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Hillary Clinton Warns of Creeping Authoritarianism in America

For journalists worldwide, 2017 ranks as one of the most dangerous on record: Eighteen journalists were killed, according to Freedom House, while 189 currently languish in prisons around the world. Here at home, meanwhile, the safety and sanctity of journalism is threatened by a president who regularly attacks the press, handpicks which organizations can attend White House briefings, and compulsively sells falsities as reality.

Such was the crux of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech Sunday night at the Cooper Union, which closed out the weeklong PEN World Voices Festival. Joining the ranks of past speakers such as Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, and Sonia Sotomayor, Clinton had been chosen to give this year’s annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture — which traditionally addresses current challenges to free expression — based on her work defending human rights and free speech as secretary of state. Said PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel in her deeply personal introduction — Nossel served under Clinton as a deputy assistant secretary of state — the efforts of the former secretary had “helped secure the freedom to write for tens of millions worldwide.”

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Clinton used her 45-minute speech to sound the alarm that freedom of speech and expression is currently under attack here in our own country. The target of a Russian-led disinformation campaign during her 2016 run for president, Clinton was a fitting choice to talk about the new dangers facing not just those in this country who report the news, but also those of us who read and absorb it. She spoke of the election as “a case study in the weaponization of false information and outright lies against our democracy,” detailing foreign agents’ use of social media to plant false stories and sow not only distrust in her candidacy, but division throughout the country. And she stressed the danger we face living under a president who “seems to reject the role of a free press in our democracy” and who distorts facts and continually lies, even about things as obvious as, say, the size of an inaugural crowd.

“When leaders deny things that we can see with our own eyes,” she said, “it’s not just frustrating to those of us who try to live in a fact-based universe. It is the beginning of the end of freedom. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done.” To drive her point home, she noted that earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would begin monitoring the activities of reporters and media professionals.

Clinton ended her speech with a call to action, not just for the writers in the room but for the American people at large. “We have to find our voice, in whatever way we are comfortable, to speak out,” she said, later adding: “Everyone’s voices need to be raised at this time.”

“Do not grow weary — be sustained by the energy that the truth can give you,” she continued. “I have no doubt we will get our country back on the right track.”

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The Q&A that followed with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — the author of the award-winning novel Americanah, and herself the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write speaker in 2015 — was warm and engaging in covering a variety of topics, from the personal to the political, from Clinton’s decision to run for office to her passionate hopes for how we can conquer the divisiveness currently plaguing the country. But the themes of free speech and vigilance against its suppression resurfaced time after time. Clinton spoke again of the weaponization of misinformation that occurred during the election — and continues today — noting how the false stories that were circulated during her campaign were so credible because they were delivered in a way, via social media, that looked like news.

“You have to wonder: How do we stop this?” she asked. “Because we’re living in a time when information can be so powerful, and if it’s wrong, or it’s intended to influence you to do something that is not reality-based but based instead on propaganda, that’s a problem that we have to deal with going forward.” When Adichie asked if this is why she has chosen to keep speaking post-election, Clinton nodded and said that it was.

She and Adichie also discussed how free speech has been a central cause for feminism, with Clinton noting the “long, long history of trying to silence women.” She cited recent instances of attempts to shut down the voices of powerful political women — from Elizabeth Warren, who was removed from the Senate floor as she attempted to read Coretta Scott King’s letter denouncing Jeff Sessions (a letter that was then read out loud to completion by male colleagues), to Kamala Harris, who was told to stop talking during her questioning of Sessions in his Senate hearing on Russia’s involvement in the Trump campaign.

“In my case, it was also because a lot of those same people who said, ‘Don’t talk,’ they did not want to face what happened in the 2016 election,” she later said, addressing Adichie’s question about calls, from both the right and the left, for her to remain quiet following her presidential defeat. But, she said, “I come at it very differently: If we don’t try to understand what happened in that election, we are doomed to see it repeated in future elections.”

