PEN World Voices Report: Something to Hide – Writers and Artists Against the Surveillance State

May 4, 2008 | 4 books mentioned 3 min read

Among the core missions of International PEN is “the defense of writers and of freedom of expression around the world.” In the last two decades, as Salman Rushdie has been both its beneficiary and its champion, this mission has become increasingly visible. However, the artistic defense of freedom of expression is a tricky thing; political self-satisfaction can impinge on the creative writer’s various commitments to silence, cunning, and exile, not to mention irony. There have been events in the past where the celebration of PEN’s core mission has seemed out-of-sync with circumstances. (Should we really be congratulating ourselves for mingling on a cruise ship?) And so, on Thursday night, when I headed to the velvet-draped precincts of Joe’s Pub for “Something to Hide: Writers Against the Surveillance State,” I was a bit nervous. I don’t want to be told what a hero I am for drinking my $7 beer, any more than I want to be told that I can do my part for the Global War on Terror by going shopping.

I needn’t have worried (except, perhaps, about my own incipient cynicism). Both in its intelligent planning and in the sensitivity and humility of its participants, “Something to Hide” focused attention on victims of the surveillance state, rather than flattering the good conscience of the audience.

The key to the evening’s success, I think, was that writers were asked to read from work other than their own. After quick introductions from PEN president Francine Prose and ACLU director Anthony Romero, a surprise guest took the stage: Wallace Shawn. My pleasure at seeing a favorite writer perform quickly faded into absorption in the performance. Shawn delivered a dramatic reading of Acting U.S. Attorney General James B. Comey’s testimony before Congress, in which White House Council Alberto Gonzalez and Chief of Staff Andrew Card attempt to harass a hospitalized John Ashcroft into signing off on the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Shawn is as passionate and idiosyncratic an actor as he is a playwright, and the reading was surprisingly moving. It was a reminder that, despite the excesses of the last eight years, dedicated civil servants still remain the backbone of our government. (Or remained – Comey resigned shortly after the scene at Ashcroft’s bedside.)

The evening’s poets, Chenjerai Hove of Zimbabwe and Irakli Kakabadze of Georgia, recited political poems by friends and colleagues, and perhaps because of the translation, the work itself seemed more strident than beautiful. That said, these are two writers who have felt first-hand the corrosive effects of government surveillance, and their introductory remarks provided a much-needed international context for the evening’s theme.

Conceptual artists Hasan Elahi and Jenny Marketou explored the dimensions of surveillance at home. Elahi, who spent time on the FBI terrorist watch list, showed slides from a project in which he keeps the FBI constantly updated on his whereabouts. “If they want to know what I’m doing, that’s fine, but they’re going to know everything. If I go to the toilet, they’re going to go with me.” Marketou read an FBI transcript in which two G-men follow Andy Warhol to New Mexico for the shooting of a porn film. They complain about lascivious dancing cowboys and the lack of character development. Thirty-odd years later, audience laughter at Joe’s Pub was both loud and anxious. La plus ça change…

The Hungarian Peter Esterhazy reprised Wednesday’s triumphant appearance at Town Hall, here reading from the great Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal. It’s a testament to Esterhazy’s charisma that his reading, in a language I don’t speak, was more evocative than the reading by his translator that followed. Ingo Schulze of Germany (whose latest novel, New Lives, will be published this fall), read from Through the Looking Glass, making Lewis Carroll sound positively Orwellian.

Finally, the evening’s second surprise guest, Deborah Eisenberg wrapped things up with a reading from the Argentine writer Humberto Constantini’s The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis I’ve heard Eisenberg, one of my two or three favorite living American writers, read from her own work before; what was remarkable was the way she inhabited the sentences of another writer. I was half-convinced she’d written the excerpt herself. (I would have the same feeling on Saturday afternoon, hearing her read from Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten).

Eisenberg and Shawn have for years been vocal critics of the excesses of the American defense establishment; it speaks to the power of their artistry that each is able to write explicitly about political themes without sacrificing aesthetic power. In the end “Something to Hide” served not only as a primer on the iniquity of state-sponsored surveillance, but as a reminder that art and politics need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, given sufficient humility and tolerance for ambiguity on the part of artists, each can be made to further the interests of the other.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.