Monday, 23 September 2013

Edinburgh World Writers' Conference

The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, presented jointly by the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council, was a year-long series of events that brought together writers from around the world to discuss and illuminate how writing is, or can be, an essential component of society.  The conversation began in August 2012 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where 50 world-renowned writers initiated discussion of the five themes: censorship and freedom of speech; the future of the novel; nationality and national identity in the novel; novels and their relationships with current affairs; style vs. content. The closing debates took place at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last month.

In between Edinburgh and Melbourne, the EWWC visited Berlin, Cape Town, Toronto, Krasnoyarsk, Jaipur, Brazzaville, Izmir, Brussels, Beijing, Port of Spain, St Malo, Lisbon, and Kuala Lumpur, giving writers in different countries and on different continents the chance to add their voices to the global debate about literature and its relationships to contemporary life. By the time it closed, the Conference had provided 67 hours of live discussion, relayed all around the world via social media, from 281 authors representing 61 countries.

I asked Tanya Andrews, consultant, British Council literature, and project manager for the EWWC to reflect on this exciting and ambitious programme.   

I asked her which she considered the EWWC's most important achievements? "Many participants said the chance to discuss the issues facing writers and writing in a rigorous, open context as international peers has been invaluable - that’s something we’re very proud of having been able to provide. Through hosting the Conference, we aimed to build the most complete picture of writing and its relationship to our lives ever attempted - and I think we can say we’ve achieved that."

Which, in her opinion, were the most electrifying moments? "In Edinburgh Ben Okri reading the Authors’ Statement in reference to the State of Arizona’s law effectively censoring works by Latino authors, as brought to the Conference’s attention by Junot Diaz;  in Beijing Sophie Cooke reading a poem by imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波); the huge crowds and energy of the audiences in Jaipur, the intensity and engagement surrounding the final sessions in Melbourne. It’s been quite a journey."

Which of the themes generated most discussion worldwide? "Overall the theme a national literature was taken up by the greatest number of countries, 11. That to me is fascinating, and indicative of the thirst for conversations about national identity, and about the power of literature as a mirror people hold up as a way of looking at themselves from the outside, from the inside.  To be immersed in the very real, contemporary concerns of writers discussing national literature from a Bosnian perspective, from a Turkish perspective, from a Malaysian perspective, from a Russian perspective - that’s been a privilege, and an important, eye-opening one for me." 

In Asia, regimes often try to promote a so-called national literature to support their positions.  Was there any explicit discussion of this at the Asian events? "It was discussed at length in Turkey, in Sema Kaygusuz’ keynote address and the ensuing discussion. It was also discussed, more indirectly, in Malaysia. Velibor Colic also talked about it in reference to Bosnia."  (See here for EWWC discussions of national literature.)

Censorship is another live issue in Asia.  How did Tanya think the EWWC helped writers in countries where free speech cannot be assumed? "The Conference’s role was to foster engagement and interaction between writers and readers across boundaries - so the fact that we were able to work with partners in 15 different countries and that issues of censorship were widely and forthrightly discussed is an important end in itself." (See here for EWWC discussions of censorship and free speech.)

Was Tanya pleased with responses to the EWWC in Asia? "Delighted. Our Asian editions between them covered all five themes and generated some lengthy and highly engaged debates. I’m thrilled that the voices, opinions and words of outstanding writers from the region were able to be shared on this world platform."

How did the EWWC guarantee each edition had its own local integrity? "In each city, participants were selected by the host programmer, working with the British Council locally and with input also from Edinburgh Book Festival and the British Council in London. That way each event was rooted in the host country’s concerns; so for example in Malaysia the main programming impetus came from the Cooler Lumpur Festival, with input from British Council Malaysia, and the UK EWWC team."

Are there plans to repeat the EWWC? "Not any time soon - it was a major undertaking and feels like a once in a generation concept."

Well, if it were to be repeated, what might be new themes? "This Conference, there was much discussion at Edinburgh of the issues writers face in the digital age in terms of copyright, a statement was circulated there, which continued to be discussed at events around the world, and to which authors are still adding their names. I think in future we'd probably discuss technology, and the way it is influencing literature and writers’ lives. The way we access literature, how much time readers allocate to it, how market forces impact on it in the digital age - they’re all big questions."

Physical, printed books might represent an old technology, but it's hard to beat them. Is there a book in the pipeline, pulling together the main discussions generated by the EWWC? "This has always been an aim for the project. We hope to be able to make an announcement soon."

I'll keep you posted.  

For more information, including keynote speeches, the EWWC blog, and links to Twitter and Facebook see

British Council:

Edinburgh International Book Festival: