Sometimes I’m tempted to lay my pen on the table and demand that it do tricks. That’s me, the crazy lady at Cafe Grumpy’s berating my writing instrument out loud. “How tough can this be? There are only 26 letters, less than a dozen useful punctuation marks. Sit. Roll over. Write like Junot Diaz, Dammit.”
The only trick my pen does reliably is ‘play dead’.
Last night at the opening event for PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City I kept my pen in my purse or it would have jumped right off Pier 61. Head first, no floatable eraser.
Dubbed ‘Written on Water’, last night’s themed readings took place at Pier 61’s Lighthouse. It’s an apt metaphor for one of PEN’s key missions: to encourage people to speak out against censorship and condemn the suppression of freedom of expression. (See http://www.pen.org)
PEN’s event this week focuses on China, Russia and the Middle East. There are forums about the challenges and opportunities of the blogosphere and even a late night conversation about Wikileaks.
Waiting for the headliners last night, I thought I heard a tiny bird chirping through a mislaid sound system. Then I realized the wistful wail was a creative seating call. The audience moved from the bar to metal backed chairs that faced the general direction of Mecca.
The chirping accelerated. It wasn’t a caged bird. It was a violin, a live woman. Czech violinist and vocalist Iva Bittova created a riveting minstrel vortex down the center aisle. Heads turned, searching for a source or familiar context.
At moments, Bittova’s music was distinctly Muslim, then Slavic, subtly Indian–wait, was that Hebrew? The virtuosity, the channeled joy, the spontaneity and whimsy.
By the time Bittova had finished her promenade, the audience had been kneaded into submission. We were ready to rise to the spoken word.
Words rose. They sang, danced, twirled and wept in at least five languages, with one empty chair for the writers whose words broke up on black rocks of censorship before making it to this Lighthouse.
The fleshy houses that carry great literary minds never cease to inspire. Salman Rushdie tended a labyrinthine word garden; Malcolm Gladwell grated a stout rake over clean prose.
It’s always a relief to see that talent–and the discipline to develop and sustain it–does not always adorn the physically lovely. In person Rushdie looks like he could wear a white apron as the scrubbed patriarch of a Brooklyn bodega, Gladwell might be the not-too-distant cousin of Art Garfunkel. Gioconda Belli’s convincing voice might mean she’s related to legal orator Melvin, and Hanif Kureishi has more mischief in his eyes than a liberated jinn. Kureishi stole the show with his story of a young Indian coming of age in a suburban house of earthly delights.
Mircea Cartarescu did not care-to-rescue a spoken translation; his swarthy Romanian pheromones wafted into the psyches of all the women and about a third of the men in the ballroom. Who needed to read the English translation on screen?
Amelie Northomb in a black top hat looked as though she’d escaped from Hogwarts and might go up in a puff of magic eyeliner smoke at any moment.
Wallace Shawn looked like Wallace Shawn.
Finally, over dark water, Iva Bittova returned to close the program with a short but powerful celebratory crescendo, a coda for violin and voice.
Before I went to bed last night, I buried my bic in the program for the PEN festival, rolled it up tight and put it where the sun don’t shine: my writer’s notebook. I’m letting the plastic ink pipette out only if it promises to do tricks.
If it refuses to write for me, I’m forwarding it to one of the word magicians I saw last night. Any one of them would make that little ink-filled bastard jump.