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How to stage a festival in a pandemic

Eivind Senneset

The third Bergen International Literary Festival took place on 10-14 February 2021. Festival director Teresa Grøtan sums up this year’s LitFestBergen.

Everything was ready for staging the festival, although with restrictions on audience numbers and with only authors based in Norway physically present at the Bergen House of Literature. Then full lockdown was announced three days before the opening day. What did you think then?

I think I’ve suppressed it. I can’t remember what I thought, or that I thought at all. I think I switched off my cerebrum and let the reptile brain take over – attack! In other words, roll up my sleeves and get to work.

We had produced an overview with three levels for each programme item to specify what we would do if authors from Oslo, for example, were unable to travel: which items would we present regardless, which we would have to change a lot but could still implement, and which we would have to postpone or cancel. And, yes – I also thought that implementing Literature Live Around the World would be more important than ever.

The festival became entirely virtual, and large parts of the main programme were implemented remotely along with the two major projects of the year – Literature Live Around the World and LitFestUNG, the wide-ranging youth programme. How did these go?

Our major commitments did very well. Literature Live Around the World – a 12-hour transmission from 12 countries across the globe was a crazy, fantastic, incredible and giddy journey. The highlights will be shown on Norwegian TV. I’ve just had a look through the figures, and we had almost 8 000 viewers. They came from at least 55 countries, as well as more than 1 000 who aren’t categorised geographically.

LitFestUNG also went very well, not least because the schools involved also had to go into lockdown just that week like everything else in Bergen. We had so many motivated and able youngsters who conducted fantastic and moving interviews with authors from both Norway and the USA.

Some came to the Bergen House of Literature with their teachers and conducted their interviews from the stage here, while others used Zoom from their own homes. And 1 600 classmates watched via YouTube – so this ended up as a valuable experience and something we’ll stick with and offer to even more schoolchildren in 2022.

Can you say a bit about Generations, the festival theme for 2021. Did you achieve what you wanted?

Generations was chosen because young people around the world face a tough future today. They’ll have to tackle the climate crisis, they face unemployment and difficult economic prospects, and I feel the generation gap – the failure of older people to listen to the young – is a problem.

This theme was utilised in several ways. We had a number of conversations between two generations of authors, where they discussed such issues as newspaper commentators, translation, climate crisis and freedom of expression.

In addition, the topic came up in various ways in other conversations – such as grandchildren’s view of the Second World War or the experiences of second-generation immigrants.

We also asked our partners in Literature Live Around the World to highlight the young, exciting voices in their countries, and we had an essay competition which was open to everyone under the age of 30 worldwide.

That competition on the subject of My Generation attracted 550 contributions from no less than 90 countries. What impression have you formed from reading texts by young people from Syria, Brazil, Zimbabwe, India and Kenya and many more nations?

The darkness in many of them. That got me to think back to my own youth. I wasn’t as afraid for the future as the young are today. On the contrary, I was looking forward to it. Naturally enough, I know a lot less about what it was like to be young in Zimbabwe and Brazil when I was a teenager in the 1990s, but my feeling is that the world was a more optimistic place.

At the same time, I experienced something else from reading the essays which I recognised – and that was the joy in literature, in expressing yourself, in writing. Some of the texts shone with the pleasure of composition. I was very touched by many of the contributions.

What surprised you this year, and what made you most proud?

I was most surprised by the number of countries contributing entries to the essay competition. Ninety of them – that’s quite astonishing. It was fascinating that we could reach out to so many young people worldwide simply with the help of Instagram.

And I’m most proud of Literature Live Around the World and LitFestUNG. There are several reasons for that, but I think the most important is that I have two clear goals – point the way to a more diversified literature, and get more people to understand everything literature can give.

What can the public expect from the festival in the future?

Ha ha. We have a lot of exciting things on the go. Just wait and see.

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