PEN World Voices Festival

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos & Video: Francisco Collazo
The fifth annual PEN World Voices Festival opened in New York on Monday, with readings, panel conversations, and lectures scheduled through May 3.

PEN, founded in 1921, bills itself as the world’s oldest organization interested in both literature and human rights, and over the years its members have actively worked to fulfill PEN’s mission:

…to use what influence they have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect among nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in the world….


…pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in their country or their community.

In my opinion, PEN’s most important work is the Freedom to Write Program, which defends journalists and writers being persecuted or censored, and its Prison Writing Program.

The annual World Voices Festival, though, is the ultimate expression of PEN’s ideals, brought together in a single geographical place: New York City.

Last night, Francisco and I attended a reading by Sergio Ramirez, novelist and the former vice-president of Nicaragua, who shared an excerpt of A Thousand Deaths Plus One at the Americas Society.

Tonight, we attended “Prison Deform,” a panel comprised of writers from around the world who have all been imprisoned for their political and literary activism.

One of the panelists was Susan Rosenberg, whose name might be familiar if you’ve ever heard of the Weather Underground.

In this video clip, Rosenberg speaks about her 16 year prison term:

You Don’t Get an “A” Just for Effort

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: ToastyKen

Whether in literature, visual art, theatre, dance, or music, the concept alone is rarely sufficient to engage the reader or viewer, convey an idea, and engage the recipient in a critical conversation.

The same holds true outside the arts. The scientist’s hypothesis is just that–a hunch, a concept–until it is given shape, form, and expression through some active process, an experiment that brings the idea into its full expression. And sometimes the experiment needs to be refined, carried out again and again before it is considered complete.

Put simply, the idea of a cure is not the cure itself.

These thoughts have been on my mind for a while as I observe what seems to be a creeping tendency to applaud ideas and concepts even when they are transmitted in the most mediocre forms and expressions. But the thought gained a certain intensity today as I sat through two short films that were beyond banal–they were poorly executed.

In one, the filmmaker kept asking, both of herself and the audience, “What am I doing? What am I doing?” “I don’t know,” I thought to myself, “but I really wish you’d do it in private if you haven’t quite figured it out just yet.”

In the second, the filmmaker had the idea he wanted to make a documentary, but he didn’t really know what he wanted it to be about. So he just walked around Havana one night, filmed–shakily–his path, and recorded–with lots of interference–his conversation with companions, whose names and relationships to him were never identified. He did some editing (though you can’t correct bouncy, out of focus footage or trim out ambient noise, like wind) and then titled the piece… wait for it: “Caminar/Walk.” And then, apparently, submitted it to a film festival.

Just as blogs have democratized the process of writing in such a way that anyone who can type can transmit his or her words to an audience, so too have relatively affordable equipment and accessible technologies made it possible for people to use other media for self-expression and the exploration of ideas. In the case of films, the proliferation of film fests on every conceivable theme also signifies a ready-made audience.

This phenomenon is not “bad”– self-expression and the exploration of ideas are important; indeed, they are critical to living a full, examined life. But increasingly, exploration and expression are being unleashed beyond the self before they have had the opportunity to mature, before they have developed fully into something the creator can understand and explain. There’s something to be said for sitting with an idea and turning it around in one’s mind for a while, then turning it over in one’s hands, or feet, or in the careful arrangement of words on the page or frames in a film. And there’s even something to be said for those ideas that never make it out of our heads or our scribbled notes (da Vinci’s notebooks are full of ideas never realized)– they lead us, eventually, to some fuller, more complete, and more coherent articulation that will resonate beyond ourselves.

“You don’t get an ‘A’ just for effort,” I thought as I watched the audience clap when the screen went dark.