Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

This week, catch up on the latest literary news from Morocco, France, and Hong Kong!

We begin and end this week with a look at two of the winter’s biggest book fairs: Hodna Nuernberg accompanies us on a retrospective tour of the 25th Casablanca International Book Fair, while Barbara Halla lets us know what’s in store at next week’s Salon du Livre in Paris. Meanwhile, Editor-at-Large Jacqueline Leung, reporting from Hong Kong, updates us on a symposium taking place today to honor 2019 Newman Laureate Xi Xi.

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

Oft-maligned by Morocco’s cultural elite, Casablanca’s international book fair came to a close on February 17. The twenty-fifth edition of the fair saw 560,000 visitors, or 62% more than in 2017, yet publishing houses bemoaned a lack of serious readers. Indeed, the book fair, whose 10-dirham entry fee—about $1—is roughly the price of a big-city café au lait, is a resolutely popular affair where boiled-chickpea sellers rub elbows with poets, children careen wildly from stand to stand clutching brand-new Barbie notebooks, and azans ring out on loop from the Saudi pavilion. This year, 720 exhibitors from forty-two countries offered up some 128,000 titles, about a quarter of which were literary works. Although 80% of books published in Morocco in 2017-2018 were in Arabic, French punches above its weight in the literary domain, accounting for 30% of all published novels.

Catastrophe was narrowly avoided when Éditions Malika’s stand went up in flames during the fair’s final weekend. Apparently the result of a poorly-wired outlet, the fire destroyed much of the small Casablanca-based publisher’s stock and could have done much worse given that there were no fire extinguishers on site when the fire broke out. Fortunately, the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad had brought their own and saved the day. After the ashes were swept away and the shelves restocked, one of the book fair’s finest offerings could be found at Éditions Malika: the sumptuously illustrated Casablanca, nid d’artists by Kenza Sefrioui and Leïla Slimani, which features the work of 115 artists.

Meanwhile, New York-based artist Meriem Bennani is back in Morocco, working on a film project about French soft power and neocolonialism for the upcoming Whitney Biennale. The project involves filming the well heeled students of Bennani’s alma mater, Rabat’s Lycée Descartes—the crown jewel of the French Republic’s mission étrangère, whose tuition is about twice Morocco’s annual official minimum wage. Bennani describes it as a kind of “coming out” in the context of a society that has been quick to label her work as that of a marginalized minority artist.

Jacqueline Leung, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong, reporting from Hong Kong

For the first time, the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature has been awarded to a Hong Kong writer. Xi Xi is the 2019 Newman Laureate, receiving a biennial prize given to a living writer who composes outstanding poetry or prose in Chinese. A symposium is taking place at the University of Oklahoma on March 7 and 8 to discuss a variety of topics relating to Xi Xi’s oeuvre and her influences: world literature, film, and contemporary Hong Kong and Chinese writing. Speakers include Ho Fuk Yan, Chinese writer and poet; Jennifer Feeley, translator of Xi Xi’s poetry collection Not Written Words; Tammy Ho, poet and literary academic; and academics from the University of Oklahoma, including Man-Fung Yip, Ping Zhu, and Jonathan Stalling. The symposium will be accompanied by a screening of Xi Xi’s biographical documentary and a poetry reading and discussion. Previous winners of the prize include Wang Anyi, Chu T’ien-wen, Yang Mu, Han Shaogong, and Mo Yan.

When Xi Xi received the title, Tammy Ho, a juror, commented on the significance of the prize to the development of literature from Hong Kong: “Hong Kong literature has for too long been relegated to a secondary position, or even worse—it is as though the city is incapable of producing significant literary works and writers of note . . . Xi Xi’s poetry, at times whimsical and at times serious, speaks to the character of the city and its people.”

Born in 1937, Xi Xi, pen name of Cheung Yin, is one of Hong Kong’s most established and eclectic writers, producing novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. Many of her works have been translated, including Not Written Words, My City, Marvels of a Floating City, and “A Woman Like Me,” a short story. She is known for depicting the fantastical in reality, a simple, imaginative style that critics have termed “fairy-tale realism.” A reader of world literature and philosophy, Xi Xi takes inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen and Albert Camus, as well as Latin American writers Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar. She is also a film critic and once adapted Little Women into Chinese.

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

Once March rolls around, there is no space in the French literary world for anything other than the Salon du Livre de Paris, or the Paris Book Fair. This year, Paris Livre will take place from March 15-18, so if you are reading this dispatch the week it comes out, you still have a chance to visit! While many like to ask if writing is a political act, the French have never shied away from politics in their writing. Which is perhaps why this year’s Salon focuses on two polarizing topics: “Spotlight on Europe” and “Norms and their limits.”

In May 2019, the member states of the European Union will hold the next elections to the European Parliament, which have always suffered from low turnout and have favored, ironically perhaps, Eurosceptic parties like Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Between the elections, Brexit, and the persistent immigration crisis, Paris Livre will feature roundtables, debates, and interviews that ask some essential questions: what will be the future of Europe? What does it mean to be European, beyond simply the European Union? On the flip side, “Norms and Limits” will focus more heavily on literature itself, but again asking what the role of politics is in literature and whether a topic can ever be too taboo to be the center of a novel.

Although these two issues will be the guiding themes, the Salon has also put the spotlight on Slovakian literature, as this year’s city of honor is Bratislava. More than twenty Slovak authors and various publishers will feature at Paris Livre, hoping to gain some traction in the French literary market. Another special guest will be the Sultanate of Oman, and the Salon du Livre will spotlight not only the literature of the country (the Omani government sponsored a great number of translations into French of Omani authors), but also the history of Oman itself and its relationship to France. To find out more about the events and authors available throughout the fair, you can check the event’s website. Between Amélie Nothomb and Javier Cercas, there will be something for everyone.


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