Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Follow our editors through Italy, the UK, and Shanghai as they bring a selection of literary news of the week.

Prizes, festivals, and book fairs! This week, our editors bring us news about Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, the Premio Strega, Mantua’s Festivalletteratura, Edinburgh’s vibrant International Book Festival, and Shanghai’s vast international Book Fair. At the heart of all these dispatches is the wonderful ability of cities to draw huge numbers of people together to celebrate a year in literature. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Italy

In early June, Antonio Scurati won the 2019 Premio Strega, Italy’s most important literary prize, for his book M. Il figlio del secolo (M. Child of the Century). Scurati’s book is the epitome of ponderous tome: at more than eight hundred pages it is the first of what will be three volumes that novelize the life of Benito Mussolini, with this first title covering Mussolino’s rise to power. The book has been hugely popular with the Italian public, selling some one hundred and twenty thousand copies before it snatched the prize and has even given rise to some interesting debates with some critics calling into question whether Scurati’s book can actually be considered fiction at all, rather than a straightforward biography. What is particularly interesting is the fact that last year’s winner was also a novelized biography set in 1930s Europe: Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica (translated by Ann Goldstein) traces the final years of Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer, who bore witness to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.

Looking forward, if you happen to find yourself in northern Italy between September 4 and 8, it might be worth popping by the small city of Mantua in Lombardy which hosts one of the biggest literary festivals in the country: Festivalletteratura. The line-up of guests could put the Edinburgh literary festival to shame, with a very international cast of writers and themes. Margaret Atwood will be popping by, as will Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli and Elif Shafak. The festival will explore the contradictions of current American society with the help of Colson Whitehead and Meg Wolitzer among others, and academics like Amin Maalouf and Simon Schama will be hosting talks and debates around the future of the European Union. Other interesting events will be centered around modern Albanian and even Italian literature, science and the environment. You can check a full guide of the guests and events here.

Daljinder Johal, Senior Executive Assistant at Asymptote, reporting from UK

Edinburgh Festival Fringe may be considered the highlight of the city’s calendar in August but Scotland’s biggest book festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival also takes place this month. From August 10 to 26, the city’s Charlotte Square Gardens are transformed to host the two hundred and fifty thousand visitors per year. Despite the insistence of Network Rail to update the London to Edinburgh line potentially putting a spanner in the works, the festival is currently full steam ahead.

There are many events to suit all reader’s tastes, however a well-known name in world literature, Salman Rushdie, is launching his latest novel in September, Quichotte. Accordingly, Rushdie will be appearing at the festival on Monday, August 26 to discuss his eponymous novel of an aging salesman trying to prove himself worthy of love.

Similarly, Markus Zusak, author of the international bestseller, The Book Thief, will make his first appearance on the festival for its exciting sequel for young adults, Bridge of Clay.

Although, above all, politics seem to be at the forefront of festival goers and speakers minds – unsurprisingly considering the tumultuous state of British politics. Of course, interviews with figures such as Scottish politician and Conservative Party leader, the Rt Honourable Ruth Davidsonostensibly regarding her new book, less ostensibly her swift rise in politics and expectations for the uncertain future.

Still, while many concerned themselves with British politics, the current unrest in the world did merit some attention, particularly during the much-discussed talk with Palestian writer Nayrouz Qarmout. Author of a series of short stories, The Sea Cloak, she was born in a Palestinan refugee camp in Syria and clearly possesses a personal story that resonates as much as her own debut collection.

Finally, when discussing one of Scotland’s major cultural outputs, it seems appropriate to hone in on “one of the country’s greatest living writers”—Ali Smith. The novelist brought her latest season novel, Spring, to mark her return to the festival. With each exploring inequalities and divisions among the British population, they are described as being a time capsule of present ideas – not dissimilar to the entire festival itself.

Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting for Shanghai

Contrary to a very effective slogan, everything is not bigger in Texas—but it is in China. The 2019 Shanghai Book Fair, held from August 14 to 20, is boasting the attendance of five hundred publishing houses and the presentation of over one hundred and sixty thousand publications. Though the proclaimed highlights of the festival are sure to elicit negative reactions from much of the international community—the first is to “focus on Xi Jinping’s new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics…”—the fair nevertheless acts to encourage and promote interactions between authors and readers, provide opportunities for the Chinese public to access literatures both contemporary and antique, and encourage the growth of independent publishers. In China, however, where print media occasionally offers the same function as a funhouse mirror, one must be hypervigilant when surrounded by texts of any sort.

Even if turning a blind eye to politics, it is unlikely the attendees of the fair will be disappointed. The guest list boasts acclaimed and accomplished literary talents both international and domestic. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whose works have received an especially warm reception in China), due to appear at the launch and signing of Dear Ijeawele in Chinese translation, to the prolific and award-winning Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen, who read aloud from his novel, Child Wonder, in the newly built Duoyun “Cloud Bookstore” on the fifty-second floor of the Shanghai Tower, to the pioneer of Chinese literary avant-gardism, Ma Yuan / 马原, whose several events include one on the intertwinement of magic and the everyday. A forum surrounding the theme of “home” was also held on August 13, featuring the Turkish poet and musician Zülfü Livaneli, the Japanese writer and translator Mitsuyo Kakuta, and the Nanjing writer Ye Zhaoyan / 叶兆言, among many others.

2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and seventy years since the end of the Shanghai Campaign, in which Shanghai was won by the communists (which the Chinese media refers to as the “liberation of Shanghai”). As a result, most of the featured publications and quite a few events are in the vein of this concept, including a new book launched by the Communist Party, titled 点亮中国:马克思主义在中国早期传播 (Light Up China: The Early Spread of Marxism in China).

The book fair and all of its associated events will take place across over a hundred venues, many of them local bookstores, but the bulk of the activity will be found in the sprawling Shanghai Exhibition Centre. The immensely elevated, curved ceilings of the centre is a rightful testament to China’s dreams of grandeur, and when one walks in, the eyes take a little time to adjust—the milling of the crowds, the enormous red and yellow flag, Xi Jinping’s face smiling at you from cover after cover, and the large sculptural characters spelling: “壮丽70年,奋斗新时代”—the magnificence of seventy years, the struggle for a new era.


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: