Member Profile: David Francis


When and why did you become a member of PEN Center USA?
Needless to say, I had always heard of PEN Center USA, mostly in the context of book awards and freedom-to-write advocacy, but had not become involved. A number of years ago, I was button-holed (in a lovely way) by Jamie Wolf at a dinner party. Jamie vigorously encouraged me to become a member. The next thing I knew, I was being seconded onto the board. Soon after, I was elected Vice President alongside Jamie. And now PEN Center USA is an integral part of my L.A. life.

What is most meaningful to you about PEN Center USA?
I cherish the local mission around fostering a vibrant literary community as well as the international mission to defend free expression everywhere. In my experience, the writing community here in L.A. has been accessible and nurturing and fun. While I hail from a faraway continent, L.A. has become my home in no small part due to my writing life here and the support of my writer buddies and the PEN community. I have enjoyed learning about PEN Center USA’s programs, having the Emerging Voices fellows to my house each year and attending their readings, seeing the annual Literary Awards come in under three hours, attending the PEN International Conference with Michelle Franke in Quebec City, getting involved with the legal side of PEN International’s mission, and becoming aware of, and part of, the vital international fight for free expression.

PEN Centers share a Freedom To Write mission, which means we believe that people should be able to read and write freely. What does Freedom To Write mean to you?
I learned a good deal about what the “freedom to write” mandate means when I was among the writers representing more than sixty countries converging on Quebec City for the PEN International Congress last year. I was particularly struck by a panel discussion on the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. The distinguished and brilliant Andrew Solomon (psychologist, author, and president of PEN America) eloquently explored PEN America’s adventure with its courage award being given to the Charlie Hebdo survivors. In the “freedom to write” context, he harkened back to the AIDS cry from the eighties: Silence Equals Death. And it seems so clear to me that free expression should not equal death, not now or ever. But what I realized in Quebec was that, beyond that, the waters get choppy. While Andrew Solomon stood solidly behind the choice of the PEN America award, he admitted that the more he was forced to address Charlie Hebdo’s contribution as a whole, the more he appreciated the muddy complexities. In the absence of hate speech, it remains clear to me that the freedom to write, speak, mock, even offend, should be staunchly defended; acts of creative expression may offend, but acts of violence are attacks on civil society. As Horace Walpole observed long ago, “The world is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.”

Soon after, I was asked to review Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamaphobia and the True Enemies of Free Expression, a short volume, posthumously released in the US by Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier’s (known as Charb). In his manifesto Charb exhorts us, dares us “to laugh at those you consider your enemies, laugh your heart out.” Yet I felt that surely he wanted more than that. His drawings married the sparks of the political, creative, and emotional, shedding light on all he found absurd. For those who accuse Charlie Hebdo of being pointlessly provocative, this Open Letter is a window into the scope of the intellect underpinning the satire. With singular clarity, irreverence and conscience, he warns against the vagaries of racism, self-censorship, and fear, and examines their roots and our naiveties. He could not have known how haunting it would feel for us to read his plea that we understand that humor isn’t dangerous—it’s those without it who are. Sadly, his murderers could not laugh back. He is dead, as are others, dead or imprisoned for their expression.

As writers in the “West” we tend to take our liberty to write what we choose for granted. Especially at a time when there is (I hope less than) half the population of this country that is considering voting for Trump—imagine, were he to be elected President next week, the likes of us who have and will rail against him in print could conceivably be silenced. Writers all around the world live and write and struggle in such a reality. In Quebec, the representative from Egypt abstained from voting on an LGBTQ initiative for fear of her safety as a writer. We have no idea what it takes to be a writer in Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, Eritrea, our unholy ally Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, and sadly, still, Cuba.

Writers are using their digital media platforms to engage with readers and other writers on serious topics. Can you give an example of a writer or organization that is doing this well?

I think PEN Center USA is doing this increasingly well. I think what Catapult (which just merged with Counterpoint Press) is doing with Electric Literature and Lit Hub is interesting. But I don’t have much time to engage with that world. Sadly, I still can’t read serious fiction on a screen. It has a frequency that doesn’t feel right, somehow occludes the earthed, emotional resonance of words on a printed page. And that’s the resonance I seek. For some old-fashioned reason, I’d rather watch images on a screen and read words on the yellowing page of a book.

What is the one book you wish you had written and why?
I wish I’d written Lolita—it’s poetic, wry, confronting, and brilliant. I also wish I’d written A Sport and a Pastime. PEN Center USA honored James Salter with a Lifetime Achievement Award several years ago. He is a truly underappreciated writer. Both those novels spend many pages moving through the countryside, Nabokov in America and Salter in France. In their different ways, they are like going on tantalizing literary journey. I also wish I’d written Disgrace but these days I’m mad at Coetzee for some reason. Maybe I miss the music of Africa that so deeply infused his earlier work.

What is your favorite quote?
The quote I always remember is: “'I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking.” Joan Didion said this. She is also a PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. I think I write to find out not only what I think about things but how I feel about things.

Who would be your ideal literary dinner guest (living or dead)?
I would like W.S. Merwin on one side and Vladimir Nabokov on the other. I would just shut up and listen.

What are you working on now?
My new novel, Wedding Bush Road, is being released this week so I’m in that scary wonderful stage. It grew out of a short story published in Harvard Review and in Best Australian Short Stories. The launch is coming up on November 12th at Skylight Books.

Soon, though, I hope to get back to my next novel which (so far) is my first novel set entirely in the US. It is based on a couple of short stories: Moses of the Freeway, published in Australian Love Stories and, part of El Curandero, published in the PEN Center USA-affiliated literary journal The Rattling Wall. I really have little idea what the novel is about, but when people ask I tell them what I know: a young Los Angeleno named Patrick (who affects an accent and pretends he’s from a ranch in Australia when he’s actually from a desperate chicken farm outside Ventura) is ensconced in a relationship in the Hollywood Hills with an investment banker, Arthur Borenstein. When Arthur adopts a child named Marvel from Honduras, Patrick, the one used to garnering the attention, feels betrayed. In an ironic turn of events involving a cat named Moses, Patrick leaves Arthur on a quest to become something on his own, maybe an artist, maybe a man, perhaps something else entirely. If I have to make up a theme I say the novel explores the role and journey of the puer aeternus (the eternal youth) as a theme and an archetype. But in truth, for me, themes reveal themselves in the writing or, as I am experiencing now with Wedding Bush Road, in the aftermath of reviews and interviews and discussions of the finished novel. I mean, they are there, but I don’t always see them clearly until a book is out in the world, reverberating. Like a young bird launched from the nest, struggling to fly and to understand what it has become.

David Francis, based in Los Angeles, spends part of each year back on his family’s farm in Australia. He is the author of The Great Inland Sea, published to acclaim in seven countries, and Stray Dog Winter, Book of the Year in The Advocate, winner of the American Library Association Barbara Gittings Prize for Literature, and a LAMBDA Literary Award Finalist. He has taught creative writing at University of California, Los Angeles; Occidental College; and in the Masters of Professional Writing program at University of Southern California. His short fiction and articles have appeared in publications including Harvard Review, The Sydney Morning Herald, Southern California Review, Best Australian Stories 2012 and 2014, Australian Love Stories, Los Angeles Times, and The Rattling Wall. He is Vice President of PEN Center USA’s board of directors. His third novel, Wedding Bush Road, is due for release in the US and Australia in November 2016.