Politics and Literature Festivals

M. Lynx Qualey
June 4, 2013
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Cassie Metcalf-Slovo, one of a dozen-plus participants who traveled with this year’s Palestine Festival of Literature, was interested in getting wider coverage for the fest. As part of her efforts, she sent an email to the blog editor of literary-magazine X, suggesting that he or she might be interested in a story about PalFest, which took place at the end of May.

Major magazine X declined the suggestion — which is fine! great! loads of other stuff going on in the literary world! — but s/he explained the magazine’s dis-interest by saying that they scrupulously don’t involve themselves in politics.

It would be hard to deny that the Palestine Festival of Literature has a political aspect. No need, even, to use the broader definition of politics, “the total complex of relations between people living in society”; a narrower one will do: “of or relating to the government or the public affairs of a country.”

PalFest, now in its sixth year, has developed into a two-fold festival. One fold is the usual lit-fest business of bringing a coterie of great world writers to a local audience. This year’s PalFestians included China Miéville, Aamer Hussein, Jeremy Harding, Ahdaf Soueif, Ibtisam Azem, Najwan Darwish, and Gillian Slovo.

The other fold was explained by Souief, PalFest’s founder, at a talk at the American University in Cairo a few years back:

The thing with Palfest is that you could see it progress from me going there and writing in a way that I hope represents Palestinian reality, in other words just by allowing Palestinian characters to come alive on the page, and then to me thinking, well I wish — I wish there were more people to see this…and eventually coming up with the idea of actually taking people to go see it. To be able themselves to describe it and talk about it and so on.

So definitely the motivation of PalFest is to allow people to see each other.

Soueif certainly seems to have engaged in the “public affairs of a country” (or countries) when she suggests that visiting writers might be interested in knowing Palestinian stories. It doesn’t have to go further than that; it’s the same politics invested in any newspaper sending out reporters to a particular country: Their choices may well influence public affairs.

So, I wondered: When have I covered an a-political book event?

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which I attended in late April of this year, also relates to that Emirate’s — and the region’s — public affairs. Not just for the fair’s invitations, disinvitations, and re-invitations, but for its undeniable exercise of “soft” power.

Well, but Western book events — yes, Western book events! — should be safe territory for magazine X, right? After all, they aren’t an exercise of soft power; they don’t have agendas when choosing particular authors from particular countries; and they hardly ever tell their dissenters to shut the fuck up.

I think we should be open, in talking about PalFest, about how and why it might affect public affairs. Yes. But this applies to other fests, too.

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