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Waltic on the Baltic

By Samantha Schnee

Last week over six hundred Writers and Literary Translators (WALT) convened in Stockholm for the inaugural International Congress (IC). Over ninety countries were represented by writers speaking—and writing—in a variety of languages. Taking its cue from the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, the congress' lofty goals were to take whatever action possible to: increase literacy, safeguard freedom of expression, and strengthen authors' rights.

Keynote speaker Mia Couto, a lusophone author from Mozambique, delighted the audience with tales of what could only be called misadventures in neo-colonialism, featuring Swedish environmentalists, a local tribe, and ghost-pigs that got lost in translation. Egyptian novelist Nawal al-Saadawi charmed attendees discussing her imprisonment; to paraphrase: "to be imprisoned is a very rich, important experience—you see the other face of the world, prostitutes, beggars," she said, sharing that one of the prostitutes in an adjacent cell smuggled her an eyebrow pencil and some toilet paper with which to write, "but you have to come out sane and safe." She said that what really lifted her spirits in prison was the collective power of the people outside those walls lobbying for her freedom. She added, "Transcendence does not come from luxury, only from suffering and pain."

Other highlights included a welcome speech by bestselling Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, who, together with fellow Swedes Jan Guillou and Bjorn Ulvaeus, created a fund to enable writers and translators from developing countries to attend WALTIC, and a series of talks under the rubric "life through letters," featuring grandes dames of belles lettres Herta Muller, Elena Poniatowska, and Assia Djebar. Perhaps the most surprising event was a panel on Cuba which predicted the normalization of US-Cuban relations in the very near future, largely due to the discovery of oil. The Q&A sessions at the end of each presentation seemed all too short, as attendees raised issues ranging from the "brain drain" in Africa to the "widening Atlantic." One thing speakers and participants seemed to agree on were the perils of group identity and nationalism.

On the final full day of the conference the Secretary of the Swedish Academy (which is responsible for selecting the Nobel Laureate in Literature) delivered a lecture on "The Nobel Prize: Dawn of a (New) Canon?" discussing, among other things, the principles underlying the Academy's policy over the last century (the wording in Nobel's will leaves a lot of room for interpretation). There are eighteen members of the Academy, and all are Swedes (or Finns), but laureates may nominate candidates as well. No hints were dropped, but this year's candidates have been notified and the decision is imminent, if it hasn't been made already. If our source is any good, this may be Murakami's year (in addition to his own work, Murakami has translated a number of English authors into Japanese). Let's hope s/he's right.

Published Jul 10, 2008   Copyright 2008 Samantha Schnee

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