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    Should you read Keanu Reeves’s novel?

    Drew Broussard

    July 19, 2024, 11:23am

    In case you missed it: Keanu Reeves has written a novel.

    Yes, it’s true: the internet’s boyfriend has teamed up with China Miéville, one of the great speculative fiction writers of all time, to produce a novel set in the world of BRZRKR—the comic book series he also created—and we here at Literary Hub have been getting some questions about the whole thing. Questions like: “wait seriously?” and “but is it going to be any good?” and “is this really what we should be paying attention to right now?”

    To those particular questions, I have answers: yes, yes, and yes.

    But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether or not you should read this book—and so, in order to help decide whether you should invest your time, dollars, and imagination into The Book of Elsewhere, I’ve put together this short survey.

     

    1. Are you a Keanu Reeves fan? If no… ???

    2. Did you already know who China Miéville is before you clicked on this post? If yes, let’s not fool ourselves: you’ve already pre-ordered this book and I can promise you that that was a good choice.

    3. Do you prefer action-Keanu or rom-com-Keanu? If the latter, I might suggest you re-watch Always Be My Maybe or even Much Ado About Nothing instead.

    4. Do you like your action movies with a dose of philosophy, or would you rather it just be pedal-to-the-metal fighting? If the former, you’re going to love this book—Sigmund Freud puts in an appearance and characters frequently debate the nature of existence, the ethics and morality of warfare, Marxism, and the cost of inherited trauma, among many other heady ideas.

    5. Was the pencil assault in John Wick Chapter Two metal as hell or a bit too far? If the latter, steel yourself: the novel opens with a pretty horrific act of terrorism and the main character is also an 80,000 year old immortal warrior currently working for a black ops facet of the US security complex so… he gets up to some gnarly stuff.

    6. Do you need orderly storytelling, moral clarity, and clear resolutions in your narratives? There’s nothing tidy about this book by any metric—but then again, the same can be said about life.

    7. If you were an immortal warrior and you discovered that the only other immortal creature on the planet was a babirusa, would you befriend it or would it be your nemesis? If this whole question makes you scratch your head, maybe move along—but if it intrigues you, do I have some good news for you!

     

    On the celebrity-novel scale, The Book of Elsewhere stands well above pulpy cash-grabs like the Clintons’ co-written thrillers (to say nothing of the likes of Jake Tapper and James Comey) and it makes a better case for itself than the often-mediocre-at-best “sure why not?” novels and stories from prestige actors like Ethan Hawke and Tom Hanks. If it doesn’t rise to the “this deserves to exist on its own merits” level of something like Shopgirl… well, plenty of non-celebrity novels don’t make it there either.

    Bottom line: this is a weird-ass book, far stranger than any plot synopsis or review could ever do justice. If you love Keanu’s brand of action, you’ll love this. If you love Miéville’s brand of heady speculative fiction, you’ll love this. And if you’ve never really gotten into either… well, who knows? Maybe you’ll love this too.

    100+ translators call for PEN America to relinquish control of the Heim Fund.

    Dan Sheehan

    July 18, 2024, 1:32pm

    Over 100 of the country’s most prominent literary translators—including Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky, Peter Cole, Jennifer Croft, Damion Searls, and Natasha Wimmer—have signed a damning open letter to the PEN America Board of Trustees, calling for the transfer of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund endowment to another institution:

    We write now out of concern over PEN America’s consistent, serious neglect and mishandling of the grant process and the endowment, its deprioritization of the Fund’s work, and the deleterious impact on the Fund of the ongoing collapse of PEN America’s reputation.

    The PEN/Heim Translation Fund was established in 2003 with an endowed gift of $734,000 from esteemed translator Michael Henry Heim and his wife Pricilla Heim, “in response to the dismayingly low number of literary translations currently appearing in English.” The fund has, to date, supported the translation of more than 200 literary works into English, including translations by Chris Andrews of Roberto Bolaño (2005), Annie Tucker of Eka Kurniawan (2013), and Jennifer Croft of Olga Tokarczuk (2015).

