Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, the global literary world was busy with prizes, language politics, and festivals.

Join us on a journey around the world from Hungary to Morocco and Brazil to find out more about the latest festivals, prizes, and news in world literature. Come back to our blog next week for other news and pieces about world literature. 

Diána Vonnák, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Hungary

One of the highlights of the Hungarian literary scene, Margó Festival and Bookfair took place between 18-21 October. The festival happens twice each year, and while the summer edition focuses on contemporary writers in general, autumn is dedicated to emerging new voices and to literary translation.

The Margó Award is a relatively new initiative that helps to launch a young prose writers’ career each year, awarded to the best debut novel or short story collection of the year. Previous winners include Benedek Totth, whose debut novel Dead Heat (Holtverseny) will be published in English by Biblioasis in 2019 and Mátyás Szöllősi, whose new novel Péter Simon is out now. Short stories of this years’ winner, Anna Mécs peek into young women’s lives as they navigate the chores of adult life. Mécs writes in a voice that merges accuracy with much-needed lightness and acerbic humour.

The audience could meet authors in dozens of readings and roundtable discussions during these densely packed four days. Man Booker winner László Krasznahorkai’s new novel, Aprómunka egy palotáért follows librarian Hermann Melvill’s wanderings in New York into his labyrinth inner world, delivered in Krasznahorkai’s signature, meandering sentences, while György Dragomán’s Rendszerújra collects his politically themed short stories that grapple with oppressive systems, be they political or technological.

Many eagerly awaited new works were discussed from the emerging new generation as well: Boldizsár Fehér debuted with a satirical utopia of social experiment, and a new novel by Péter Gerőcs follows a portrait photographer’s quest against forgetting, Sándor Neszlár published a volume of experimental prose that pairs every kilometre he ran with a sentence, while Ilka Papp-Zakor‘s new collection sketches out a surreal Budapest with zoo-animals on the run. Two documentary films rounded the experience, portraits of Nádas and Krasznahorkai.

As the festival is over, celebrations give way to anxiety over the ongoing culture wars of the Orbán government, that switched to a higher gear in the past months, dismissing the director of Petőfi Literary Museum, and airing plans about a potential centralisation of literary publishing. Meanwhile, many writers protested against a new law that criminalises rough sleeping. Politics and literary production are increasingly different to disentangle, but events like the Margó Festival are strong testimonies of resilience.

Hodna Nuernberg, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Morocco 

A few days after the kingdom’s children returned to school in September, a scandal erupted online. “It’s the end of our schools. They’re dead and buried,” one internet user proclaimed. “I weep for my country, for my children, for the future generations!” another lamented. At stake was the Ministry of Education’s decision to include eight words from Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken in Morocco, in a 150-page textbook for second graders – briouates, baghrir and ghriyba, among them. The offending words appeared in a short text about a family having tea and cookies. Before long, two leading political parties, the Justice and Development Party, and the Independence Party, joined their voices to the outcry, arguing that the textbook was in violation of Morocco’s constitution, which recognizes only two official languages: Classical Arabic and Tamazight. The ministry’s official explanation – “schools should serve as a vector and a tool of cultural transfer, while also insisting on the functional role of language in terms of identity building and fostering an awareness of the wider world” – didn’t convince many Moroccans, a majority of whom remain unfavorable to introducing the “language of the streets” into their classrooms.

Faouzi Bensaidi’s Volubilis won the Malmo Arab Film Festival’s jury prize. The festival, which ran from 5-9 October, is one of the biggest Arab film festivals outside of the Arab world. Volubilis, in theaters now, is Bensaidi’s fourth feature film. In it, a young couple learn the hard way that the rules don’t apply to everyone when Abdelkader, a dutiful young mall security guard, attempts to stop a bourgeois lady from cutting a line. The socially engaged film explores the chasm between the rich and the poor in Morocco, home to the Maghreb’s most unequal distribution of wealth.

Lettres du Maghreb, a literary festival in Oujda – a city near the (sealed) border between Morocco and Algeria and this year’s Capital of Arab Culture – took place from 18-21 October under the theme of “Reinventing the Universal.” The festival, which hopes to cast Oujda as the center of gravity in a future Greater Maghreb, hosted writers from across the region and the world; meanwhile Morocco’s own Abdellatif Laâbi, who was exiled to France after serving eight years in a Moroccan prison for “crimes of opinion,” introduced a new two-volume anthology from Éditions du Sirocco that gathers together the entirety of his poetic works, finally making them widely accessible to a Moroccan audience.

Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Brazil:

Fall 2018 in Brazil heralds major news in literature and politics. The Jabuti Prize, Brazil’s most prestigious literary award, announced this year’s finalists in early October. Categories range from short story and novel to translation and graphic novel; notable finalists include past winners Maria Valéria Rezende, Noemi Jaffe, and Nuno Ramos, whose prose has been featured in Asymptote. One new voice for the prize is philosopher, activist, and intersectional feminist Djamila Ribeiro, whose book O que é lugar de fala? (What is a Place of Speech?) is a finalist in the Humanities category. Winners will be announced on November 8.

But if Brazilians feel suspense in these final weeks of October, it is not due to the upcoming announcement of the Jabuti. A far more contentious competition commands conversations and inspires protests: the runoff of the presidential election will take place on October 28. Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad faces frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right extremist supported by David Duke of the KKK and described by The New Yorker as a cross between Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. But the race has as much to do with the circulation of narratives as it does partisan politics; according to an investigative report published in the Folha de São Paulo, Bolsonaro received an illegal R$12 million from private companies to spread fake news on WhatsApp. On November 10, reporters from some of the most cutting-edge investigative groups in Latin America will meet in Recife for the 3i Journalism Festival (Innovative, Inspiring, and Independent Journalism). Panels will discuss media polarization and fake news as well as how to innovate nonfiction storytelling without support from mainstream capital.

Brazil’s major literary festivals have entered a lull in the midst of these major national events. However, early November still provides the opportunity for a good read: Literatiba, a free book fair, will take place in Curitiba on November 2 while the Porto Alegre Book Fair promises lectures, workshops, and even walking tours in its event schedule stretching from November 1-18. These regional events promise space for contemplation after a tense and divided presidential election.

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