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On the Front Lines in the Fight Against Fake News

According to a poll released earlier this month by Monmouth University, over three-quarters of Americans believe major news outlets report “fake news.” Gone are the days when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. In this strange new reality the news media has been forced to ask itself: How do you fight the proliferation of fake news in a world where bad actors are actively pushing it, unregulated social media platforms are promoting it, unwitting users are sharing it, and the president of the United States can’t stop talking about it?

On Saturday, the PEN World Voices Festival hosted a conversation to discuss this crisis of confidence in the media, moderated by PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel and featuring Yamiche Alcindor, the White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour and a contributor for NBC News and MSNBC; William Kristol, founder and editor at large of the Weekly Standard; John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards at the Associated Press; and Peter Barbey, president and CEO of the Village Voice as well as the Reading Eagle Company in Reading, Pennsylvania. In a lively discussion at the Cooper Union’s Rose Auditorium, the panel discussed the challenges facing the news media as it fights the spread of fake news, even as it is accused of spreading it every day.

Last year, PEN America released the report Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truthin which fraudulent news was defined as “demonstrably false information that is being presented as a factual news report with the intention to deceive the public, and the related erosion of public faith in traditional journalism.” The problem, as Saturday’s discussion made clear, is that not everyone shares that definition: To the president, “fake news” seems to be anything that he disagrees with or that calls into question his legitimacy; to his opponents, it’s anything he says or promotes.

For Kristol, who has been outspoken as a conservative voice in the anti-Trump chorus, the rise of fake news is inextricably tied to the president’s shaky relationship with the truth. “The presidency is a bully pulpit, and the president is using it to be a bully,” said Kristol, noting that this one-sidedness is only reinforced by outlets like Fox News. Daniszewski pointed out that Trump’s actions mirror that of autocrats around the world who have weaponized fake news, using it as a cudgel to attack a free press.

Peter Barbey and Yamiche Alcindor

But the problems facing journalism are also playing out on the local level. Barbey, whose family has run newspapers in Reading for eight generations, pointed to the importance of a free press in helping communities define themselves. With Google and Facebook deciding what counts as news, he noted, there’s less and less accountability. “Now it’s these platforms deciding what’s news,” he said. “It used to be that the local paper was the platform.” Barbey addressed some of these issues in a Hollywood Reporter editorial last week. “Unable to prevent digital platforms from aggregating their stories into free news alternatives supported by programmatic advertising, legitimate publishers have seen almost two decades of plummeting revenues and shrinking (or, in some cases, vanishing) newsrooms,” he wrote of the unintended effects that Facebook and Google have had on local news. “Meanwhile, hyper-partisan and fake news aggregators…have flourished. In an instance of unintended consequences of monumental proportions, the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] precipitated a situation in which professional writers, rigorously trained to report facts and truth, find it next to impossible to make a living.”

As Alcindor noted, the importance of local news extends to sources that cater to sectors of society with less of a voice, like the African American community. While everyone onstage seemed to agree that the mainstream news media is facing an existential crisis, there was no shortage of ideas as to how the tide might be turned, from a Consumer Reports–like service to monitor the news, to a university model where editorships might be endowed like professorships, to a “journalism Peace Corps” to get young Americans involved and invested. What’s clear is that legitimate news sources have never been more important, and that if America is going to get through this chapter of our history, it’s incumbent upon the press to do its job. “Real journalists,” said Alcindor, “shouldn’t change anything.”

