Most of PEN America reads less like a traditional literary journal and more like the transcript of conversations with authors, which makes sense, since much of the writing comes from PEN’s annual World Voice festivals. The unique format allows for interviews, conversations formed around a theme, and short remarks, as well as the traditional poetry, fiction, and essays. Of the various forms, the interviews and conversations stood out the most to me.
Paul Holdengraber, Ilija Trojanow, and Alain de Botton discuss traveling and travel writing in “Voyage and Voyeur.” Alain de Botton claims all writing is travel writing, since “a writer leaves his or her room and goes to look at something,” but “travel writers” often do art a disservice by merely writing wittily about foreign places or foreigners. In “Imaginary Geographies,” Daniel Alarcon, Arthur Japin, and Tatyana Tolstaya discuss why they set their stories in imaginary landscapes and how memory enhances or distorts reality.
In the more traditional genre, Paul LaFarge explains the discovery of America through eleven possible myths, Jennifer Tseng writes poems about trees and stones (and, figuratively, so much more), and Etgar Keret’s narrator contemplates the “what ifs” of life in his short short, “Rabin’s Dead.”
This issue ends with a half-dozen authors giving a short tribute to Grace Paley. Michael Cunningham says Paley’s style is as recognizable as Faulkner or Austen, Gerry Albarelli remembers Paley teaching him to place literature at the center of life, and Nora Paley tells how her mother lived every moment of life with courage and the philosophy: “Either we are here or not here. It is all life until death.” Reading PEN America, you get the wonderful impression that many of these writers view life this way, that they’ll continue with their causes and their writing until they draw their last breath.