This week’s dispatches take us on a tour of November’s most important literary festivals. In an attempt to combat perennial issues of low readership and lack of access to literature, the festivals offered live readings, awards ceremonies, and discounted books to readers in Iran, Albania and Romania.
Poupeh Missaghi, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Iran
Since 1993, November 15th has been celebrated as the day of Books and Reading in Iran, ushering in a week of celebrations and events to promote literature. The slogan for this year’s Book Week was “The Great Joy of Reading.” Public libraries around the country offered free membership on November 15th, and the Books in the City Festival provided introductions to important Iranian literary figures through music and theatrical readings in subway stations around Tehran.
On November 18th, at the closing ceremony of the 17th Festival of Books and Media, the winners of awards in different media categories (including news, interviews, specialized criticism, humor, photography, websites, and audio and visual media) were announced.
The Imam Ali Society, a charitable foundation, took the occasion to invite its supporters, through the Kids Without Books Twitter campaign, to donate books for children. The campaign also published video in which children invited writers and public figures to donate books to the society’s library.
On the last day of the week, publishers also held readings and talks in different bookstores, creating spaces for readers and authors to come together in celebration of their love for books.
Similar events were held at schools, mosques, and other cultural institutions around the country. However, with low rates of readership and books published per edition, it is unclear how influential these symbolic annual gestures are in changing the reading culture of Iranian society.
In other news, a recent collective initiative has begun to bring together an informal archive of Persian language accents. On November 15th, translator and writer Erfan Mojib tweeted, “Let’s create a website, upload a text, and invite people to read the text in their various Persian accents.” The idea started as a curiosity, but Mojib hopes it can be developed and used eventually for systematic studies. He got so much positive feedback about the idea that he started a telegram channel (t.me/lahjeyab) and a Twitter account (@lahjeyab), and people have been sending him voice messages of themselves reading a text he posted about the diversity of accents in Iran and their unity under the umbrella of the Persian language.
Barbara Halla, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Albania
From November 14th–18th, the Albanian Publishers’ Association (Shoqata e Botuesve Shqiptarë) hosted the 21st Tirana Book Fair, hailed as the year’s biggest cultural event for the capital. Thousands of Albanians attended the fair this year, which is seen largely as an occasion to buy books directly from publishers at a considerable discount and meet well-known and emerging authors, ninety-five of whom were in attendance. All the major and minor Albanian publishers participated in the Fair, including more than thirty publishers from Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia combined.
While the Tirana Book Fair does not operate in a way that allows authors or agents (essentially non-existent in the Albanian publishing world) to connect with publishers, a jury of authors and translators does award a number of prizes. The Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Kim Mehmeti, a Macedonian–Albanian writer and translator, while Brajan Sukaj won Best Book of the year for Ciklopi (“The Cyclops”). The jury awarded two Best Emerging Writers awards to Iva Nikolli and Flogerta Krypi, the latter being only sixteen years old, and Donika Omari won Best Translation for her translation of Kenize Mourad’s “Regards from the Dead Princess.”
The Tirana Book Fair was not merely cause for celebration. It also served as a platform to expose and discuss some of the issues plaguing the Albanian publishing world. According to INSTAT, around 1 million Albanians (or about 30% of the population) have not read a single book in the past year. The main reason behind this is more economic than social: most books cost around $8, which can seem prohibitive to a population that that makes, on average, $4,500 per year. Discounts are available during the Fair, but they can only do so much. Publishers also complained about a lack of institutional support for increasing literacy and interest in books. The Ministry of Culture was present at the Fair, but, according to one publisher, there was little help from the Mayor of Tirana during the event. Another issue, pertinent to authors especially, is that Albanians largely prefer literature in translation, buying very few books from local authors, with the exception of a few big names. Ultimately, although these issues were discussed at length, the problems run deep and few solutions were proposed.
MARGENTO, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Romania and Moldova
Last week, Bucharest’s major international book festival, Gaudeamus—with a count of 125,000 visitors and 300 exhibitors from 5 countries—grabbed the mass media’s attention. The traditional Romanian–French connection, as usual, was underscored: the guest of honor was GADIF (The Group of Francophone Embassies, Delegations and Institutions in Romania). Beyond the official pomp, though, it seemed that recent Romanian-relevant Parisian releases slipped through the cracks.
For instance, prolific Romanian–French critic Petre Răileanu recently launched an already widely-covered monograph on the Romanian historical avant-garde, Les avant–gardes en Roumanie. La charrette et le cheval-vapeur, while co-editing a previously unpublished diary of iconic Romanian constructivist and “integralist” Ilarie Voronca (supplemented with the poet’s collected French poems), but neither of these releases were announced at Gaudeamus. Past Asymptote contributor Matei Visniec, who acted as honorary president of last year’s festival, was invited to launch a book this time around, but no official mention was made of his recently conferred “Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters” in France. Similarly, the recent publication of the French version of poet, essayist, art critic and editor Magda Cârneci’s novel FEM was another example of Parisian literary news that slipped by the organizers.
All of the above nevertheless caused a buzz on social media and indie literary lists, and the inveterate cosmopolitanism and avant-gardism of Romanian literature still sprung up here and there at the festival, as it tends to do. Legendary radical poet Angela Marinescu made a sensational appearance at a gender-bending debut poetry collection release, while the editor of the French-international journal Levure littéraire, Rodica Drăghincescu, made a “whirlwind” Romanian poetry comeback. Past Asymptote contributor Radu Vancu publicized a novel from a mainstream publisher on his way back from an international writers’ political forum, while late Romanian-Austrian oneiric poetry school representative Vintilă Ivănceanu had a strong posthumous reemergence with two books from MNLR press.
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