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The PEN World Voices Festival Opens With a Shout

On the opening night of PEN America’s weeklong World Voices Festival, the Prix Goncourt–decorated Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani  — whom France’s neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron tasked in November with promoting French language and culture — described to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik what she saw as the fundamental difference between journalism (a former career of hers) and fiction writing. “For me, literature is completely different,” said Slimani, “a space of absolute freedom, where I can reinvent myself.” She then dictated a quote, which she attributed to Sartre: “A writer is a free man who speaks to free men, and whose only topic is freedom.” That would of course disqualify anyone from being a writer, and even taken in the buoyant spirit in which I believe it was intended, it still could use some scrutiny. Like: How are fiction writers to reconcile this unrestrained creative freedom with their apparent obligation to attend panels where they are inevitably asked for the most part to comment on their political views? Which is just a roundabout way of asking what the act of writing fiction is free from, what that freedom entails, and to what extent it might be transferable to the circumscribed lives we all carry out off the page. The theme of this year’s festival, in which 165 authors from more than 50 countries are participating, is “Resist and Reimagine,” the expectation being that these dozens of panels and readings will illuminate how writers and writing can do that, or fail to. 

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The two short panels and two readings that comprised the festival’s first feature event at Cooper Union on Monday night took different approaches to this challenging, expansive framework, but one of the staunchest refrains was an affirmation of the humanist power of universalized narratives. The Afro-Caribbean Australian writer and poet Maxine Beneba Clarke read an essay by the Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been detained on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island in an immigrant “processing center” for close to five years. Boochani was seeking asylum from Iran in the territory when the Australian government implemented what Amnesty International has called “its illegal ‘offshore processing’ policies” in 2013 — and now he and hundreds of refugees are essentially in exile and incarcerated, since their options are only to remain on the island for an indeterminate amount of time or be deported to their country of origin. Boochani’s essay is a reported meditation on a peaceful protest lead by his fellow refugee prisoners; he ends by extolling the virtues of humanity, love, friendship, and justice, though police of course ultimately quelled the demonstration with brute force. By collectively and compassionately organizing under these community-oriented ideals “in direct opposition to fascism,” Boochani asserts the refugees “never became mere bodies, subject to politics.” Slimani also referred to fiction writing as “a place of universality — you can cross the borders.”  

PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2018

Though many of the participants bandied about uplifting messages focused on forging connections and feeling compassion, it was certainly not all that was under discussion. Colson Whitehead’s relentless diversionary tactics were frequently hilarious, rivaled only by Slimani’s joyous harangues of spoiled Parisian women. The topic of the discussion between The Underground Railroad author and Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed (a fellow Pulitzer winner) was “How the legacy of slavery reverberates throughout our history,” and Whitehead averred that one of the most surprising aspects of that legacy’s persistence is “how shallowly it’s taught.… I think there were ten minutes on slavery, forty minutes on Abraham Lincoln at my [elementary] school; ten minutes on segregation and forty minutes on Martin Luther King.” He cited a sixtysomething woman who approached him recently to ask if there were ever “cave-ins” on the Underground Railroad. He also made reference to slave patrollers’ “stop and frisk” methods, drawing a parallel to his experience of getting stopped by New York City cops on the Upper East Side when he was sixteen (“If you’re writing about 1850,” he said, “you’re writing about now”).

In response to questions pertaining to his personal legacy, Whitehead was terser. At one point he responded to a question about his potential responsibility to discuss more “uplifting” subjects, saying, “If you want uplifting, go see a clown or something.” He went on, “I guess I could have written about white people from the upper middle class who feel sad sometimes.” When asked whether he ever thought about being something other than a writer, Whitehead mused that he might have been an “ad man,” like Salman Rushdie was, or Don DeLillo.

Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org

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Sean Penn, A Man of Many Trades

This year’s PEN World Voices Festival features dozens of writers from around the globe, including bestselling novelists, war correspondents, Hollywood screenwriters, and globe-trotting activists. Sean Penn, whose debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuffwas released last monthis likely the only speaker who ticks off each and every one of those boxes. And he’s definitely the only writer whose résumé boasts all of the above bona fides plus a couple of Oscars for Best Actor. On Tuesday night, the 57-year-old sits down for what is sure to be a wide-ranging conversation with New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn.

