PEN Opening Night

1. In her poems, Nicaraguan poet Giaconda Belli drinks wine, curls up with books and floats on water, staring at flocks of birds. 2. Molly Crabapple, a painter and founder of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, will spend the week working on an installation at The Standard as part of the PEN festival.

When Malcolm Gladwell took the stage Monday night for the opening of the PEN World Voices Festival, he squinted out at the crowd. “I feel like I’m on a Sesame Street segment,” he said. “One of these things is not like the other.”

Gladwell was the only non-fiction writer among the dozen or presenters at The Lighthouse on Chelsea Piers. They read from poems, novels and stories in English, Hebrew, Spanish and Romanian. The Hudson sparked through the plate-glass windows. It was the perfect setting for the night’s theme — water.

1. British novelist Hanif Kureishi got the most laughs of the night thanks to his narrator Karim, whose going-out ritual includes washing his face in Old Spice aftershave. 2. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell read from an article about John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death. As research, Galdwell convinced a pilot to take him on a “graveyard spiral” like the one Kennedy experienced moments before crashing. It was the closest the author ever came to death.

The evening was lovely but somewhat staid. More than a few bald heads gleamed in the packed house, which also had its share of fashionable bibliophiles. On the edge of the audience, an artist spent the night working on a painting of what looked like giant squid.

To get myself in the mood for the evening, I listened to Salman Rushdie’s Moth story about going to Nicaragua. In 1986, at PEN festival, he met Rosario Murillo, the self-described compañera of Sandainista leader Daniel Ortega. She invited Rushdie to come see the revolution. Facing massive writer’s block back home in London, he decided, what the hell. When he arrived in Managua, Rushdie discovered his hostess was the “most hated woman in Nicaragua.”

1. Novelist Salman Rushdie once battled writer’s block with revolution. He chairs the Festival this year. 2. Viktor Ivaniv, Fedor Svarovskiy, Igor Belov, participants in several of this week’s events. They are Russian, and they write.

I wished I could eavesdrop on a conversation between Rushdie, this year’s festival chair, and fellow-presenter Giaconda Belli, a former Sandanista. Belli opened her presentation by saying she would have to improvise — officials had confiscated her “water” poems at the airport. She read three others, rolling her r’s like waves, and reminding me of the pleasures of listening great writing aloud.

1. Saya Iwasaki is an intern for the PEN Festival.

British novelist Hanif Kureishi turned the room of serious thinkers into kids at story time. We laughed at the travails of Karim, the narrator of The Buddha of Suburbia, as he bumbled through adolescence with distinctly British whit. “If I strained my eyes I could see her chest,” Karim says, staring out into the night. “And I did indeed strain my eyes.”

Perhaps because it was a Monday, or because this crowd has a busy week in store, many slipped out when the readings finished. At the door I ran into several writers having a smoke. I asked one for his name. Fedor Svarovskiy, he said, spelled “like Svarovskiy.” A little about themselves? “They say we are Russian.”

As I left I found myself beside Gladwell, slimmer up close, with his signature lollipop of hair. When we reached the Westside highway, he ran to make the light. In a blink, he was gone.

–Lisa Riordan Seville is a writer and reporter in Brooklyn.

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