During the first-ever PEN World Voices Festival in 2005, Margaret Atwood posed the question: “Does writing change anything?” Atwood first considered the perspective of the writer, who she characterized as pushing through literal flames and self-doubt and worry to write (“because what else can you do?”), and then as a reader.
“If you take the question a couple of levels back,” she said, “and realize that a lot of people in the world can’t write at all, just the ability to change from being somebody who can’t write to being somebody who can makes a huge difference in that person’s life and then in the life of their family, and then in the life of their community.”
Continuing the exploration of this fundamental question, this year’s PEN World Voices kicked off Monday, marking the 15th anniversary of the festival, founded in 2005 by Salman Rushdie. This year’s iteration, which concludes Sunday, features writers drawn from throughout the world and culminates with a keynote lecture from writer Arundhati Roy at the Apollo Theater in Manhattan.
This year’s theme, “open secrets,” explores the idea of boundaries, specifically as they apply to the lines drawn (or erased) in public and private lives.
“I think it’s one of the biggest issues that’s been confronting us, particularly over the last couple of years,” said festival director Chip Rolley, explaining how the theme came together out of this idea that the boundary between the public and the private is increasingly blurred with sharing culture. “We’re really interested in where we draw that line between the public and the private — individually and also particularly as writers — but also when we do cross that line, how it can have an effect on the people around us. It creates empathy when they hear our story.”
The panels, which take place throughout the city, offer different perspectives on the theme and include topics ranging from online dating to memoir.
“I think about boundaries all the time in my work,” said writer Elif Batuman in an email to ALL ARTS. “Writing is basically transferring things from inside your head to outside your head, in such a way that they can then go into other people’s heads. The human skull (and I guess other skulls, too, and subjectivities, more generally) can be a very rigid boundary; at least, I know that my skull is that way. So I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get through it, or around it.”
For poet Jericho Brown, who recently published his third collection, “The Tradition,” the idea of “open secrets” relates to his work in the way that the poetic form opens up boundaries in his own memory. “One of the things that happens when I’m writing a poem is that I have to have at my access all of my knowledge and all of my history and every little fact I know, because if something wants to get into a poem, I have to let it drop down into it. And often that includes that I just don’t remember or barely remember — things that have been buried my memory,” said Brown. “Those things, in that moment, seem almost like secrets I was keeping from myself. And the poem opens them up. The poem allows me to explore them.“
Founded in the years following 9/11 with the goal of “broadening channels of dialogue between the United States and the world,” the festival was conceived as a way to reinforce a global community of writers. This year’s festival continues this mission.
“I think sometimes Americans, we go through these phases of being isolationist or turning inward or only thinking that something that comes from America is what matters,” said Rolley. “And festivals like this are basically saying hang on a second, We’re just one part of this world and they’re these extraordinary writers and ideas happening all over the world and we want to make sure that we’re in conversation with them. And I think literature itself — novels or memoir, in particular — are gateways to empathy.”