Medgar Evers College, PEN Festival Offers Voices to African Luminaries


Medgar Evers College (MEC) hosted a forum last week entitled “Identity in the Age of Globalization: An African Diaspora Perspective,” as part of the PEN World Voices citywide series of forums with the theme of literature and its relationship with human rights.

The event featured cutting edge African authors at the Edison O. Jackson Auditorium doing readings from their work and having an interactive conversation in panel form.

Author Maaza Mengiste (“Beneath the Lion’s Gaze”). Photo by Jose Negroni

MEC Executive Director of The Center for Black Literature Brenda Greene began the evening speaking about the powerful legacy of elder griots (traditional storytellers from West Africa). She then introduced the panel, which featured Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian author specializing in gender politics, Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian-born Brooklyn resident whose debut novel, “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” (W.W. Norton, 2011) received critical embrace, and Peter Kimani, whose contemporary fiction exploring Kenya’s colonial legacy has been critically acclaimed.

“As a woman, feminist, Muslim, and African, I’m tired of white writers coming to Egypt and telling our story,” said Eltahawy (Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution — FSG, 2015), while addressing the idea of the national and ethnic identity of Egypt. 

Andy Tepper of Vanity Fair and Ms. magazines, who moderated the free-flowing panel, listened intently as Mengiste recalled growing up in Ethiopia during the Derg Revolution, its Red Terror, and the aggressively shocking behavior of human beings during an ideological conflict – all the while jotting her memories down because her parents refused to discuss how a failed revolution descended into a genocidal civil war.

The program, in collaboration with The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, was a landmark event as it celebrated and meditated on the achievements of these literary luminaries. 

“As a Kenyan author, my country dealt with 100 years of imperialism so I feel obligated to have to write an authentic, meaningful novel,” said Kimani with a gentleness in his voice (“Dance of the Jacaranda” — Akashic, 2017), one of Africa’s most prominent authors. “And yet, the desire to be loved is a message consistent with any writer in any given part of the world.” 

More than 50 students from the college attended the programmatic activity in a relaxed environment. Some bought books, and received handwritten inscriptions in a brisk book signing where they sought to continue discussing the problems and opportunities facing African authors.

“I appreciate African literature giving me a break from the classics,” said MEC undergraduate Jenifer Joseph.“It’s great to be here and celebrate the work of these African writers, with whom I now have more than an on-paper relationship.”

Editor’s Note: This article is affectionately dedicated to Stephen Zarlenga (1941-2017), who passed away on Tuesday, April 25th after a years-long fight with cancer.  Truly sad to lose an alternative voice like his.  Glad I had the opportunity to see him speak.   Hopefully, more young people will continue to become interested in his ideas about the need for monetary reform and the well-being of all.

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