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Literary Buffalo Some of the biggest names in writing -- including two Nobel Prize winners -- are set to visit Western New York as part of a first-class author series

They're literary rock stars with international flair, and they're laying the world at your feet.

How irresistible an invitation is that?

This week marks the beginning of a three-year project called "Babel," which will bring top names in world literature to Buffalo to read from their best books and talk to Western New Yorkers face-to-face.

Four major writers will visit Buffalo this season -- including two, Orhan Pamuk and Derek Walcott, who've won Nobel Prizes for Literature.

That collection of talent in a single series, observers said, appears to be a first for the city. And it's a roster raising eyebrows not just here -- but in arts circles in other cities.

"It's stellar," said Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association, a national organization located outside New York City which represents independent booksellers across the country. "It would be hard to pick four bigger writers. If you looked for four ambassadors to Buffalo for fiction in translation, you couldn't find four better ones."

First up: Turkish novelist Pamuk, who won the Nobel in 2006.

"He's a major figure," said David Landrey, who taught English at Buffalo State College for 35 years and also lived for three years in Turkey. "I don't think many people know much about Turkey. I think people will learn a great deal from him."

Subsequent events will feature Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, Indian novelist Kiran Desai, and Walcott, a poet from St. Lucia, who won the Nobel in 1992.

At Just Buffalo Literary Center, which is organizing the series with funding from the Oishei Foundation, artistic director Michael Kelleher said the goal of attracting the biggest names in world literature -- "rock stars," he called them -- started brewing last fall.

After funding was secured for a three-year series in record time -- "From the pitch to getting the money usually takes a year; this happened in two weeks" -- Kelleher said the series became a reality very easily. "It came together almost overnight," he said.

Other partners in the series include the International Institute, which is planning some themed events related to the countries represented by the four writers, Kelleher said.

In Buffalo's literary circles, excitement about the "Babel" series is running high.

Fans of the writers who will be appearing said they hope the series opens the eyes of Buffalo-area readers to the powerful experience of reading literature by non-American writers -- including works in translation.

"If you'd never even heard their names, just the fact that they're representing Latin America twice, the Middle East and the Subcontinent is amazing," said Landrey. "These are the parts of the world we know the least about. Even if you don't care about fiction, I'd think you'd want to come to hear what these people have to say."

Even those who organize competing literary events said that a new series of Babel's caliber will only help, not hurt, the city's artistic landscape.

"It's not like Burger King versus McDonald's," said Mick Cochrane, a novelist and professor who organizes the Contemporary Writers Series at Canisius College. "In the arts, the more talent, the more energy, the better -- better conversation, stronger community, more engaging art. More is more."

That's what Kelleher at Just Buffalo thinks, too. And he said savvy audiences will see that Babel adds to the city's literary landscape in a unique way.

"We mean to define literature in a relatively narrow sense: we mean fiction, poetry and drama," he said. "We're not talking memoir, we're not talking biography. That's not what we want to do. We want to celebrate the best in world literature."

>Meet the authors

As part of Babel, the city's "If All of Buffalo Read the Same Book" project has been revamped into a four-book plan centering on the visiting authors.

Organizers said they realize that foreign literature might seem difficult to some readers.

"It's not easy, Oprah-Book-Club reading," Kelleher said. "You're going to have to have the Internet, a dictionary, an encyclopedia near you as you read."

Below, you'll find a roster of the big names coming to town, plus the titles of their works that have been selected for the reading project.

All readings begin at 8 p.m. in Asbury Hall at Babeville, 341 Delaware Ave. Some limited tickets are still available; contact Just Buffalo for information.

*Orhan Pamuk, Nov. 8:

Pamuk has built a career chronicling the people and politics of Turkey -- both the modern city and the ancient one. He's also found himself in trouble with his native land for statements he's made about the slaughter of Armenians in Turkey in 1915.

Pamuk's writing has been praised as haunting, ambitious, complex. His novel "Snow," which will be the focus of the author's remarks in Buffalo, takes modern-day political unrest in a snowbound Turkish town -- sparked by a conflict over the wearing of head scarves by Muslim women -- for its timely subject matter.

Title for "If All of Buffalo Read the Same Book": "Snow"

*Ariel Dorfman, Dec. 7:

Dorfman, born in 1942 and raised in Chile and Argentina, is a triple-threat as a writer: he's a poet, novelist and award-winning playwright.

A former professor in Chile, and part of the Allende government forced out in a 1973 coup by Pinochet forces, Dorfman has long taken exile and power as his subjects. His drama "Death and the Maiden" -- which he will speak about in Buffalo -- probes questions of guilt, innocence and revenge as it shows what happens when a woman encounters a man whom she believes raped and tortured her 15 years earlier in a political prison.

Title for "If All of Buffalo Read the Same Book": "Death and the Maiden"

*Derek Walcott, March 13:

At 77, and with the publication of his "Selected Poems" earlier this year, Walcott stands at the culmination of a life's work spent exploring themes of colonization, race and multiculturalism.

In 1990, one of his most significant works, the epic poem "Omeros," reinterpreted the story of Homer as a 64-chapter tale about his native Caribbean. Today, Walcott, a St. Lucia native, divides his time between the United States and his homeland. In awarding him its top prize in 1992, the Nobel Academy called Walcott the Poet of the West Indies. "In his literary works," the Academy found, "Walcott has laid a course for his own cultural environment, but through them he speaks to each and every one of us."

Title for "If All of Buffalo Read the Same Book": "Selected Poems"

*Kiran Desai, April 24:

Desai, 36, won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2006 with her second novel, "The Inheritance of Loss," a story set in India in the mid-1980s. The New Yorker praised the novel for probing "questions of nationhood, modernity, and class, in ways both moving and revelatory."

Desai comes from a mix of cultures: She was raised in India, her native country, as well as in England and the United States. Desai's first novel, "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard," also won strong praise and several important prizes.

Title for "If All of Buffalo Read the Same Book": "The Inheritance of Loss"

-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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