PITTSBURGH (AP) — The decision to hold the world-renowned Prague Writers' Festival in western Pennsylvania isn't as unlikely as it seems, considering the festival's home base was once the capital of a nation born 95 years ago in a Loyal Order of Moose lodge in Pittsburgh.
The festival has given writers a platform to promote their works but, more importantly, to freely express the thoughts behind them. Friday and Saturday mark the first time the festival will be held in the United States — or anywhere outside Europe, for that matter — at Point Park University downtown.
"It's a festival of ideas," said Michael March, the festival's founder — and often a platform for contentious or unpopular ones. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a San Francisco writer who won a U.S. Supreme Court appeal of his arrest on obscenity charges in the 1950s, and Salman Rushdie, whose novel "The Satanic Verses" led to death threats from some who felt it attacked Islam, are past participants.
"Writers' festivals are celebratory expressions of intellectual and artistic freedom," said E.L. Doctorow, who will read excerpts of his new novel, "Andrew's Brain," at the festival.
Doctorow, known for works including "Ragtime" and "Billy Bathgate," said festivals are important because in many countries, writers are "censored, jailed, exiled, attacked, murdered, because they know what governments know: that reality is amenable to any construction placed upon it."
That the festival coincides with the anniversary of the birth of what was originally known as Czecho-Slovakia (the country later dropped the hyphen) only adds to that importance, said professor Channa Newman, director of global cultural studies at Point Park. She's also the international program director for the festival and helped bring it to Pittsburgh.
The Czech Senate is sending a delegation, as is the Czech Chamber of Commerce, while the honorary consul representing Slovakia will also attend, Newman said.
"So there's the historical ties, the cultural ties and the business ties, which is now apparently of interest," Newman said.
March agreed that holding the festival in Pittsburgh underscores its international significance.