Listening to “World Voices” and Understanding the Empty Chair
Sherman Alexie tells a great short story and in six words, no less. The title of it is “The Human Comedy” and I hope I risk no copyright laws when I repeat it here.
“My ex-wife, my brother, they eloped.”
Even if we can’t relate personally, we do understand. There is pain to be found within the transition of “my ex-wife” and “my brother,” as “my” transforms sadly into “they.” No longer his, but now a “they,” an entity unto their own. Pain yes, but tempered with the somewhat jaunty fun found inside the word “eloped.” Not “married,” but “eloped,” a callously humorous word that conjures up the image of a desperately-written Facebook status update. Here, in six words, we have the Shakespearian definition of a comedy and a tragedy, rolled into one. It ends with both a wedding (the antagonist ex-wife) and a death (the psychological well-being of our protagonist). Nice.
I’ll skip over the next twenty pages of critical analysis and jump to the part where I just got back from the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City. If ever there were a place where I’d feel at home among others who share my obsessional passion (neurosis) for words, this was it. More than 150 authors from 40 countries led more than 50 events throughout the city, with who knows how many wanna-be’s like me in attendance, both in person and via satellite. Bomb threat, protests, and angry taxicab drivers aside, this week in New York is one I won’t soon forget.
The PEN American Center (who hosted the event) has been around since 1922 and is one of 144 centers around the globe that together, make up International PEN. Where International PEN was created in response to the ethnic divide that in many ways contributed to the First World War, PEN World Voices began as a direct response to 9/11. This was Salman Rushdie’s brainchild for the most part and for whatever else you might think of him, as a man or as a writer, it was a good one.
Speaking at the opening event, Rushdie described PEN World Voices as a way to “keep the world in touch with literature”—an idea, deceptively simple in its intent. Couple this idea with the thought Toni Morrison expressed in a conversation with Marlene van Niekerk a few days later—that the festival is, in many ways, “a meeting of the many worlds of our world” and you begin to develop a fuller appreciate for the scope of the event.
For as much as many of us understand the pain held inside the six word story above, just as many of us will interject ourselves and our own experience into that pain, changing its quality in truly fundamental ways. If 9/11 taught us anything, it may be that any sentiments regarding “the world in which we live,” are inherently false, since the world is truly that—the world where we live. What we’ve experienced. What we’ve learned. Not anyone else. Our worlds are small and can be singular in their perspective, but literature—especially international literature—builds bridges, creates passageways, and connects us in ways little else can.
A slight digression…
As I write this blog, I can’t help but remember Peter Schneider’s comment regarding the similarities between (and distain for) my current effort and the form of the essay. Yes, there are far too many narcissistic bloggers out there today who lack the discipline to do the research, make the hard choices, and stay true to the form. But I’d like to think Montaigne would find some hope in the resurgence of the essay via the world wide web. Le essayer—it means “to try.” To attempt. To fail and then to try again. This form, then, is perhaps the most fitting for the millions of would-be essayists who strive to share their ‘world’ with others.
Schneider went on to say (paraphrased), that when writing an essay, you are moved by something. What this something is, you’re not exactly sure. There’s a riddle there and you have to investigate. In the ensuing argument, Jean-Philippe Toussaint noted that the essay has a responsibility to at least approach the truth, if it is not to find the truth. And Quim Monzó countered that the essay is like a photograph. It tries to show us something, something with meaning, but without opinion. (Monzó’s The Fork is written in stunning photograph and the joy of listening to his reading of it was worth the entire trip.)
Returning from our detour and back to the blog/essay here, I offer the image of the empty chair. Here, the chair. Here, the riddle by which I am moved to approach some sort of truth. And here, the meaning which I might draw without falling into personal bias…(or not). At each PEN World Voices event I attended, I found such an empty chair, close to, or nearby the speakers in attendance. “Here sits the writer who can’t be here tonight,” Rushdie explained. The writer, oppressed, imprisoned, represented in the absence found in the empty chair—truly Heidegger-esque. “The silencing of writers in one country,” Susan Harris (Words Without Borders) said of the chair, “robs the entire world of their voices.”
We have so much power. And we are so very blessed—we, meaning those of us with the freedom to speak, write, read, rhyme, paint, sculpt, draw, sing, dance, and throw open our arms to express ourselves from the very bottom of the world in which we live. Toni Morrison is creating a language. Did you know that? A brand-new language that lives and breathes on its own without the shackles of racism and discrimination. Martin Solares is having a conversation with our Mexican border. He and a generation of authors are writing the dialogue from the “other” side, intent on bumping their world into ours. And Sherman Alexie, when he’s not writing six word stories, is recreating the North American landscape in Indian narrative. (Alexie, who calls himself an Indian because Native American is nothing but a “guilty liberal expression.”)
I think the truth I am trying to approach here is that there is more than one way to empty this chair. Imprisoning, book-burning, and death, certainly they apply, but lack of education, poverty, and simple suffering silence just as well. Those whose worlds we most need to know about are all too often those who have no voice at all, those whose voices have been silenced, drowned, as even Levi’s voice was drowned, eventually.
Yes, blessed. To have such power. To attend such an event. To learn of such other worlds. My fellowship here will be ending soon and after this trip, I am all the more grateful for the opportunity I’ve had, in whatever small way, to contribute to the filling of this chair. Because that is what we do here–we, here at ASU and in all universities who share an interest and investment in empowering others. To work in the field of education, to enable in others the means with which to explore their passions and express their worlds is, quite simply, to do the work of filling this chair.