Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tunisia.

It is literary prize season and recent news that the Nobel Prize for Literature will not be awarded this year along with growing excitement for forthcoming award announcements have kept the literary community on our toes! This week we bring you the latest news from the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tunisia. Enjoy!

Julia Sherwood, Editor-at-large, reporting from the Czech Republic:

April 4 saw the announcement of the winners of the most celebrated Czech literary prize, the Magnesia Litera. For the first time in four years the title “book of the year” went not to a work of fiction but to an analysis of contemporary Czech politics against the backdrop of recent history, Opuštěná společnost (The Abandoned Society) by journalist Erik Tabery. The fiction prize was awarded to Jaroslav Pánek for his novel Láska v době globálních klimatických změn (Love in the Time of Global Climate Change), the story of a scientist  forced to confront his own prejudices while attending a conference in Bangalore.

Pánek, a writer who has lived in Norway and Australia, is by no means exceptional in his globetrotting lifestyle. The European First Novel Festival, held as part of the Budapest Book Festival from April 19 to 22, featured two Czech writers currently based abroad: Matěj Hořava, whose award-winning book Pálenka. Prózy z Banátu (Fruit Brandy: Stories from the Banat) is set in Romania, now lives in Tbilisi, Georgia, while poet and filmmaker Dora Kaprálová’s Berlínský zápisník (Berlin Notebook) reflects her experience of living in the German capital. Can you still be a Czech writer if you don’t write in Czech? This is the question that will be discussed this weekend by three authors who have adopted the language of their new homeland—Patrik Ouředník (French), Jaroslav Kalfař (English), and Jan Faktor (German).

Their discussion will take place during Book World Prague 2018, the Czech Republic’s premier book festival, held from May 10 to 13. The festival will also see the Jiří Theiner Award conferred on David Short, the British translator and linguist who for many years taught Czech and Slovak at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, for his significant contribution to the dissemination and promotion of Czech literature abroad. The packed festival programme further includes presentations and signings by international literary heavyweights such as David Grossman, Jonas Khemiri, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Adam Zagajewski, Drago Jančar, and Sofi Oksanen, to name just a few. A large number of events will be devoted to graphic novels, presenting authors such as Reinhard Kleist, Nicolas Mahler, Kati Narki, and Catel and Bocquet, testifying to the growing popularity of the genre.

The latest fiction writer to make a foray into graphic novel territory is Marek Šindelka, one of the most successful Czech authors of the younger generation and two-time (2012 and 2017) Magnesia Litera prize winner. In 2011 Šindelka turned his debut Chyba (Aberrant, trans. Nathan Field), “a heady mix of crime caper, horror story, ecological revenge fantasy and Siberian shamanism,” into a comic book with illustrations by Matěj Lipavský. Earlier this year Šindelka published his first fully-fledged graphic novel, Svatá Barbora (St. Barbara), in which, together with scriptwriter and comic book author Vojtěch Mašek and artist Marek Pokorný, he tackles a baffling case of child abuse that occurred ten years ago in the small Moravian town of Kuřim. The case, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the recent case of the Californian couple who are alleged to have held their thirteen children captive, sparked a frenzy of media speculation and seems to hold a firm grip on writers’ imagination to this day, also inspiring journalist Adéla Knapová to write a more traditional novel, Slabikář (ABC), published in late 2017.

Charlie Ng, Editor-at-large, reporting from Hong Kong:

After the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the Mong Kok civil unrest in 2016, Hong Kong’s social movements have reached a trough recently, facing strong backlash from the authority conducted through legal prosecution and more nuanced political pressure. However, the political energy has been translated into more reflective and discursive efforts in exploring and redefining Hong Kong identity and local culture. The Baptist University of Hong Kong organised the “Hong Kong Week” from 30 April to 5 May, featuring film screening sessions and post-screening discussions, roundtable panels, a book launch and “Backreading Hong Kong 2018 Symposium” to focus on Hong Kong and its representations in various cultural forms.

