Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest news from our word-nerds in Finland, Cuba, and Morocco!

Contributor Hanna Heiskanen checks in from Finland:

Over in Finland, several prominent authors have expressed their concern for the writing skills of today’s young people. What began as a Facebook post by Anja Snellman, who has written more than 20 novels and is a recipient the Pro Finlandia Medal, on the quality of the letters she receives from school children around the country, has since been echoed by Salla Simukka and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, authors of the Snow White Trilogy (Hot Key Books/Amazon Children’s Publishing) and The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Pushkin Press/Thomas Dunne), respectively. Children and teenagers appear to struggle with understanding metaphor and long sentences, and are increasingly unable to write in literary, rather than spoken, language, the authors said. Reading is still generally held in high regard in the country, with 50 million books borrowed from libraries by the 5 million strong population in 2014, though these figures have been in decline.

The national broadcaster YLE shines a light on Elina Ahlbäck, the founder and director of the Elina Ahlback Literary Agency. The eight-year-old agency is behind the string of success stories of the aforementioned Salla Simukka who, like Maria Turtschaninoff, also represented by Ahlbäck, signed a Hollywood film deal some months back. Other good news for the agency is the recent nomination of Laura Lindstedt’s Oneiron for the Nordic Council’s 2017 literature prize, the winner of which will be announced in November. Finnish literature in translation is having a moment, according to Ahlbäck: “Finland is an undiscovered treasure trove, and a source of unique stories and storytelling,” she says in the article. The country still lags behind its western neighbour, however, when it comes to marketing efforts: more than 30 agencies work to export Swedish literature, now a familiar sight on global bestseller lists.

The literature festival Helsinki Lit has published its schedule for this year. The event, May 12-13, will feature discussions with the likes of Orhan Pamuk, Linda Boström Knausgård, and Laurent Binet.

And to wrap up on a more unusual note, a Danish crime literature festival has gained nationwide interest for an advertising campaign gone awry. The Krimimessen festival, the largest of its kind in the Nordic countries and organised earlier this month, was advertised by staging fake crime scenes using fake human bodies. After, naturally, distressed reactions from the general public, the campaign was promptly terminated. “I am horribly sorry”, said the organising town’s Mayor, according to the Copenhagen Post Online.

Executive Assistant Nozomi Saito has the update from Cuba:

Cuba’s literary sphere continues to be an important hotbed of cultural and political activity. Just last month, Orion Publishing Group released Stephen Purvis’ Close but No Cigar: A True Story of Prison Life in Castro’s Cuba, which provides details of the author’s life and imprisonment as a British expat in Cuba during the handing over of power from Fidel to Raúl Castro. Even after the passing of Fidel Castro, the Castro regime maintains a firm hold on the island’s activities, and locals often say that time is different in Cuba, with change happening slowly. The pervasive reach of the Castro regime into all matters on the island, including the literary sphere, especially affects Cuban writers, for whom censorship is an ever-present issue. The arrest of the independent journalist Henry Constantín Ferreiro, for instance, appeared to be a warning to other writers about the dangers of being critical of the Cuban government. Ferreiro is the director and editor of La Hora de Cuba, as well as regional vice president of the Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (Inter American Press Association). At the time of his arrest, Ferreiro was on the way to present an award to a Uruguayan diplomat, who on previous occasions had made statements critical of the Cuban government. As he told 14ymedio, the police told Ferreiro he was being arrested for conducting interviews that “misrepresented reality.”

Although she remains largely unacknowledged within Cuba, Wendy Guerra has garnered international acclaim outside of Cuba, for writings like her recent op-ed on the regime and implications of the death of Fidel Castro, which appeared in The New York Times. Guerra first received attention in the international literary sphere when Gabriel Garcia Marquez sent along one of her manuscripts to his Catalan literary agent, Carmen Balcells. Despite the censorship that prevails on the island, Guerra insists there are many women in Cuba writing quietly; it’s just that nobody knows about it.

On a lighter note, a new bookstore El Cochero Azulrecently opened its doors to the public in Guantanamo. Sponsored by the Cuban Book Institute and Gente Nueva Publishing house, it is the second bookstore in Cuba that specializes in literature for young people and children.

And in the performing arts, the Yiddish-Cuban opera Hatuey: Memory of Fire opened to a sold-out house on March 3. The opera was performed by the Havana-based company, La Opera de la Calle, but was brought to Cuba through the efforts of Ruth Behar, Rachel Rubinstein, and Michael Posnick, for a truly transnational collaboration. Also coming to Havana this month, April 21-23, is  a run of New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck’s Belle Lettres. The venue for the performance is the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso and it will be performed by  Acosta Danza, a company founded and directed by the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta.

Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large for Morocco, has updates on the local poetry and drama scenes:

Expanding National Poetry Month into the international sphere, the world’s first association dedicated to honoring the tradition of muwashshah was established in Morocco this month. Muwashshah, characterized by recurring and intricate rhymes, is a form of courtly poetry that flourished in medieval Iberian palaces and may have influenced poetic styles beyond the Arabic language, notably troubadour poetry. Most recently, muwashshah has seen a resurgence in the music of iconic artists like Fairouz and Ziad Rahbani. According to the new association’s president and theater director Hajjar Al-Joundi, the organization will be composed of several committees, including one dedicated to academic research as well as another geared towards organizing poetry performances.

If you are itching for a poetry fix this week, head to Tangier on Tuesday where the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies is hosting an event entitled, “On Poetry and Tolerance.”  A new issue of the trilingual publication, Wachma, which covers topics in cinema, was recently released and includes a piece on the history of film in Morocco by the magazine’s editor and director of the International Film Festival in Tetouan, Nourddine Bendriss. Last Friday, Bendriss spoke at Librairie des Colonnes in Tangier with writer and translator Rachid Barhoune about the new issue.

For those interested in presenting their cinematic work, SLIDELUCK Fez has announced a call for submissions for its third event, set to take place on May 7th in the city of Fez. SLIDELUCK is an NGO based in Brooklyn dedicated to organizing art exhibitions worldwide (85 cities and counting) that combine multimedia slideshows with a potluck dinner. In past years, SLIDELUCK FEZ has featured photography, including a piece from young photographers at the city’s Dar Chabab (part of a network of youth centers that organizes arts activities for community members) documenting a neighborhood in Fez.


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