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A literary journey across the globe in a time of pandemic

Eivind Senneset

Twelve hours, twelve festivals, twelve countries – in a continuous marathon transmission. Literature Live Around the World (LLAW) can probably claim to be the largest digital literary collaboration ever. 

By Oda Flaten Lødemel

The year 2020 was a time of disruption, change and uncertainty. Restrictions implemented to combat Covid-19 hit the cultural sector particularly hard. Closed literature centres, theatres, cinemas and concert halls, and thousands of cancelled events, forced people to think differently about ways to communicate their messages and their art. 

Director Teresa Grøtan at the Bergen International Literary Festival (LitFestBergen) got tired of the limits imposed by Covid-19. One day, she stopped thinking about what was not permissible owing to all the restrictions, and asked herself what could actually be done. The answer to that question was a literary journey to 12 countries in five continents.

“The vision of the LLAW project has been to unite people and literature across the world,” Grøtan explains. “It’s a peace project, which aims to bring people, languages and cultures together. I want everyone to open up their minds to literature which is farther away from their own, and I want publishers to open up to literature they may not immediately grasp.” 

Worldwide audience 
LLAW was streamed on YouTube, and all its partners could embed the link on their own websites. The stream could also be seen on the American literary website and the one for the Global Association of Literary Festivals. 

Hosts Siss Vik and Mona B Riise from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) presented all 12 hours of live transmission from Bergen’s House of Literature.        

“Teresa’s vision was to unite the world and at the same time bring out the distinctive features of each country,” says Vik, culture journalist and host. “I really felt like we accomplished that.

“We’re all interested in many of the same things around the world, but we write, read and approach them differently. To come this close to the authors was a beautiful gateway into a dozen different cultures.” 

In a period dominated by social distancing, isolation and closed borders, LLAW is proof that uncertain times make for creative solutions. Grøtan points to her own naivety when asked about the scope of the event. 

“I suppose it’s sometimes a blessing to not quite grasp what I’m getting myself into,” she admits. ”Had I really understood the amount of work, people and money this project needed, I honestly wouldn’t have started it.”

But she is happy that she did, and that everything ran as smoothly as it did given the many possible challenges which a live digital event on this scale could present. Not to mention collaborating across all the different time zones. 

The journey
At 12.00 Norwegian time on 12 February, Vik and Riise went live from the House of Literature. Norwegian authors such as Karl Ove Knausgård, Gunnhild Øyehaug, Thomas Espedal and Kathrine Nedrejord took part in conversations about identity, upbringing, discrimination and, of course, Bergen’s rainy climate. 

After about an hour, the journey continued to sunny Perth in Western Australia, followed by beautiful Afghan folk music on stage and live in Bergen and a programme presented by the Writer’s House in Kabul, Afghanistan. 

From there, the journey continued to colourful Jaipur in India, presented by the Jaipur Literature Festival, with the mesmerising Carnatic singing of T M Krishna. Next stop was Dubai and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where host and festival director Ahlam Bolooki met authors Avni Doshi and Derek Owusu in front of a live audience. 

After that came a visit to Lagos, Nigeria, where the Aké Arts and Book Festival introduced poet Efe Paul Azino, followed by a cross-generational conversation about infertility between Nigerian authors Bolatito Adebayo and Mobolaji Adenubi.

Then to Argentina, where the Festival Internacional de Literatura de Buenos Aires (Filba) took us on beautiful journeys through different neighbourhoods in its city, as seen through the eyes of three young Argentinean writers – Mercedes Halfon, Mariano Quirós and Juan Ignacio Pisano.  

Back in Europe, the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland’s capital presented a new generation of marvellous Scottish authors and poets such as Nadine Aisha Jassat, Leyla Josephine and Beldina Odenyo (Heir of the Cursed).  

The next stage went to Lyon, France, and the Villa Gillet. Director Lucie Campos presented authors Joy Sorman, Virginie Despentes and Fatima Daas, who conversed on such themes as feminism and lesbian and Muslim identities in the Parisian suburbs. 

