In the final week of April, the PEN American Center hosted its seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City. The last days of the festival included a collaboration with The Moth, a non-profit organization focused on storytelling. This out of the ordinary event brought together a high profile literary line-up to practice the art of storytelling for the sold-out crowd at Cooper Union’s Great Hall.
During the evening, each of the five featured authors was asked to use ten minutes to tell a true story centered on the theme of “What went Wrong?”. In order to enforce the ten-minute time limit, composer and pianist, Jon Spurney, was also onstage to deliver a musical warning if time was running out and, if necessary, to act as a buzzer signaling that time was up (fortunately or unfortunately, the final buzzer, a comedically ominous set of chords, was never needed).
Also on hand to host the event and introduce each of the storytellers was the festival’s chair, Salman Rushdie. While Rushdie often provided moments of hilarity (for instance, telling a quick “what went wrong” story of his own about being questioned by friend Bernardo Bertolucci on one of Bertolucci’s films, which Rushdie had thought was a disaster), he also emphasized the PEN American Center’s focus on the intersection between literature and human rights. Here, Rushdie pointed to the oppression of artistic talents in China and the recent arrest of artist Ai Weiwei by China’s government, going on to issue a warning to China that similar actions would not be tolerated by the global community.
Following delivery of his political message, Rushdie turned the evening’s focus back to the storytelling at hand by introducing author Jenny Allen, a contributor to numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Vogue and The Huffington Post and star of a one-woman show called I Got Sick Then I Got Better. Allen told the story of her battle with cancer, through the lens of whether she would end up as a “wig person” or a “scarf person” following chemotherapy. Although her story dealt with a topic as personal and potentially devastating as her own cancer, Allen came across upbeat and at ease. Her storytelling style was conversational and generally made the audience feel as though they were watching a comedian at work. Although mixed with self-reflection and several poignant moments, Allen’s path to determining that she was, in fact, a “scarf person”, was the event’s most straightforwardly funny story.
The next storyteller, Elif Shafak, a Turkish author of novels that include The Mystic and The Forty Rules of Love, told a story that began with her oath not leave the walls of her home in Istanbul until a full draft of one her novels was complete. As Shafak’s story and self-inflicted quarantine continued, an earthquake shook Turkey, killing thousands and unexpectedly bringing together diverse members of her neighborhood. Although Shafak seemed somewhat less at ease than Allen and her story was more practiced and less spontaneous, her exploration of whether literature really mattered in the face of the world’s greater challenges proved one of the most thoughtful and interesting of the evening.
Warren Macdonald. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Shafak was followed by adventurer and author, Warren Macdonald, who shared the story of the climbing trip during which he was pinned under a boulder in a creek bed for over a day and that eventually resulted in the amputation of both of his legs. Although the narrative was somewhat less complex than several of the other stories, Macdonald made it easy to feel the terror of being trapped in a rising creek bed, the ultimate fear that his relationship with the outside world would be irrevocably damaged by the loss of his legs and the final triumph of summiting a mountain only ten months after the amputation.
Edgar Oliver. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
The next storyteller was playwright, author and actor, Edgar Oliver. With his unique delivery and Vincent Price-esque accent, this author of works, such as The Poetry Killer and Motel Blue 19, was an audience favorite. Oliver told the story of a trip to Morocco with his sister and his straight crush, Jason, which included everything from being offered a little boy for sale, to tracking down author Paul Bowles, to being pelted with stones by children. The meandering subject matter, coupled with Oliver’s unexpected style of speech, provided a delightfully strange and hilarious experience.
Jonathan Franzen. Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Finally, one of the event’s most well-known storytellers, Jonathan Franzen, author of a number of works, including Freedom and The Corrections, entered the stage. While strains of his comedic instincts were displayed at its outset, Franzen’s story was the most painful of the evening. It dealt with his use of the story of an elementary school classmate’s death as a small part of one of his published pieces and on the pain that use eventually caused the boy’s mother. During the story, Franzen claimed that he remained unable to face a letter from the boy’s mother, despite having agreed with Moth producers to read it as preparation for the story he was now telling. Whether or not this inability to read the letter was genuine or a planned piece of the narrative, the story’s apparent lack of polish in comparison to those of the other participants made Franzen’s distress over his role as a writer and storyteller seem all the more moving.
While the entire evening proved entertaining and worthwhile, Shafak and Franzen’s stories, each dealing with writers struggling to come to terms with the place of their work in the world, left the audience with the most unresolved, but somehow satisfying, questions to consider.