Lawrence Public Library field report: World Voices Festival 2018

The mission of our library presses forward only with some careful study and reflection along the way. To keep making the right decisions for our collections and services, librarians can never stop learning about our world and our community; it probably doesn’t surprise anyone that we have no qualms with this. More knowledge, please.

To do my part, I was so fortunate to attend the PEN America World Voices Festival last month in New York, seeking insights from a myriad of authors and experts from across the globe that can enrich and help the Lawrence Public Library thrive.

Standing “at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide,” PEN America shares the same spirit as any library. This year, the festival theme “Resist and Reimagine” centered the dialogues on the need for clarity, diversity, and liberty in a sociopolitical landscape with no shortage of conflict.

Writers from a far-reaching slate of countries spoke on the challenges they find at home, both as citizens and artists. Novelist Trifonia Melibea Obono, from Equatorial Guinea, illuminated her state’s suppression of ethnic languages and the resulting difficulties of finding common ground among these groups, especially through works of fiction.

Another panel featured authors Hwang Sok-yong of Korea, Petra Hulova of the Czech Republic and Georgi Gospodinov from Bulgaria; they each shared their stories of struggle in a world that can overlook — or cast aside — the voices of marginalized people and marginalized geographies.

Other programs featured our own country, and the literature we may not see in our very midst, writers and stories that may be sadly missing even from the stacks of the library. The PEN Prison Writing Program offered readings of some incredibly emotional and human work, with poetry and memoir from inmates seeking to express themselves and all that they have been through.

A writing workshop of DACA Dreamers presented their stories, as well, refusing to have their unique and bittersweet American stories go unheard. It could not have been made more clear that writing — and art as a whole — is not just an avenue for entertainment or recreation. It is a necessity of life, a human right, an irreplaceable aspect of freedom. Without writing, our own and that of our peers, we languish as with any oppression.

This all might sound rather austere, but the weekend at the World Voices Festival was actually unforgettably vivid and inspiring. Lauded Irish author Colm Toibin is hilarious, it turns out, as he opted to tell knee-slapping jokes during his session. Later, a panel consisting of New York writers — Paul Auster, Salman Rushdie, and Sergio De La Pava — provided an hour and a half of reminiscing, good-natured ribbing, and adoration for their city. Other literary stars like Jhumpa Lahiri did not fail to impress.

To cap it all off, Hillary Clinton (with "Americanah" author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) gave the final remarks for the festival, vigorously reiterating the call for unhindered expression. She even called on libraries specifically, giving us the onus of cultivating communities of “thoughtful readers” equipped with sound media literacy.

That’s precisely what we try to do every day. As we offer a portal to all the different voices within our own community and those from afar, there is always more to explore and more to learn; as the stories of the world carry on, so too does our work.

— Eli Hoelscher is a reader's services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.

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