Backreading Hong Kong 2018 Symposium” was a one-day event dedicated to cross-disciplinary discussions on socio-political and cultural issues related to Hong Kong. The morning session presented a series of academic presentations that read Hong Kong culture in different terms, ranging from Dung Kai Cheung’s uchronian narrative to interpreting the Basic Law as literary narrative. The keynote speech, “The Hong Kong Generation, 1965-1980”, was given by the Head of Department of English of Shue Yan University, Professor Wong Kin Yuen.

In the afternoon, three special panel discussions were conducted. Moderated by PEN Hong Kong’s president, Jason Y. Ng, three members of the organisation shared their experience of writing Hong Kong in English and their views on the prospect of the freedom of speech in Hong Kong. In the second panel, “Hong Kong Studies: A Beginning,” three contributors of the inaugural issue of Hong Kong Studies were invited to give introductions to their papers. The newly founded academic journal is the first of its kind in the world that is specialised in publishing academic studies, written either in English or Chinese, on Hong Kong with cross-disciplinary approaches. The third panel featured a roundtable discussion by the editors and contributors of Cultural Conflict in Hong Kong: Angles on a Coherent Imaginary, a newly published anthology of Hong Kong studies that examines Hong Kong identity and culture. The event ended with a session of poetry reading to affirm the uniqueness of Hong Kong, whose attribution is not restricted to the post-colonial and post-handover context, but the fundamental unframability of its cultural expressions, use of languages and hybridity.

Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-large, reporting from Singapore:

April may indeed have been the cruelest month for some plucky poets in Singapore (5,705 of them, to be exact, going by the membership of their Facebook group) as the community gamely took on a series of thirty daily prompts for the Singapore Poetry Writing Month, or SingPoWriMo. Now in its fifth edition, this year’s challenge threw up several gems, including a poignant tribute to one of the country’s conscript soldiers who died following a heatstroke suffered in training. Selected submissions from each year’s challenge are released in an anthology by Math Paper Press—last year’s can be found here.

The government announced recently that all primary and secondary schools will be given a set of books by Singaporean authors, as part of its efforts to promote local literature. Each school will be able to choose up to fifteen books from a list that includes writing across Singapore’s four official languages. The announcement coincided with a series of popular events under the #BuySingLit campaign, an industry-led move to boost readership of Singapore writing. At the same time, Singaporeans hoping to encounter world literature were given a treat on World Book Day by the country’s resident foreign ambassadors, who came up with a list of essential reads for anyone hoping to visit their countries.

Finally, Singaporean author Sharlene Teo’s debut novel, Ponti, was released in the UK to favourable reviews (see here and here). The Singapore launch will take place over this weekend, with readings at Kinokuniya’s main store and local indie bookshop, BooksActually.

Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-large, reporting from Tunisia:

April and May in Tunisia have been packed with nonstop festivals throughout the Republic, running the full range of themes from experimental literature to monodrama and children’s theater.

In Sousse alone, along with the 5th International Book Fair, April ended with the 22nd Meeting of Creative Arab Women, which brought together researchers and artists from around the world, including the Egyptian activist and author Nawal al Saadawi, to discuss “Manifestations of the Self in Creative Work on Arab Women.”

Further south in Tetaouine, Libyans, Algerians, and Tunisians gathered on one of the country’s southernmost border regions for the Little Brother Festival of Heritage and Authenticity, which focuses on exhibiting traditional arts, games, and wedding songs.  This session is the third in the festival’s history and stands out for the participation of artists, including poets, from the neighboring countries of Libya and Algeria. Poets from Algeria and Tunisia during each night of the two-day festival will read popular poetry and traditional songs of the region.

Outside of Tunisia, activist, slammer, poet, and dancer Anis Chouchene, was an invited speaker at the inauguration ceremony in Khartoum, Sudan for the Afro-Arab Youth Council’s Africa Prize, awarded to outstanding youth in the region. Chouchene has been involved in activism and artistic work (both poetry and dance) for years, with a focus on discussing issues of racism in Tunisia and other parts of the Arab world. His fame skyrocketed when he appeared on a popular Tunisian talk show in 2015 to read his poem “Salam Aalikoum (Peace Be Upon You).”  The video went viral in days and currently has over eight million views.


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