“I think the fact that Sean is out there, offstage, and has a very private parallel life — as in Haiti and other places he is drawn to, curious about, or involved in — is the very thing that would surprise most people,” says Anderson, who interviewed Penn for a New Yorker feature about Haiti’s recovery from 2010’s devastating earthquake. “Also perhaps, beyond all the Hollywood bad boy glamour and gossip, that he has a very practical bent, which he deploys in order to make basic things work for people going through hard times. As in Haiti.”

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For anyone who’s been paying attention, the fact that Penn should turn to writing isn’t especially surprising. Since 1991, when he turned his own screenplay into his feature directorial debut, The Indian Runner, Penn has shown an affinity for letters, and an eye for America’s dark heart. He’s written op-eds in major newspapers, befriended celebrated authors, and scored one of the biggest scoops in recent magazine history when Rolling Stone published his exclusive interview with Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Archivaldo Guzmán Loera.

“The Chapo scoop was quite something, and he got a lot of stick for it, paradoxically,” says Anderson. “He made himself vulnerable by overly exposing the process he underwent for the story he wrote, but I appreciated the fact that he went and did it at all, which takes moxie.”

When you add a lifetime of experiences — from starring as Jeff Spicoli to marrying Madonna to helping rebuild earthquake-ravaged Haiti or hurricane-ravaged New Orleans — the guy clearly has plenty to write about. So why not kick off his publishing career with something a bit less challenging, not to mention more commercially promising, like, say, a memoir? “At this point in my life,” says Penn, “fiction served my participation more strongly.”

That’s not to say there aren’t any similarities between author and protagonist. Sean Penn is a fiftysomething divorcé from California with left-leaning politics and a smoking habit. Bob Honey is also a fiftysomething divorcé from California with left-leaning politics and a smoking habit. But where Penn is regularly photographed with the world’s most beautiful women and is recognized as one of his generation’s finest actors, Honey is a “man of many trades,” as Penn writes. “Sewage specialist, purveyor of pyrotechnics, contract killer for a mysterious government agency that pays in small bills.”

Penn began Bob Honey as an audiobook, a rush job aimed at getting a rough version of his vision out before Election Day 2016. No stranger to controversy, he’s received some criticism for the way the book alludes to recent news, including the #MeToo movement (“Is this a toddlers’ crusade? Reducing rape, slut-shaming, and suffrage to reckless child’s play? A platform for accusation impunity?”), Hillary Clinton’s loss (“Was she the worst possible candidate or are you the most arrogant, ill, and unqualified electorate in the history of the Western world?”), and Donald Trump’s win (“You are not simply a president of impeachment, you are a man in need of an intervention. We are not simply a people in need of an intervention, we are a nation in need of an assassin”).

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While the specter of the election hangs darkly over the book, in the real world Penn sees some light on the horizon, embodied by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “ ‘Hope’ is a term some seem to lean on as a predetermined life preserver,” he says. “I don’t want to promote the denial of imminent threat. I find teenagers who fall under horrifying murderous gunfire on one day, and testify with grace, intelligence, and humor the next, a strong sign of hope.”

For his part, Penn shows no signs of slowing down, even if he plans to spend more time with a pen in his hand than in front of a movie camera. “Any movie is a collaborative effort,” says Penn, who frequently notes that he no longer plays too well with others. “My book…is mine.”

‘Sean Penn in Conversation With Jon Lee Anderson’
PEN World Voices Festival
St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church
157 Montague Street, Brooklyn
April 17 at 7 p.m.

 

Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org.

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Muslim Activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied Denied U.S. Entry Ahead of PEN Festival

Last night, three hours after landing in Minneapolis from London, Yassmin Abdel-Magied was turned away by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Sudanese Australian engineer, broadcaster, and writer was traveling to New York to speak at two panels for the PEN World Voices Festival, which kicks off Monday, April 16. One of Abdel-Magied’s scheduled events, titled “The M Word: No Country for Young Muslim Women,” aimed to discuss the lives of Muslim women forced out of their countries. Last year, Abdel-Magied became the victim of vicious attacks by the Australian press after she defended Islam as “the most feminist religion,” and posted about countries still in conflict on Australia’s day of remembrance, Anzac Day. The backlash from the incident helped force her move to London.

