Writers School is a collaboration between Nowak and PEN America to cultivate and feature the poetry of low income wage earners from the Domestic Workers United, Taxi Drivers Alliance, Retail Action Project, and the Street Vendors Project.

Digital technology has the potential to democratize global politics, empower activists, and facilitate free speech, but recent events have also shown us how technology can exert a sinister influence on democratic practices. In Siri, Where’s My Democracy? Presented with The Guardian (May 11), Carole Cadwalladr—the celebrated investigative journalist who broke the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal—author and journalist Sue Halpern (Summer Hours at the Robbers Library), and privacy expert Danielle Citron (Hate Crimes in Cyberspace) will assess the utopian potential against the dystopian outcome that can result from the interaction of tech and politics. In Orwell’s China (May 8), Ma Jian (China Dream) and journalist Leta Hong Fincher (Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China) will speak with Chip Rolley, addressing the heightening surveillance culture, police state, and attacks on feminism in China. In Surveillance Capitalism, Human Autonomy, and You, Shoshana Zuboff (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) and Douglas Rushkoff (Team Human) will join Siva Vaidhyanathan(Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy) to discuss questions of free will and autonomy in an age where our online behavior is closely tracked and manipulated for profit (May 8). The Big Chill: Creativity in the Era of Data Mining—with Dave Eggers (The Circle), technology journalist and Recode Decode host Kara Swisher, H.M. Naqvi(The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack and Home Boy), and students from the International Youth Congress Ifeoma White-Thorpe and Iman Abdul—will pair two generations of thought leaders in examining the impact of digital surveillance on creative expression. Digital technology has also radically reshaped our personal lives. Love in the Time of Tinder, featuring Niviaq Korneliussen (Last Night in Nuuk), Gabriela Wiener (Sexographies), Mary H.K. Choi(Permanent Record), and BuzzFeed Books founding editor/#AMtoDM co-host Isaac Fitzgerald, will look at how literature reflects the tumultuous digitized terrain of modern love and sexuality (May 7).

This year’s festival will also amplify stories from those with a keen understanding of the most contentious space within our own national discourse—the southern U.S. border. Soledad Castillo and Gabriel Méndez—who, through the oral history initiative Voice of Witness, shared their stories of border crossing to escape manifold horrors at home—will speak with the platform’s co-founder, acclaimed author Dave Eggers (The Parade), and the organization’s executive director Mimi Lok, in My Story, My Journey, My Freedom (May 8). On May 10, in This Transfronterizo Life, Jennifer Clement and Willivaldo Delgadillo (Garabato)—two authors whose experiences span both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border—will discuss this fraught space and the cross-cultural influences in their work with Oliver Laughland, senior reporter at The Guardian US. Dreaming Out Loud will feature stories written by undocumented students and DREAMers under the creative guidance of authors Álvaro Enrigue, Lisa Ko, and Charlie Vázquez (May 11).

2019 PEN World Voices’ lineup of challenging and enlightening contemporary writing includes recent examples of literary fiction’s richest offerings from the U.S. and abroad. On May 8, Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings) will speak with Victor LaValle (The Changeling) about his leap into the genre of epic fantasy, and about building a meticulous imaginary world around elements of African mythology for his Dark Star trilogy (whose first book Black Leopard, Red Wolf was released in February). Sheila Heti (Motherhood) and Elif Batuman (The Idiot) will discuss their approach to the autobiographical novel, and how they’ve blended memoir and fiction (May 10). In Women Uninterrupted, Elif Shafak (Three Daughters of Eve), Inês Pedrosa (In Your Hands), and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach) will discuss their creating remarkable fictional female characters (May 11). Acclaimed Latin American authors Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Chaos: A Fable) and Rodrigo Fresán(The Invented Part) will discuss their work in The Library of Borges (May 7). Rodrigo Rey Rosa will also join Tommy Orange (There There) and Mohammed Hanif (Red Birds) in The Art of Violence (May 12), talking about their approaches to rendering brutal and traumatic circumstances on the page. Resonances—moderated by PEN World Voices co-founder Esther Allen—will feature Niviaq Korneliussen, Bridgett M. Davis, Gabrielle Bell (Everything Is Flammable), and Willivaldo Delgadillo reading passages from their own works as well as writing by authors who have influenced them (May 9).