    “In its twenty-year history, the PEN/Heim has typically been awarded to translations-in-progress which eventually receive wide acclaim,” former PEN/Heim jury chair Nicholas Glastonbury told Lit Hub. “In my experience as a judge, it’s like getting a glimpse into what the literary landscape will look like in a couple years’ time.”

    The aforementioned open letter [reprinted in full at the close of this article], sent to the PEN America Board on July 8, begins by detailing how the PEN/Heim Translation Fund has been “at the forefront of the growing enthusiasm for translated literature across the English-speaking world,” before stressing that those successes were “not because of but in spite of PEN America, whose priorities have consistently been shaped, for well over a decade, by English monolingualism and US exceptionalism.”

    The letter goes on to accuse current PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel of turning the organization into “a mouthpiece for the current US government,” selling out to corporate interests like Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp and Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, displaying “contempt” for PEN International, and presiding over an abusive working environment “that employees escape as quickly as they can” and which has made it “increasingly difficult to recruit [PEN/Heim] jury members.”

    Finally, the letter alleges that PEN America has been “parsimonious about disbursing PEN/Heim Endowment funds to the translators it was established to support” and suggests that the recent tarnishing of the PEN America brand has begun to damage other PEN centers around the world. The authors close by offering to work with the Board to find a suitable independent organization “of strong integrity that is genuinely committed to international writing and global literary culture and community, under whose capable, supportive, and reliable management the Fund can at last grow to its fullest potential.”

    At the time of writing, the letter has 141 signatures—a number that includes every single chair of the PEN/Heim advisory committee in the grant’s history; two-thirds of all jury members in the grant’s history; and nearly half of all grant recipients in the grant’s history. “Given these stats,” said Glastonbury, ” it feels like a profound vote of no confidence in the organization’s ability to manage the endowment.”

    When reached for comment, PEN America sent Lit Hub a statement [reprinted in full at the close of this article] strongly disputing the allegations made in the letter—including the “utterly unsubstantiated claim of neglect or mishandling of the grant process”—and condemning the “deeply offensive, conspiratorial and unfounded personal attacks on our longtime CEO Suzanne Nossel.” The statement goes on to say that the “irresponsible allegations in the letter not only impugn the integrity of the organization they are an insult to our staff and body of work.”

     

    This revolt by its translation partners is just the latest in a series of controversies that have dogged PEN America throughout 2024, primarily stemming from the organization’s response to Israel’s war on Gaza (which led to the cancellation of this year’s PEN America Literary Awards and World Voices Festival), but also with regard to the alleged mismanagement of its Prison Writing Awards, as well as an alleged “chilling” of free expression among its staff (though reported staff discontent should be eased somewhat by today’s announcement from the PEN America Union that a tentative, first bargaining agreement has been reached with management after almost two years of negotiations).

     

    *

     

    July 8 Letter to PEN America Board of Trustees:

     

    Dear Trustees of PEN America,

    At the 1957 PEN International Congress in Tokyo, the US was represented by John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, John Dos Passos, John Hersey and the eminent translator of Japanese Donald Keene; a resolution that placed translation at the heart of the PEN agenda was adopted by all PEN Centers worldwide. A half-century later, Michael Henry Heim anonymously donated $730,000 to PEN American Center because he viewed the worldwide PEN movement as central to the circulation of literature across languages.

    Those of us who have volunteered thousands of hours over the past two decades to carry forward the work of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund have a great deal to be proud of. Writer/translators such as Idra Novey, Chris Andrews, Heather Cleary, Johannes Göransson, and Sawako Nakayasu—supported during the first rounds of grant-giving when Heim himself was on the selection committee—have flourished and grown influential. Other writers whose work might once have been deemed unmarketable have gained appreciative readers in English. Among those writers is Eka Kurniawan, whose Beauty Is a Wound, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker, was published to acclaim in 2016 as a result of the PEN/Heim grant. The PEN/Heim Translation Fund has been at the forefront of the growing enthusiasm for translated literature across the English-speaking world. 

