‘But We Don’t Know Who Else to Ask!’: Lit Festivals & Arab Writers

I do sympathize with lit-festival organizers. Certainly, if I were organizing a festival (and what a disaster that would be!), I, too, would want Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh to be in attendance.

And festivals apparently have done al-Shaykh a good turn. In the Literature Across Frontiers report on Arabic literature in translation (1990-2010), now due out May 20, al-Shaykh recalls:

“Because [the Adelaide] was a very prestigious festival, my manuscript ended up getting fought over by four mainstream publishers, just because of that public appearance. So festivals are important, especially when you are not very well known.”

But nowadays, al-Shaykh said she gets a goodly number of invitations and would rather spend more of her time writing. She says:

Sometimes when I’m invited to a festival [and turn it down] they say ‘But we don‘t know who else to ask!’ They haven’t heard of anyone else! So I feel like saying, go and do your homework!

Frankly, with websites like Arab World Books, Arab Women Writers, Beirut39, and many others, the homework isn’t so very taxing. There are any number of talented Arab writers—young, old, mid-career—who can be invited to a literary festival. Surely some of them will say yes to your fest.

But not all festivals are the Adelaide, and probably not many of them will set publishers to fighting over your manuscript—although that might depend on the quality of the manuscript. How worthwhile are the rest of the fests? The LAF report:

The concern is that there is a disproportionate lack of funding for actual books, compared to funding available for festival appearances and touring, as Comma Press‘s Ra Page stresses: “You have the ridiculous situation of dozens of Arabic writers being regulars on the festival circuit, appearing at festivals in the UK, Europe and America all year long, because of the demand by Radio-4-type listeners for that live experience!”


…a book may be cancelled at quite a late stage due to a shortfall of £2,000, which is roughly what the Beirut39 event spent on each panel member’s attendance at an event with an audience of 10 people.

So, are young Arab authors being asked to come “perform” at ten-person literary events for Radio4 listeners while their books remain untranslated? I’m not sure, although I also don’t know who a Radio4 listener might be. On the positive side, festivals do play a role in connecting writers and audiences. But if an author is flown a thousand miles just to read her work to a handful of people? (Cough.)