PEN World Voices — Day One

by Bill Marx

I’m down in New York for PEN American’s annual Festival of International Literature, five days of readings, panels, and discussions on writing around the globe that emphasizes the plight of imperiled authors, particularly those that write in languages other than English.

Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian
Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian

A PEN press conference this morning announced the delivery of a petition to the Chinese Mission at the UN that asks for the release of imprisoned Chinese writers. The gathering was short and sweet but also moving. Both Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan focused their brief remarks on the not-to-be-underestimated value of shaming the Chinese goverment into allowing more freedom of expression. Still, PEN is not calling for a boycott of the Olympics.

Writer Ma Jian, whose books are banned in China, also made a few comments at the gathering, observing that because of the subjugation of writers in his homeland a valuable connection between the past and the present was being lost. Writers are aware of this attempt to erase history, so their conflict with the goverment is growing more intense

Ma Jian’s latest novel, “Beijing Coma,” to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux early next month, is, among other things, a powerful evocation of the tragedy in Tiannanmen Square. Ma Jian camped out and marched with the students, which gives his epic story a documentary heft. It is also obviously a direct response to the goverment’s attempts to shape memories of the past.

The word here from Chinese translator Wen Huang is that the authorities have been moving “questionable” writers away from Beijing and other major cities over the last few months in an effort to keep them far from journalists. Wen Huang has a new book out now made up of his translations of dissident writer Liao Yiwa’s interviews with everyday Chinese. That volume, entited “Corpse Walker, True Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up,” is available now — it applies a Studs Terkel approach to exploring what it is like to live in China.

Wen tells me that his collection of translations of stories based on the handful of people who survived a Chinese gulag in the 1950s — a sample story and an introduction to the book can be found on the World Books China page — will be published by the same publisher next year.

Meanwhile, the largest event of the first day of the Festival was a gala reading last night at Town Hall — the highlights were a nimble Ian McEwen reading from an energetically comic (and unpublished) piece about his research for a novel on global warming and deadpan Hungarian novelist Peter Esterhazy presenting his fractured farce version of his family’s history. Other readers included Israel’s A.B. Yehoshua, who speed read the first chapter of his superb novel “A Woman in Jerusalem,” and Annie Proulx, who read from a novel by aging (and shamefully neglected) Irish novelist Aidan Higgins.

As for the politics of writing, I found out at a PEN panel on playwriting around the world that Serbian dramatist Biljana Srbljanovic, whose play “Family Stories” has received a number of productions in America, is running as a third party candidate to become the mayor of Belgrade. She was slated to be part of the PEN panel on history and drama but she was too busy campaigning to call in. Sometimes writers stop talking about politics and enter the fray.


  1. Benjamin Harris on June 13, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    On Gao Qiang’s “Swimming Mao.”

  2. Benjamin Harris on June 13, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    中国的沉默长城: 评高强「毛泽东勇渡江」。

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