While traditional publishing struggles, literary festivals have taken the international arts scene by storm. But who are they for, and how can they best balance the competing demands of art, politics and money? asks an author who has appeared at events from Glasgow to Gaza. Written by Selma Dabbagh
When my first novel was published last year, almost 10 years after I started working on it, I had little idea that my life was about to be taken over by the literary festival circuit. And when that started to happen, I had even less idea of the far-flung travels that would result. After a huge growth in popularity in the past decade, more than 250 literary festivals are now held each year in the UK alone, with others launching every season from Norway to Nepal.
Liam Brown, programme director of the Dublin Writers Festival, explains the rise of festivals as the result of audiences’ hunger for face-to-face interaction with writers and other readers. “In the age of the internet, Facebook and Twitter, a festival event offers a sense of a community of readers that is very appealing,” he says. Brown also notes that, since 9/11, readers’ interest in international books and writers has grown. “There has been a greatly increased desire to discover more about other parts of the world, a sense that potentially everything, wherever it might occur, matters now. Festivals are a wonderful way to find out more and ask your own questions.”
Delight and obligation
Before this year, my idea of a book tour involved a VW camper van, a schedule and a box of books. In reality, what I experienced was a series of emailed invitations from individuals, organizations, festivals, solidarity groups (my novel concerns Palestinian resistance) and educational establishments. In material terms, offers ranged from no expenses or fees – apart from requesting the nomination of a charity for the donation of proceeds – up to business class flights, accommodation and a daily retainer. I was asked to speak alone, to be interviewed, to sit on a panel, to interview other writers or to be a writer-in-residence giving a series of workshops and talks. Some invitations made me whoop with delight; others made me groan with a sense of obligation.
All of them, however, brought adventures. Apart from numerous London-based events, I travelled to Glasgow, Hebden Bridge, Dublin, Frome, Lahore, Jaipur, Guildford, Sheffield, Bristol (three times), Malta, Dubai and Gaza. I was driven in armored cars and made to wait at borders for hours. I was asked to read two novels by the next day in order to interview a pair of writers in their second language; I argued with children’s authors until three in the morning over conservative family values in children’s literature; and I sat in a trade and labor club in the north of England with debut novelists and dogs on strings.
Questions from the press ranged from the role of the writer in softening up western public opinion about military attacks (not me), to the motivation of my characters (you work it out), my favorite book (depends on the day), the nature of my former marriage (ouch, please skip), and the political situation in Yemen (why me?). I was told by photographers to hold my pen slightly upwards and lean back, then forward, then to lift the pen up, no, down and turn slightly. I trudged home from the tube station in the early hours of the morning in bitter British winters wondering what I was doing. I loved all of it without being able to detect a grand plan, as each festival has a different agenda and its own particular culture and character.
“Literature festivals are about the rhythms and sounds of language, about what metaphors can do to take you beyond the here and now,” says Adrian Grima, director of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. “But they also reflect the ideologies of those who create them, invite the writers and set the literary agenda.” Over the past 15 years literature festivals have been held in Beirut, Belfast, Kerala, the Maldives and Zacatecas in Mexico as offshoots of the Hay Festival, which aims to “gather people to think about the world as it is and to imagine how it might be”. Meanwhile, the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival has become a platform for politicians, Bollywood stars and cricketers as well as poets and novelists.
These events have cleaned up, lit, filled and festooned underutilized arts centers (the Lahore Literary Festival); been tear-gassed and partially closed down (the Palestinian Festival of Literature, PalFest); and heralded a new era of political openness (the Irrawaddy festival in Burma). Some are connected to writing awards, from the modest (short stories at Frome) to the most prestigious of global prizes (International Man Booker at Jaipur). Some have specific geographical interests (Nour Festival of Art from the Middle East and North Africa and Shubbak, both held in London), gender focuses, or celebrate the work of one writer. Others are integrated into industry-focused book fairs such as those in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. One is hosted by the English aristocracy (Port Eliot), while others are sponsored by airlines (Emirates Airline Festival of Literature) or infrastructure developers (DSC Jaipur). Sponsors usually have little to do with festival programming – this year, I sat on a panel with writers who used the platform to condemn the policies of the firm paying for the gathering (in this case, Tata Steel in India). But the relationship with big business raises important questions about festivals’ purpose.
“The challenge for literary festivals is that they have largely become promotional tools,” says the independent consultant Caroline McCormack. “The questions they now face are: what are they trying to achieve? Are they marketing devices for an increasingly commercial business, or are they trying to curate art?
For writers invited to appear, the question of motivation can be more straightforward. Suzanne Joinson, author of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, finds “attending festivals very stimulating and useful, a wonderful networking opportunity, lots of fun and a good chance to hear and talk to other writers”. She says: “Writing can be very solitary and the festival world provides a much-needed break from that lonesomeness.” Most authors agree, although the process of networking and self-promotion in the midst of stiff competition can be unnerving. It is also extremely difficult to combine travel comprised of short multiple trips with the type of regimented discipline that writing demands.
Freedom of expression
Beyond their impact on writers’ lives, festivals can be useful tools of “soft diplomacy”. The Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi opened the inaugural Irrawaddy Literary Festival in February 2013 by expressing hope that it “would encourage more people to explore the world of literature and further their understanding of the English language”. But the event was also read as a sign of Burma’s new openness to foreign investors. “Freedom of expression and a marketplace of ideas, as demonstrated by new literary festivals and the recent launching of independent newspapers, are clear examples of President U Thein Sein’s efforts to reintegrate Burma into the global community,” says James Richard, a partner at New York-based Namir Capital, an investment firm focusing on emerging markets.