    All of this was achieved not because of but in spite of PEN America, whose priorities have consistently been shaped, for well over a decade, by English monolingualism and US exceptionalism. We write now out of concern over PEN America’s consistent, serious neglect and mishandling of the grant process and the endowment, its deprioritization of the Fund’s work, and the deleterious impact on the Fund of the ongoing collapse of PEN America’s reputation

    PEN America CEO, Suzanne Nossel, a former US State Department official, quickly left a position as Executive Director of Amnesty International in 2012 amid concerns that she was turning it into an arm of the State Department that would shill for US-backed wars. In the past two years, the very different treatment by PEN America of Ukrainian and Palestinian writers has made it appear that Nossel succeeded in turning the next NGO she took charge of into a mouthpiece for the current US government. The appearance of sellout to corporate interests she has presided over is just as disturbing. PEN America, which presents itself as a free speech organization devoted, among other things, to combating misinformation, has just staged a lavish gala whose primary funder was Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, one of the planet’s most notorious purveyors of misinformation. Meanwhile, Nossel appears to be handsomely compensated for serving on the “Oversight Board” of Meta—a corporation notorious for platforming misinformation, towards which PEN America has been uncritical

    For a century, PEN America was built up and championed by some of the most celebrated writers in US literary history, who worked on its behalf without pay. Now PEN America social media approvingly cite claims that were Nossel, a well-paid executive, to comply with demands for new leadership and depart, that would mean  “a world without PEN, without defense of expression…” 

    The international community of PEN Centers worldwide took note when PEN America failed to honor or even mention the PEN International centennial in 2021. The contempt for PEN International had been evident long before, however. No sitting PEN America president has attended a PEN International Congress since 2016—not even the online Congresses held during the pandemic.

    Amid all this, the work and reputation of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund has also been badly tarnished by PEN America’s mismanagement and an abusive working environment that employees escape as quickly as they can. The staff turnover is so chronic that, over the past decade, virtually every PEN/Heim jury has had members (limited to terms of two years) with more institutional longevity than the salaried full-time administrators on whom the jury is supposed to rely. Consequently, administration of the grants and communication with awardees falls all too often to the jury, rather than to the rapidly vanishing staff. This, in turn, makes it increasingly difficult to recruit jury members. Where the PEN/Heim was once a prestigious award for up-and-coming translators, it has come to have a reputation as unreliable. 

    We read the recent reporting on PEN’s Prison and Justice Writing program with a strong sense of recognition. From the beginning, PEN America has been parsimonious about disbursing PEN/Heim Endowment funds to the translators it was established to support and has, instead, held on to as much of the money as it could. In over two decades, the total amount of the individual grants has barely budged, in real terms. The first $4000 grants were given in 2012, and 2024 grants remain at $4000. Meanwhile the stock market has skyrocketed and PEN America’s annual budget has quintupled. PEN America no longer supplies draw reports with the current total amount in the Fund to the PEN/Heim Advisory Committee, though that was established procedure in the first twelve years of the Fund’s existence. 

    Such operational mismanagement and institutional neglect, in tandem with current leadership’s abjuring of the mission and work of PEN International, has so devastated the PEN America brand that it is beginning to damage the work of other PEN Centers. One emerging translator recently mentioned that they were hesitant to submit a book for an award from English PEN, due to their mistaken belief that it was the same organization as PEN America.

    More than three months ago, a group of influential writers appealed in an open letter for “concrete and lasting change” at PEN America. That change does not appear to be coming. The undersigned, who have been involved with the PEN/Heim Fund as jury chairs and  members, grantees, publishers, and authors, hope that a way can be found of salvaging the Fund, at least, from the managerial and reputational chaos.

