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PEN World Voices: A Windy Indy Book Fair at the Literary Mews

By Karen Phillips

After record-breaking rains this week, Friday dawned sunny and windy—near-perfect weather for a book fair along the picturesque pedestrian alleyway known as the NYU Mews. Words without Borders was one of 20-some independent presses and magazines convened by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) to showcase their publications and writers during PEN World Voices.

Throughout the day, readings, panel discussions, and musical performances took place in the NYU language houses lining the Mews and on an outdoor stage. Our own Annelies Verbeke read “The Bearded Lady” from our May issue of Dutch and Flemish writing on taboos. And facial hair wasn’t the only taboos to assault the stage: another WWB contributor, Dmitry Kuzmin, raised more than a few eyebrows with his reading from an in-your-face political poem confronting a Russian law banning “non-traditional sexual relations” with a refrain that references oral sex. (Read more by Kuzmin in WWB: “On the Moscow Metro and Being Gay”.) It was both uncomfortable and exciting to hear him read, and reminded us that PEN, in fact, is a freedom of expression organization. 

The most beautiful contribution to the fair (for me) was not from a writer but from a musical storyteller. NYU’s Africa House had invited the master kora player Yacouba Sissoko to perform at the fair. Take a listen to his soulful melodies on YouTube. The musical performances were more successful at drawing a crowd than the readings in the windy, outdoor corridor of the Mews, but the opportunity to hear both literary and musical world voices on the same stage was a treat.

The fair drew an eclectic crowd—tourists, curious passersby, dog walkers, and NYU students, along with writers, translators, and publishers. At the Words without Borders table, we happily greeted several friends—Chad Post and Open Letter (at the table next door), and translators Adrian West, Emmanuelle Ertel, Margaret Carson, and Alex Cigale, all stopped by to say hello. And it was an excellent opportunity to introduce WWB to a new crowd. A big thank you to CLMP for organizing the event as part of PEN World Voices.

Published May 4, 2014   Copyright 2014 Karen Phillips

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