Abdel-Magied tweeted out last night, “They’ve taken my phone, cancelled my visa and are deporting me.” In another tweet, she mentioned an immigration officer was holding her passport. She says she has traveled to the U.S. with this visa for similar purposes before, but Border Patrol told BuzzFeed News that she did not have the appropriate visa for speaking engagements.

https://twitter.com/yassmin_a/status/984213088307212288

“During the inspection, CBP officers determined this individual did not possess the appropriate visa to receive monetary compensation for the speaking engagements she had planned during her visit to the United States,” a USBP spokesperson said. “As such, she was deemed inadmissible to enter the United States for her visit, but was allowed to withdraw her application for admission. The traveler is eligible to reapply for a visa for future visits.”

The incident is ironic in light of the festival’s mission to foster a global community of writers. PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel issued the following statement last night:

“We are dismayed that an invited guest to our annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York, which starts on Monday, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, herself the founder of an organization called Youth Without Borders, was turned away by U.S. Immigration officials in Minneapolis, reportedly had her phone and passport seized, and was put back on a plane to Amsterdam. Abdel-Magied is an advocate of the rights of Muslim women and refugees and is a citizen of Australia, traveling on that country’s passport. The very purpose of the PEN World Voices Festival, founded after 9-11 to sustain the connectedness between the U.S. and the wider world, is in jeopardy at a time when efforts at visa bans and tightened immigration restrictions threaten to choke off vital channels of dialogue that are protected under the First Amendment right to receive and impart information through in-person cultural exchange. We understand that Yassmin was traveling on a type of visa that she had used in the past for similar trips without issue. We call on Customs and Border Patrol to admit her to the U.S. so that she can take her rightful place in the urgent international conversation to take place at the festival next week.”

https://twitter.com/yassmin_a/status/984380697644236800

Abdel-Magied tweeted out early this morning that she is now back in London. In the tweet she says, “I am now seeking advice and working to resolve this issue as soon as possible. I appreciate the interest and concern and look forward to future travels to the United States.”

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Reckoning and Resistance at the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival

In a 2005 article on the first PEN America World Voices Festival, Salman Rushdie wrote of the need for Americans to listen to the voices of the globally oppressed. “Those voices — Arab or Afghan or Latin American or Russian — need to be magnified, so that they can be heard loud and clear just as the Soviet dissidents once were.” This was, of course, long before the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the surge of white nationalist rhetoric into the mainstream discourse, and the global reckoning of the #MeToo movement. This year’s PEN World Voices Festival: Resist and Reimagine promises to interrogate America’s own dissident histories and power dynamics.

The director of the festival, Chip Rolley, says that, partially, this year’s festival aims “to look squarely and directly at our own problems, from the rise of fake news, to the resurgence in white supremacy, to nativist policies at odds with the United States’s growing diversity, which is integral to the very idea of America.” This year some 165 writers representing more than fifty nationalities are scheduled to participate. Village Voice president and CEO Peter Barbey, a co-sponsor of the event, will speak alongside Yamiche Alcindor and William Kristol on the panel “Fighting Fake News” (April 21, $15).

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The festival, which runs April 16–22, spans more than sixty events in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. It kicks off at Cooper Union with “Resist and Reimagine: An Opening Night in Three Acts” ($35). Australian performance poet Maxine Beneba Clarke, American author Colson Whitehead, and Franco Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani will discuss the refugee crisis, the legacy of slavery, and the importance of immigrant narratives respectively. These themes will be expanded upon in later events, which will touch on #MeToo’s international context (“Us Too,” April 17, $12 in advance, featuring Clarke, Dunya Mikhail, and Tishani Doshi, and moderated by Mona Eltahawy) and reclaiming the art of coffee making (“Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali: Good to the Last Drop,” April 16, $15). Rushdie will share a panel on writing about New York with Paul Auster and Sergio De La Pava, moderated by Colum McCann (“New York Stories,” April 21, $30).