    We ask that the Board of Trustees arrange to transfer the endowment created by Michael and Priscilla Heim to another organization, one that views the PEN/Heim Translation Fund as a priority. We offer to work with the Board to select a suitable independent organization of strong integrity that is genuinely committed to international writing and global literary culture and community, under whose capable, supportive, and reliable management the Fund can at last grow to its fullest potential. 

    Signed,

      1. Nicholas Glastonbury, PEN/Heim jury chair, 2022-2024, & jury member, 2020-2022
      2. Tess Lewis, PEN/Heim grantee, 2009; PEN/Heim jury member, 2018-2022; PEN/Heim jury chair, 2022; PEN America Translation Committee cochair, 2017-2018
      3. Peter Constantine, PEN/Heim jury member, 2018, 2019, 2020; PEN/Heim jury chair, 2021
      4. Samantha Schnee, PEN/Heim jury chair, 2018-2020
      5. Michael F. Moore, PEN/Heim jury chair, 2011-2015 
      6. Esther Allen, PEN/Heim jury chair, 2004-2010, PEN/Heim jury member, 2014-2016, PEN America Translation Committee chair, 2002-2006, PEN America board member, 2002-2006
      7. Susan Bernofsky, PEN/Heim grantee, 2005, 2007; PEN/Heim jury member, 2010-2013; PEN America Translation Committee chair, 2011-2014; PEN America board member, 2011-2014
      8. Alex Zucker, PEN/Heim jury member, 2015-2016; PEN America Translation Committee cochair, 2014-2016
      9. Sawako Nakayasu, PEN/Heim grantee, 2006, PEN/Heim jury member, 2020
      10. Idra Novey, PEN/Heim grantee, 2004; PEN/Heim jury member, 2017
      11. Ena Selimović, PEN/Heim jury member, 2023-24
      12. Karen Emmerich, PEN/Heim grantee, 2005; PEN/Heim jury member, 2020
      13. Elisabeth Jaquette, PEN/Heim grantee, 2017; PEN/Heim jury member, 2020-2021
      14. Jeffrey Yang, PEN/Heim jury member, 2008-2011
      15. Kareem James Abu-Zeid, PEN/Heim jury member, 2021 & 2022
      16. Natasha Wimmer, PEN/Heim jury member, 2011-2013 and 2018-2020
      17. Jeremy Tiang, PEN/Heim grantee, 2013; PEN/Heim jury member, 2019-2020
      18. Chip Rossetti, PEN/Heim grantee, 2010; PEN/Heim jury member, 2016, 2017, 2018
      19. Richard Sieburth, PEN/Heim jury member, 2006-2009, and Translation Committee member
      20. Sara Khalili, PEN/Heim 2007 grantee, 2007; PEN/Heim jury member, 2014-2016 
      21. Lara Vergnaud, PEN/Heim grantee, 2013, 2018; PEN/Heim jury member, 2019-2020
      22. Jeffrey Zuckerman, PEN/Heim grantee, 2016; PEN/Heim jury member, 2021 & 2023
      23. Kira Josefsson, PEN/Heim grantee, 2017; PEN/Heim jury member, 2023 & 2024
      24. Shabnam Nadiya, PEN/Heim grantee, 2020; PEN/Heim jury member, 2017
      25. Kaitlin Rees, PEN/Heim jury member 2022-2023, PEN/Heim grantee, 2017
      26. Matvei Yankelevich, PEN/Heim jury member, 2013; PEN America Translation Committee member 
      27. Jenny Wang Medina, PEN/Heim jury member, 2019-2020
      28. Jenny Bhatt, PEN/Heim jury member, 2022-2023
      29. Alex Valente, PEN/Heim jury member, 2022-2024
      30. Thomas J. Kitson, PEN/Heim jury member, 2022-2023
      31. Aaron Coleman, PEN/Heim jury member, 2023-24
