The PEN World Voices Festival: Postcard From New York City

Jessica Allen

Those lucky enough to have tickets to “A Believer Nighttime Event” on Saturday, part of last week’s PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, received program notes that contained a list of the night’s proceedings, complete with short descriptions and estimated times ("Introduction, Eric Bogosian commences the evening in his fashion, seven minutes, thirty-four seconds"), as well as bios of the seven participants.

Bogosian began the event, in his fashion, by reading from an e-mail exchange he had with a few editors of the Believer magazine. Apparently, the editors had incorrectly described Bogosian’s introduction as “lively” in the program notes, so Bogosian wrote to explain that he wasn’t sure he could be light or lively, then respectfully asked that the program notes be amended to ensure that no uncharacteristic liveliness be attached to his name. He didn’t want to create false expectations.

Bogosian transitioned into an argument about the power of words in today’s world. He cited as evidence the fact that fifty-six journalists were murdered last year and claimed that the preponderance of words on the Internet demonstrates a “new enthusiasm for literature.” He was passionate, yes, but definitely not lighthearted.

Next up was a thirty-minute, twelve-second performance by Miranda July entitled “A Presentation About Money.” Rather than a presentation, July, in hot pink thigh-highs, ran an auction of three items that had been donated by audience members prior to the start of the show: a half-eaten pack of Ricola cough drops, a copy of August Wilson’s play Jitney, and an expired AARP card.

Each item was placed, in turn, on a small, specially designed dais covered in pink velvet; its image was projected onto a large screen so that the audience could check it out before bidding. July also invited the person who had donated the item onto the stage so that she could conduct a short, spontaneous interview to drum up interest. “I never know what can come out,” July said, as she bantered about sick days, auditions, the Actors’ Studio, mail, and poor penmanship with the three donors.

Despite admitting that she had decided not to buy the CD How to Be an Auctioneer (too expensive), July did a fine job of selling the items, perhaps because each item came with an autographed envelope that stated: “I went to this event hosted by the Believer, that magazine. I bid on and [sic] item, and I won it.”

By the end of the auction, July had somehow managed to raise over $100: the cough drops went for $20, the play for $26, and the AARP card for $30. She’s not good at math, she explained, so wasn’t sure how the numbers added up. July then asked people in the audience to shut their eyes and raise their hands if they really needed the money. She selected someone, dropped the money in his or her lap as a “need-based grant,” and left the stage.

Bogosian returned to the stage and recommended that July take over when Rosie O’Donnell leaves The View. Everyone applauded. Then he read a series of raving journal entries by a self-loathing, lonely, middle-aged man. The invective contrasted mightily with the rest of the night’s G-rated, silly entertainment. Everyone laughed, even as his crude narrator used the f-word like most people use prepositions.

Then John Hodgman hosted “Writer Speed Dating,” a chance for four international writers to get to know each other quickly, New York–style. Niccolò Ammaniti chatted on-stage with Isabel Hoving about his love of tropical fish—he keeps around two thousand in three tanks. The writers had a choice between asking each other questions that Hodgman wrote and asking their own individual questions. Hoving chose the latter, asking, “When I met you an hour ago, you said you hate games. But are your books serious or not, deep or shallow?” Ammaniti, through a translator, replied, “They’re all inclusive. You go to a certain point, laughing, then it goes to tears. But not tears of laughter.”

Next, young Uzodinma Iweala “dated” Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul). Uzo drank two shots of red wine, then asked Khadra, “Boxers or briefs?” Hodgman pressed “Uzo,” as he called Iweala, to remember that the event was a “platonic literary micro-dialogue.” Khadra had several “yes or no” questions of his own, including "What did you do this morning?” “What is your favorite book, excepting my novels?” and “What are you doing later?” Hodgman seemed distressed to hear that Iweala planned to attend medical school in the fall to please his Nigerian parents but was delighted to learn that Khadra doesn’t write every day. As parting gifts, all the writers received madeleines from a local bakery.

Hodgman intoned, “Light conversations are often the most enlightening.” So are light events. Over approximately eighty-seven minutes, twenty-two seconds, the audience learned that Bogosian knows himself well, July gets money, several swear words in a row is simultaneously amusing and creepy, super-successful writers still feel obliged to please their parents, and that what looks like irony is simply an earnest devotion to literature.