PEN World Voices Festival Celebrates The Power of Words

© Beowulf Sheehan/PEN America

The world is hungry for powerful voices, and this week, throughout New York City, you’ll find some of its strongest. The PEN World Voices Festival, America’s premier international literary gathering, is back for its 17th year with a theme of “Resist and Reimagine,” kicking off Monday night at Cooper Union’s Great Hall auditorium. With readings and discussions by novelist Colson Whitehead, historian Annette Gordon-Reed, and Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker (in conversation with celebrated French novelist Leila Slimani) PEN, yet again, presents the brightest, best, and most innovative figures from the worlds of literature, media, and social justice for a series of week-long, thought-provoking dialogues.

Founded by Salman Rushdie, Esther Allen, and Michael Roberts in response to the xenophobia and nationalism that swelled after the September 11th bombings, its stated purpose is to broaden the dialogue between the U.S. and the world, an idea that has never been more urgent or relevant.   

“We very much wanted a festival that responds to the times,” said PEN World Voices Senior Director Chip Rolley. “Resistance permeates the culture, both here in the US and around the world. And literature is always a reflection of the culture that produces it,” he explains about this year’s overarching theme.

Some of this years timely panels include “Where Do We Go From Here?,” an examination of race and social justice with writers Jelani Cobb, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Gregory Parlo, to a discussion of what it means to be American now with acclaimed poet and musician Joy Harjo and writers Francisco Cantú and Sarah Gerard  (moderated by Lesley Nneka Arimah). But ultimately, the success of the Festival relies on what the audience takes away.

“We really hope our theme and our programming this year sparks ideas and conversations about where we go next as a society. Resistance is necessary, but it’s not enough,” continued Reading. “We must rethink and re-imagine how we can make a better world. Who better to do this than the writers, whom we always turn to for their imaginative power and creativity?”

The Festival continues through this weekend and will end with the annual “Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture,” which this year features Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, in conversation with celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, discussing the critical importance of free speech in sustaining a healthy democracy. We can’t imagine a better way to celebrate the continued need for powerful writing, and words themselves, in these uncertain, tumultuous times.

The PEN World Voices Festival is ongoing through Sunday. For tickets and schedule visit worldvoices.pen.org.