Czech Lits
This year's Prague Writers' Festival was dedicated to Jean Genet, and the program included the text of his May Day Speech from 1970, in which he recounts the time when he and some companions were boarding an airplane in the U.S. In the group, only one man was black, and he was the only one to face an invasive search of his luggage. The rest of the speech focused on race relations in America and, in an appendix that wasn't read on that day but had been written to accompany the speech, Genet declares, "What they call American civilization will disappear."
That speech in mind, it was interesting to attend the keynote conversation between Elmore Leonard and William T. Vollmann, two very popular yet very different American authors. The climactic event, held last Thursday, was moderated by the festival's organizer, sometime author, poet and translator Michael March. As a virgin attendee, I didn't know what to expect, but veterans were hoping for a car crash. I was told that Susan Sontag in 2000 was "visibly aggravated" by March's bumbling and rambling, while Salman Rushdie and Gore Vidal in 2001 were bewildered by his incoherence and disjointed questions.
This year, March centered the conversation around the U.S. in the wake of Sept. 11, and his questions tended to be flimsily disguised statements of typical expat contempt for his country of birth. He was unable to let the writers voice their opinions without bringing everything back to his belief that America is blatantly imperialistic, isolationist and ignorant.
Vollmann, an avid traveler who has written about Afghanistan, Burma, Sarajevo, just to name a few hotspots, is clearly skeptical of the U.S. government's actions yet doesn't come off as a U.S.-basher. He remains objective enough to separate what he identified as commercial culture and American culture, a point that he futilely tried to impress upon March. "Commercial culture," he said, "crushes competition, replicates itself so that in 20 or 30 countries they're singing the same song." That should not be confused with American culture, which on an individual level is comprised of decent people. Yes, he admitted, Americans may not have as high an awareness of other cultures as Europeans do, but they do not all live as intentional ignorants or isolationists. He spent time in Afghanistan after graduating from college in the 80s and then again in 2000, and circulated among the Taliban. "For you Europeans," he said, addressing the audience, "they don't just hate us, they hate you too."
Leonard and Vollmann seemed tired of fielding questions about Sept. 11, just as the audience seemed tired of hearing it in every one of March's questions. The conversation was more interesting when the two men were allowed to discuss their crafts. Vollmann is always on the go, traveling here and there, scribbling notes that later turn into stories and articles. His writing about prostitutes in Bangkok and San Francisco's Tenderloin district are famous examples of immersion, wherein he became intimately involved with his subjects: "You start out as their customer and then become their friend. That's when they'll talk to you."
He's currently working on the fifth of a seven-novel project titled "Seven Dreams," in which he is attempting to understand and recreate North American history by way of its landscapes and their relationship to the people. Again, he's immersive: he reads primary sources, then secondary sources, then experiences the environments firsthand.
Leonard, on the other hand, is a disciplined, daily writer who conjures his characters while working at home. His day starts no later than 10 and lasts until 6, during which time he usually produces four pages of worthwhile work. He added that it's gotten harder in recent years: he could once write a page an hour. In a panel earlier in the week, he recalled seven years of full-time copywriting while pumping out short stories from 5 to 7 every morning.
Leonard seems quite pleased with his success and the fact it's been several decades since he's needed to "write cute" for car and truck ads. "I'm a commercial writer," he said quite honestly. "I have to sell... I'm not fooling anyone. But I try to do it my best; I do it to please myself, the best I can."
Overall, the festival was worth attending. I was exposed to the works of Korean poet Ko Un, exiled Chinese poet Duo Duo and Mexico's Homero Aridjis, and where else could I attend a panel with Elmore Leonard and William T. Vollmann for three dollars? Critics regularly lambaste March for pandering to the English-speaking Prague community, but they also admit that he does an admirable job of assembling international talent. My only suggestion to him would be to shut up and let the writers talk some more about what's important to them: the writing.