      32. Lina Mounzer, PEN/Heim jury member, 2022-24
      33. Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda, PEN/Heim jury member, 2022
      34. Max Weiss, PEN/Heim jury member, 2019
      35. Aditi Machado, PEN/Heim jury member, 2020-2021
      36. Mary Ann Newman, PEN/Heim jury member, 2018
      37. Canaan Morse, PEN/Heim jury member, 2019
      38. Chad W. Post, publisher of several PEN/Heim grantees
      39. Eric M. B. Becker, PEN/Heim grantee, 2013; PEN Translation Prize jury member, 2018
      40. Jason Grunebaum, PEN/Heim grantee, 2005
      41. Sean Cotter, PEN/Heim grantee, 2013
      42. Mira Rosenthal, PEN/Heim grantee, 2008
      43. Anton Hur, PEN/Heim grantee, 2020; former PEN member
      44. Zoë Perry, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      45. Curtis Bauer, PEN/Heim grantee, 2020
      46. Jacob Moe, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      47. Chris Andrews, PEN/Heim grantee, 2005
      48. Hillary Gulley, PEN/Heim grantee, 2012
      49. Rachael Daum, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      50. Natascha Bruce, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      51. Peter Cole, PEN/Heim grantee, 2004
      52. Emma Ramadan, PEN/Heim grantee, 2016
      53. Adrian Minckley, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      54. Jacob Rogers, PEN/Heim grantee, 2020
      55. Bonnie Huie, PEN/Heim grantee, 2012
      56. Ottilie Mulzet, PEN/Heim grantee, 2019
      57. Antón Lopo, PEN/Heim author grantee, 2020
      58. Corine Tachtiris, PEN/Heim grantee, 2016 
      59. Katharine Halls, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      60. Kevin Gerry Dunn, PEN/Heim grantee, 2020
      61. Soje, PEN/Heim grantee, 2024
      62. Bruna Dantas Lobato, PEN/Heim grantee, 2019
      63. Aaron Robertson, PEN/Heim grantee, 2018
      64. Russell Scott Valentino, PEN/Heim grantee, 2016
      65. Elizabeth Bryer, PEN/Heim grantee, 2017
      66. Chenxin Jiang, PEN/Heim grantee, 2011
      67. Nayereh Doosti, PEN/Heim grantee, 2024
      68. Heather Cleary, PEN/Heim grantee, 2005
      69. Janet Hong, PEN/Heim grantee, 2014
      70. Manjushree Thapa, PEN/Heim grantee, 2017
      71. Emma Lloyd, PEN/Heim grantee, 2019
      72. Bilal Tanweer, PEN/Heim grantee, 2010
      73. Chantal Wright, PEN/Heim grantee, 2009
      74. Adam Mahler, PEN/Heim grantee, 2023
      75. Polly Barton, PEN/Heim grantee, 2017
      76. Jack Hargreaves, PEN/Heim grantee, 2024
      77. Subhashree Beeman, PEN/Heim grantee, 2024
      78. G. M. Goshgarian, PEN/Heim grantee, 2009
      79. Daniel Borzutzky, PEN/Heim grantee, 2013
      80. Fiona Bell, PEN/Heim grantee, 2020
      81. Hope Campbell Gustafson, PEN/Heim grantee, 2019
      82. Allison M. Charette, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      83. Nick Admussen, PEN/Heim grantee, 2017
      84. Philip Metres, PEN/Heim grantee, 2014
      85. Mirgul Kali, PEN/Heim grantee, 2022
      86. Kristine Ong Muslim, PEN/Heim grantee, 2023