Clockwise from top left: Festival speakers Leïla Slimani, Colson Whitehead, and Anita Sarkeesian

Resist and Reimagine also speaks to the burgeoning political interest young Americans have displayed in recent years. This year, the festival debuts its “Next Generation Now” series, geared toward children and young adults. “Little Activists: A Protest and Mini March” (April 21, free with RSVP) is aimed at pre-K to third-grade students. Also on the docket: writing workshops and panels from young-adult authors and comic creators, including Charles Waters, Innosanto Nagara, and Daniel José Older.

The festival’s outreach to children and young adults seems timely. Young people have increasingly become part of the political landscape, especially as debate around civil issues has heightened on campus politics. In October 2016, PEN America released “And Campus for All,” its survey on free speech and discrimination on U.S. college campuses. The study surveyed invitations to speakers, safe spaces, and campus civility, noting that while “there have been some troubling instances of speech curtailed, these do not represent a pervasive ‘crisis’ for free speech on campus.” On April 21, PEN America director Suzanne Nossel will moderate a conversation between Masha Gessen and Patrisse Cullors on the state of open discourse in America in “Resistance Report Card: Grading the Groundswell” ($15).

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Speech has also been a divisive subject online, where the alt-right frequently targets activists and marginalized communities. Anita Sarkeesian, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and Porochista Khakpour will gather to discuss their experiences battling harassment at “Take Back the Net: Fighting Online Hate” (April 21, $15). Tensions concerning free speech and the internet crested in the targeted series of attacks on women in the video gaming industry now dubbed “Gamergate.” Sarkeesian, best known for her Feminist Frequency videos that analyze pop culture through a feminist lens, was one of the primary targets of these attacks. Antagonists sent her death and rape threats, released her home address, threatened terrorist attacks at her speaking engagements, and created a computer game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. She says internet harassment remains an issue that needs to be seriously addressed. “It’s still not unusual for people to respond to stories of online harassment with statements like, ‘Why don’t you just log off?’ Well, because my whole life is online, because my work requires me to be active in online spaces, and why would I concede my right to be in those spaces to anyone?”

Sarkeesian says that while legal reforms and social media companies can help fight this issue, we also need “a shift toward listening to, believing, and honoring women and marginalized people and our experiences, both online and off.” In this spirit, PEN America will release its Online Harassment Field Manual on April 21 to help writers and journalists navigate this increasingly hostile terrain.

Hillary Clinton will deliver the final remarks at the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on Sunday, April 22.

The festival concludes with Hillary Clinton delivering final remarks on Sunday, April 22, at the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, where she and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will discuss the future of women and girls around the world. In 2005, Rushdie wrote of attending the 48th Congress of International PEN in 1986, where “many women at the congress demanded, with much justification, to know why there were so few women on the panels.” The recent years’ emphasis on women and their experiences in literature and the larger political landscape is a cheering and notable change from the days when women were not considered “intellectual” enough for public conversation.

“The cold war is over, but a stranger war has begun,” Rushdie wrote. “Alienation has perhaps never been so widespread; all the more reason for getting together and seeing what bridges can be built.” Somehow, it seems we have found ourselves with more bridges, and an increasing sense of alienation.

“There’s a strong irony that the more connected we are, the more alienated we might feel,” says festival director Rolley, in regard to our current political factionalism. But the PEN World Voices Festival aims to overcome that by bringing together poets, authors, and journalists. “Stories have the power to convey empathy,” he says, “to heighten our awareness of what makes us human and what makes us connected with each other.”

Find a full schedule of events and tickets at worldvoices.pen.org.