The PEN World Voices Festival, held in New York City every year, brings together writers from all over the world to converse about their own and others’ work. The acronym stands for Poets, Essayists and Novelists, though today journalists, graphic novelists, and bloggers are included in the organization. PEN America has just celebrated its 90th year in existence, and members, past and present, include such pillars of the literary establishment as Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Marianne Moore. This year’s festival, which took place in the first week of May, was heavy on talk about technology.

One old fashioned journalist at the festival, a newspaper man who can still remember the days of staff reporters and crowded newsrooms, was Wojciech Jagielski. Jagielski, who is Polish, got his start covering the southern part of the Soviet Union for the Polish Press Agency; this was just as the great behemoth was collapsing, and Jagielski, whose passion had always been Africa, was kept busy racing through the Caucasus, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia. Eventually, he made it to the continent of his fascination; Night Wanderers, Jagielski’s fourth book and the most recent one translated into English, is set in Uganda and tells the story of child soldiers. It follows the lives of three characters, Samuel, a former child soldier, Nora, an administrator at the transition center where Samuel and children like him make the adjustment from adolescent soldiers to members of civil society, and Jackson, a local journalist.

Jagielski was featured at the Brooklyn Public Library Central Branch in a conversation with Joel Whitney, himself a journalist who has written on Darfur, Burma and Cambodia, and a founder of the political and literary magazine Guernica. Despite the green hills of good writing on the subject just between these two journalists, if the majority of people in America today know anything about Uganda and the leader of the dubiously named Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, it is thanks to a half-hour documentary put out by the non-profit Invisible Children last year called Kony 2012. Jagielski and Whitney discussed the video, which has drawn attention for inaccuracies and evangelical undertones.

“I was surprised this campaign started now,” Jagielski said, “not five years ago, not 35 years ago.”

“The video is naïve,” he added. “Noble, but naïve.” Of the infamous leader, Jagielski noted, “He’s not awaiting punishment. I hope punishment is awaiting him.”

Night Wanderers, which has many of the delights of the masters of New Journalism without too many of the ornaments, is a book, the author noted, he wrote for himself, because he had to.

Margaret Atwood certainly would have sympathized with Jagielski’s position: “we all write for someone,” she insisted, even if we’re only recording our daily humors in our diary. The Canadian author of more than 40 books, and many times more Twitter posts, appeared at Cooper Union on May 3rd with editor Amy Grace Loyd, to discuss the Internet, aforementioned Twitter (Atwood has over 320,000 followers), Facebook (66,000 fans), Tumblr, and other recent and not-so-recent technological innovations that have fundamentally changed the way we (sometimes) write. Atwood, certainly no pessimist (and why would one be a pessimist with 40 books?), believes there is good use for these tools, and doesn’t buy the argument that they take over our lives. According to her, we can always turn them off. Plus, she added, these tools bring new writers together and give them exposure they’d otherwise never get. And the proliferation of new digital space is not a trend that will likely recede.

“People are like bedbugs,” Atwood said. “When you make a new space available, people populate it very quickly.” Everybody knows: manuscripts and bedbugs don’t burn.

Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, her most recent nonfiction effort, has been made into a documentary and is showing at Film Forum in New York City. If the movie has even a trace of the Atwood wit and humor that was so joyfully on display at Cooper Union, Debt might be worth the ticket. Assuming, that is, you can afford it.

In the case of Ludmila Ulitskaya, the most interesting question of the evening was not for whom she was writing, but to whom. Under the Green Tent, her newest novel, which focuses on the generation that came of age in the 1960s, is due out in translation this year, but it was a different topic that captured the attention of the packed house.

Since 2008, Ulitskaya, one of the most laureled Russian authors writing today, has been carrying on a correspondence with Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky’s first incarnation was as head of YUKOS, a wealthy petroleum company forcibly dismantled by the Russian government in 2004. This made him a robber baron and Russia’s richest man; since landing in prison on politically trumped up charges, Khodorkovsky has reinvented himself as a writer — and one of great magnitude. Now a prisoner of conscience and, let it be noted, a member of PEN, Khodorkovsky writes elegantly and with dignity, employing the same rationalistic powers of persuasion and composure that have allowed him to climb so high in post-collapse Russia. What’s remarkable is how, after falling from these heights, he’s retained them.

“We always read books that were a little bigger than we were,” Ulitskaya said, lamenting the senescence of the reader. May it be a small comfort that the Russian-language collection Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Articles. Dialogues. Interviews, which includes Ulitskaya’s letters along with contributions from other Russian notables, is a small book, but with a very large theme.

“Besides Chekhov,” Ulitskaya remarked, “there are practically not any major Russian writers who didn’t write about prison.” Consider this her contribution.

Prison, or rather, its first cousin, censorship, was on the mind of Salman Rushdie when he delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write address, in Cooper Union’s Great Hall. In closing out the festival, Rushdie began, “I’m here, I guess, to talk about censorship, but no writer ever really wants to talk about censorship.” For censorship, Rushdie said, “is the absence of presence,” borrowing that formulation from British playwright Tom Stoppard; “liberty is the air we breathe.”

Rushdie, who might be called the Dickens of Magic Realism, and another Tweeting author (285,000 followers), knows something about freedom himself, of course — the fallout from his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses forced him underground for several years, after receiving a round of fatwas and death threats for reasons too imbecilic to recount.

“We assume we will be free tomorrow because we are free today,” he explained. But — and here we might take his word for it — “if the writer has to wonder about tomorrow’s freedom, he is not free today.”

The risk-taking writer urged risk taking, in literature, one must “go to the edge and push outwards.”

“Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution,” Rushdie said, though later, in conversation with the unpleasantly snide writer Gary Shteyngart, he amended this sentiment a bit. “I don’t like books that bore me, no matter how virtuous they are.”

Shteyngart, whose own books are chewy satires that lack any life-giving protein, apparently despairs about the future. Things are bleak, he said on stage. How does one go on?

And why wouldn’t one, Rushdie answered, “We don’t know what [the future] is, and it’s never, ever what we think it’s going to be.”

Here’s to the unknown future, then — a place where many of today’s most regrettable facts will be a thing, we hope, of the past.

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