Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to five different countries.

Woah! It has apparently been a busy week in world literature. Today we bring you news from not just one, not two, but five different countries: Iran, Morocco, Spain, Argentina, and France. 

Poupeh Missaghi, Editor at Large, reporting from Iran:

The 31st Tehran International Book Fair was held from May 2nd to May 12th, 2018, in Tehran, Iran.

In this year’s fair, a much-awaited novel by Iran’s foremost novelist, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, was finally offered to readers. طریق بسمل‌ شدن , a novel about the Iran-Iraq war, had been awaiting a publication permit from the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for ten years. The book has, however, already been offered to English readers, under the title Thirst, translated by Martin E. Weir and published by Melville House in 2014. (You can read a review of Thirst here.) (You can also read a piece by Dowlatabadi in Asymptote’s special feature on the Muslim ban here.)

Iranian fans of Orhan Pamuk had also hoped to meet with the Turkish winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature during the Book Fair. Several titles by Pamuk are translated in Iran, including My Name is Red, Snow, The White Castle, The New Life, The Black Book, Istanbul, Memories and the City, and others. The author, invited by his publisher Qoqnoos, was scheduled to have two events, one at the fair, but they were both canceled by officials “for fear of congestion.”

In this year’s fair, according to Shahram Nia, an official with the Book Fair, more than 2,100 domestic publishers and 550 foreign publishers (from fifty-three countries, with Serbia as the special guest and Tunisia as the guest city) took part, and around 500,000 titles were presented. According to Javadi, director of the Fair, this year’s fair saw a twenty-percent increase of turnover compared to the previous year.

Tehran International Book Fair offers books for sale with special discounts. It thus, attracts many readers from around the country and is welcomed by many in the industry. This year, it was, however, boycotted by a few publishers who, along with some independent booksellers, argued that such discounts in a ten-day period endanger the already-struggling small businesses in the book industry, including the independent bookstores.

Outside of Iran, a different book fair was held concurrently with the Tehran Book Fair: “Tehran Book Fair, Uncensored”. The fair, in its third year now, is held in different cities in Europe, Canada, and the U.S., to allow publishers of Persian literature based outside of Iran (sixteen of them in this year’s fair) and authors who cannot, due to censorship, be represented inside the country, to offer their works and meet with their audience.

Hodna Nuernberg, Editor at Large, reporting from Morocco:

Some 17,000 people turned up for Tangier’s four-day-long international book fair, re-invented this year as le Printemps du Livre et des Arts. This year’s theme—encounters—brought together writers, artists, and musicians to discuss the experience of Otherness and the (re)discovery of self. The book fair’s new approach seeks to be more inclusive: in addition to extending programming to local bookstores, schools, and the Tangier Cinematheque, a gallery walk featuring the work of Nourredine Lahrech, Mhamed Cherifi, Hicham Gardaf, Jaimal Odera, and Abdelkader Melehi.

Not to be outdone, Marrakech hosted its own book fair (unfortunately overlapping with the one in Tangier) at Dar Attakafa. Although the guests of honor included Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Ouadih Dada, Youssef Zouïni, it was Le fou de roi by Mahi Binebine that seemed to be flying from the shelves the fastest. Binebine’s book—a novel inspired by his father’s life as King Hassan II’s fqih, or a kind of advisor-cum-storyteller—was shortlisted for the 2017 Renaudot prize, but ultimately lost out to Oliver Guez’s La disparition de Josef Mengele.

Enter the brand-new Mogador prize, created by the Gens du Livre de Mogador, an organization presided over by King Mohammed VI’s own advisor, André Azoulay. The mission of the new prize is to highlight outstanding writing in all of Morocco’s languages, including Amazigh, Arabic, and French.

Sarah Booker, Blog Editor, reporting from Spain:

The festivals continue in southern Spain with the Feria del libro celebrated in Sevilla May 3-13. This year the focus was on women writers and the featured author was Almudena Grandes, who presented her latest book, Los pacientes del Doctor García (Doctor García’s Patients), as part of the conference inauguration. At a time when gender equality are at the forefront of the international conversation—and is particularly relevant in the aftermath of the unjust sentence for the horrific actions of La Manada sentencing —it is an approach that feels relevant and necessary.

While this festival has a long history in the city, this was a year of firsts in several respects. It was the first year to feature a country of honor—Ireland—by organizing special presentations and featuring Irish authors. Among the featured events were a roundtable on Irish literature, a presentation from Irish author Lisa McInerney, and an homage from her translators to the writer Edna O’Brien. With this external focus, the traditionally Spanish-focused festival also features authors from nine different countries, including the rising literary star from Ecuador, Mónica Ojeda, the celebrated Moroccan/Catalan writer Najat El Hachmi, the Argentinian writer of recent fame, Pedro Mairal, and, to celebrate International Day of the Portuguese Language and Culture, José Luis Peixoto. In other firsts, this year there was a special exhibition for independent publishers in Spain, thus creating greater visibility around smaller presses. Among those present were Candaya, Sexto Piso, Libros del Asteroide, and Periférica.

