This morning we went to historic and beautiful Amster Yard in midtown to a PEN World Voices Festival
panel held at Instituto Cervantes. Titled Writing, Speaking, Dreaming: Authors Talk About Languages, this was a special program for high school students - but luckily for us, they also let in at least one PEN member who hasn't belonged in that category since the Johnson administration. The panel was moderated by Cathy Park Hong
and featured writers Randa Jarrar, an old friend whose work we've loved for years (she read from one of our favorite sections of her novel A Map of Home);
Roger Sedarat, a great poet whom we had the pleasure of working with at Borough of Manhattan Community College;
Francisco X. Stork;
and Bernardo Atxaga.
There was also the empty chair that is at every PEN World Voices Festival event to represent our writer colleagues in repressive regimes who are in prison or detention.
We're very pressed for time this week, with classes ending at one college where we're teaching and dealing with a lot of grading finals and research papers, and lots of teaching elsewhere -- so with her kind permission, we will defer to il miglior fabbro, our fellow PEN memer Lyn Miller-Lachmann.
Lyn is the author of Gringolandia, which Kirkus Reviews called a "poignant, often surprising and essential novel" and School Library Journal termed "a rare reading experience that both touches the heart and opens the mind." Here's Lyn's report, far better than anything we could come up with, from her blog at the PEN website (she has reports of other Festival events that are equally wonderful):
The 30 or so students from Enterprise, Business, and Technology High School in Brooklyn got stuck on the L train but arrived just in time to join a group from Fox Lane High School in suburban Bedford at a panel of authors who grew up speaking and writing in multiple languages. The students—all English Language Learners from China, Nepal, Yemen, Ecuador, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic—heard the perspectives of immigrants and the children of immigrants, those whose home language was suppressed, and those who have sought as adults to embrace the language of their parents.
Moderated by Korean-American poet Cathy Park Hong, the panel titled “Writing, Speaking, Dreaming: Authors Talk About Languages” included novelist Randa Jarrar, the daughter of an Egyptian father and a Palestinian mother; poet and translator Roger Sedarat, the son of an Iranian father and a U.S.-born mother; novelist Francisco X. Stork, the son of Mexican parents whose Anglo stepfather adopted him and brought him and his mother to the United States; and the Basque poet, novelist, and essayist Bernardo Atxaga. Although the focus of the program was language, bicultural identity was an important theme for both Sedarat and Jarrar.
After giving the young audience a taste of their writing, Jarrar, Sedarat, Stork, and Atxaga described their experiences as outsiders. Texas (my home state) proved an unwelcoming place for Jarrar, Sedarat, and Stork. Stork talked about how Mexican-American students in his El Paso school faced corporal punishment for speaking Spanish; it made him feel as if his own language was “not worthy of being spoken.” Even now as a writer, he feels the need to demonstrate his mastery of English.
For both Jarrar and Sedarat, the exclusion was as much political as linguistic. Sedarat attended school at the time of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Jarrar during the First Gulf War. They had the names, faces, and languages of “the enemy.” Bullying at school and death threats over the phone made life difficult and even dangerous. Sedarat’s parents discouraged him from exploring his Iranian identity, which led him to explore it with increasing passion and vigor. His journey to find himself eventually took him back to Iran and to the awareness that he belonged to two worlds but would never be a full-fledged member of either. For Jarrar, writing became her way of fighting back against invisibility and exclusion.
Atxaga’s experience of two languages may have occurred in fascist Spain, but his experience of oppression paralleled that of the three writers who grew up in Texas. (As a native Texan, I’ll leave readers to draw their own conclusions.) During his nearly forty-year regime, dictator Francisco Franco sought to eradicate regional languages, such as Basque and Catalan. One day, a policeman caught Atxaga’s mother speaking Basque in a supermarket and ordered her to speak only Spanish, because “we are in Spain.” Since the speakers of these languages were often some of the most ardent opponents of fascism during and after the Civil War, Franco’s agenda was clearly political as well as linguistic—to wipe out the language was a way of wiping out resistance. Atxaga’s writing in Basque became his way of asserting his resistance.
All of the panelists agreed that being different, being an outsider, makes one a natural observer, and the ability to observe closely, to see things other don’t see, is the essence of great writing. They sought to inspire their audience of students struggling to learn a new language; for each of them, having two languages has proven an advantage. Sedarat considers himself a literary emissary, picking up the style and themes of literature of one country and bringing them to another. Stork’s ability to express himself in Spanish allows him to explore and express emotions that would be difficult to describe in English.
Each author encouraged the students to write their own stories. Jarrar wrote the book she wished she could have read as a teenager. Sedarat sees writing as a way of clearing up stereotypes, and Stork added that through his novels, he rights the wrongs he sees in society, most notably changing the image of Latinos by means of characters with whom readers can identify. Axtaga and Jarrar cited recent English-only laws in Alabama and anti-immigration laws in Arizona, respectively, as two wrongs that call for a response. And moderator Hong had the last word, reminding the audience how they can fight back against the injustices in their lives through writing, and they can make their voices heard.
- Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Thanks to the panelists and especially to Lyn for that eloquent and elegant report.