The launch of Karachi’s festival in 2010 and the recent growth of the city’s wider arts scene may have had similarly benign effects. “The past 10 years or so have seen the re-emergence of cultural activity in the public realm with state and elite support,” says the Pakistani sociologist Haris Gazdar. “After 9/11, Pakistan’s military establishment needed to show a ‘soft image’ and the then president, Pervez Musharraf, came up with his thesis of ‘enlightened moderation’.” One local businessman who attended this year’s event, Zahid Bashir, hopes that “participation by visitors from abroad may eventually allay security concerns and encourage foreign investment”.
But the intersection of the arts and politics can be as much of a burden as a boon, giving rise to scandals and potential arrests. At the Jaipur Festival in January, the controversial sociologist Ashis Nandy was criticized by India’s Supreme Court following his comments on poor and disadvantaged groups in the country. The five-year-old PalFest, on the other hand, is deemed political by the fact of its existence alone. According to organizer Reema Fadda, PalFest “allows writers and key figures who occupy a position of prestige and significance within the cultural field to witness the effects of occupation/siege on the lives of Palestinians and act as informants about what they have witnessed”. Last year’s gathering, she says, was also “significant in restoring a unified Palestinian cultural initiative – with events held simultaneously in Gaza and the West Bank”.
Quotas and blockades
Whether festivals are viewed as political depends, according to Fadda, on “whether arts administrators want to own up to the fact that the event they are hosting carries a political aim and whether they want to declare the cultural as political”. Filmmaker Omar Al Qattan, a trustee of the A M Qattan Foundation for culture and education, which is based in Ramallah, Gaza City and London, broadly concurs, but adds that a festival’s success “will be measured by the quality of its writers, not by its political purposes”.
It is not only festivals in the Global South that have political objectives. Sian Norris, organizer of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, believes that hosting a women’s festival is vital “because the silencing of women’s culture, or ‘cultural femicide’, is a product of living in a patriarchal society. And when women’s voices are silenced in one area, it becomes very easy to silence women in other areas”. Norris decided to set up her festival after becoming aware that at one prestigious UK literature festival, there was “a panel on feminism that was all women. And then just panel after panel after panel of all male writers”.
Not all organizers agree about the importance of female representation. Al Qattan holds the view that festivals without women participants are “50 percent festivals”, and adds: “In my books, 50 percent means failure.” But Caroline McCormack disagrees. “I am not interested in quotas, whether based on gender, race or religion; I am interested in great art.” Surprisingly, in Pakistan, where perceptions of gender inequalities are stronger, female participation can in fact be less of an issue. Short story writer and bookseller Aysha Raja explains that “many women had pivotal roles in the planning and execution of the Lahore Festival… both genders were equally represented from the inception. As a result, there was no need for a concerted effort to include women as an afterthought.”
Of all the festivals I have attended, those in Lahore and Palestine had the greatest sense of urgency. In Gaza we were breaking a blockade; Lahore felt like a city experiencing one. In both, audiences filled the aisles and stood against walls, so attentive you could have heard a pin drop. In Lahore, this was partly because, according to Raja, the festival has “a social rather than a political aim. With the rolling back of cultural activities, largely due to security concerns, life in the city has become increasingly stifling and its inhabitants isolated from the rest of the world”. The festival, she says, “has not restored us to our former glory when you measure it against all that we’ve lost since the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’, but it has been a much-needed breath of fresh air.”
Festivals can also have a positive effect on a region or country’s broader cultural life. PalFest, for instance, is linked to the Palestine Writing Workshops, the ShiberHur theatre company in Haifa, and the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp. In Malta, the annual gathering has become a morale booster for the local literary scene, with writers starting to think of publishing books in time for the festival, while also providing an invaluable platform for a diversity of, and dialogue between, smaller languages. At the 2012 festival writers read in Maltese, Arabic, Slovenian, Catalan, Italian, Spanish and Greek, and translated each other’s writings in workshops.
But hosting literature festivals is not without a downside for governments. Openness to investment and culture carries with it the responsibility of hearing voices that some countries would prefer to remain silent. Festivals cannot operate in a temporary free speech bubble, isolated from the society around it; they need to accommodate voices that can make authorities uncomfortable.
The potentially sensitive nature of literary festivals means funding can be hard to secure. McCormack says she was “appalled” by the responses she received while trying to fundraise for Arab region-focused organizations, “not only from the corporate world, but also on occasion from the charitable sector”. Omar Al Qattan says the difficulty he has encountered searching for financial support for the Shubbak Festival of Contemporary Arab Culture in London, which he chairs, “is two-fold: there is no political backing as most embassies are deeply scared of culture’s power. There’s also an elite with little self-belief and an overpowering inferiority complex inherited from the colonial age”.
“But,” he adds, “luckily all that is starting to change.”
For literary festivals to continue to thrive, and for literature to develop as an art as well as an industry, sponsors and philanthropists must be prepared to open both their minds and their purses. Without this backing and a hands-off approach to the subject matter, the long-term benefits of literary festivals will occur only by accident rather than by design.
Selma Dabbagh is a Palestinian-British author whose first novel, Out of It, set between Gaza, London and the Gulf, was published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing last year.