Despite the awkward statement of over 200 writers protesting PEN’s decision to award the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award prize to racist lefty French rag Charlie Hebdo, the inaugural "Opening Night: The Future is Now" of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature played to a packed auditorium at Cooper Union in downtown New York.
Now in its tenth year, the festival’s promise of truly “international” and linguistically diverse programming has faded, with participation of non-Anglo writers having dwindled to an all-time low this year. The “Opening Night” was emblematic of this. With a vague focus on Africa all this week (yes, the entire continent), the mainstage had two writers from Kenya, one from Nigeria and one from South Africa. In fact, of the 12 writers who spoke for 10-15 minutes each on imagining the world in 2050, there was only one who did not present in English: Fedor Alexandrovich from Ukraine.
That said, the evening started well.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o skip-hopped to the microphone and set the tone with, “I’m in a hurry, a great hurry, to share something that happened in 2050.” Part comic, part serious, part rambling and completely charming, Ngugi shared a surrealistic story set in the land of “Mot” (French for “word”), where travelers attempt to form a new society free of the violence of their previous one. They travel light, with little more than specialized chips filled with music which, unfortunately, one of their party fashions into a knife, harkening back to the knife-fight-fraught world they had left behind. But they overcome it...with words, the building blocks of any new world - after silence.
He was followed by Egyptian activist and journalist Mona Eltahawy, who presented a tale of a Middle Eastern feminist utopia of 2050, a world of bad puns and refrigerator-magnet-feminism that didn’t come off as particularly alluring (at least to me).
Luckily, Zanele Muholi was next. South African Muholi is a queer visual activist who dedicates her life to the fight for LGBTQIA rights. While her work has been international in scope, her sharpest sting was reserved for her own homophobic South African society. She screened her 3-minute short film from 2013, a commission that was part of a collaborative Films4Peace project. Here, a small procession makes its way past freshly dug graves, and the film culminates with the body of a dead woman, with the allusion that perhaps the woman was stoned to death.
Muholi started with a somber oration listing the names of victims who have died of homophobic violence, none of whom would be older than 60 in 2050. and thus immediately drew attention to “lesbian bodies being discarded.” She followed up with scenarios for the future, in which she hopes that homophobic rulers will be too old, dead, or tired to oppress us, and that LGBTQIA populations will not have to rely on mainstream media for representation, since they turn the community’s issues into a sensational spectacle.
Muholi’s presentation was focused, stern, incisive and extremely moving. She set the tone for what is emerging as one of the sub-themes of the festival - that of queer writing, rights, activisms and futures. Similar concerns were echoed by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana later in the evening.
Despite the disproportionate amount of English speaking writers from Africa, there are some sweet surprises coming up in the festival program. Along with the usual suspects from Kenya and Nigeria, I’m happy to acknowledge to presence of Senegalese writer and brilliant essayist (whose work I also happen to occasionally translate!) Boubacar Boris Diop, in a fairly rare appearance, which is odd given that he is such a major author. Another nice touch are panels featuring Achille Mbembe, the philosopher and postcolonial theorist generally viewed as too academic to be a typical choice for an American literary festival. A panel on the late Édouard Glissant, poet and force extraordinnaire in Caribbean literary thought and philosophy, also looks very promising.
Back to “Opening Night,” which continued well into the night, there were many attempts at comedic depictions of 2050, with Australia’s Richard Flanagan and Ukrainian Fedor Alexandrovich having the audience in stiches with bizarre, hilarious and bawdy scenarios. Many authors succumbed to the temptation of imagining a topsy-turvy 2050, which while apocalyptic or dire or critical of current issues, was still filled with surprising twists and turns of geopolitics that were, alas, unconvincing to say the least.
It was a typically brisk New York event with several members of the audience choosing to walk out mid-event (as soon as their proverbial New-York-minute was up). God forbid something last longer than ninety minutes, quelle horreur!
But all in all, the atmosphere was electric, the presenters were in excellent spirits, wine flowed freely (nah, just kidding) and Wangechi Mutu’s fabulously moody and beguilingly maroon “Root of All Eves” being projected onto the big screen was a joy to behold.
Bhakti Shringarpure is editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine. Twitter @bhakti_shringa