Kabul, Jaipur, Edinburgh… Literature Live Around the World Launches Today
Cherilyn Parsons Talks to Festival Directors Around the World
Part I of this series, an interview with LLAW Festival Director Teresa Grøtan, ran yesterday, February 10, 2021.
The twelve literary festivals participating in today’s Literature Around the World program are remarkably alike in one way: their celebration of difference. As the director of one of those festivals (Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley), I’ve observed the collaboration among these radically dispersed organizations, representing all continents except Antarctica. All have sought to amplify the importance and sheer pleasure of difference: the multiplicity of literary voices within their region, and the diversity of literary and cultural traditions around the world. Each LLAW program is quite radically different from all the others.
Produced by LitFestBergen in Norway, LLAW runs live for twelve hours straight on February 12; it then can be seen in edited, chaptered form through February 22 on lithub.com and baybookfest.org. The festivals, in addition to LitFestBergen for Norway and the Bay Area Book Festival representing the United States, come from Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Scotland/UK, and the UAE.
I connected from Berkeley via late-night emails with the organizers from the Kabul Writers House in Afghanistan, Jaipur Literature Festival in India, and Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland to ask about their participation in LLAW.
The Kabul Writers House in Afghanistan
Samay Hamed is an award-winning Afghani journalist, political cartoonist, composer, TV director, and poet (as well as a medical doctor). He has published more than 34 books, including the poetry collection Writing with Eraser. He is a key founder of Afghanistan PEN, which along with Kabul Writers House created LLAW’s program for LLAW.
Cherilyn Parsons: What is your impression of LLAW’s global tour of literary culture? Why did you decide to participate?
Samay Hamed: Let’s use the word of FESTIVAL as a metaphor for literary world: Normally in festivals people come together to enjoy collective activities, share an experience of peaceful life and explore diversity to understand each other. Literature itself is like a FESTIVAL: a medium to bring people together through creative and critical thinking to understand life more deeply than everyday existence!
We decided to participate in LLAW because literary culture can bring people together to understand the reality of diversity in the world.
CP: One of LLAW’s intentions is to smash stereotypes. How do the poets, translators, artists and activists within your LLAW program show a different side of Afghanistan than what the rest of the world sees on the news?
SH: We in Afghanistan have several centuries of history in producing literature. Afghanistan’s contemporary literature is a rich part of our cultural achievement. This literature can be considered as alternative history of war and peace in Afghanistan, especially a mirror to see both the tears and smiles of War generations. If more Afghan literature could be translated into international languages, the world could see a live broadcasting of our spirit.
CP: I’ve read that bookselling is thriving in Afghanistan despite low literacy rates. How are you publicizing LLAW with the Afghani public? What do you expect the response to be?
SH: Social media is the heart of literary exchange in Afghanistan. Radio and TV channels are very popular amongst millions of audiences. All radios and TVs have special programs for literature and art. Despite low internet speed, using social media is common, and Facebook is the loudspeaker for the public to act and react on social, political, cultural and other issues.
CP: In our LLAW planning meetings on Zoom, you were struggling with low bandwidth. What is the situation there? How have you adapted your LLAW program in presenting it to Bergen, and how do you expect Afghanis to access it?
SH: Unfortunately, as I noted, internet speed is low in Afghanistan, but the main problem is with uploading. Thus we’ve decided to share a video to be broadcast at LLAW rather than risk presenting a live program. As for access, Afghans will be able to watch online parts of the festival and react through comments.
CP: In her interview, Teresa said, “we need literature and culture …. to find and preserve peace.” Afghanistan has experienced near-constant invasion and strife for decades. How is the Kabul cultural scene, including the artists and writers in your LLAW program, working to find peace?
SH: A US-Taliban peace deal may bring so-called peace between those interests, but for Afghan writers and artists, peace is not just the end of war. It is a situation where human rights are protected, and especially freedom of expression and women’s rights are guaranteed.
We ask writers around the world to advocate for freedom of expression and women’s rights in Afghanistan. It’s exhilarating when global civic society responds to our mutual efforts.
Jaipur Literature Festival in India
Sanjoy K. Roy is the director of Teamwork Arts, the producer of the Jaipur Literature Festival and many other cultural events worldwide. JLF also has a U.S.-based outpost, JLF Colorado, with a festival each September.
Cherilyn Parsons: JLF is renowned for bringing together readers, writers, and book industry people from all over the world. LLAW is now creating a global literary experience in a fresh way. What did you think when you first heard about this project? What do you think it can serve?
Sanjoy Roy: The need of the hour is collaboration, collaboration, collaboration! Even as the world that we’ve known has gone pear-shaped, opportunities for sharing information and knowledge have increased manifold! The vaccine itself is an example of this, with scientists, universities and pharma working in collaboration in an unprecedented way to build on each others’ innovations and ideas and create a new paradigm.
CP: As someone who works all over the world to create cultural events, what advice might you have to festival directors and other literary leaders seeking to build multi-cultural collaborations?
SR: Teresa and her colleagues have found the key to any collaboration: mutual respect, excellent communication and advance planning. As they say, content is king, and their effort to work across the globe and build connections has been remarkable.
CP: Why did you choose to present your particular program for LLAW? What about it speaks to our time?
SR: There needs to be much more cross-cultural sharing globally as a pushback to ignorance and hatred. The more we learn about those who we consider to be the other, the less we will be suspicious of them or will work to block them out. Festivals, artistes and artisans must come together to explore new paradigms and seek new collaborations. TM Krishna echoes the message provided by Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, and in many ways Ashoka’s edicts were the tweets of his day—focused on governance and model behavior for his bureaucrats and for society. Most importantly, our program reflects the age-old question that Ashoka posed even as he won the battle of Kalinga: he asked what exactly he had won!
From the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Nick Barley has been the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival since 2009. He is a trustee of the Booker Prizes and is president of the Word Alliance, an international network of literary festivals.
Cherilyn Parsons: When non-Scots think of Scotland, they used to imagine craggy green hills, lochs, tartan, castles, and haggis. Readers today see Shuggie Bain in working-class Glasgow. But your array of young writers offers a different vision. What do they portend?
Nick Barley: Scotland and its citizens are going through an important moment of change right now: on the one hand our culture is more confident and outgoing than it has been for many generations; on the other hand we are coming to terms with some uncomfortable truths about this country’s involvement in colonialism and the slave trade. All of this against the backdrop of Brexit and some very serious doubts about the future of the United Kingdom, of which Scotland is currently part—though possibly not for much longer.
It’s not surprising then that many of our writers are asking difficult questions about what ‘Scottish’ means. It’s safe to say that the poets who are contributing to LLAW are interested in things other than tartan and haggis, yet the images and metaphors they use draw very recognizably on the language, history, landscape and the multiple waves of migration that are fundamental to Scotland’s collective identity.
CP: What are you most looking forward to seeing at LLAW?
NB: I’m very excited about the contribution from the Toronto International Festival of Authors [Soundtracks and Stanzas: Changing Canada’s Black Future], which I think will act as an interesting counterpart to the Scottish contribution. Two countries on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with very similar experiences of inequality, multiple languages and a long history of migration.