Towards the establishment of a hub for literary exchange and translation in Malta

Valetta Bus Station, Malta

Valetta Bus Station, Malta

by Dan Gorman

One of the main topics of discussion here in Valetta has been the establishment of a ‘hub’ for literary exchange and translation, physically located here in Malta, and potentially forming part of the Valetta 2018 Capital of Culture portfolio. The remit of this hub would be to facilitate literary exchange and translation, around the Mediterranean and beyond. There was a lot of discussion as to the limits of this exchange, both geographical and political and the question of identity raised its head throughout the proceedings. Is there such a thing as Mediterranean identity? And if not, is this something we want to create? And if we are talking about the EuroMed, how do we do so whilst bearing in mind the colonial legacy involved?

The ‘hub’ as I see it could provide a focal point for these discussions, for cross collaboration and cross pollination of literature and ideas around the Mediterranean. Mobility and migration have also been key topics of this weekend, and one of the reasons Malta has been raised as a possible location for this hub is its location and the ease of access; however this ease of access is clearly not the case for all. It’s difficult to be on Malta without discussing migration. As was mentioned during the conference ‘in terms of EU external relations, Malta has the sole role of an exclusionary force’ and there has been much criticism of the Maltese authorities detention policy. There are many people in Malta working extremely hard to counter and challenge these policies, both in Malta and across the region. Whilst in Malta the work of the Jesuit Refugee Services have been mentioned to me many times, and their website provides a good reference point for information about migration and Malta.

A literary exchange and translation hub could provide a space for discussion and exchange, where these topics could be explored freely and openly both by those physically located here and through a range of virtual resources. This project could represent and celebrate the plurality and diversity of the populations in Malta, Europe and the Mediterranean, a point which has been made by many of those working on the project.

One of the true pleasures of being here in Malta has been meeting the Inizjamed organisers. Initzjamed is an NGO which is ‘committed towards the regeneration of culture and artistic expression in the Maltese Islands and actively promotes a greater awareness of the cultures of the Mediterranean. Inizjamed is a secular, non-partisan organization that acknowledges that every generation must seek to create its own language and both respond to realities of its day and look beyond them’. Initizjamed is composed of a group of incredibly dedicated individuals and has a great standing in Malta. They organise an annual literature festival here and as part of this have hosted a number of poets who have previously taken part in Reel Festivals, including both Golan Haji and Rasha Omran from Syria. There is a willingness to engage with the wider world, and with seemingly complex issues through the arts which makes me feel very positive about the establishment of the hub here.

And then of course these is the wider group, made up largely of Literature Across Frontiers network members. The discussions here have been extremely stimulating. Representatives from organisations from Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Spain, as well as ‘wider Europe’ have been involved. This network is one focused on openness and inclusivity, and as such will continue to grow. A number of difficult topics were broached over the course of this weekend, and disagreements were had. I salute the fact that these were not shied away from, but were discussed openly. This focus on a plurality of opinion, on mobility of both people and ideas, can form a basis of literary exchange and translation and can in turn provide tools for challenging exclusion. My thanks to Literature Across Frontiers for making these discussions possible, to Inizjamed, Valetta 2018 for their great hospitality, and to all the participants for making them so enjoyable and productive.

Dan Gorman is the director of Firefly International and coordinates Reel Festivals, a project which focuses on dialogue through arts events. He is Literature Across Frontiers’ guest blogger in Valletta this weekend.

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Day 2 – Get Political!

By Dan Gorman

Day two at the ‘Towards a Literary Exchange and Translation Strategy for the Euro-Mediterranean Region’ conference began with five short presentations, all on different topics and with different outlooks, but a central point weaved its way through the various discussions: Artists and cultural practitioners need to work together, get active on an international level and make sure our voices are heard. This does not mean that artists and cultural practitioners are somehow a separate group from the rest of society, but rather that arts are intrinsic to human life, and as such need to be represented and supported.

Luca Bergamo discusses political decision making

Luca Bergamo discusses political decision making

Luca Bergamo from Culture Action Europe set the bar high with a discussion of arts and sustainability, kicking off with the proclamation ‘we don’t want any more human beings on planet Earth’. A statement I would tend to agree with. His presentation then went on to include William Blake imagery and discussion of how ‘we urgently need stories to bring a new narrative of our future to life’. You can see an interview with Luca here: http://vimeo.com/63392539

Basma El Husseiny

Basma El Husseiny

Following this was Basma El Husseiny, director of Al Mawred Al Thaqafy, who gave an excellent overview of their work on cultural policy in a number of countries in the Arab world and the challenges they’ve faced as cultural practitioners in Egypt, both before, during and following the revolutions there (if indeed we can say that any of the revolutions are yet completed). Basma described how she got engaged in the world of cultural policy as a way to challenge the state monopoly on culture, a monopoly in the Syria case well described well by Cécile Boëx. Basma went on to outline the five key needs of those working in the cultural sector in the Arab world as she sees it, as follows:

  • Legislation
  • Funding
  • Information
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Awareness of Sector (both in terms of public awareness and internal awareness of each other)

In order to achieve these we need to work together: collaboration and cooperation is key. You can see an interview with Basma here: http://vimeo.com/63392899

To see more on Al Mawred Al Thaqafy’s work on Cultural Policies see here: http://www.mawred.org/en/services/cultural-policies

Tsveta Andreeva

Tsveta Andreeva

Tsveta Andreeva from the European Cultural Foundation, in the third keynote presentation, went on to pose the question ‘what is our vision of Europe’s cultural presence in the world? Is it Van Gogh and Raphael, or something more collaborative and current?’ She argued for the need for a coalition of independent producers across Europe to lobby the EU and ensure visibility and representation. There is a need for cultural producers to admit that our work is political and that culture is intrinsically linked to values such as freedom of expression and human rights.

