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Using Fiction for Social Change

August 23, 2013

Exiled Venezuelan Author Reads from Dystopian Novel for Voices of Freedom 2013

Venezuelan political critic and renowned author Israel Centeno read from his novel La Torre Invertida, (translated as The Tower Overturned) as the highlight of Ithaca City of Asylum’s Voices of Freedom 2013. The novel is about the unraveling of a city where dystopia becomes its citizens’ harsh reality. Centeno’s talk began at 2:00 P.M. on Sunday, September 29, in the Tompkins County Public Library’s BorgWarner Community Room.

“In Venezuela,” Centeno says, “the independent journalist is constantly threatened with prison, demands, and the so-called ‘ire of the people’.” In such a world, fiction is an alternative for the expression of social criticism and a call for change.

A theme in The Tower Overturned is how rats and “man-rats,” are signs of corruption in society. “The rats are mutants,” Centeno continues. “We have a crowd. Half are some kind of gothic homeless and half are rat-men. They play a game between the towers, symbols of modernity. The game is a sort of Maya ball game that ends in sacrifice. The fight begins to turn against the corrupt bureaucrats and the powerful leaders themselves.”

Israel Centeno

Israel Centeno

Centeno is the author of poetry, short stories, and novels and is regarded as one of the most important Venezuelan literary figures of the past fifty years. He has won numerous awards, including the Federico Garcia Lorca Award in Spain and the National Council of Culture Award in Venezuela in 1991. Born in 1958 in Caracas, Venezuela, he is currently living in the United States as an exile from his native country. Centeno has been the writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh since 2011. Displaced under the presidency of Hugo Chavez, he has just published his tenth book, Bamboo City (Wild Age Press, 2012), his first in English. Unlike magical realism of Latin American novels of the 20th century, Centeno describes his work as “distorted realism about a distorted realm,” drawing from popular forms such as vampire novels, Gothic fiction, and absurdism.

As part of the program, Ithaca City of Asylum’s resident writer, Sonali Samarasinghe, exiled from Sri Lanka and presently an international visiting scholar at Ithaca College, read a brief excerpt from her memoir-in-progress. Pablo Cohen, head of the classical guitar program and a faculty member in the Latin American Studies program at Ithaca College, performed regional music.

“Voices of Freedom” is an annual event of Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) and is presented this year in partnership with the Tompkins County Public Library as part of Banned Books/Freedom to Read Week. This event is made possible with grant support from the Community Arts Partnership. Additional funding is provided by Poets & Writers, Inc. with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. Co-sponsors include Amnesty International group 73 Ithaca, and Cornell University’s Carl L. Becker House, Department of Romance Studies, Latin American Studies Program, Rose Goldsen Lecture Series Fund, and the Society for the Humanities.

ICOA is a project of the Center for Transformative Action, a non-profit organization affiliated with Cornell University, and works in partnership with Cornell, Ithaca College, and Wells College.

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