Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

This week, we’re talking about poetry in Transylvania, storytelling in Marrakech, and LGBT literature in Taipei.

It would be difficult for even the most hardened of cynics to bemoan the state of literature after having read the news coming from around the globe this week. Our editors report on a stunning international festival of poetry in Transylvania, the determined literary representation of an “unofficial” language in Morocco, and an abundance of musical, literary, and theatrical events taking place under the open skies of Taipei.

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the Z9Festival in Sibiu, Romania

The forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain, but the sun was still wispily gathered in the early evening, so rows were laid out in the courtyard and the fifth edition of Z9Festival, the young literature festival based in Sibiu, began.

Founded in 2015 and sponsored by the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, the festival gathers poets from nine countries around the world to share their work with the Romanian public; the name can be read as either New Zone or Zone Nine, in an ode to both its focus on writers under forty and its international reach. So it is that in mid-July 2019, writers from the UK, Poland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, and Romania descended upon the picturesque landscape of Sibiu to join one another in a night celebrating poetry, and its inherent ability to dissipate borders.

The wide-ranging lineup started with the prolific Romanian poet Elena Vlădăreanu, whose potent and veridical work regarding motherhood, stereotypes, and the physical costs of poetry gave the festival an air of brilliance from the beginning. She was followed by Livia Franchini, an Italian writer based in London, who delightfully proclaimed how good it was to read poetry in daylight. The celebrated Jakobe Mansztajn, reading in Polish, delivered his work with an assurance and steadiness that gave no hint to the fact that he was suffering from the flu. Up fourth was Jesica Baciu, reading poems punctuated only with breathing, light, and other ephemeral things. Then the lovely Nadia de Vries, from whom an outpouring of clipped, dangerously smart, and brutal lines came forth. Andrei Doboș, hailing from Cluj, gave his reading in Romanian, textured with consonants, and was celebrated by the crowd. Ioana Iacob, who was the winner selected from a pool of young, unpublished poets, read her unrestrained work with an equally enthralling lack of restraint. Richard Scott first charmed the audience, before breaking certain hearts with a series of gorgeous poems on queerness, sexuality, and love. Charlotte Warsen read her poems in German, experimental works which dealt with shame and consequence. Then it was my turn, and when I went up, I felt grateful, and chose to read poems that had something to do with that. Arno Van Vlierberghe gave to us an excerpt from what will become an 101-page opus, and he captured it in one line: “The art of riskless thinking.” When Eta Dahlia, the video poet, stepped up, the new-fallen night was given away by his abstract and startlingly coloured films, heavy with music. Ioana Vintilă cut a sharp shape with her clipped lines broken in purposeful places. Robert Gabriel Elekes ended the night with his grand, dark language.

Z9Festival is immaculately organized by a young team consisting of curators and writers Vlad Pojoga, Cătălina Stanislav, Krista Szöcs, Ilinca Pop, Daniel Coman, and grew out of a reading club founded by Radu Vancu, the renowned author whose brilliance is on par with his kindness. It was also almost unanimously hailed by the poets as one of the best we had attended. It had something to do with how genuinely we were thrilled by one another’s work, the low roofs of Sibiu that had eyes, the ripe night curious with our various languages, narratives, selves. Someone told me, during the trip, that if you ask Romanians the silly question of what it is to be Romanian, they will eventually come around to speaking about poetry. It has brought me immense joy to have taken part in and witnessed what will surely become a legacy—built up, line by line, by the courage and dedication of a nation of poets.

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

Article 5 of Morocco’s constitution lists Arabic and Amazigh as the kingdom’s two co-official languages, but it never mentions Darija, the dialect spoken by some 89.9 percent of the population (whether or not Darija constitutes a language of its own or simply a dialect has been subject to bitter debate across the greater Maghreb. To get a sense of the tenor of this debate, see the eleven pages of reader comments left in response to Robert Lane Greene’s 2013 article “A language with too many armies and navies?”).

