Now in New York until May 1, more than 100 writers from around the world have gathered for the annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. But at least one writer is conspicuously absent from the festivities. In a year when the world has been transfixed by the popular uprisings in the middle east and elsewhere, China has cracked down on its artists, writers, activists and intellectuals, refusing dissident writer Liao Yiwu a visa to travel out of the country. Liao was scheduled to read work during the opening session of the festival on Monday. Salman Rushdie, the chair of PEN World Voices and its founder, has spoken out against the actions of the Chinese government.
To learn more about this year’s festival and the place of literature — in all its different forms — in our world today, I talked to Festival director Laszlo Jakab Orsos. Originally from Hungary, Orsos has been a journalist and filmmaker, and now lives in New York City. (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan)
I talked to Orsos on Wednesday by phone from New York:
[Read a transcript after the jump]
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how do you describe the festival and its missions and goals today?
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: This is a literary festival with a very strict political agenda.
JEFFREY BROWN: A strict political agenda?
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: Strict, yeah. I assume you I heard, I put the emphasis on strict. Ours is the only literary festival around the world — there are six major literary festivals in the world, and ours is the only one with a political commitment. This is PEN America’s literary festival and PEN’s core mission is freedom of speech, freedom of expression. And we’re using the festival for not only promoting literature in general, but also spreading the word and promoting this mission. And curating the festival, this is my job to make this mission visible and tangible throughout the week of happenings.
JEFFREY BROWN: I read that you’ve said that in curating, you want to make literature more a part of contemporary culture, I think is how you put it.
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Explain what you mean — are you worried that it has become too divorced, or is there a special need now?
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: I don’t think that there is a special need, but we have to reconfigure literature in a sense. We have to make sure, and we have to explain it to our audience, not to mention our writers, that literature, believe it or not, you want it or not, is playing a very substantial role in our lives. We just have to look at literature from a different perspective. And in a festival like ours, the way how I can project this idea is to curate programs bringing people from all over the world who are reacting to the most burning issues of our lives. So, in other words, when we are doing a festival like this, we have to be very, very flexible during the curatorial procedure. For example tonight at the 92nd Street Y, we are going to have an event called Revolutionaries in the Arab World. In December I hadn’t planned anything for it. In mid-January I was starting to think about it. By early February I was talking to bloggers from Cairo. And by early March we had the program ready to discuss the role of social media and actually people’s involvement, ordinary people’s involvement in history. This is huge, and this is literature to me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I mean it’s very interesting of course, because this whole issue of a commitment of literature to current affairs and even to politics— I read your own experience comes out Hungary, and you said somewhere that freedom was not good for literature. What happened in Hungary after the Soviet Union dissolved?
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: It happens everywhere, not just in Hungary. You just get distracted by freedom, freedom is a double-edged sword. I mean you have to learn how to treat freedom and how to use your freedom, and literature and writers and consumers of literature also have to learn how to deal with this sudden freedom of literature. During the Russian era, it was— everything was way more easier. The direction was clearer, and as you may very well know living and growing up in a democracy, you guys have to have choices on an everyday basis, and it takes a man to be able to understand the nature of those choices and to be able to endeavor to execute certain choices. These are huge. Freedom is a huge a task.
JEFFREY BROWN: Living here now in the United States are you— have you been worried that literature is more marginalized? And particularly international literature, which you do emphasize in the festival?
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: Yes, there are actually two questions. First of all, for answering to your first question, I don’t think literature is marginalized. I mean look at those tween novels, how enormously successful they are: the Twilight series, Harry Potter. It’s amazing. Look at the ebooks, the ebooks craze. That’s literature. Look at the bloggers! That also is literature. Talking about international literature, that’s something else and that’s— I think it’s a serious phenomenon in a large, in every large culture, actually. I think this almost the same — although I’m not familiar with the Russian contemporary literary and cultural scene — but I’m pretty sure that they are facing with almost the same issues like you guys here. Every huge culture has every right to concentrate on its own rich culture, so why do we need other cultures? And although you have to understand then, and all the bigger nations have to understand, how important, how fruitful it can be to be able to look into other peoples mind set and understand other cultures. So here we are with this festival, bringing from all over the world, bringing over amazing up and coming and already established writers whose names may not resonate here. But we’ve just have a couple of events so far, and people were amazed hearing somebody from France, somebody from Denmark, from Russia, whose name doesn’t mean anything to this audience, and after hearing them it turns out that these are major writers.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are there one or two you want to tell us who have struck you, yourself?
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: I’m in love with everybody, actually. I have to say, this is super emotional. I was in email connection with almost everybody in the last couple — actually in the last half of the year — and meeting them here in New York after all these months, it’s rather emotional. Of course, I mean, there are people who I was most adamant — up in curating the festival — I was adamant to give them visibility, like Vladimir Sorokin, one of Russian’s most amazing writers. I keep calling him the Russian Murakami one day, and the other day I called him the Russian Bolano. His two books are coming out by Farrar Strauss and Giroux and New York Review of Books. He’s arriving today and he’s an amazing, amazing writer. I have nonfiction writers, Jianying Zha, the amazing Chinese American writer whose collection of essays came out a couple of weeks ago. She’s doing a big event with us called China In Two Acts explaining the secret cultural scenes in China and I’m really looking forward to that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Wel,l and finally, I mean, your own personal experience because this is a first, this is your first festival. It sounds like it’s nerve-wracking, but exciting at the same time.
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: It’s amazing, it’s like, I can— I don’t know. It really is amazing. I mean, you just forget everything, all the pains and ordeals that you have to go through. This is a hell, I mean, to put together organizationally, to put together a festival of this sort. But it pays off, and seeing the audience and we have a huge turn out this year. This is really great. Then you understand the core, you know, the real mission what we are doing with this wonderful small staff who I am working here at the PEN American office.
JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, Laszlo Jakab Orsos is the director the PEN World Voices Festival. Thank you for talking with us.
LASZLO JAKAB ORSOS: Thank you.