The PEN World Voices Festival showcased eight international authors (hey, like the 8 Bands You Need to Hear, but about books and non-Americans!) at Friday night’s Readings from Around the Globe event. The 92nd Street Y’s auditorium lent itself to a slightly high school Model UN feel, but the stage presence was all high-minded.
And not only high-minded, but requiring the kind of multi-tasking skills that not necessarily all people are blessed with. Of the eight authors, five read in their native language, which meant that unless you spoke the language which was being read, you had to read from the screen, which was scrolling a translation like a super slow-mo crawl text from the opening credits of Star Wars (or Spaceballs). It was quite the balancing act to absorb both the cadence of the reader and the content onscreen. Weaving in and out was inevitable: first listening to the melodiousness of a foreign language while neglecting to have the slightest idea what it means (except for the occasional recognizable Latin root word, followed by the exuberant pride of actually remembering something from Latin class), then ignoring the musicality of intonations and trying to just read the onscreen translation. It lead to a discombobulated understanding, quite frankly, but a literary mishmash is still a good way to spend a Friday evening.
So, the readers: First up, Bernard Comment (Swiss) read on behalf of Antonio Tabucchi (Italian). “I’m a French writer, so I’m reading Italian in New York” he said, bemused. Tabucchi’s content was pretty funny (“if Homer had actually met Ulysses, he probably would have found him dull”) and Comment’s even reading of the material was melodious, in the way Italian always is.
Bernardo Atxanga (Basque Country) followed, the only author to read poetry. In the States he’s known as a novelist for his book The Accordionist’s Son, which was published in here last year. He read in Basque, and his first selection, which mentioned the flu, had a “different resonance right now”, he noted. His first poem took on the Garden of Eden story but made it nonchalant in tone. His second poem was about running zebras who yelled about crocodiles and the audience laughed but frankly I did not follow. A poem called “Written in the USA” was about America’s image, and the final poem, “A Finnish Song”, was a romantic one that was sung-spoken.
Changing the mood, Mariken Jongman (Netherlands) read from her debut children’s book, about a 13-year-old sent to live with his lazy mean uncle. It was written in diary form, and while thirteen year olds’ diaries can be pretty annoying, this one was funny and lighthearted. Mariken definitely endeared herself to the audience via her character, Rits. Also, Dutch is kind of a funny-sounding language, which reminded me of the sound of when video-tape audio got messed up.
Daniel Sada (Mexico) took the stage and launched into the reading, about the strained relationship between workers and their boss and the tough conditions of Mexico.
Hwang Sok-yong (Korea) by contrast, gave an introduction via translator, and read for what felt like a long time in a monotone. The concept was interesting — there were “two texts of individual consciousness” by a woman and a man who never get to live out their love because the man is in jail and the woman dies by the time he gets out. Hwang himself was sentenced to prison time for being a political dissident and for going to North Korea Korea without authorization.
Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe) was the turning point into the English language portion of the readings. The greenest of the group with one published work and a debut novel on the way, Gappah was still by far the most performative and audience-engaging. Her reading about an African woman who returns home after having lived five years in the US was funny, with an undertone of melancholy about the frustration of moving away from a place that you feel comfortable in. Of course, no one feels bad for you because you piss off everyone at home by telling them, in absolutely any given situation, how it’s done differently and better abroad.
Colm Toibin (Ireland) read the most localized, if retro, content, about a recent immigrant working at a parish on Christmas day in Brooklyn (wut!) in the 1950s. His gentle voice was matched the gentle content — from his forthcoming book, called Brooklyn (wut!). It really is the literariest borough.
Wrapping the global affair was Michael Ondaatje (Canada by way of Sri Lanka, of The English Patient fame), whose unkempt wild-man white hair fed precisely into the clichés of disheveled literary men in the best way possible.
A veritable linguist’s dream it was: the final tally was six languages and eight very varied works in two hours. The mélange of unique voices was compelling but surprisingly tiring. It really wipes you out to engage with the intercontinental literati.