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Journalist Serkalem Fasil accepts the PEN American Center's "Freedom to Write" Award on behalf of her husband, imprisoned publisher Eskinder Nega. (photo courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan and PEN American Center/AP)
Political relations between China and the United States may have been visibly strained due to Chinese activist and lawyer Chen Guangcheng’s unexpected bid for asylum last week but diplomacy and fellowship between authors from across the globe proved the exact opposite throughout PEN American Center’s World Voices Festival from April 30 to May 6.
Currently celebrating the 90th anniversary of PEN American Center, headquartered in New York City, members of the organization hosted some 100 writers from more than two dozen countries during the festival. The event concluded Sunday with former PEN president Salman Rushdie’s presentation of the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture.
Several locations in the city served as festival venues, including the The Standard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the High Line, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Those unable to physically attend the festival were treated to ongoing realtime posts via PEN Live on Tumblr.
Participating writers included some of the most recognized names in world literature, all gathered not to flaunt their status as literary celebrities but in defense of human rights in general and the freedom of literary expression in particular. Yet these represented only one aspect of the occasion. As festival correspondent and former National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabattari pointed out in her May 2 post, “Hybridity is the keyword for this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. Take words, music, new visual and digital forms, theater, photography, puppets, add tension—and all arrows point toward the creation of something new.”
Among the global participants were: Nobel laureate Herta Müller (of Romania); Margaret Atwood and Graydon Carter (of Canada); Lila Azam Zanganeh and Stephane Hessel (from France); Ludmila Ulitskaya and Keith Gessen (Russia); poet Sonia Sanchez, Poet Laureate Philip Levine, author Kathleen Cleaver, and Pulitzer Prize winners Yusef Komunyakaa, Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham, Tony Kushner, and Charles Simic (all based in the United States).
The Absent Guest of Honor: Eskinder Nega
Ironically, one of the authors discussed the most during the event was not able to attend it. Although Ethiopian journalist and dissident blogger Eskinder Nega was named the recipient of the 2012 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, he could not accept it in person because at present he is on trial in his homeland, charged with publishing articles considered “supportive of terrorism.” He reportedly has been placed in Maekelawi Prison in Addis Ababa, which has a reputation for allegedly torturing its detainees.
Nega’s case is similar to that of Chen Guangcheng’s in that both men have come under fire in their respective countries for criticizing what appeared to be government-sanctioned practices that violate internationally-recognized human rights. Guangcheng, who endured nearly seven years of prison and house arrest, charged government agencies with forcing abortions and sterilizations upon individuals as part of China’s one-child policy. Those charges, now generally described as an “expose’,” led to his detention and eventual dramatic escape.
Nega, following his publication of reports on the Ethiopian government’s violent response against protesters disputing 2005 election results, along with his journalist wife Serkalem Fasil was charged with treason and imprisoned for seventeen months. In February 2011, he was arrested for reporting on the Arab Spring and arrested again in September for an article questioning his country’s classification of a number of “detained” journalists as suspected terrorists.
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love
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