The Russian invasion of Ukraine evoked a Cold War back-to-the-future thrill, both in culture and politics.
So, as 80 writers from around the world showed up in the majestic hall of the United Nations Trusteeship Council on Friday, some may have thought back to the heyday of high-stakes cultural diplomacy — or at least the heyday from the 2005 Nicole Kidman thriller “The Interpreter.”
The occasion was an emergency World Writers Congress, convened by the writers organization PEN America. But after the hammering of the opening hammer, the group’s chief executive, Suzanne Nossel, put to rest any idea that the grandiose setting meant that a solution to the “cascading crises” of the moment was at hand.
The UN Security Council, which meets just across the room, she noted, has among its permanent members with the power of veto “the world’s most egregious aggressor” ( Russia) and “the worst jailer of writers in the world” (China).
“If they are the guardians of our freedom and security,” Nossel said, “we have problems.”
The congress, which coincided with PEN’s annual World Voices Festival, was inspired by a similar emergency rally held in New York in May 1939, where some 500 writers, including Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck and Dorothy Thompson, gathered gathered to address Europe’s slide towards war. . But the role of the writer – and the nature of urgency – has changed a lot since then.
For three hours there were impassioned statements about Ukraine, the murder of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, social media polarization, climate change, the deluge of disinformation and the global decline of democracy, as well only calls to memory, as one Sri Lankan novelist wryly put it, “the insignificant little countries” of the world.
There was a lot of fumbling with the microphones and jokes about clumsy writers fumbling with microphones. But if there was an overarching theme, it was faith in the old-fashioned power of stories.
“A poem won’t stop a bullet, a novel can’t defuse a bomb,” said Salman Rushdie. But writers can still “sing the truth and name the lies.”
“We must work”, he said, “to overturn the false narratives of bullies, populists and fools by telling better stories than them – stories that people might actually want to live in”
Rhetoric quickly reached a cruising altitude of around 30,000 feet and stayed there for the most part. But there were also impassioned calls for solidarity with Ukraine on the ground at this time from a delegation of Ukrainian writers.
Andrey Kurkov, novelist and president of PEN Ukraine, denounced Vladimir Putin’s attack on the territory, culture and history of Ukraine, which he described as an attack on the whole world.
“He’s not just destroying Ukraine,” Kurkov said. “He is trying to destroy life on Earth, threatening everyone with nuclear weapons.”
It has been much lamented that, as the American novelist Siri Hustvedt said, “literature lives on the margins of culture, especially in the United States. But some have chosen the less exalted forms of storytelling.
Luiza Fazio, a Brazilian screenwriter, said it’s pop culture that has shaped the imagination of most people, especially young people, for better and for worse. (Do superhero movies, she asked, “normalize war” and “glorify violence”?)
Shehan Karunatilakaa Sri Lankan novelist, noted that it was not a “well-researched novel”, but social media hashtags like #GoHomeGota that helped fuel recent protests against the president’s strongman. Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
“Let’s not be too snobbish when we talk about the written word,” he said. “Sometimes a well-choreographed TikTok can bring down a bully.”
French-Algerian novelist Walid Hajar Rachedi recalled his shock at learning that one of the gunmen in the 2015 terrorist attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris grew up in the same suburb as him. As a writer, Rachedi said, “I believe in the power of stories.” But he asked if a novel like his own well-received debut, ‘What Would I Do in Heaven?’, could really counter any story that turned this young man into a killer.
“We’re here in New York, and it’s very chic,” Rachedi said. “But does it make a difference outside the world of literature?
French-Moroccan writer Leila Slimani noted the roughly 700 million people around the world who, like her grandmother, had never learned to read or write. “Perhaps the first thing we have to fight for is this fundamental right,” she said.
As for the United States, there were references to Republican-led efforts to ban the books and restrict teaching about race. But some speakers warned of the more subtle forces that constrain and constrain the imagination.
Chinese-born novelist Yiyun Li recalled how, at 18 in the Chinese military, she excelled at writing propaganda, a job she took because it was better than cleaning toilets or to feed the pigs.
Recently, she overheard her American-born son and a friend talking about how they couldn’t win a poetry contest at school unless their poems had certain “keywords” in them, like “injustice”. and “police brutality”. Can’t a poet also “write on flowers”, it was asked?
Our role, she says, “is to make sure they know they don’t have to write the keywords down, like I did when I was in China.”
Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University (and an acerbic critic of American-style identity politics), called on writers to cultivate an imaginative openness to “everyone else’s mind, not just the other cultural”.
“We need to make it harder to talk so confidently about what’s wrong, what’s wrong with the people we think are behind what’s wrong, and we need to develop a bit of humility and self-doubt,” he said.
Although there was no direct debate (let alone The pounding of Khrushchevite shoes), there was a sharp disagreement. In his remarks, Cameroonian-born American novelist Patrice Nganang noted that more than 50 African countries have so far refused to impose sanctions on Russia and support Ukraine. But African writers, he said, should not be ashamed of their countries’ lack of enthusiasm for a “unipolar world”.
“Africans are realizing very quickly that these are the same countries that have chained the African continent and black people for so long who are demanding freedom on the borders of Ukraine,” he said.
Kurkov, speaking last, offered a retort. It’s natural, he says, to feel your own “toothache” most acutely. But “I myself have a toothache for Sri Lanka, for Africa, for Palestine”.
“Always remember that there is no competition of tragedies,” he said. “If we can help, we must help.”
In the end, there was an informal (and unanimous) vote on a tentative proposal: that PEN initiate a present-moment oral history project, similar to those undertaken in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration.
If the convention itself felt like a very difficult first episode, so be it.
“They’re writers,” Nossel said after the group posed for a portrait. “You can’t script them.”