A Conversation with LÁSZLÓ JAKAB ORSÓS, Director of the PEN World Voices Festival

By Tyler Malone

Spring 2014

PEN International is an association of writers which was founded in London in 1921. Some of its first members included H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Joseph Conrad. It is not only one of the oldest international literary organizations, but also one of the oldest international human rights organizations. In the almost one hundred years since its creation, the organization has opened up International PEN centers in over one hundred countries around the world. PEN has continually expanded its role in promoting intellectual co-operation and understanding among writers, creating a world community of writers to emphasize the central role of literature in the development of world culture, and defending literature against the many threats to its survival posed by the modern world.

Whether working on behalf of authors who have been imprisoned or are otherwise persecuted, or more generally focusing our eyes on the political role the writer/artist plays in the world, the organization has always worked to prove that age-old maxim that the “pen is mightier than the sword.” In doing so, they”ve also proven that “PEN is mightier” as well.

One of PEN”s mightiest displays of international camaraderie among writers is the PEN World Voices Festival, which the PEN American Center puts on every Spring in New York City. It began ten years ago under the direction of world-renowned writer Salman Rushdie, and has continued to expand and evolve under the direction of his successor László Jakab Orsós. I spoke with him on the eve of the tenth annual PEN World Voices Festival about the festival past, present, and future.

Tyler Malone: Tell me a little bit about how you became the director of the PEN World Voices Festival.

László Jakab Orsós: I”m from Hungary, but I live in New York now. I moved here to open and run the Hungarian Cultural Center. Before that I was a freelance writer and writing instructor at film schools, mostly in Budapest and Istanbul, though also in New York too. I was writing a lot, and working on my own script. Then, after opening the Hungarian Cultural Center, instead of moving back to Europe, I applied to this open position at PEN. I knew the festival well because I was technically one of the clients of the festival. I was working with the festival bringing Hungarian writers over. So I pretty much knew the ins and outs of the festival, but I also knew what I wanted to change. So I turned in my application, and Salman Rushdie hired me.

TM: How has your world view been changed by living in New York City?

LJO: I became jaded. Big cities often do that to you. I became overly critical, which I suppose I had always been, but New York definitely helped me sharpen that critical sentiment. Also, I learned to work with teams, with different people. This is a city of collaboration. That skill is absolutely necessary in a job like this. Related to that, to working with different people, New York also taught me how to see the world through a different perspective. It looks at the world in its entirety, as a panorama, as opposed to a smaller place like Hungary, which may have a more narrow world view. So I”ve learned a lot living here, and I really appreciate this city and what it has done for me–and every once in a while I hate it and want to leave it for good. I guess that”s what we call relationship. So, let”s say I”m in a relationship with New York.

TM: This year”s PEN World Voices Festival is the tenth annual one. What has changed about the festival in the last decade?

LJO: The festival started out as a pretty straight-forward literary gathering. As the festival and its audience grew, and as we all got used to the idea of having this international literary festival–which believe it or not had not existed before–things had to change, naturally. As all these changes were taking place over the first few years, we had to become broader, presenting literature in a wider angle. It”s important to show that literature is not just a storybook; it”s a way of understanding life. If you look at the history of literature, the major works are always the ones which don”t shy away from the uncomfortable, whatever that may be. Writers aren”t here to answer questions nor to entertain, we are here to stir the waters, to send everyone home with some inspiring or disturbing thought.

TM: You”ve said that you don”t feel like you”re servicing art, but that in directing this festival you are indeed creating art. Can you tell me a little about that?

LJO: I always considered curation an artistic project. The roots are similar, and the trajectory is also similar to writing a play or a script. Personally, I go through the same experience. How does it work? You look around and absorb–that”s what you do always. You try to understand what”s going on around you. You try to boil it down to some basics, and then you address those basics. You come up with maybe one line, maybe something simple. I see what”s out there, see what people are reading, see who is writing what, who is doing what. Then you start to shape the programming to address that simple–sometimes even embarrassingly simple–line that you came up with a year before when you started to work on the festival. This year, it”s “On the Edge.” How we developed this festival was exactly through that process. We had that line, and then we slowly began to build around it. We knew we had to address the phenomenon that we are really in a time where we are facing something unexperienced before. It”s a combination of uncertainty, fatigue, and desperation. What”s happening around us? What will come next? No one really knows. Everything is shifting and changing around us with lightning speed. Who is a writer? What is the writer”s role in this changing world? Is there a difference between being an artist and an audience? Aren”t these categories evaporating? Whether you”re a blogger or you just post updates on facebook, aren”t we getting rid of these strict categories?

