PEN World Voices — The Price of Self-Absorption

by Bill Marx

A quiet but insistent source of frustration among some of the authors at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York turned out to be the amount of attention garnered by China and its brutal treatment of writers. All agreed that PEN’s petition to free imprisoned dissenting authors in the country was necessary, but there were those who pointed out that the campaign also fed a fixation on China and the Olympics that played into political fashion and America’s limited cultural attention span.

Somalian writer Nuruddin Farah questions America’s “clumsy self-absorption.”

Some of the writers suggested that, apparently, the United States can only spotlight the violation of writers’ rights in one headline-grabbing country at a time. The situation for a number of writers in other countries around the world remained bleak, though they did not have the advantage of being silenced by an economic and strategic powerhouse and news maker. America’s tunnel vision was eloquently summed up by the Somalian writer Nuruddin Farah, who has been exiled from his country, in an interview he had with me during the festival.

America is clumsy in its self-absorption. I would hope the day would come when America would know a lot more, not only about China, because now everybody is reading and writing about China. A few years ago it was fashionable to learn about the Soviet Union, then five or six years ago it was all about Iraq.

The irony is that America needs to know the world a little more and that you have the world here. You don’t need to go to Somalia to learn about Somalia – there are hundreds of thousands of Somalians in this country, hundreds of thousands of Chinese, and so on. In other words, you have the resources, the manpower, to know more. But America need to look at what it has, appreciate it, get to know it more, and the world will become a better place for all concerned

Farah suggests that there is more of the world in America’s backyard than the country, including PEN World Voices, is willing to admit.


  1. Geoff on May 13, 2008 at 6:42 am

    Yes, I remember thinking it was odd that at every event, the empty chair on stage was dedicated to someone being persecuted by the Chinese government. Sometimes the same person was memorialized at more than one event.

  2. ArtsFuse on May 13, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Geoff is referring to how before each PEN New Voices event a PEN representative referred to an empty chair on stage, which represented one of the dissident Chinese writers currently behind bars. A boilerplate explaination was read with the name of a particular writer, along with some biographical material on the author, inserted.

    The reading was often perfunctory, as least at the panels I attended, and because PEN wanted to publicize its petition to free Chinese writers the exercise resembled sitting through a public service announcement. Next year it might be Burma’s or Saudi Arabia’s turn at the empty chair. Apparently there is only time for one petition for one persecuted group of writers in one country at one time. A strange system …

    Bill Marx

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