How to Organize a Dozen Global Literary Festivals All
Cherilyn Parsons Talks to Teresa Grøtan, Director of
One afternoon back in September, when I was lockdown-weary and stir-crazy, an unexpected opportunity to be part of a Great Literary Escape showed up in my inbox. “I’m writing to invite you to a collaboration involving 12 literary festivals/scenes/houses around the world,” read the email from Teresa Grøtan, a name new to me.
What a lucky day. Norway’s LitFestBergen, directed by Teresa and produced out of the Bergen House of Literature, was organizing a hugely ambitious international collaboration called Literature Live Around the World, involving 12 global lit fests. As Teresa explained, each fest would produce an hourlong program featuring literary luminaries from their respective corners of the world, with the entire event running for 12 hours straight, noon to midnight Norway time, on Friday, February 12, 2021. The whole extravaganza will livestream on partner websites, and a recording will be edited, chaptered, and available to view on some sites, including BABF’s, until Feb. 22.
In addition to LitFestBergen and BABF (we’re representing the United States with a conversation on the activism and innovation of the Bay Area lit scene), the lineup includes festivals and literary houses from Buenos Aires, Dubai, Edinburgh, Jaipur, Kabul, Lagos, Lyon, Perth, Toronto, and Treasure Beach, Jamaica. Juggling time zones as required for live production, Teresa planned the day to start in snowy Norway and end at sunset on Treasure Beach. You can see BABF’s program live at noon Pacific time, Feb. 12, featuring Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida, and Daniel Gumbiner.
I connected with Teresa to ask how she came to create this literary extravaganza.
Cherilyn Parsons: I’m blown away by your ambition of creating this global project, in the midst of a pandemic no less. What was the impetus for creating it?
Teresa Grøtan: When we had the first lockdown in March 2020, I was reflecting on what LitFestBergen offers the audience when we invite international authors to appear at our festival. Honestly I get impatient with the complaints around everything that’s not possible to do, so I thought, what can we do now? And further, what do we actually lose when we get the authors to come to Bergen and put them on our stage here? Well, we can’t take the environment they come from. We lose some of the atmosphere, the feeling, the culture, language, the vibe of the place they are coming from.
I think this recognition had been working in the back of my mind for a while, because I’ve always loved when authors coming to LitFestBergen sent us greetings that we could play to market their events, such as seeing Niillas Holberg from Sápmi (Finland) in the snow and Tishani Doshi from India with her dogs on the beach. So that is what I wanted to experience in this project: how can we got more of where everyone is coming from?
CP: What is your creative vision for LLAW? What do you hope it accomplishes?
TG: The short answer is: I want to bring the world, the people and the literature together. It is a peace project. I want to open up the literary world; I want to bring together with more language, more culture, more understanding. I want everyone to open up their minds to literature that is farther away from their own. I want to open up the publishing industry; I want more publishers to be open and interested in literature they may not immediately “get.” The big problem is that people working in the literature industry are too similar with each other, and when everyone thinks the same way, we lose so much, so many possibilities, so many literary adventures!
CP: U.S. festivals have sometimes been insular, as I’m afraid this country has been in general. But festivals here increasingly are trying to combat that; indeed, I was determined at the outset of the Bay Area Book Festival to go international. That said, it’s much harder to secure funding to bring authors from non-western countries that don’t have budgets to send their authors abroad. How do you feel the LLAW lineup combats that problem?
TG: Geography is important, simply because if it is not, we end up in the West. I am very pleased and honored that well-established, well-known, and respected festivals decided to come onboard this crazy project, but it was very important to me to have all continents and a country like Afghanistan represented. I think we need literature and culture to feel connection with each other and to understand each other as a way to find and preserve peace.
CP: All festival directors know how challenging it can be to translate a creative vision into the complex logistics of putting on a major event with many parts. But what you’ve done with LLAW goes far beyond the usual, and during a pandemic no less. What have been the most challenging parts of making LLAW happen?
TG: I am naïve; I never understand what I go into! I suppose that is a blessing (although not always), because if I had really understood what this would mean in terms of work, people, and finances, honestly I wouldn’t have started it. Logistics is the most challenging part, and I’ve had some truly nerve-wracking moments. But I have to trust people, and my experience is that although people don’t always deliver at the time they say they will, they do deliver in the end.
