Holding the Prague Writers' Festival in Pittsburgh is not as curious as it might sound. This was, after all, the site of the Pittsburgh Agreement, the 1918 pact that created Czechoslovakia.
That country no longer exists, having split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But the 95th anniversary of that historical connection — plus a modern literary one — were enough to bring the festival here.
The literary link is Channa Newman, the Point Park University professor who's also the prestigious festival's director of international programs. She desires to make Pittsburgh more international, and convinced the festival to follow up its traditional spring session, in Prague, with its first appearance outside what's now the Czech Republic.
The festival, founded in the 1970s by American poet Michael March, has hosted scores of famed writers from around the world. Tariq Ali, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Aleksandr Hemon, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott are just some of them.
The big name at the Pittsburgh festival, at least for American readers, is Ragtime author E.L. Doctorow, who at 6:30 p.m. Fri., Oct. 18, will give the first public reading of his forthcoming novel Andrew's Brain. Other notables include Indian-born novelist Anita Desai and Egyptian author, playwright and journalist Hamdy El-Gazzar.
The two-day festival, titled "Birth of Nations/Pursuit of Happiness," includes both informal daytime "conversations" and evening readings. All are free, though pre-registration is required.
The first conversation is an Oct. 18 lunchtime talk with Tomas Sedlacek. He's the pioneering economist who argued, in his acclaimed 2011 book Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street, that economics isn't just about numbers; it's also an expression of culture.
The pop-literate Sedlacek is as liable to reference Fight Club as he is to cite Aristotle. And he's known for his iconoclastic takes on greed and consumer society. "Consumption works like a drug. Enough is always just beyond the horizon," this former advisor to Czech President Vaclav Havel has said. And even more provocatively: "We have to abandon our obsession with growth in economics."
Saturday's conversation, titled "Freedom of Literature," includes Desai, El-Gazzar, Havel biographer Eda Kriseova and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh's Henry Reese. Desai, El-Gazzar and Kriseova are featured at the evening reading.