Pen World Voices, Which African Voices?

PEN World Voices has announced its 2015 schedule, and this year’s theme is “On Africa”:

africa1There are, without a doubt, some fabulous writers coming to the 2015 PEN World Voices events, set for May 4-10 in New York City. The list of headlining writers includes blockbuster names like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (who co-curated the events), Teju Cole, Edwidge Danticat, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

The theme is “On Africa,” and yes, we know that generally means North Africa will be snipped off the continent and pushed out among the countries of the “Middle East.” Although this division hides more than it reveals, it’s certainly a persistent one. This could be an opportunity to explore things differently, but the opportunity is missed.

Among the North African writers billed on the front page there’s one: Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy. There is another front-page Arab writer, fiercely secular young Palestinian-Danish poet Yahya Hassan, who seems to have become a festival regular. A glance at the longer list of participants turns up a few Arabs, like Sayed Kashua, who writes in Hebrew, but apparently no one from North Africa.

Blogger T. Olmstead, who’ll be appearing at the festival, tweeted an explanation that, “I think this year the focus is on African francophone countries, plus Kenya & Nigeria.”

But that answers very little, as Algeria (Kamel Daoud, Rachid Boudjedra, Yasmina Khadra, Leila Marouane, etc.) is surely an important source of French-language African writing, as is Morocco (Abdellatif Laâbi, Fouad Laroui, Charif Majdalani, Mohamed Nedali, Mahi Binebine, etc.). Not to mention great deceased writers like Assia Djebar, Kateb Yacine, Mohammed Dib.

Of course a world-lit festival can’t have all the writers from all the countries, and it’s ridiculous to expect an even spread from a continent with nearly 50 independent nations. But — and this isn’t a new criticism — PEN World Voices seems to lean back on the same voices again and again. Among Arab writers, the year-to-year emphasis seems to be on secular critics of religion, missing out on the vibrancy of most Middle Eastern and North African writing.

See the full schedule of events:

From opening night to “Arthur Miller Freedom to Write” lecture

& this discussion, on New Inquiry:

What Even is African Literature Anyway