Opening Today, Kuwait’s Growing Litfest Headines Randa Jarrar, Sinan Antoon

Today, the American University in Kuwait opens its bigger-and-better Biennial LitFest, one of a series of literary initiatives coming out of Kuwait:

These new initiatives, which include the new Almultaqa Prize for the Arabic short story, come at a time when Kuwaiti writers are strenuously pushing back against a suffocating period of censorship that started with a battle over books in 1998.

While censorships, including those of films, remain a problem, there is a decided literary flowering, pushed by writers like popular novelist Bothayna al-Essa, International Prize for Arabic Fiction winner Saud Alsanousi, and Almultaqa founder and novelist Taleb Alrefai.

These initiatives include this year’s AUK LitFest. Those in Kuwait can find the schedule on Nada Faris’s website. For the rest of us, ArabLit emailed with Asma Alkanan, Library Director at the American University of Kuwait, about the decidedly woman-dominated festival.

Is this the first such AUK litfest bringing in international authors? (If not, when did it start, who was part of the 2015 fest, etc.? There will be another such litfest in 2019?)

Asma Alkanan: The idea started earlier in 2013 by the Academic and Learning Support Services (AALSS) and has expanded lately into a literary festival co-organized by the University Library. In 2013, AUK successfully hosted the travel writer, historian, and Oxford scholar, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, whose re-imaginings and retracing the steps of the 14th century Moroccan traveler, Ibn Battuta, have captivated audiences across the globe. In 2015, the poet and performance artist Zeina Hashem Beck held discussions and workshops, and performed her poetry on campus and for the Kuwait community at Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyya (cultural center sponsored by the Kuwait National Council of Arts). The plan is to make the literary festival a biennial event and so it will be held again in 2019!

Was there some intentionality to choosing such a wonderfully woman-dominated list of writers? How did you choose/balance the group of writers/artists presenting?

AA:It wasn’t intentional to have a woman-dominated list. Actually, we invited over ten authors, including men and women. We tried to choose authors whose works are connected /relevant to the event theme. We also wanted to diversify the list by inviting authors from different backgrounds, but most of whom have migration experience or lived outside their home country for some time.

Were you interested in writers who had some link to Kuwait (Randa’s childhood time there, for instance)?

AA: Yes! We thought that would be interesting to our audience. Randa’s story would resonate with a segment of our society, their friends or families. In her novel A Map of Home, the main character and her struggles are relatable. So many childhoods have been interrupted by the Gulf War at that time.

Will events be in both English and Arabic?

AA: It will be in English. However, Sinan Antoon will recite poems in both Arabic and English.

Why the theme of “migration, identity, and cultural transformation”? What do you hope it will illuminate?

AA: Understanding the complexities of identity and the transformation through spatial and cultural border-crossing would help promote a better understanding of ourselves and one another. Also given that many children in the Middle East are forced by war or other factors to leave their homes, it is important to understand how being immigrants affects the lives of our young people.

Are you expecting mostly students or also members of the community? Who do you hope will attend? Do people need to register?

AA: The event aims to bring distinguished writers to celebrate readers and writers, and nurture literary interest and engagement in Kuwait through a series of lectures and workshops offered to the AUK and Kuwait communities. We are expecting participation from students, faculty, and the larger community in Kuwait. We hope that Kuwait readers and literature lovers will join us. The event is open to the public. No registration is required.