These three panelists were followed by presentations from Alexandra Büchler, director of Literature Across Frontiers, and Karsten Xuereb from the Valetta 2018 Foundation. Alexandra began by highlighting the ‘Across’ in ‘Literature Across Frontiers’ with the point that literature is always mediated, there are always borders to cross in accessing literature. She then went on to sum up Literature Across Frontiers current work, flagging up a number of online resources, including:

http://www.transeuropeennes.eu/

http://tlhub.org/

http://arablit.wordpress.com/

Finally, Karsten Xuereb gave an overview of the vision of the V18 project. There was a lot to this, but to me what stuck out is the concept of working to make Valetta a ‘great city’, looking towards a possible future rather than a nostalgic past. Of course the definition of what a ‘great city’ is is subjective, however given the location of Malta, an outward looking project should be seen as key, as was highlighted during the Q&A following Karsten’s presentation. There was much discussion of the proposed hub for translation and literary exchange, a potential project which has been central to discussions at each of the Literature Across Frontiers strategy consultation workshops in this series, and which I will explore further in the next blog.

Today’s discussions highlighted to me the intrinsic political nature of the arts. All art needs to be seen in context, however that context must not overshadow the work, or provide lazy stereotypes and clichés. The debates today also highlighted the need for artists and cultural practitioners not to feel that they are in competition with one another, something which is easy to feel in the face of scarce resources. We need to build networks, work collaboratively, and speak up.

Dan Gorman is the director of Firefly International and coordinates Reel Festivals, a project which focuses on dialogue through arts events. He is Literature Across Frontiers’ guest blogger in Valletta this weekend.

Arrival in Malta

Hassan Blasim's 'The Iraqi Christ'

Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Iraqi Christ’

By Dan Gorman

Following on from meetings held in Istanbul and Beirut, we’ve now arrived in Malta for the Literature Across Frontiers conference ‘Towards a Literary Exchange and Translation Strategy for the Euro-Mediterranean Region’. The conference is grounded in years of research and solid partnerships, and one from which there is clear determination for concrete outcomes, with delegates from around the Mediterranean and beyond attending.

I’m just emerging from the Reel Iraq festival, which took place over 9 cities across the UK with over 50 events focused on literature, poetry, films, music and exhbitions from and for Iraq. Perhaps in homage to this one of the books I’ve brought with me is Hassan Blasim’s upfront and excellent ‘The Iraqi Christ’. Blasim was one of the guests at the Reel Iraq festival, and gave readings in both Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of it. However I’m shamefaced to admit that I personally am only half way through his latest book. Blasim has been acclaimed as ‘perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive’ and whilst in Scotland his book received a 5 star review from the Skinny. The fact that his work is available in translation is to be celebrated, he defiantly rejects the two dimensional caricature of victim or aggressor shorthand which is liberally applied to those living in conflict.

The beauty of an organisation like Literature Across Frontiers is that through them a whole world of possibilities opens up. In order to cross borders both physical and imagined, literary exchange and translation plays a vital role. As ever more restrictions to migration appear and with an increasing focus on migrants as the problem (in the UK the caricature of ‘Benefit Tourists’ is appearing with increasing frequency), literature in translation permits voices outside the national boundary or dominant language to speak, it provides a ‘voice’ to counter dehumanising policies.

As Reel Festivals we have borne the brunt of evermore restrictive migration controls on numerous occasions, with artists, musicians and writers being refused visas for the UK. Alongside Blasim for Reel Iraq 2013 we aimed to host four Iraqi poets in the UK. Of these three managed to attend (Awezan Nouri, Zaher Mousa and Ghareeb Iskander). However audiences across the UK were denied the opportunity to hear Sabreen Kadhim read, as her visa was refused. An emerging and dynamic voice, Kadhim would have allowed audiences in the UK to have direct interaction with a female poet based in Baghdad. We are hopeful she will be able to join us later in the year.

Malta is a perfect location to host these discussions. For millennia Malta has been seen as a place of refuge and resilience, a resilience which was demonstrated in the Siege of Malta in World War Two, where over 3000 bombing raids were carried out by Axis troops. Malta has been a place of migration, to, from and through. And so it continues to be. As Valetta is awarded European Capital of Culture for 2018 a discussion focused on the possibilities of exchange and translation couldn’t be more timely.

Dan Gorman is the director of Firefly International and coordinates Reel Festivals, a project which focuses on dialogue through arts events. He is Literature Across Frontiers’ guest blogger in Valletta this weekend.