Tuesday, 10 February 2015

On Literature Festivals, Power, and Process – a week in South America

Sometimes I find it hard to believe how lucky I am. Not only do I have a career working with books and people that I love, but occasionally I get to travel internationally as well. Two years ago I visited the first Lahore Literature Festival in Pakistan, an amazing experience that showed me just how unifying a force culture can be in a society starved of the opportunity to meet in public. How important open discourse is to the health of a society, and how art can be the catalyst for so much discourse.

This past week I have had the pleasure to visit two more international literature festivals, this time in South America: Hay Cartagena in Colombia and FLUPP in Brasil. They are separated geographically by half a continent, but also by a philosophy and a purpose, as well as being separated from me by two languages I can't speak very well! In these ways they offered a fascinating comparison for my Clore Fellowship learning, a point to further explore what I might wish to do in the future. Indeed, the comparison was as stark as the landscapes of the Sahara and the Amazon that we flew on the way there.

First up was Cartagena, a stunningly beautiful city on the Caribbean Sea. Historically influential leader of the fight for Latin American independence from Spanish rule. Home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and setting for some of his most celebrated works, most notably Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love and Other Demons. Within 20 minutes of arriving in Cartagena I had fallen in love with the city – or at least the Colonial walled city in which I was staying. It's narrow lanes, painted buildings, ornamental balconies, relaxed atmosphere. After three days I regretted not being able to stay longer.

And there: HayCartagena, the first franchise in the increasingly global Hay-on-Wye success train, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year with an appearance from Nobel Laureate JMG Le Clezio among a host of others from around the world. I was there on behalf of Writers' Centre Norwich, and our (Inter)National Conversation programme, curating and delivering a debate about global writing and publishing in the twenty-first century, and whether digital technologies are enabling a challenge to the traditional dominance of the London/New York centres of activity. With a particular focus on writing and publishing in Africa and South America, it proved an interesting discussion on where the power lies in global literature, and how individual countries or regions can have relevant local conversations within this increasingly global landscape. You can watch Binyavanga Wainana's thoughts here, in which he talks about his desire for African writers to find new routes to share their work, to reach local readers and create a new impetus for writing across Africa. Essentially he argues that African writers need a new process by which to reach readers, because the current outcomes are stacked in the favour of publishers and readers in London and New York.  It was the sort of high quality discussion that excites the intellect, and felt representative of the other events I heard while I was in Cartagena: political, active, engaged. There were some good events, some packed houses, and a remarkable feat of quality live English-Spanish and Spanish-English translation. In so many ways it was a brilliant festival and I loved being there.

On the last afternoon I met Jonathan Levi, and we spoke briefly with Ellah Allfrey about reading, and about the challenges and value of encouraging widespread interest in books and literature. Jonathan is a fascinating man with a wealth of experience, and the way he talked about audience development really excited me. This whole area is my main interest and will form the core of my research during this fellowship, and it was with this conversation in my head that I flew to Rio de Janeiro for a trip that I knew would be a very different experience to Cartagena.

In Rio, I was due to meet FLUPP, an annual festival and year round programme of activity taking place in various favelas that aims to break down the barriers between communities and encourage reading and writing for the many. (It is named after the UPP - the military police who 'pacify' the favelas; Festival of Literature of the UPP). FLUPP is led by Julio Ludemir and Ecio Salles, whom I met for the first time as an evening thunderstorm crashed around us. Julio came across as a forthright conviction-driven man, eager to to speak clearly and exactly despite having to do so for my benefit in English. And despite 24 hours confusion in which I mistook his talking about 'slam poetry' for 'Islam poetry' – a very different kettle of fish that made far less sense! – we were able to share ideas and learn a great deal from each other.

He challenged my assumptions. Each time I referred to FLUPP as a festival – as I did on at least four occasions – he repeated his mantra: 'FLUPP is not a festival, it is a process.' At first I took this for a semantic difference, but as our time together wore on, the significance came to embody something important – the activity he does isn't one directional, it is a collaboration and a deep relationship with individuals and communities. It begins long before a festival starts, and continues long after it has finished. The short festival that takes place in November is merely the most public and prominent part of this. But not the most important.

The other aspect of FLUPP that Julio was keen to convey was about quality as a demonstration of power. When FLUPP was set up to directly rival the more illustrious and international Flip festival in Brasil, he was clear that it couldn't just be a small offering for local people, but had to be big and professional and exceptional. FLUPP may be a literature festival in deprived neighbourhoods, but it refuses to be limited in its ambition and professionalism. Indeed, this commitment to excellence is at the heart of its social message. 'How can we change perceptions if we fall into them ourselves', said Julio. 'We must treat these people as powerful and worthy of quality, because they are, and the world needs to know that.'

Over the next two days, Julio and another FLUPP collaborator, Toni Marques, showed me around Rio, introduced me to their work, and took me to visit some of the sites of their work. We talked at length, and I visited the favelas of Cidade de Deus and Morro dos Prazeres, sat in on an event, and saw for myself what Julio was talking about: how the process of building trusting relationships with people drives everything that FLUPP does, how it unlocked opportunities for a great number of people, and how important that sense of power and quality was for the communities. And how, rather than seeing the time spent with people as a distraction from the terribly-important-work-that-must-be-done, it is the site of the most significant work they do. I loved this approach, it felt like a liberation.

Over the last couple of years, my work has often felt like a grand exercise in window dressing, where being seen to be impressive and highly literary by funders was more important than being of value for people, where the finances of the art, and the intellectualism of that art for the few were more significant than the many who create and consume it. As such, Hay Cartagena was a natural and exciting place to be, that same milieu in which I have operated for a while. Where valuable, interesting things happen, but they happen in an elite place out of the reach of the many. But it was in conversation with Jonathan Levi, and with FLUPP that my heart skipped and my values entwined with the work I saw. I'm fascinated by the impact high quality audience development could have in challenging the perception of the arts as elitist, in actively spreading access more widely, in encouraging deeper engagement, and in creating social benefit for people while also producing even more knowledgable, skilled, and confident audiences for the exceptional artists we already have.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the less I can see the value of significant state funding for art that doesn't have a distinctly social impact. At least in music and literature, two art forms in which the production of high quality art is perfectly well served by commercial enterprise. I'm not sure exactly what will come after my Fellowship ends in July, but I am committed that it will be about process first, and that people and art together will be focus. I'm planning a piece of research exploring best practice and the construction of a coherent programme for audience development. This feels an exciting place to be as I crack on with my Clore Fellowship.

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