      87. Rohan Chhetri, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      88. Alexander Dickow, PEN/Heim grantee, 2018
      89. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, PEN/Heim grantee, 2012
      90. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, PEN/Heim grantee, 2009
      91. Takami Nieda, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      92. Mariam Rahmani, PEN/Heim grantee, 2018
      93. Jennifer Croft, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      94. Joaquín Gavilano, PEN/Heim grantee, 2023
      95. Rachel McNicholl, PEN/Heim grantee, 2016
      96. Annie Tucker, PEN/Heim grantee, 2013
      97. Elizabeth Harris, PEN/Heim grantee, 2013
      98. Ryan Greene, PEN/Heim grantee, 2022
      99. Meg Arenberg, PEN/Heim grantee, 2024
      100. Aftab Ahmad, PEN/Heim grantee, 2012
      101. Jake Syersak, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      102. J. Bret Maney, PEN/Heim grantee, 2014
      103. Piotr Gwiazda, PEN/Heim grantee, 2010
      104. Stephen Epstein, PEN/Heim grantee, 2018 
      105. Bernard Capinpin, PEN/Heim grantee, 2022
      106. Simon Leser, PEN/Heim grantee, 2019
      107. Anita Gopalan, PEN/Heim grantee, 2016; PEN America Translation Committee member
      108. Johannes Göransson, PEN/Heim grantee, 2006
      109. Yasmine Seale, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      110. Sarah Thomas, PEN/Heim grantee, 2011
      111. Julia Sanches, PEN/Heim grantee, 2018
      112. Emily Drumsta, PEN/Heim grantee, 2018
      113. Lucas Klein, PEN/Heim grantee, 2019
      114. Ha-yun Jung, PEN/Heim grantee, 2007
      115. Yvette Siegert, PEN/Heim & NYSCA grantee, 2014
      116. Robyn Creswell, PEN/Heim grantee, 2009
      117. Isabella Corletto, PEN/Heim grantee, 2023
      118. Marcía Benedita Barbieri, PEN/Heim author grantee, 2021
      119. Catherine Nelson, PEN/Heim grantee, 2019
      120. Chris Clarke, PEN/Heim grantee, 2016
      121. Richard Prins, PEN/Heim grantee, 2023
      122. Will Schutt, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      123. May Huang, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      124. Stine An, PEN/Heim grantee, 2023
      125. Rajiv Mohabir, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      126. Edward Gauvin, PEN/Heim grantee, 2013
      127. Dunya Mikhail, PEN/Heim author grantee, 2004
      128. Damion Searls, PEN/Heim grantee, 2008
      129. Stephan Delbos, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      130. Tereza Novická, PEN/Heim grantee, 2015
      131. Zachary Rockwell Ludington, PEN/Heim grantee, 2014
      132. Priyamvada Ramkumar, PEN/Heim grantee, 2023
      133. Margaret Litvin, PEN/Heim grantee, 2023
      134. Jennifer Hayashida, PEN/Heim grantee, 2007 & 2013
      135. Elizabeth Macklin, PEN/Heim grantee, 2005
      136. Sholeh Wolpé, PEN/Heim grantee, 2014
      137. Marilyn Hacker, PEN/Heim grantee, 2008
      138. Ekaterina Petrova, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      139. Wen Huang, PEN/Heim grantee, 2007
      140. Lara Norgaard, PEN/Heim grantee, 2021
      141. Alicia Maria Meier, PEN/Heim grantee, 2016

