PEN America is the journal of the PEN American Center, and so has access to a venerable stable of contributors for each issue. This issue, the theme of which is “Maps,” is no exception. It contains many short pieces, some less than a page long, by a number of esteemed writers. Writers were asked to respond to a prompt: “We hope you’ll allow us to accompany you as you reencounter a world you’ve come to know through literature . . . Or, if your mood is more essayistic, tell us about maps that guided or misguided you as a writer.” As one might imagine, the responses are quite varied, highly personal, and mostly interesting.
Amitava Kumar, for example, writes of returning to his native India after some time in graduate school in Minnesota. While reading a poem in a Hindi magazine, he comes across a line that has always stuck with him, “the map of whose urinal is bigger than the map of my village.” That pithy line goes through his head nearly every time he steps into a bathroom, especially in the West, and he says, “[I was] offered a map of my own private modernity: Your class was revealed by what you had—not in the bank, but in the bathroom.” As do many of the other entries, Kumar’s writing simultaneously transverses both mental and physical space in its mapmaking.
Another memorable response to the thematic prompt is Roxana Robinson’s “Wharton’s New York,” in which she describes how trapped Edith Wharton felt by the city’s brownstones and grid where there is “No whimsy, no charm, and no splendor: every opportunity the same.” Robinson notes that while parts of Wharton’s New York are still there, are still the same, much has changed its context—the house where Wharton was born, for example, now has a Starbucks on its ground floor. Robinson concludes by noting that Wharton not only would still recognize New York, she’d understand these changes for she understood how “fashion and affluence determine who lives where.” Robinson uses Wharton’s writing, much as Wharton used her own writing—to comment on class and geography.
One of the longer responses to the prompt is Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Streets of Pittsburgh.” Sayrafiezadeh chronicles with the sort of humor that stems from despair and a lack of hope, a story that seems to offer—for a brief, fictitious moment—an illusion of hope. Sayrafiezadeh doesn’t mention any other writers or narratives in his piece, but the story clearly stems from having literary illusions, that is “dream[s] of good things to come,” while one’s daily life seems miserable. Sayrafiezadeh’s tale relates an impossible to sustain relationship that offers a brief escape from the monotony of office life.
In addition to the responses to the prompt about maps, this issue of PEN America also contains longer pieces of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, “conversations,” and artwork. As in keeping with PEN America’s mission, many of these are translations. One of the standouts, a fiction piece called “In Transit,” by Elvira Dones and translated by Clarissa Botsford, is especially powerful. The main character has just emigrated from Albania to America and is meeting her family. As revealed through the course of the story, she was born female, but has spent her life—since the day her father wanted to marry her off—dressing and living as a man. Her village in Albania accepted this change, which it seems she underwent to better take care of her family. But now that she has moved away, her cousin—the only one other person who is old enough to know about the change—wants to know if she wants to live in America as “Mark” or “Hana.” The story is a powerful commentary on emigration, village life, gender, family, and responsibility. The writing is quite plain and clear, and it never seems heavy-handed.
Another striking piece is Yvette M. Louisell’s memoir, “How to Survive in Prison.” The piece is constructed in the form of a list; there is a year and, next to that, a few sentences summarizing actions that Louisell took. There are 23 years in the list. The actions repeat and some are intertwined; the tone is matter-of-fact and contains statements like “2004: Realize that you’ve been in prison as long as you were free.” There is no sweeping arc to the narrative; it is life as time progresses.
The theme of “maps” allows this issue of PEN America to explore various cartographies of space. This issue contains a wide variety of writing, most of it with an international bent. It was a pleasure, while reading this issue, to be introduced to these unfamiliar and diverse geographies.