Which Literary Festivals Should You Boycott?

Yesterday, ArabLit got an “urgent” email interview request about “the issues facing authors when deciding whether or not to attend literary festivals in places like UAE”:

boycottThis comes just ahead of the 2017 EmiratesLitFest. Last year, there were calls for international authors to boycott the festival, and this call gained some traction in European media. In response to the urgent request, I tossed together some very quick thoughts about the interviewer’s questions, given (unedited) below. I am planning to attend this year’s EmiratesLitFest, as well as the London Book Fair that follows. I’dd add that the climate-change argument is certainly a valid one, and if authors want to stop traveling internationally in order to shrink their footprint, that’s laudable.

I’m open to the idea that my answers below are moderately to very wrong; please add your own in the comments or over email.


1. What advice would you give to authors invited to literary festivals in the Middle East?
2. Are there any you think pose an ethical problem for authors wishing to attend?
3. Are there any that you think authors should attend and why?
4. What difference can authors make by attending literary festivals in countries with human rights issues?

Answers, provided backwards:

4. A handful of authors have made decisions not to attend literary festivals in the US/Trumplandia, and I absolutely applaud their integrity. About other countries with human rights issues: I don’t think it can make a positive difference unless there’s a unified boycott movement with a specific aim, as there is with the BDS movement to affect change in Israel. [Note from later: There was also a boycott of the Qatari translation conference demanding the release of the poet Muhammad al-Ajami. The poet has since been pardoned.] If writers want to make a positive difference, I would start by listening.

3. Cairo LitFest just ended, and my delight with global participation is entirely separate from my thoughts on Abdelfattah al-Sisi. I think these connections between literary communities, when allowed to grow organically, can be key in sparking and fertilizing new literary movements.

2. All actions create an opportunity for moral choices. Literary festivals funded by the Israeli government certainly create such a moral choice, as there is a BDS movement in place asking authors not to attend. Does attending the first-ever Saudi ComicCon in Jeddah make you complicit in the actions of the Saudi government? Does attending a US-sponsored event make you complicit in drone bombings? Each writer needs to make their own choices.

1. Read literature and literary history of the place where you’re going. Probably don’t go with the idea of saving anyone.