Then it was back to the Americas, to the Bay Area Book Festival (BABF) with Cherilyn Parsons as local host in Berkeley. She introduced viewers to two of the most renowned contemporary writers on the US west coast – Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. 

From there, the tour headed to Toronto, Canada, where the Toronto International Festival of Authors (Tifa), in partnership with Jayu, presented a broad variety of authors and poets. All represented a new generation in Canadian poetry, which plays with the rules and creates new ones, such as Jillian Christmas, Tawhida Tanya Evanson and Desiree McKenzie.

Finally, this extravagant literary journey reached its final destination: Treasure Beach in Jamaica. The Calabash Festival really did the grand finale proud, presenting as many as eight renowned Jamaican artists, poets and authors such as Mutabaruka, Ann Margaret Lim, Opal Palmer Adisa, Diana McCaulay and Olive Senior.

It was important for Grøtan that well-known and prestigious players such as the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Bay Area Book Festival wanted to join in. At the same time, however, she felt it was equally essential to invite smaller festivals from countries such as Afghanistan. 

“Geography is important, because if we’re not conscious of it, we often end up in the west,” she observes. “I’m thrilled and honoured that well-known and well-respected festivals wanted to join this crazy project, but it was also very important for me that every continent was represented.” 

She believes that establishing arenas where different cultures and different literatures can meet is crucial as a way of recognising oneself in “the other”, of understanding each other better, and of helping to preserve peace.

Technical support
In technical terms, an event like this requires a great deal of planning and support from logistics experts. Øyvind Storheim is head of Bergen-based company Kulturoperatørene and was responsible for the technical aspects and production at the House of Literature. He puts it this way:

“When Teresa called me in June, telling me about the idea for LLAW, I honestly thought it sounded crazy. But absolutely doable.”

He says an event like this is an extreme operation, which requires everyone to be online when they are supposed to be, and admits that working across different time zones is definitely challenging. 

A stable internet connection, much quality assurance and an open dialogue with local production companies in the respective cities were crucial for things going as smoothly as they in fact did.  

“Our only problem was some issues with unstable bandwidth at one point,” Storheim says. “However, it’s quite incredible to think that you can have authors in, say, the USA, sitting at home in different parts of the country, all connected at the same time, doing a livestream while having a chat with Mona and Siss here in Bergen. The internet has really revolutionised our ways of connecting and is definitely here to stay.”

He emphasises that Kulturoperatørene has learned a lot from taking part in this kind of production, including the importance of clear instructions and dialogue with partners. But it also shows how wonderful it can be when people from across the globe come together to create something like this, despite having essentially different points of departure and working conditions. 

Vik says she is impressed by Kulturoperatørene and the professionalism and eagerness of its staff throughout the production, and adds that she has never participated in anything similar.

“I’ve admittedly done double recordings of quiz programmes in the NRK TV studio, but nothing like this. Twelve hours is a long time. 

“Organising something of this kind is a challenge in many ways. It takes loads of e-mails and Zoom meetings and friendly reminders and misunderstandings to complete such a huge and varied programme. 

“The participating countries have delivered very differently, and it wasn’t always the countries we thought would be delayed which actually fell behind.”

Vik points to LLAW being a gateway to new literature, and says that she, for instance, is currently reading a Nigerian book about motherhood which is amazing. 

“It’s been a pleasure to experience so much incredible poetry, and to see how important the spoken word is in many countries. Edinburgh, Jamaica and Toronto really impressed me in that sense. And Canadian Britta B was a coup. All of us were really captivated by her.” 

She also thinks that Norwegians have a lot to learn about such issues such as indigenous rights: 

“We saw that identity is the big common denominator of our time. And that respecting and promoting the voices of indigenous peoples had a central place in the Australian, Canadian and Norwegian programmes. But we also have a long way to go.”

LLAW has left her with a powerful wanderlust:

“Right now I’m dreaming of travelling to these countries, visiting their festivals and experiencing night-time poetry in the deserts of Dubai, or on a beach in Jamaica.”

Cherilyn Parsons, who hosted the section of the programme from Berkeley, interviewed Teresa Grøtan and some of the other festival directors participating in LLAW for the literary website LitHub. Read more here:

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