The Guardian US - Class A books: PEN World Voices Festival opens with riffs on drugs

The 12th PEN World Voices festival opened last night at Cooper Union in New York City. The question of illegal drugs and the drug trade – why do they exist, why are we so obsessed with parallel realities, and if we find them, which is the more real? – was posed to eight writers from around the world, including Anne EnrightBoris Akunin and Marlon James.

But who knew drugs could be so funny? Often piercing and insightful, the stories read by these highly acclaimed international writers were perhaps as much surprising for their cautionary nature as for their laugh-out-loud humor. From Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho reading a story about Sean Penn getting his drug supplier arrested to Enright using her incisive wit to talk about aid workers one-upping her in Honduras, the readings never shied away from exploring the unreality drugs inflict on us all.

The evening was opened by PEN America president Andrew Solomon, who said that PEN and the festival’s role was “to ensure many voices from many places can be heard”. But in recent years PEN has had some trouble smoothing out conflicts among its membership, usually ones which reflect the fault lines of global politics.

At the beginning of this month, when PEN’s program acceptance of sponsorship from the Israeli government for the writer Dalia Betolin-Sherman and playwright Yael Ronen resulted in the online publication of an open letter signed by over 100 PEN American Center members including Alice Walker and Junot Diaz.

 Juan Villoro at PEN: the Mexican writer read a highly entertaining excerpt from his short story Amigos Mexicanos. Photograph: Beowulf Sheehan/PEN America

“Given PEN American Center’s mission of supporting freedom of expression, it is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept sponsorship from the Israeli government, even as it intensifies its decades-long denial of basic rights to the Palestinian people, including the frequent targeting of Palestinian writers and journalists,” the letter, written by Adalah-NY, the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, said. Several authors, including poets Jennif(f)er Tamayo and Jennifer Hayashida, then withdrew from the festival.

In this, there were shades of the debate from last year’s decision by the festival to award the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo the Freedom of Expression Courage prize.

Neither event was mentioned in the opening speeches, which focused instead on getting to the evening’s program. First, the festival chair Colm Tóibín told a charming anecdote which compared the city to the act of writing, and the festival to a “pedestrian crossing” that allowed for “city strollers to access the next page”. Then curator László Jakab Orsós spoke briefly about the region selected for this year’s festival – Mexico, with occasional sprinklings of Cuba and Russia – and the evening moved quickly onto the quirky and meditative readings on drugs.

New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon opened with a poem about a drug trip written from the perspective of a talking horse. Like drugs, “we make art because it makes us feel good”, he said to the chuckling crowd. Mexican writer and journalist Juan Villoro followed this with a highly entertaining excerpt from Amigos Mexicanos, from his short story collection The Guilty, about an American journalist who goes to Mexico wanting to write about the violence of the country but, possibly like Jack Kerouac upon visiting friend William Burroughs, “never finding anything outrageous to write about”.

The Russian writer Akunin took a more existential look at the theme by reading an extract from his first novel, which was concerned about how to find life’s real purpose. “I believe the reason why some people, roughly 3% of the world’s population, ruin their life by doing drugs, is exactly the same as why the overwhelming majority of humans ruin their life work jobs they do not like,” he said, referring to the human need to find a palliative for the reality of their existence.

Later, Olga Torkarczuk, who is well known in her native Poland for her mythical stories, enthralled the audience with a tale about God deciding to create drugs “as an addendum” to the creation of the rest of the world.

Mexican Chicano artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña ended the evening on an odd note, with a seemingly unanticipated physicalized incantation from the voices of the oppressed and censored. But although the performance was the most aesthetically out of sync with the evening, it remained conceptually en pointe. Before his poem at the beginning of the evening, Muldoon had mused: “Every poem is a drug trip in the way it is written and read.” And after an evening of mind-expanding literature, there wasn’t a truer word said.