Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to Albania, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

It is a summery Friday in the Northern Hemisphere and that means sun-filled afternoon beverages and literary updates from around the world! Barbara Halla discusses recent publications from Albania and delves into the political debates with which they engage. Daljinder Johal discusses conversations about libraries and marketing that were held at literary festivals around the United Kingdom. Finally, reporting from Australia, Tiffany Tsao discusses the controversy surrounding a recent literary journal cover and provides information on opportunities for emerging writers.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Albania:

At barely three million people living in Albania, it has become a national sport of sorts to look for traces of Albanians and Albanian influences in other cultures. In this vein, one of the most anticipated books of the season has been Luan Rama’s Mbresa Parisiane (Parisian Impressions). Luan Rama is both a writer and a diplomat. Between 1991 and 1992 he was the Albanian ambassador to France, where has spent most of his life since, writing several titles on Albanian culture and its ties to France. A good portion of this new book veers toward familiar territory, dwelling on the lives of famous authors that made Paris their home. Yet its real appeal is Rama’s research into Albanians who lived in Paris and, more simply, reading the perspective of an Albanian writing about his life in Paris.

In fact, many of Albania’s most prolific and interesting writers wrote and write about Albania while spending most of their lives abroad for economic and political reasons. Amongst these names is Martin Camaj. Camaj, one of the most important voices in Albanian literature and linguistics of the twentieth century, spent most of his adult life between Italy and Germany. His academic work traced the development of Albanian dialect, focusing in particular on the preservation of Albanian amongst the Arbëreshë community in Southern Italy.

This June sees the publication for the first time of a collection of Camaj’s private correspondence, in the latest edition of Pasqyra e t’rrëfyemit (Confession’s Own Mirror), a literary journal. This collection is of particular interest as Camaj was a noted dissenter and enemy to the Communist regime. In these letters, he reviews uncensored the works of some of the country’s most noted writers during Communism, including Jakov Xoxa and Ismail Kadare. His notes on the latter are divisive: while he appreciates Kadare’s literary talent, he also expresses his surprise at Kadare’s ability to express himself so freely under dictatorial constraints. This highlights, in a sense, a truth rarely acknowledged: Kadare’s close relationship to Enver Hoxha, Albania’s notorious dictator. The book is sure to stir some controversy.

While these titles are not available in English, they are symptomatic of the conversations Albanians are having about the nation’s history and its place in the larger tradition of European art.

Daljinder Johal, Executive Assistant, reporting from the United Kingdom:

From 24 May to 3 June, Hay Festival celebrated its thirty-first year. However, one of the most attention-grabbing events was the author of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, slamming library closures, and not without reason. The latest Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) figures recorded the tally of library closures since the austerity measures of 2012 to 449 across England, Scotland, and Wales.

In comparison, the much younger literature festival for writers of colour made its return for the third year from 25 to 27 May. Bare Lit Festival didn’t hit the headlines as much as Hay Festival 2018, but it still was a key event in London’s literary scene, particularly as the festival moved to the Albany in Lewisham in a bid to increase inclusivity at the event.

The writer, editor, and socio-cultural commentator, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, delivered the concluding keynote speech. He commented on the differing success of his novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, in its UK and French editions, raising questions about the marketing of African literature:

The Random House jacket copy focused on the Africanness of the book, the “clash” of old and new; my French publisher, Éditions Zulma, on the other hand admitted they had never had a book like it before, but decided that that would be how they sold it.

They foregrounded voice and language, marketed it as a book of ideas, compelling philosophy on power—something universal rather than “African”. Guess which edition sold more, won more prizes, is being studied in universities?

Of course, the keynote speech first raises general questions about the UK’s publishing market  boxing authors in according to their background.

The issue of the library closures may appear to be separate, but actually reinforces Parkes’s point. If the availability of borrowing books is sharply declining in the UK, this surely increases the importance of the way that books are sold?

Parkes discusses the “redesign” of publishing organisations for the sake of authors. However, in light of the very visible loss of libraries in UK cities and communities, it seems not only authors are being let down by the “design” of publishing institutions, but readers too.

Tiffany Tsao, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Australia:

Controversy broke out last week over the cover design of literary journal Meanjin’s winter issue. When the latest edition of the quarterly magazine appeared with part of its name crossed out to make way for a scarlet graffiti-esque “#MeToo”, journalist Amy McQuire tweeted how “weird” it felt to see the Indigenous (specifically, Turrbal) name for the land known post-colonization as Brisbane struck through to make way for an issue spotlighting feminism. Shortly afterwards, Indigenous writer Karen Wyld tweeted, “This whiteout of an Aboriginal word is so symbolic of white feminism on black country . . . it hurts.” Several more critical tweets followed, in response to which Meanjin editor Jonathan Green issued an apology via the journal’s blog and changed the cover. This generated further debate about what to make of the outrage (valid or ridiculous) as well as what to make of Green’s apology (laudable, genuine, or pitiful “self-flagellation”). The two women who penned the Meanjin #MeToo-themed pieces—Clementine Ford and Anna Spargo-Ryan—announced that they would donate the payment they received to services assisting Aboriginal women. Regarding this, the writer for the Sydney Morning Herald observed that, ironically, women ended up being the ones taking the financial hit for the whole affair.

In other news, the deadlines are fast approaching for two opportunities aimed at helping emerging writers in Australia. The Queensland Poetry Festival has launched a mentorship in support of emerging older poets (fifty-five years old and above). The deadline for applications is June 29. Submissions for the Richell Prize close on July 9: open to unpublished writers of adult fiction and adult narrative non-fiction, the winning entry will receive $10,000 and twelve months of guidance under a Hachette Australia editor.

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