Last night I went to the PEN World Voices Festival opening reading at the 92nd Street Y. There were nine writers and one rock star who calls herself a poet. Mohsin Hamid from Pakistan, Yiyun Li from China, Daniele Mastrogiacomo from Italy, Sofi Oksanen from Estonia, Atiq Rahimi from Afghanistan, Alberto Ruy-Sanchez from Mexico, Andrzej Stasiuk from Poland, Miguel Syjuco from the Philippines and two superstars, the ubiquitous Salman Rushdie and the embarrasing Patti Smith.
I was enthralled by some of the writers–Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Sofi Oksanen, Yiyun Li and Andrzej Stasiuk. Karachi-born Mastrogiacomo, a Swiss Italian journalist kidnapped by the Taliban in 2007, read from his gorgeous account of his own imprisonment. The man was a poet. He was humble, never the swashbuckler. The scene he read in Italian, with an English translation accompanying him, was sharply drawn. Finnish novelist Oksanen read with a fierceness and cadence that was matched by the English translation scrolling on a screen behind her. I was captivated by her story of two sisters in 1940s Estonia. She’ll be speaking again tomorrow at 5 pm about the novel she read from, “Purge.” Yiyun Li, whom I met years ago in London and have never failed to be astonished by, read from “The Vagrants,” a novel set during China’s Cultural Revolution. (She’ll be reading again tomorrow at 3:30 pm. and Saturday May 1st at Idlewild Books.) Stasiuk, a Polish novelist, impressed me with his searching passages about a teenage girl and men streaming out of an urban factory. He’ll be reading again tomorrow at 3 p.m.
Unfortunately a couple writers–Atiq Rahimi and Patti Smith–were dreadful.
The case of Rahimi reminded me once again that just because one is from a culture with rich stories that no one is telling, that does not make one a writer. We turn to Khaled Hosseini and Rahimi because we long to know Afghanistan. But both are writers who too often feel comfortable with melodrama, sentimentality and cliche. Rahimi’s prose was yet another reminder of how Afghanistan’s prolonged wars have scarred its society so deeply.
As for Patti Smith, she may be a rock star I danced to in college, but a poet she will never be. Her ode to Roberto Bolano was atrocious and when she broke into a warble wishing him a happy birthday it was faux-intellectualism at its most risible.