Writers Without Borders delivers international lit to UPenn's doorstep

City Paper
April 9, 2008

Chile, South Africa, Lebanon, Pakistan, China, New Zealand — UPenn's Kelly Writers House scoured the globe for the first half-dozen premium imports to launch Writers Without Borders.

The series' first guest, Chilean poet/performance artist Cecilia Vicuña, has long been interested in Latin American indigenous languages such as Quechua and Mapudungun, so expect some surprises from her visit. Vicuña, whose textile installations have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, composes her poetry not just on the page but in songs and chants she improvises with the audience at her public readings.

According to UPenn Provost Ron Daniels, a driving force behind Writers Without Borders, "WWB is a vital way to introduce our whole community ... to the most vibrant writers and artists from around the world, especially ones who may be less well-known or who are doing critical work in social activism."

Vicuña certainly fits that description. Born in 1948 in Santiago, Chile, she came to the U.S. in exile during the Pinochet regime. Vicuña now divides her time between New York and Chile, and much of her work concerns ecological destruction, like the mining project currently affecting the glaciers of Chile. Says poet and Penn English professor Charles Bernstein, who knows Vicuña and will introduce her to the Penn audience, "She's an outstanding and energetic performer. ... She was on the top of all of our lists."

The Kelly Writers House — literally a 13-room Victorian house, complete with green gables — has been a haven for Penn writers since 1995. It hosts about 150 events per semester, including readings, workshops, screenings and art exhibitions. Since the beginning Kelly has hosted international artists, but until now the Writers House has never before had an official international series. Al Filreis, Writers House faculty director, English professor and director of Penn's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, explains, "If you have a place like the Writers House and you leave it to its own devices, pretty much anything will come through the door. The one thing that won't naturally come ... will be people from New Zealand and China and Nigeria and Chile. It's expensive [and] administratively time-consuming to arrange for the visit of an international writer. There's not an ideological problem, there's no vision problem; the problem is practical."

Now, with financial support from the Office of the Provost and a grant from Penn alum Seth Ginns, Writers Without Borders has become a reality. After Vicuña's visit, the series will host South African writer, painter and activist Breyten Breytenbach in the fall. Other scheduled guests include playwright Bina Sharif, born in Pakistan, and Chinese poet Zhimin Li. According to Writers House director Jessica Lowenthal, the staff tried especially to include non-Westerners and writers for whom travel is difficult. Many of the writers are activists, as well. (Breytenbach, for instance, was imprisoned for seven years on charges of high treason, i.e. anti-apartheid activities.)

Bernstein is especially excited to host Li, who not only has never visited the United States before but has never been published in English. An acclaimed poet in China, he is a virtual unknown here, partly because of state controls that, especially since the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, have made cultural exchange between the United States and China difficult. But, says Bernstein, "There's a lot of interest now in reconnecting and having cultural exchange. ... We are taking this small step to open up channels of communication."

Bernstein laments, however, that the United States has its own brand of self-imposed restraints. "We don't have those state restrictions, but our culture is self-absorbed. It rarely looks outside its own borders."

For instance, U.S. publishing companies are notoriously reluctant to print foreign works in English translation, so many writers who are acclaimed abroad remain unknown here, their work frustratingly unavailable.

But through Writers Without Borders, any interested Philadelphia resident will be able to meet foreign writers face-to-face, hopefully for years to come. According to Bernstein, "You never can get to the bottom of the work that people are doing in other cultures" — which means there is always room for more exchange and more exciting discoveries. Filreis anticipates that the program will continue indefinitely. "Once we start having international writers come, why would we ever stop?"