PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: A Literary Safari

By Andrew Seguin

My safari began in apartment 101A. Czech writer Michal Ajvaz sat beneath a Matisse print in a corner of the living room. It was almost 7:00 p.m. and the only seat I could find was on the floor, eye level with tulips that adorned the table between Mr. Ajvaz and his audience, my fellow adventurers. We had all embarked on A Literary Safari at Westbeth, the artists’ housing complex in the West Village, to hear twenty writers from all over the world read their work from the apartments of gracious Westbeth residents.

 

After a brief welcome by Eunice Lipton, whose home we were in, Mr. Ajvaz read the first chapter from his book, The Other City. Titled “The Book With the Purple Binding,” the chapter concerned a man reading in a room of antiquarian books during a snowstorm. He eventually takes a book off the shelf, examines it, and realizes “that the alphabet in which the book was printed was not of this world.” Thus begins a quest to discover all the book has to offer, which is nothing short of beguiling: its words glow, its engravings come to life, it births tigers. If this was safari, then what better way to start it than with an ode to the power of literature?

At 7:30 it was time to continue on. I crammed into the elevator with enough people to make a fire marshal nervous and disembarked on the third floor. Entering apartment 347B, I climbed a flight of stairs to a trilingual poetry reading: Natalio Hernández read his poems in Nahuatl and Spanish, and an interpreter read them in English. Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico, is Mr. Hernández’s first language and Spanish is his second. While there were several audience members who spoke Spanish, none spoke Nahuatl, so we all reveled in the unfamiliar sounds of the language.

At 8:00 I traveled down the hall and heard more unfamiliar sounds: poems in Welsh from the poet Gillian Clarke. In addition to reading, Ms. Clarke spoke at length about the effort to promote the Welsh language in Wales, and how successful it’s been. She recounted meeting an immigrant from Somalia who had learned Welsh so well he was now teaching it. Although I was eager to hear more poems in Welsh, I could spy the clock in the corner creeping towards 8:30, and I had one more writer to hear.

I again ascended in the elevator and hopped off on the sixth floor. In apartment 618C, Guatemalan novelist Eduardo Halfon read from his book The Polish Boxer. While I sipped water tinted pink from sliced citrus, I listened to an excerpt in which Halfon’s narrator, a professor, searches the jungle for a talented Mayan student who has abruptly dropped out of university. Halfon explained he drew some of the details in the story from his own life, and from the eight years he spent teaching literature in Guatemala.

My safari was merely a foray: there was no way to see or hear all of the writers during the allotted two hours. Among the people I missed were Nadeem Aslam, Shane Bauer, Loree Griffin Burns, Dror Burstein, Mia Cuoto, Nick Holdstock, Randa Jarrar, John Kenney, Tararith Kho, Jaime Manrique, Téa Obreht, Margie Orford, Jordi Puntí, Noémi Szécsi, Nicole Sealey and Padma Venkatrama.

But I did bag one trophy: a copy of Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City, purchased from the bookseller’s table at the reception.


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