Despite having no place in Morocco’s educational system, Darija is increasingly finding its way onto the pageand this transition was the topic of a lively debate hosted at the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange on Friday, July 12. Authors Mourad Alami, Youssef Amine Elalamy and Driss Mesnaoui were joined by researcher Sharidan Russell to discuss the social implications of Darija’s shift to a written language. Elalamy described his novel [Tqarqib Ennab] (Gossip)—one of the first to be entirely written in Darija—as a “literary experiment” but also as his fastest-selling book to date (he has previously published six works in French). Mourad Alami, on the other hand, translates classic European works into Darija in an attempt to prove that “we can write anything we want with it.” And Driss Mesnaoui, one of the founders of the Moroccan Association for Popular Poetry, seeks to reinvent Morocco’s oral culture—stories, songs, poems—as hyper-local Darija-language novels deeply embedded in their cultural context.

As an old Moroccan saying goes: when a storyteller dies, a library burns. Marrakech’s National Popular Arts Festival returned after a multi-year hiatus, bringing renewed attention to the dying art of hikayat, or storytelling, which has been an integral part of Moroccan culture for over a thousand years. The festival’s 50th edition, which took place July 2-6, brought together some eight hundred artists and performers for five days of music, dancing, and storytelling. One of the longest running festivals of its kind, it has nonetheless come under fire for purportedly pandering to tourists. An editorial in Maroc Diplomatique puts it: “These days, music and dance festivals around the world have been completely appropriated by the tourism industry: they offer attractive content, the promise of entertainment and an added cultural value. [ . . . ] But it is striking to see how the hybridity and reinvention that arise from such events tend toward a cultural essentialism.” 

Vivian Chih, Editor-at-Large for Taiwan, reporting from Taipei

There is no shortage of cultural celebrations in Taiwan’s summer months. With its 30th edition, the Golden Melody Award has again introduced more indigenous, innovative, and experimental forms of music works written and sung by Taiwanese musicians to the Taiwanese and those interested in Taiwanese music. Also, starting from mid-July, the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival Executive Committee is launching the unprecedented Italian Film Festival, during which 37 classical Italian films of Italian neorealism and others influenced by the classical works will be screened in Taipei’s and Taichung’s movie theaters.

The doctor-writer Chen Yao-Chang (陳耀昌), who is a pioneer in bone marrow transplantation in Taiwan, will publish his fourth novel, Bangas (Ku lian hua 苦楝花, meaning “chinaberry tree” in the Sakizaya language, which is close to the language of Taiwan’s aboriginal Amis tribe). The novel consists of three uprising events against the Chinese Qing Dynasty organized by the Taiwanese aboriginal peoples. The author spent years conducting fieldwork and visiting the aboriginal tribes himself for firsthand interviews and sources.

The 2019 TSMC Literature Award is now open and encouraging fiction submissions of around sixty to eighty thousand Chinese characters. Writers under the age of forty who are interested in and capable of composing novels in Chinese language, are welcome to make a pitch before the deadline on August 30. In addition to the TSMC, the Paris Foundation of Art is also receiving submissions of longer-length fictional compositions of no more than one hundred and fifty thousand words written in traditional Chinese characters. The content of the submitted novel must be based on the real story of a selected Taiwanese artist in any field and any era, excluding writers, artists working in the field of drama, and architects.

The typical summer weather has brought to Taipei more precipitation in the afternoons than other seasons, but the annual summer outdoor festivals are not daunted by the subtropical thunderstorms! In the end of July, Taiwan’s most prominent modern dance troupe, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, will be touring from central Taiwan in Nantou and back to Taipei’s Liberty Square (former Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall) for two exciting annual outdoor performances. The founder of Cloud Gate, Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), has publicly announced his retirement at the end of 2019, and these two outdoor performances by Cloud Gate will be the last ones led by this influential founder. As an out, gay man, Lin’s fiction collection dealing with the issue of homosexual relationships, Cicada (Chan ), first published in 1974, will be reissued this month by INK publishing house. On August 24, the annual Summer Jazz Outdoor Party will continue to rock Liberty Square plaza at the heart of Taipei. Both local and international Jazz musicians are invited to perform at the festival, and entrance to the Cloud Gate and Jazz Party are open to the public.


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: