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PEN World Voices Festival: This Critical Moment (Part I)

By David Varno

PEN World Voices Festival Yesterday afternoon at the Scandinavia House, board members of the National Book Critics Circle and other critics presented on select writers participating in this year's festival. The authors they discussed are from Germany, Mexico, Egypt, the Basque country of Spain, and Zimbabwe, and their comments were valuable supplements to other World Voices events. Supplement feels like the wrong word to use; each panelist gave a highly informed and contextual introduction to the authors discussed. Rather than essaying too much on it, I'll give a selection of annotated transcriptions from each of the five talks (in two parts) for those who couldn't make it at 4 pm on a weekday, and who may have heard some of the related panels.

Eric Banks, NBCC board member and freelance critic, gave a really interesting talk on the post-wall generation of German-language writers, linking them together with broad strokes in terms of what has informed their writing and language, specifically, while suggesting that a richer understanding of their work can be had without seeing them as part of a generation or, perhaps, even as German. He mentioned the interest over the past year in authors who grew up in East Germany before the wall came down, such as Clemens Meyer (who gave an incredible reading a couple of hours later at the Deutsches Haus, and my account will be on the blog early this coming week), and suggested that this year's World Voices curation is reflective of that, in giving an introduction to authors who came of age around 1989 or afterwards, and are poised to find an American readership.

íBeyond the local aspect and historical aspect of 1989, one of the things that all of these writers share is an almost cosmopolitan sense of interest in polyphonic voices multiculturalism, linguistic codes, language as power, and in some cases a sense of linguistic otherness, with a sense of writing about German and writing in German in a way that distances yourself from the language you're speaking in and writing in—they see language as a form of communication as well as a form of object.ë

This Critical MomentHe suggested that Swiss writer Peter Weber was informed by free jazz, íthe lingua franca of the new cosmopolitan city that Berlin came to symbolize in the early part of the 90s,ë and that poet Uljana Wolf, íknown for a succinct, dense use of German language,ë is ífascinating for the degree of English used in her constructions.ë Banks read the untranslated version of a poem from DICHTionary (A German-English dictionary of false friends, true cognates and other cousins): "Ornament ornament I'm tired of your bored lament," and then he discussed María Cecilia Barbetta, an Argentine writer who writes in German and íuses language as set of codes that add up in Borgesian manner,ë and could be construed as a íGerman imagination of what it would be like to be an Argentine seamstress written by an Argentine writer writing in German.ë

In suggesting how to look at these writers, Banks ended with a pun on the title of Walter Absih's novel How German Is It: íIf we were thinking about an older generation of German-language writers, we might want to say, èhow German is it,' but when looking at some of the writers on this year's panels, you really want to ask, èHow is it German?'"

Rigoberto Gonzalez, NBCC board member and poet, provided an arresting picture of the íintellectual border crossersë of Mexico, specifically Álvaro Enrigue. He spoke of three groups of Mexican writers on our radar: those working in Mexcio and translated into English (Octavio Paz, etc.); Mexican-Americans who have been publishing in the states since the early '60s (Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto), and aren't really Mexican or American; and the border crossers. In his introduction, he suggested that the diversity of these groups and their isolation from one another reflects the complicated history of the country's relationship with the United States, and that this is something we'll have to deal with, whether or not we're in a time when íthe buzzwords are èillegal immigration' and èswine flu,'ë because by the year 2050, people of Mexican origin will make up one-third of the US population.

Enrigue, as Gonzalez explained, is informed by the fantastical, time-space border crossing of Borges as well as the class-consciousness critique of Chicano writers, and thus is the perfect candidate for a long-needed link between the two. Here's his description of Enrigue:

íThese quantum leaps from one world to another are Odyssean and Swiftian, and in many ways they are classical journeys—think also Dickens and Stendhal. [But his novels are filled with] metaphors that reflect an awareness of the contemporary time. Think hyperlink, a glowing entity on the screen like a point of entry that will expand once the reader commits to it.ë

Gonzalez voiced the concern that audience members interested in discovering this author won't be able to find his books in English. Very little of Enrigue's work is available in translation, which Gonzalez finds hard to believe.

"I'll end with a plea,ë he said, íto translate the works of Álvaro Enrigue past and future. What he will bring to American letters is incredibly valuable to many communities. To those of us who want to add a relevant and fresh vision of Mexico to their libraries, and to the Chicano writers who will recognize a long-lost cousin in Enrigue, a writer who will bridge two literary landscapes: the Mexican and the Chicano, which have been mutually exclusive for much too long.

Photo copyright © 2009 Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

Published May 3, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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