     

    July 17 Response from PEN America:

    This letter was received on July 8 from past grantees and members of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Advisory Board and shared with the PEN America board of trustees. We are grateful for the work of the signatories and appreciate their commitment to the aspirations and impact of the Heim fund in advancing literary translation. Regrettably, the letter repeats and makes baseless claims about PEN America and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. We strongly dispute these allegations including the utterly unsubstantiated claim of neglect or mishandling of the grant process. On the contrary, the Heim grant awards have been consistently disbursed according to the terms of the endowment for more than 20 years to a wide-ranging and exceptional cohort of recipients.

    The PEN/Heim Translation Fund operates on the basis of an endowment agreement that dictates the total funds available for annual grant prizes. We adhere to terms of this agreement, drawing down the maximum amount of funds to support translations each year. Applications are reviewed by an advisory board with a rotating chair. Some signatories of the letter have complained about the disbursement levels for more than a decade. The response from PEN America has been consistent that we will uphold the intent of the donors and fulfill the terms of the endowment agreement to preserve the availability of these vital resources for years to come. Contrary to the letter’s contention, the competition for the Heim grants is robust and its profile is well-respected in the translation community.

    We are very proud that, since its inception, the Heim Fund has provided grants of $2,000–$4,000 to make possible more than 245 translations from over 59 languages, including Armenian, Basque, Estonian, Farsi, Finland-Swedish, Lithuanian, and Mongolian, as well as French, Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic. Many of the projects found publishers as a result of being awarded a grant by the Fund, and those books have been recognized widely in outlets including The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Granta, The Paris Review, Words Without Borders, The Literary Review, Mandorla, and many others.

    The letter also repeats deeply offensive, conspiratorial and unfounded personal attacks on our longtime CEO Suzanne Nossel, including by trafficking in noxious tropes. The irresponsible allegations in the letter not only impugn the integrity of the organization they are an insult to our staff and body of work.

    As one of the literary world’s foremost supporters of translators, PEN America takes grave exception to unsubstantiated accusations that its priorities are dictated “by English monolingualism and U.S. exceptionalism.” As evidenced in our support for translation, the PEN World Voices Festival, and a broad array of work with and on behalf of writers all over the world, nothing could be further from the truth. PEN America deeply values its relationships with PEN International and with the network of PEN centers worldwide.

    Meet the writers who garden against time.

    Brittany Allen

    July 18, 2024, 1:21pm

    Olivia Laing’s new essay collection, The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise, takes a deep look at the garden as enclave, rebel outpost, and a site for exploring “communal dreams.” Essays in the book consider the benefits of practicing nurture. What can gardening teach us about communal living and radical care?

    To explore this question, Laing’s book engages a long list of antecedents. And though there are of course, too many writer/gardener/thinkers to do justice to here, certain modern authors have made a green thumb central to their artistic projects.

    Here’s just a few of the greats, and the little patches of earth they tend(ed).

    Virginia Woolf, Monk’s House

    According to the National Trust, “a visit to the bountiful garden at Monk’s House persuaded Virginia that her heart lay in Rodmell.”

    The garden at Monk’s House. Via National Trust Images/Caroline Arber.

    Virginia and Leonard bought the Sussex Downs getaway for a song at 700 pounds, and on leaving London, Woolf promptly turned her eye to carving out a room of her own on the expansive property. (Perhaps you’ve heard of it.)

    And though it’s true Leonard may have been the the real steward of the garden, Woolf was a keen observer of the “ornamental beds…and enviable vegetable patch.” The orchard inspired one of her best-beloved shorts, “In The Orchard.”

    Jamaica Kincaid, @virtuouspomona

    Jamaica Kincaid is another author who has devoted a lot of time both to gardening and examining the garden’s ethical possibilities. In May, she published An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children in collaboration with the artist Kara Walker. And in 2001’s My Garden Book, she chronicled her own love of plants.

    Jamaica Kincaid in her garden in Vermont. Via Financial Times/Miranda Barnes.

    Like Laing, her garden writing tends to engage social questions. Like, when does the urge to tend become the urge to possess? Is taming plants necessarily an act of conquest?

    Ross Gay, Bloomington Community Orchard

    The art of nurture is central to Ross Gay’s worldview. The poet, author, and teacher has been vocal about his interest in both food justice and gardening for years. As a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, he practices those politics. But he preaches them in his lyric essay collections, The Book of Delights and The Book of (More) Delights.

    Ross Gay. Via PBS/Cultivating Place.

    The praise notes in his collections look lovingly at the polyculture in his own backyard. But Gay has often framed earth tending as an act of profound hope in the face of tragedy.

    Consider his gut-punch of a poem, “A Small, Needful Fact.

    Derek Jarman, Prospect Cottage

    The late filmmaker Derek Jarman is a heavily cited influence on The Garden Against Time. And elsewhere, Laing has sung the praises of Jarman’s own gardening memoir, Modern Nature.

