Shut the Fuck Up — It’s Opening Night

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How Monday’s Opening Night Reading for PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature began: Salman Rushdie walked on stage and said super eloquent things like, “The other meaning of courage is real artistic risk… When we try and find new ways of saying things.”

Then a man with an anti-government sign yelled out, “You were for the war in Iraq!” He held up his smartphone, “I have it right here in front of me! A war based on lies that killed a million people!”

“The only lies being told here is by you, Sir,” Rushdie said. “As president of this organization, I led this organization against that war, so you can shut the fuck up. It doesn’t matter how you shout, sir, it doesn’t make what you say correct. That is the technique of the bully throughout history — to try and shout other people down.”

With those words, and Rushdie’s cold-eyed stare hardened by assassination attempts and knighthood, the man shut the fuck up.

1. Vaddey Ratner with her book on display 2. Jamaica Kincaid reads from Paradise Lost

Host Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black, introduced a story by Nigerian writer A. Igoni Barrett’s forthcoming collection Love is Power, or Something Like That. Barrett on trying to encapsulate love with words: “You will never be able to write anything of this importance to anyone.”

Proving that lit power isn’t dependent on size, the diminutive writer, Vaddey Ratner, followed Barrett with a reading from her debut novel, In the Shadow of Banyan. Set in war-torn Cambodia, Ratner’s reading showed us a young girl’s father saying his last words before being taken away by military officers. He tells his daughter, “Do you know why I told you stories? … I told you stories to give you wings.”

1. What people look like from far away 2. And from close up!

Not quite as heartbreaking, Jamaica Kincaid fell in love with the devil when she was seven, so she read from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”

Also, Earl Lovelace was once an extra commanded to die on cue: “When I was a kid, I composed my dying like a poem. There was poetry in my dying… Now here I was, a grown man, in a real movie, and I was dying like a fool — like a ass!”

Comedian and cabbie John McDonagh took it home with a poem condensing 20 years of cab driving in NYC: “New Yorkers used to yell at each other. Now they tweet! … Watch out for the red-light cameras! Don’t go in the bus lanes! Stay out of the bike lanes! What the fuck has happened to my city!?”

Twitter. Twitter is what happened.

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–Sean Campbell lives, writes, and occasionally updates his blog in Bed-Stuy

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