Book vendors and publishers from the region were present to offer books at a discount and to make their presence known, which was especially important for some of the representatives coming from smaller towns outside of Seville. There was an excellent representation of children’s books as well as an exciting mix of bestsellers novels and literature published by smaller presses. There was also a strong presence of Andalucían presses and even a press dedicated to exploring the natural world of the region. There is indeed a vibrant and exciting literary scene here!

Josefina Massot, Assistant Editor, reporting from Argentina:

The Buenos Aires Book Fair (April 26 – May 15) claims to be “the most important annual literary event in the Spanish-speaking world.” At the risk of sounding chauvinistic (I’m a porteña), I believe it can fairly toot its own horn: in its forty-four years of history, it has hosted hundreds of acclaimed authors and presses from around the world.

Meanwhile, the relatively new “Diálogo de escritores argentinos” (“Argentine Writers in Conversation”) isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Like Asymptote, this three-day conference, held at the fair since 2013, seeks to decentralize literature by inviting great writers from the country’s peripheral areas to talk about specific issues. This year, from May 2 until May 4, it focused on the state of literary genres: crime fiction, the short story, travel literature, and poetry.

How odd, then, that keynote speaker Laura Alcoba should live in Paris, write in French, and talk not about genres but about migrant writing; how perfect for a journal with a mathematically inspired name and a mission to transcend linguistic barriers: migrating implies changing coordinates and often entails changing languages. Both these changes are forms of translation.

With this in mind, I heard Alcoba speak about her autobiographic trilogy: Manèges (The Rabbit House, 2007), Le bleu des abeilles (The Blue of the Bees, 2013), and La danse de l’araignée (The Dance of the Spider, 2017). The author traces a thinly veiled child narrator’s exile from Argentina to France. In 1976, military forces attack her house in La Plata; it has been masquerading as a rabbit hatchery while harboring a press operated by guerrilla group Montoneros, of which her parents are active members. Several people are killed in the attack. She and her mother escape but her father is imprisoned. The two establish a lengthy correspondence and read Maurice Maeterlinck’s La vie des abeilles (The Life of Bees)she in French, from Paris; he in Spanish, from prison in La Plata. Slowly but surely, she adjusts to her new home and language, and her father is eventually released.

Alcoba claims that she wouldn’t have written the trilogy had she not visited Argentina in 2003: “when I saw the house again, I was finally able to connect with my past.” The first word that inspired her to write, moreover, was embute, an Argentine slang term used by guerrilla groups in the seventies to refer to secret locations. At the same time, Alcoba felt that she had to go back to France and French in order to pen the books: “that allowed me to tease out memories that I might have otherwise continued to silence in Spanish”—a language she learnt at a time in her life when silence was the rule.

As it turns out, then, her trilogy both deals with translation and results from it: its narrator changes coordinates and languages on the page; its author did the same in real life, back and forth, so she could write it in the first place. The outcome is superb.

Barbara Halla, Editor at Large for Albania, reporting from France:

Like many other countries in the world, France is commemorating this year the fiftieth anniversary of the May 1968 student protest. Throughout May, the French National Library and sister institutions are hosting a number of events under the umbrella title of “The Worlds of ’68.” Historians, writers, and politicians (among others) will discuss the repercussions of the May ‘68 protests across both Eastern and Western Europe and highlight its influences over art, literature and politics to the present. The Pompidou Center is also holding a variety of events and performances on the topic and offering free access to all visitors its permanent exhibition “May 68—Assemblée Generale.”

For those eager to learn more on the topic, there is an entire website dedicated to the history of the May 68 demonstrations, which includes a comprehensive calendar of events happening throughout all of France throughout the year. For those wishing to read more on the topic, bookstores all over France have created curated collections of books ranging from ponderous historical tomes to youthful comics surrounding the topic. Interested readers can even peruse said collections online through Gibert Joseph or Fnac.

In other news, the Espace Culturel E.Leclerc is looking for two hundred avid readers to join the jury that will select the winner of the Landerneau Reader’s Prize for the best novel written in French in the past literary year. Each juror will receive the four titles shortlisted by professional librarians and will have the chance to debate and select 2018’s winner. If you live in France and read French, fill in the following form by July 2 to participate. First established in 2008, the Landerneau Prize has had several laureates including Maylis de Kerangal and Virginie Despentes, whose works have been translated into English and have been shortlisted for various literary prizes, including the Wellcome Book Prize and the Man Booker International.


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