    Jarman’s paradise was an intentionally unfenced playground where the polymath could marry sculpture with his love for growing things. He died in 1993, but his Dungeness oasis has since been made a national site. Fans make pilgrimage to Prospect Cottage to see how the great director “conceived an art out of nothing.

    Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness. Via The Guardian/Geraint Lewis/Rex Shutterstock.

    The fact that the garden still stands open to the public is a fitting tribute. As Jarman’s friend Howard Sooley reflected in The Observer, “Those days in the garden at Prospect Cottage, with time suspended or off elsewhere bothering someone else, were as rich as days can be. Digging in the shingle, scattering seeds, cutting back the santolinas, breathing in the heavy scent of the sea kale. I can’t think of a better use for my senses and soul.”

    Images via, via, via, via, via

    Russian missiles destroyed one of Ukraine’s largest book-printing presses.

    James Folta

    July 18, 2024, 1:02pm

    Photo by Laurel Chor and NPR

    NPR reports that this May, the printing press Factor Druk in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv was devastated by a Russian missile attack, taking the lives of seven employees and wounding more than 20 others. The attack also destroyed thousands of books and much of the factory’s machinery. The city of Kharkiv, where a majority of Ukraine’s books are printed, has been a frequent target of vicious Russian attacks since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022.

    Despite the war, Ukrainian bookstores have seen a recent resurgence, with chains opening more stores and readers flocking to buy books—mysteries, romance, and books by Ukrainian authors have been most popular. This renewed interest in reading makes the destruction of a printing press—a civilian, cultural target—particularly heart-breaking:

    “Most of the books were ours,” says Artem Litvinets, editor-in-chief of Vivat, a major Ukrainian publishing house. “The attack felt methodical and deliberate, like cultural genocide.”

    This sort of attack that seems to aim squarely at culture has been devastating in Ukraine, which has lost writers to Russian arms and where many see the ideology behind Russia’s invasion as part of a larger assault on Ukrainian literature and language.

    It’s also the sort of direct attack on culture and language that has also been a tragic hallmark of the ongoing genocide against Palestinians. In Gaza and the West Bank, writers, journalists, and poets have been killed; libraries and publishing houses have been targeted; and universities and academia have been in the crosshairs of a “scholasticide.”

    Most of all, the preservation of a culture requires the survival of its people. As a young Ukrainian, Kuzma Zhytnyk, told NPR: “In order to save the country, we need to save our minds.”

    Good news! PEN America’s staff union has reached a tentative contract agreement.

    James Folta

    July 18, 2024, 11:47am

    PEN America United has won a tentative, first bargaining agreement with PEN America management after a long, 21-month negotiation. The announcement also comes two weeks after the entire membership voted unanimously to authorize a strike if it became necessary.

    We’re still waiting to see what the terms of the agreement will be, but the Union’s Executive Board released a statement celebrating the announcement:

    We are elated that, after a long and arduous process, we have reached a tentative agreement on our first union contract with PEN America management. This is a huge step towards realizing a fair workplace at PEN America.

    This milestone for our union could not have occurred had it not been for the unyielding support of our affiliate, United Auto Workers (UAW), and each of our unit members, who have time and time again shown up for PAU. Every member of PEN America United, including former staff, is an example of what dogged solidarity, tireless organizing, and yes, the liberating power of language, can do. We look forward to a ratification vote in the coming days. Solidarity forever.

    PEN’s management responded with a gracious statement, as well:

    PEN America is proud of the agreement reached with PEN America United. The outcome of this agreement is a testament to the hard work and engagement of everyone involved in this process. PEN America is invested in its talented staff, and we look forward to continuing to work together to advance our important mission.

    Overall this seems like great news for the members of PEN America United, part of UAW Local 2320 and which obtained voluntary recognition in June 2022. The union has been seeking a contract that will address “low wages, scarce opportunities for growth and professional development, lack of transparency in organizational decisions, and ensuing rapid staff turnover, among others.”

    Keep an eye out for further updates from PAU on X, née Twitter, or Instagram.

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