May 8, 2013

What is PEN World Voices good for?


Carlos Fuentes

The news today that a dozen books from Carlos Fuentes’s backlist, including The Death of Artemio Cruz and The Old Gringo, will now be available as e-books, and the conclusion of the PEN World Voices Festival this past Sunday, bring to mind another PEN gathering, the PEN Congress in New York in June 1966, where Fuentes was a featured writer alongside Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra, Haroldo de Campos, and Victoria Ocampo. The debates that Neruda’s presence in particular sparked in ’66 were specific to the time and the moment, but the questions that were raised, about where writers stand in regards to the politics of their home countries and the countries they meet in, are still unsettled, constantly under discussion.

As recounted by Deborah Cohn in her 2003 article, “Retracing The Lost Steps: The Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, and Publishing Alejo Carpentier in the United States,” (which is  only available in its entirety if you have institutional access to Project Muse, but summarized here), Neruda’s and Fuentes’s participation in the PEN Congress was seen by other Latin American writers as a betrayal of the Cuban Revolution and of the region’s anti-imperialist struggles. Shortly after the congress, Alejo Carpentier, José Lezama Lima, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Nicolás Guillén, and other authors sent a group letter to Marcha, a strongly pro-Cuban Uruguayan journal, accusing Neruda of “allowing himself to be used by the U.S. government as part of a cover-up of U.S. crimes abroad, and as a symbol of reconciliation between Spanish America and the United States, and an easing up of Cold War politics.” The letter called for vigilance

against journals paid for by the CIA [a reference to the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the journals it sponsored, like Encounter and Mundo Nuevo], against the transformation of our writers into salon monkeys and carnival troupes for Yankee colloquia, against the translations that, even if they can guarantee a place in the catalogues of the big publishing firms, cannot guarantee a place in the history of our countries nor in the history of humanity. [Cohn’s translation]

Fuentes had hailed Neruda’s participation in the conference and had praised the efforts of Rodríguez Monegal, the editor of Mundo Nuevo, in an article in “Life” en español published in early August, and because of this he was also singled out in the joint letter. Neruda, for his part, was surprised to find himself under attack, since he’d been denied a visa to the U.S. for many years because of his political allegiances.

It was, in other words, a moment where participation in the PEN Congress itself, where the use of culture for political aims by both sides, was under discussion. And where the existence of the congress laid bare radically different positions on whether being visible to another literary public, and one that historically had a degree of power it exercised in alternately benevolent and negligent ways, was worthwhile.

These kinds of discussion are what, ostensibly, the PEN conference is supposed to be all about. And yet, it never really turns out that way. It may be the middling effect of the panel format, where common ground is quickly found and it takes an especially secure or annoyed writer to introduce anything unexpected. It may be the fact that PEN itself occasionally refuses to listen to voices they don’t want to hear: witness, for instance, Salman Rushdie’s particularly nasty shutting down of a protestor on opening night, a protestor who, during Rushdie’s speech, stood up and accused PEN of supporting the Iraq War. It’s an accusation that was in fact directed against PEN’s Executive Director Suzanne Nossel, who did publicly, in her former roles as head of Amnesty USA and in the State Department, support the war—Nossel’s positions are described in more scrupulous detail in this blogpost by translator Alex Zucker. Rushdie told the protestor to “shut the fuck up.”

My point is that PEN World Voices seems to produce a shadow set of reactions—and encounters, debates, exchanges, quarrels, and probably a couple of friendships in there—that feel more urgent than the festival itself. This may be the nature of literary festivals, and maybe it’s the unacknowledged justification for them as well: that bringing together a group of individuals to sit on stage for a bit and mouth something or other is valuable more because of what happens around it than during it. This is certainly part of the logic behind “soft power,” whether or not it’s always directable—in the case of Neruda and Fuentes, it seems to have misfired, at least in terms of how their participation was received by other Latin American writers.

But I’d be happier if the PEN Festival itself, a festival with its own schizophrenic nature—based in a city that is one of the most culturally diverse in the world and in a country that has for years been testing out different types of “soft power”—could address some of these questions more directly. PEN panels about objections to involvement with PEN? No panels at all? A strict separation between talks by scholars about the intersections between politics and literature, and readings by writers?  I’m a regular attendee of the festival, and every year there’s a lot that’s exciting and valuable about it, but I think– and I’m not alone in this— that there are some other good directions it could go, so that shadow festival doesn’t feel like the one that really counts.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.