International PEN's Free the Word! Festival

The second annual Free the Word! festival has been a great success, due in no small part to the work of Sarah Sanders, Caroline McCormick, Sharmilla Beezmohun, and everyone else from International PEN who helped organize and run these events.

I was able to attend three of the discussions, all of which took place in the “Underglobe” stage at Shakespeare’s Globe. Unfortunately, I missed the opening event, which featured Nadine Gordimer and took place on the main stage, which is modeled after the original Globe, including a huge space for the audience to stand and watch the performance and an outdoor stage. (Of course, Thursday night wasn’t the best of all nights for an outdoor reading, but nevertheless, I heard that it went really well.)

All three events I attended—“Telling Secret Lives,” “Hell on Earth,” and “International Futures”—were very well attended, and quite interesting. I believe all of these events were recorded and will be available on the International PEN website at some point, and if you have the chance they’re definitely worth checking out.

Since this festival is inspired by PEN America’s World Voices Festival (coming up next week), it’s hard not to compare the two. In many respects they’re very similar—high quality authors, very well-organized events, lots of attendees—but there are a few noticeable differences.

For one, the questions from the audience here in the UK were much more logical and contained than the ones in New York. Maybe it’s a British thing (Brits speak so formally in contrast to us Americans, with complicated sentence structures and all the necessary words articulated in such a precise order), but there weren’t any crazies (no offense to New Yorkers) who stood up and rambled on and on without actually asking a question—something that inevitably happens at every World Voices event.

Also, in terms of the audience (I swear these two points aren’t related) there weren’t nearly as many publishing people at the Free the Word! events as there are at World Voices. Which is curious . . . Seems like at World Voices, a good portion of the attendees are editors, marketing folks, people from the various consulates, etc. Which helps fill the auditoriums, but also indicates that the publishers are very invested in the festival and help bring out more people to the events. And since in America publishing and parties go together, there are more receptions in the evening, and maybe a more festive mood in general.

Not to say that one festival is better than the other—it’s just interesting to see how the two organizations run these events differently. Here the events seemed shorter and were a bit more spontaneous. Which is something that I really appreciated, since I think the very staged panels in which each author reads a pre-written paper/story for 15 minutes without interacting or responding to his/her fellow panelists are the weakest of all literary events. At Free the Word! all the prepared readings were very short (in the five minute range—and really five minutes) leaving much more time for conversation, questions, etc.

I think this festival is going to continue to grow over the next few years and become an even more critical part of the international book scene here in London. Hopefully next year more international publishers will come to the London Book Fair a few days early to support their authors and participate in this perfect lead-in event . . .

Another thing that’s really cool is how International PEN is exporting the Free the Word! brand and structure to other PEN centers around the world to put on their own festivals. Up next, Austria PEN will host a four-day Free the Word! festival in Lenz later this fall. Having these festivals all over the globe is a very cool idea, and should help increase the flow and exchange of ideas between cultures.

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