TM: On that thought: What do you think the role of the writer should be in society? Does a writer have any duties or obligations to his community or the world at large?

LJO: It”s a very old question, not a new one. I think everyone who has ever written anything, or even read anything, has to face this question. Being from Europe, I have a very specific perspective on this. Growing up in the final years of the communist era, and experiencing the Berlin Wall, I felt that writers in that moment had a very unique and precise role. They were there to communicate the existence of a different world, namely: freedom. They were there to keep that sentiment alive. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, things have changed. Now we are dealing with the same issues as any Western society. That”s when your question becomes even more relevant. Is it just writing well? Is it just being smart? Is that the role of the writer? But what is that? That”s not enough! I think perhaps the role of an artist in a seemingly free society is to see through the materialistic layers that our consumerist society presents and still bring up issues of human society and freedom. It”s all about connecting the dots. The writer should connect dots, should shed light.

TM: What do you say to critics who argue that for a “World Voices” festival, the line-up still often seems very American-centric or at least Anglo-centric?

LJO: I have an easy answer for those critics: It”s not. The fundamental concept of the festival is to bring writers from all over the world and to present them to widen and open up the American perspective on literature. Every year we present writers from all over the globe. At least 40 – 45 % of the lineup is coming from outside this country. This is also why we focus so heavily on translation. We are always dealing with translated works; we work closely with translators; we are continually addressing issues related to translation.

That was the easy part of the answer. There is a more difficult part, and that is: we still are working in English.. It is an American festival so we are presenting most of our events in English. English is a lingua franca. It takes a very seasoned curator to somehow deal with this issue: how do you present different languages and cultural linguistic settings in the context of a literary festival? We do encourage the writers to use their own language, and we provide translators and translations. We want to show how language works, and how different languages works, and how they can work together.

TM: Who are some of your favorite authors?

LJO: I was a diplomat for years. Don”t forget that. So let me say: All of our writers that come to take part in the festival are amazing.

TM: Is there an author that you”ve always wanted to be part of the festival but for some reason or other has never been able to?

LJO: Yes, but once again, I have to be diplomatic about my answer and not name names. But it”s actually not even about political reasons. It”s that these are the names that everyone wants to work with. I am a little bit jaded with the idea of the “dream list.” I try to forget about it. I more and more appreciate the people who are not on the list. I think there are people getting overlooked that are just as phenomenal as those on the so-called marquee names.

TM: Is there a panel or reading at this year”s festival that you are most looking forward to?

LJO: Let”s keep playing this game. Here”s what I will do. I will start with the politically correct answer, and then do the not-so-politically-correct answer. Of course, each of these events are close to my heart. We have been working on all of these events for a year now, so that is actually true. I do care deeply about them all. But there are some which do really excite me, and these are mostly ones which are new, ones which we”ve never done before. Maybe we”re using a new form? Or we have a new concept? One of these is a new idea we had this year which will be a collaboration with Interview magazine. My idea was to go back into their archive, and select some of their old interviews. Then we would have the featured person listen to the old interview on stage while it is being read. We would then give him or her the opportunity to correct him or herself. We”re doing it this year with Martin Amis, and then also with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. This is a true literary event. It may not be the typical reading of the works of Amis, but it emphasizes and highlights one of the most important phenomena in literature: facing yourself. The featured guests will have to face themselves, and come to terms with time, and the process of changing over time. So I am really looking forward to that. I think it is going to be excellent.

TM: Where do you see the festival going in the future? Where do you think it will be in ten more years?

LJO: That”s a really interesting question. We definitely have to change the format and the trajectory of the festival. It”s absolutely necessary. Everything has changed around us, and keeps changing. We need to change with it. I think it has to be more intimate–maybe smaller?–but denser. Maybe there will be less guests, but we would have bigger, more provocative programming? Thematically, I think the next phase would be emphasize to a country or a region every year. I already have some thoughts about this. Next year, I think we will start with Africa. You immediately understand why. And then maybe Mexico, and maybe Russia? You would come right?

TM: Yes. I”m already there. Sign me up!

LJO: Great! So yes, there will be a number of changes coming. We want to continue to change with the world, to stay relevant–while still presenting great literature, and giving a platform to writers and readers from around the globe.

László Jakab Orsós is the Director of the PEN World Voices Festival.


PEN World Voices Festival – Official Site

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography by Beowulf Sheehan & Courtesy of the PEN World Voices Festival

Design by Mina Darius


László Jakab Orsós, Photography by Beowulf Sheehan & Courtesy of the PEN World Voices Festival

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