PEN 2011: From Moldova to Pakistan



Short of traveling the world, the best way to learn about other people and cultures is through literature. Yes, yes, yes… the news, nonfiction, movies, and other media are fine conduits for showing us glimpses into the lives of others. But nothing delves into the essential psychology of people like literature does. Nothing can get into the hearts and minds of the beautiful and dastardly people of this world like good fiction. Literature allows the time and space necessary to really mine a person’s psyche, the context of a situation, and the dreams and nightmares of people and places so far… far… away.  


It took me a long time to come to this realization.


What, then, could be more foreign to me than the happenings in Moldova? I don’t even know what language they speak in Moldova. Further, I can sorta-maybe-kinda tell you the general region in which the country rests (former Yugoslavia… -ish… ???), but there’s no way I could label it on a blank map.


Well, until now. Thanks to PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, I can tell you that Moldovans speak a Moldovan variation of Romanian, and that the small country is smashed between Romania and Ukraine, two countries that (I now know) play influential roles in Moldova’s literary scene. Dalkey Archive Press has published the anthology Best European Fiction. At the eponymous event, editor and writer Aleksander Hemon (originally from Bosnia) moderated a discussion on European fiction with Iulian Ciocan (of Moldova), Frode Grytten (Norway), and Andrej Blatnik (Slovenia).  


Each of the writers read short stories or excerpts of stories featured in the European anthology and then shared their experiences of being European and writing fiction on the continent. Note that of the four countries represented on stage, only one (Slovenia) is a member of the European Union. And yet none of the writers would dispute that they are, to varying degrees, European.


Kudos to Hemon, by the way,for issuing perceptive questions to the authors that resulted in deeply engaging discussions. Repartee ranged widely from influences, writing styles, European conceptions, the evolution of language, and book sales in their respective countries, just to name a few. The (often funny) event was recorded. Check the PEN site soon to watch the entire wide-ranging conversation.


What is it like to be Moldovan? To live in Moldova? To experience the ennui of everyday Moldovan life? Ciocan read a short story segment and then relayed to the audience the background motivation for the tale. During Perestroika, he told the audience, Moldovans turned to a Brazilian soap opera, a television series (from the otherworldly Brazil!) that not only acted as entertainment and escape for Moldovans living in dire straits, but also as a warped mirror of their own lives. The Brazilian soap (sorry, I didn’t catch the name) centered on a slave girl. Moldovans, who were not living easiest lives, often used the protagonist as a relative reference point for their own hardships: “Well, at least my life isn’t as bad as that slave girl’s life,” they would say to themselves.  


This is what I mean about literature being the best gateway to the world. Would one glean such an intimate portrait of the Moldovan psyche from a history book, a CNN news segment, or a Hollywood movie? Not likely.


If you really want discover and learn about the experiences of people around the world, pick up a book.




I hopped on the 6 train, leaving Europe and arriving in Pakistan. The Asia Society played host to (yet another Dalkey event) two Pakistani poets. Hasina Gul and poet-activist-rockstar-superwoman Fahmida Riaz read poetry from the newly published anthology, Modern Poetry of Pakistan, a one-of-a-kind collection.


Due to an appointment, I had to leave before this event was over. The Asia Society was simulcasting the event online, so perhaps it will be available for viewing later on their site.


In my time there, however, I can say at least this much: Pakistani poetry is political. Poetry that is anything less than political does a disservice to the Pakistani people, culture, and state at this time in history.Moderator, translator, and co-editor of the featured anthology, Waqas Khwaja, laid the groundwork for our understanding of contemporary Pakistani poetry. Poets write in the context of a political, patriarchal, and chauvinistic oppression. The poetry of Pakistan today is not filled with humor because it reflects the social conditions under which they are written. The role of the Pakistani writer today, Khwaja says, is not to experiment with wordplay, but rather to use their art for political freedom and transformation.


From what Khwaja says, the burden of the Pakistani writer is heavy. Contrast this to what I learned about Iraqi artists living in exile in Syria: in my review of 27 artists and my interview with the curator of their exhibition, I was given the impression that Iraqis are so distraught over their own social and political conditions that political and negative sentiments are psychologically repressed. Compared to the work of the Pakistani poet, their work is colorful, distracting, and optimistic, perhaps in a subconscious desperate bid for better times.


Judging by the reaction of the crowd, Khwaja’s assessment seems to be spot on. During both Gul’sand Riaz’s recitations, the audience let loose with an approving “mmmmwah” at the more potent, moving, political jabs of their poetry. Pakistani poets are blatantly political and their audience approves. This was an eye-opening experience for me.


I’ll leave the reader with a snippet of Riaz’s poetry:


When two are locked in conflict And ready to lose their lives, Neither can win in the end, Unless both do–and equally.... Such are the paradigms of war, Such the insight of the Buddha. Why are we, his heirs, so blind?



Aleksander Hemon, Andrej Blatnik, Europe, Fahmida Riaz, Frode Grytten, Hasina Gul, Iulian Ciocan, Moldova, Pakistan, Poetry, PEN 2011