PEN 2011: Dream a Little Dream



I’ll be the first to admit that the Brainwave: The Dreamers event sounded a bit hokey. Things didn’t start out so well at the (awesome) Rubin Museum when I ordered a gin & tonic in the stylish K2 Lounge. “Is that a drink?” my server replied. She returned ten minutes later and served me the crisp beverage … in a wine glass. Minutes later I found myself on the third floor amongst some masterpieces of art and sculpture, on what felt like a combination of a scavenger hunt and a round speed dating.   


The idea of this PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature event was to wander amidst the stunning art work and stumble across writers tucked into nooks and crannies. Once found, these bards were to share “what emerges from the artistic subconscious through dreams.” The concept was interesting, the execution mixed, but the results were unforgettable.


I wandered the gallery with my messenger bag in tow. Writers were distinguished by white scarves (khatags). I first stumbled onto Doron Rabinovici who was wrapping up with another guest. I plunked down my bag to signify that I was here to listen to a story too, as if I were putting down quarters on a billiards table and calling “next game.” Of all the writers who participated, Rabinovici stuck to the theme of the evening the best, truly running away with the idea of dreams and subconscious.


And then, all of a sudden, there I was, one-on-one with Rabinovici. In a truly intimate and inspiring moment, he read to me from his novel Andernorts. Rabinovici then regaled me with jokes and anecdotes that had me cracking up, and then told me an amazing tale about a writer who chose to write the perfect novel rather than save his wife’s life, only to have the tables turned years later. We then discussed the role dreams play in his writing. Rabinovici admitted that his own dreams were uninteresting, so all dreams in his stories are made up. But he does believe that dreams are some kind of reflection of our waking reality.


Just when I thought the conversation couldn’t get any better, I engaged Rabinovici in a discussion on the usefulness of muses and asked about his own muses; they can be anyone, he told me, from a beautiful woman to a fat, ugly man. The point is to be inspired—anyone who inspires you to tell a tale is a muse.


All told, my duet with Rabinovici lasted about 25 minutes Where but at PEN World Voices would I have such an unforgettable opportunity? Suddenly this event seemed a little less hokey…


I left Rabinivoci and rounded a corner into a room plastered with eye-popping replicas of the Lukhang, the Dalai Lamas' secret temple near the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Waiting for me was Lisa Dierbeck who, inspired by the night’s theme, read to me a passage from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. When she was finished, Dierbeck gave me a wink and disappeared around a corner… I didn’t see her again that night.


Next I found Natacha Appanah sitting on some steps. Across from her was iconography of what I think was Abhijnaraja, the Tibetan physician god, or Buddhist god of medicine. Inspired by this piece, Appanah read a segment from her book, The Last Brother, about a grandmother who takes care of an ill patient. I sat down on the steps and, because of the background noise, nestled as close to her as possible. And there we sat, like two old friends, while she read to me from her novel. The moment was intimate; the moment was sweet. The moment was one-of-a-kind.


Still alone with her, I took advantage of the situation and asked her about her background and about the inspiration behind her novel. Of Indian descent, Appanah now lives in France but was born and grew up on the teeny tiny island of Mauritius. And then she told me an amazing true story: In 1940, at the beginning of the Second World War, the British deported 1584 Jews to Mauritius, where they were to stay until the war ended. There, the Jews spent the war in a detainment camp. It wasn’t so much a prison, Appanah explained, as it was a holding place. Mauritius is tiny—what were they supposed to do with 1500 war refugees? And so, the Jews were abandoned for five years. Because their conditions were so confining and the island so remote—no news of what was happening with the Holocaust reached them until war’s end—they basically went stir crazy. The Last Brother reveals this story through the eyes of a young island boy who befriends one of the Jewish refugees.


Thinking that between Rabinovici and Appanah the night couldn’t get any better, I stumbled across Susan Rosenberg who held court beneath a gorgeous golden Buddha statue.


And then the night got better…


A political radical, Rosenberg was arrested in 1984 while unloading explosives in New Jersey. She was sentenced to 58 years in prison, but was pardoned by President Bill Clinton on his last day in office. All told, she spent 16 years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. While in prison she turned to writing, poetry, and activism. I sat with Rosenberg for over half an hour while she gamely fielded my questions and told anecdotes about her prison experiences.


Incarceration, she said, represents a time when people are at their most extreme and desperate. The prison experience—physically and psychologically—offers no escape from these states of being and mind. Depressed and at the edge of her rope, Rosenberg found solace when she discovered Primo Levi and writing that acted as witness to injustice. She began writing, an act that saved her life. (I told her that Kjersti Skomsvold said the same thing the night before.)


I asked a lot of questions: about dreams in prison, about human interactions with guards, about the experience of isolation, about relations with other prisoners, about so much! I couldn’t possibly relay all of her answers and anecdotes, but she assured me that all we had discussed was captured in her recently published (and acclaimed) memoir, An American Radical.


At the end of my time with her, I asked Rosenberg to read an excerpt from her memoir. The telling was stunningly beautiful, nearly bringing me to tears. I asked for an interview in the future and she agreed. Stay tuned.



Doron Rabinovici, Lisa Dierbeck, Natacha Appanah, PEN 2011, Prison Writing, Prisons, Susan Rosenberg