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Prague festival brings authors, ideas to U.S.

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 10:  Writer E.L. Doctorow attends The Paris Review Foundation Presents Fall Revel Honoring William Styron at Cipriani November 10, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 10: Writer E.L. Doctorow attends The Paris Review Foundation Presents Fall Revel Honoring William Styron at Cipriani November 10, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

This weekend's Prague Writers' Festival at Point Park University is more than just a conclave of literary types. It's a reminder that 95 years ago, Western Pennsylvania served as the hub for one of the most important events in the history of the Czech and Slovak peoples. Pittsburgh was where representatives of the two ethnicities came to forge a new country.

“It was on May 31, 1918, that the city was flooded with Czechs and Slovaks,” says Channa Newman, professor and director of the global studies cultural program at Point Park and director of international programs for the Prague Writers Festival. “And Downtown at the Moose Lodge that doesn't exist anymore, they voted to create Czechoslovakia.”

Newman says Pittsburgh was selected as the site for creation of the new country because so many Slovaks had settled in the region. That history plays a role in Point Park hosting the acclaimed festival Oct. 18 and 19 — the first time it's ever been to the United States — which has taken place in Prague every spring since 1991, although Newman also has tirelessly worked to bring the writers to the city.

“It really is international in scope,” Newman says. “It brings to Prague writers from all over the world, and sometimes writers who haven't been introduced to the West.”

E.L. Doctorow, the acclaimed author of “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and “The March,” is one of the festival's headliners, along with Anita Desai, the India-born writer now living in Massachusetts whose novels include “Clear Light of Day” and “In Custody.” Doctorow will give the first reading of an excerpt from his new novel, “Andrew's Brain,” on Oct. 18.

But part of the appeal of the festival is the appearance of writers who may be unknown in the United States, but are recognized in Europe or other parts of the world.

“That's what the festival does,” Newman says. “It gives voice to people who are in Asia, the Far East or Africa and brings them to the attention of people who might not otherwise know them.”

Thus, the appearance of Hamdy El-Gazzar, an Egyptian writer, playwright and columnist whose “Our Revolution: Stories to Fit in the Palm of Your Hand,” concerns events related to the Arab Spring of 2011.

The current struggles in Egypt, Newman thinks, are similar to what happened when Czechoslovakia was born

“The Czechs and the Slovaks wanted to be free of the dominion and domination of external groups,” she says. “That's why freedom and happiness and being autonomous are still important (to Czechs and Slovaks).”

Writers from Prague, now capital of the Czech Republic, also will be making rare appearances, not only in Pittsburgh, but in North America. Notable are Eda Kriseova, author of “Vaclav Havel: The Authorized Biography,” and Martin Vopenka, author of “Ballad of Descent (Writings From an Unbound Europe)” who studied nuclear engineering in college because he was not permitted to select the humanities as his focus. On Saturday, Kriseoval and Vopenka will participate in the discussion “Freedom of Literature” with El-Gazzar and Henry Reese of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.

Public discussions like this were unheard of when Czechoslovakia was controlled by the Soviet Union. But since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Prague Writers' Festival has come to embody the new direction of literature, and arts in general, in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“Everything before seemed to be so bleak, and I think much of the literature reflected that,” Newman says. “I think the contemporary writers are starting to deal with the present world.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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