CP: To present LLAW during this long pandemic, with all the shelter-in-place rules and border closures making it impossible to travel to other countries, is an amazing gift to everyone who loves literature. How has the pandemic made it more difficult to produce LLAW? Or has lockdown helped in some ways?
TG: No, it’s been nothing but purely terrible. My vision was for a live audience. I wanted the audience to connect, to see each other. I wanted “hi!” “hola!” “hello!” to sound across the oceans, across the continents. So it has been an awful low to realize it won’t happen. On top of that, the city of Bergen closed just two days ago [Feb. 7, only three days before LitFestBergen’s launch]. Let’s not go into how it feels.
CP: What has been the most rewarding part of this project for you?
TG: One of the things I wasn’t thinking about, but which is very obvious to me now, is the great value of having each festival stage exactly what they would like to present. This has brought in a richness I couldn’t have dreamt of. When we choose which authors to invite to a regular festival in Bergen, it naturally enough depends on whom we know about and read about; what we are interested in; and also, sadly, is limited to the languages we master (or to languages people we know master). But by asking our partners to create the programs they envision, we’ve brought in authors and voices completely new to us, and I love it! What an incredible richness we are about to see in this program.
CP: You set a theme for LLAW of “generations,” with a focus on youth. Why did you choose this theme?
TG: Yes, I asked everyone what the most interesting young literature in the partner countries was, and what this literature says about that society. I chose “generations” as a theme for the entire LitFestBergen event this year, not only LLAW, because I find it troubling that youth in the West probably will be the very first generation ever with poorer economic prospects than their parents. Ever. Also, the timing for a focus on young literary voices is more pertinent than ever: it is the youth that will bear the brunt of the climate crisis, and now with the COVID-19 crisis, it is the youth that will have to carry the heavy burden that comes with growing inequality inside countries, and also between between rich and poor countries. I am deeply worried about our youth and their prospects.
We have also staged an international essay competition for this year’s LitFestBergen with the topic “My Generation,” and indeed young people are worried. There is a darkness in the essays, a darkness I can’t remember from my own youth.I want to open up the publishing industry; I want more publishers to be open and interested in literature they may not immediately “get.”
CP: Some literary festival directors around the world are generous “connectors” of festivals with each other. Sanjoy Roy, who produces the Jaipur Literature Festival, invites directors from around the world to attend that fest, and many of us have become regulars because the experience has been so important in making contacts and planning our international programming. Last year, Isabel Abouhoul and colleagues at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature created the Global Association of Literary Festivals, an amazing resource to foster collaborations and share news. The Edinburgh International Book Festival’s director Nick Barley leads the Word Alliance, a smaller collaborative of festivals. You’re now also a major connector in the international lit fest world. Why do you think it’s important that festivals connect with each other, and how does it feel to play this role?
TG: I’m totally new to this and didn’t know how many of you already knew each other. I’m the new kid in the class, and I guess a very brazen one! It has been so great getting to know everybody, and to feel the buzz and excitement when we all meet on Zoom. It has been a pure joy and thrill to get to meet other festival people around the world. It gives me goosebumps to be able to meet, talk, and connect, and it has been so wonderfully joyous with all the positive feedback. I would never have dared to go on if there weren’t people along the way who said this was a good idea. Really I have been surprised that people thought it was a good idea!
CP: LLAW is nestled within LitFestBergen, which is happening right now. Tell us a bit about that festival, and what your audience’s responses have been to LLAW.
TG: As I mentioned, this city closed down three days ahead of our opening tomorrow night [February 10]. It is devastating, but think about it: we have Literature Live Around the World! Could it be better timing, considering the terrible timing? It is almost unbelievable. We also have a discussion tomorrow entitled “People, Pandemic and Literature,” meant to be a conversation about a time past—and now that too couldn’t be more timely.
I am also very happy about our essay competition. Tomorrow night we are unveiling the winner; we received 550 essays from 90 countries worldwide. I was so surprised because we used only Instagram to promote it. I am also very proud of our large youth program, where the youth themselves are interviewing Norwegian and international authors. They are actually interviewing the American YA author Jason Reynolds tomorrow.
CP: How are you possibly managing to get all this work done?
TG: I love working!