Ben McConnell blogged about his experiences at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference during the Festival Etonnants Voyageurs in Saint-Malo (20- 22 May 2013).
For more than twenty years, the literary & film festival Étonnants-Voyageurs has summoned francophone writers from far and wide to join in the sleepy seaside medieval city of Saint-Malo to discuss the vital elements of their craft. Inspired by such fathers of travel writing as Stevenson and Conrad, its founder, Michel Le Bris, chose to create an international forum surrounding the ideas of travel literature and of a world literature. Indeed in this time of extreme globalization, it seems necessary that we have the opportunity to extend international dialogue beyond the strict confines of business and politics, and towards the human, the artistic and poetic realms in search of a mutual understanding.
Over the course of three days of intense debates, lectures, and literary cafes some two hundred writers gathered under this year’s theme of “Le monde qui vient” (The world to come) and were joined by an enthusiastic audience of many thousands. Despite the typically wet Breton weather there was a palpable energy in the air. Throughout the city each evening one could recognize huddled groups of writers smoking and conversing beneath awnings or gathered in leaning old bars engaged in animated conversation. The structure and formality of the day’s events seemed to spill over into a jovial nightlife sparking discussions between writers and readers alike.
The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference hosted their series of five debates in the Palais Du Grand Large overlooking the English Channel and the old Fort National. Saturday, Algerian author Boualem Sansal, whose books are currently banned in his homeland, introduced the first debate, Censorship Today. Sansal spoke of censorship historically and psychologically, but returned again and again to the climate of Islamic fundamentalism that he fears is hastily blotting out freedom of expression in the Arab world. Sansal related with absurdist humour being awarded the 2012 Editions Gallimard Arabic Novel Prize for his book “Rue Darwin” only to have it revoked before the fifteen thousand euro had been delivered. Although no one would admit to it, Sansal felt this was clearly a reaction by the Arab Ambassadors Council to his having attended the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival earlier in the year. Sansal said, “I went to Israel on principle, to demonstrate my power as a free man who does not obey orders.” He was told his award ceremony was indefinitely ‘postponed.’ Later, the entire jury resigned in protest, and a wealthy Swiss offered Sansal an equivalent consolation prize which he then donated to the A Heart For Peace foundation. Together with the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem they finance costly cardiac surgery for Palestinian children living in the West Bank.
“Ironically”, said Sansal, “silence has become a form of freedom; saying nothing is saying it all but it is also depriving yourself of any action, while the struggle for freedom requires, first and foremost, a practical commitment.” But at what cost?
Julien Mabiala Bissila from Brazzaville spoke of the violent censorship occurring at home, where it’s “safer to shut up” than risk imprisonment or mutilation. French writer Jean-Marie Blas de Robles mentioned that in a democracy such as France, censorship exists through financial groups and its partners, making it more insidious and therefore more accepted.
Throughout the weekend, the festival and the EWWC debates in particular were an intense source of high-caliber literary discussion. Revisiting the original debate topics from the Edinburgh International Writers’ Conference in 1962 provided not only a sense of where we’ve come from, but where we might be headed as well. Also, as a native English speaker – and I admit, I read mostly in English – I was delighted to discover several very impressive French writers whom I look forward to reading – in French of course.