As a festival that transcends genres and mediums, PEN World Voices will feature living legend Philippe Petit (On the High Wire), who famously walked between the roofs of the Twin Towers in 1974. He has, in the words of Mikhail Baryshnikov, achieved “a precise balance of chaos and creativity,” and will share what it takes to do this with fellow artist Elizabeth Streb in Artists of the Air (May 7). George Packer (The Atlantic) has written Our Man, a compelling biography of Richard Holbrooke, arguably the last great American diplomat, which he will discuss with PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel and journalist Ahmed Rashid in A Very American Diplomat(May 7). Tibetan Buddhist meditation master and best-selling author Yongey Mingyur Rinpochewill speak with his student Laurie Anderson about his latest book, In Love with the World, and the transformative experiences he details within it (May 7). On May 10, the New York premiere screening of Kirill Serebrennikov’s film Leto will follow Kino co-founding singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi on his early journey from underground experimentation towards Soviet Union-wide stardom. With the film touching on Soviet censorship in the 1980s, and Serebrennikov currently under house arrest in Russia, the event will, on multiple levels, serve as a tribute to uninhibited creativity in the face of institutional oppression. Last year’s One Book One New Yorkchampion Jennifer Egan will join BuzzFeed Books editor Arianna Rebolini, in an announcement and introduction of this year’s winner (May 10).

The Festival’s embrace of conversation-starting work further extends to live performance. World Voices: International Play Festival 2019a four-day festival within the festival presented with The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center—will feature readings of works by Nora Abdel-Maksoud, Sibylle Berg, Necati Öziri, Falk Richter, Yael Ronen, and Sivan Ben-Yishai, all playwrights connected to the Gorki Theater in Berlin (May 6-9). In Elyla Sinverguenza: Countering Colonialism: A Queer Ritual of Healing, PEN World Voices partners with BAAD! The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance to present yet another expressive form: queer Nicaraguan performance artist Elyla Sinverguenza will perform their new work, Saint Peter Goose/Duck Pulling, reimagining a violent hyper-masculine ritual as a healing act (May 11). PEN World Voices also partners with the 2019 MATA festival to present Poetry in Concert:Blo∂hofnír (Bloodhoof), a work that expands audiences’ notions of how poetry can be experienced, in a sonic realization of Iceland’s Gerður Kristný’s Bloodhoof, her incisive feminist reevaluation of the classic Eddic poem “Skírnismál” (May 11).

The PEN America Prison Writing Program has commissioned incarcerated writers to reflect on the tensions between the realm of public readership and the often hidden creative life in prison. A selection of their works—by Peter Dunne, Greg Goodman, Lacino Hamilton, Elizabeth Hawes, Matthew Feeney, Benjamin Frandsen, Arthur Longworth, Santonio Murff,and Anna Vanderford—will be read by a dynamic group of authors, poets, actors, and activists, including Mahogany L. Browne, Aja Monet, Jon Sands, Christopher Soto, Kirya Traber, and Jecoina Vinson, in Exposure: On writing in prison (May 8).

Next Generation Now is a daylong series of stories and activities for children and families to experience literature as a means to become socially engaged, curated by Meg Lemke of Mutha Magazine on May 11 at Town Stages. It includes the fun and fabulous Drag Queen Story Hour(ages 3-8) featuring Miz Jade; the creative workshop Spellbound Theatre: Today I Will Be Fierce! (for children up to age 8), with Nidhi Chanani (co-creator of I Will Be Fierce!); Finding Your Voice: Comics Carousel, with graphic novel pioneers Molly Ostertag (The Witch Boy), Nidhi Chanani, and Jerry Craft (New Kid), and emcee Robert Sikoryak (The Unquotable Trump) giving dramatic readings and visual presentations of their works (for ages 8-14); Hello, Planet(for kids up to 8) with illustrator Liniers, who will read from his picture book Good Night, Planet and paint a mural based on audience participation; You Kid: A Comics and Graphic Novel Workshop with Jerry Craft (for ages 7-14) and Make a Book with 826NYC! (for ages 8-14), both engaging and honing young people’s own storytelling potentials; and more. In Truth or Tales?, acclaimed YA writers Fatima Shaik, Martha Brockenbrough, Susan Kuklin, Torrey Maldonado, and Rita Williams-Garcia will discuss discerning fact from fiction in the digital age.

PEN World Voices Media Sponsors include WNYC, The Guardian, The New Republic, and New York Magazine.

This post is courtesy of PEN America; header photo of Arundhati Roy is courtesy of Augustus Binu under CC BY-SA 3.0; her photo in the body of the post is courtesy of jeanbaptisteparisFlickr: Arundhati Roy under CC BY-SA 2.0.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. It’s mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. 

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