Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » Belgium http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org The website for the 2012-13 Edinburgh World Writers' Conference Thu, 31 Oct 2013 16:37:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.2 EWWC Highlights Film http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/#comments Thu, 12 Sep 2013 15:43:51 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5435 EWWC Highlights Film Watch this video showcasing the highlights of the festival throughout the past year]]> Watch this video showcasing the highlights of the EWWC festival throughout the past year, and read more about the Conference on our About the Conference page. ]]> http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/all-presentations/ewwc-highlights/feed/ 0 Stella Duffy on EWWC Brussels http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/stella-duffy-on-ewwc-brussels/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/stella-duffy-on-ewwc-brussels/#comments Thu, 18 Apr 2013 12:11:36 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4355 Our friends at British Council Belgium interviewed novelist Stella Duffy last month on the occasion of the EWWC Brussels event:

“In Belgium for the first time last month, Stella was here to take part in the Brussels edition of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference (EWWC), a series of events bringing writers together across the globe to contribute to the growing debate about literature and its relationship to contemporary life. The theme of the debate in Brussels was “A National Literature?”, a subject on which Stella was keen to have her say. “The idea of there being a British national literature sort of confuses me anyway, making it ripe for a good discussion! The range of people in Britain is amazingly interesting – rather than there being a particular ‘national identity’, there are so many different ‘national identities’. One of the reasons the different regions of the UK are so important is because they didn’t used to speak the same language. There’s an incredible diversity in dialogue which comes through in prose, which is one of the things that makes British writing so exciting.”

Read the full interview here.

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“The very notion of nationhood is hard to pin down” – Claire Montgomery reports on EWWC Brussels http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/the-very-notion-of-nationhood-is-hard-to-pin-down-report-from-the-ewwc-brussels/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/the-very-notion-of-nationhood-is-hard-to-pin-down-report-from-the-ewwc-brussels/#comments Thu, 04 Apr 2013 13:56:23 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4302 Kapka Kassabova and Rachida Lamrabet in Brussels

Kapka Kassabova and Rachida Lamrabet in Brussels

Overview from the ‘National Literature’ debate in Brussels

When we first heard that the chosen theme for the Brussels leg of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference was A National Literature?, I have to admit we were slightly nervous about the whole thing. We’d proposed to invite authors from Belgium, Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland and Northern Ireland – countries where there are so many sensitivities surrounding the word ‘nationality’ – and at first, it seemed almost dangerous to let them get on a stage and say whatever they wanted. Perhaps, we thought, it might be better to choose another, ‘safer’ theme…

As it happens, however, I’m glad we didn’t. We really couldn’t have chosen a more fitting topic to discuss in the heart of Brussels’ European quarter. This is a city in which almost 30% of the population are foreign nationals; where the 27 EU nationalities come together every day to work in 23 languages.  It should have been obvious that Brussels was always going to bring a fresh perspective to the National Literature? debate.

Kapka Kassabova kicked off the evening’s discussions with a beautifully delivered key note speech, in which she described that the idea of ‘a national literature’ gives her a headache. The very notion, she argued, is hard to pin down, linked to a multitude of different questions that are difficult (if not impossible) to answer. In exploring the theme of the evening, our panellists were forced to ask themselves: ‘Who am I?’; ‘What is my home?’; ‘Who are my people?’; ‘What does this all mean?’

It’s not difficult to see why these questions might have been hard to grapple with. Just like the many members of our audience who had moved from country to country and learned to express themselves in a new language, many of our writers admitted to feeling unsure of exactly how to define themselves. Christopher Meredith and Arthur Riordan, for example, said they know they are regarded as a ‘Welsh writer’ and an ‘Irish writer’ respectively, but only feel themselves to be so when they are outside of their home country. Rachida Lamrabet is bilingual and has dual nationality (Moroccan and Belgian), but fears that she can’t be loyal to one national identity without being disloyal to the other. Stella Duffy described having the ‘English’ or ‘British’ label stamped on her as a matter of routine, when she’s far more content to be regarded as a Londoner. ‘Why,’ she asked, ‘can all of your life not be your nationhood? Why can’t we simplify things?’

In the modern world, characterised by globalisation, accessible travel and information, you would think that readers and critics would welcome our writers’ admissions of confusion. After all, everyone agreed that writing and reading the experiences of others can help us to construct our identities, especially in cases of exile (Kundera, Nakobov and Milosz were cited as good examples of this.) Interestingly, though, our panellists felt that readers and publishers were keen to see their work compartmentalised, filed away into neat little drawers marked: ‘Irish’, ‘English’, ‘familiar’ or ‘foreign’ – any label that would give an indication of whether it fits with an agreed norm and narrative.

From exploring these issues, we got to the root of a growing problem in the literary world today. Whilst the stories of authors have moved on from a mono-faceted ‘national literature’ in the true sense of the word, readers and critics are struggling to adjust their perceptions to accommodate the change. Stella Duffy gave the example of the ingrained assumption that characters she writes about who live in London are white and middle class, when in reality, the ethnic and socio-economic mix in the city is extremely diverse. Rachida Lamrabet, in the second key note speech of the evening, described her readers’ perception that her characters from stories based in Antwerp are ‘strange, exotic individuals that have nothing to do with them’, just because they have foreign-sounding names. We seem to have become so obsessed with the idea of ‘home’ and the ‘nation’ that we just can’t see past them.

Another problem identified related to this was the prevalence of English in the publishing industry. Everyone agreed that globalisation has imported a power that comes with speaking and writing in the language, but lamented the fact that this means that writing is so often ‘lost in translation’ or even worse, just not read at all. The point was driven home beautifully when Gearoid MacLochlainn took the floor to read his poem, Aistriúcháin, and everyone looked slightly uneasy. There he was, exotic-sounding Irish words tripping off his tongue, and almost no-one had the faintest idea what he was talking about. Of course, we expected a translation and we got one, but it was full of reproach for making him turn the ‘red wine’ of his native tongue into ‘Coca Cola.’

In her introductory remarks to the conference, Kapka Kassabova stressed the importance of ensuring that the theme of A National Literature? is always punctuated with a question mark, and I think this was particularly appropriate given the many questions it raised in Brussels. Two hours just didn’t seem to be long enough to figure out what the word ‘national’ meant, never mind whether there’s such a thing as a literature related to it. Roland Gulliver, the conference chair, had the unenviable task of trying to rein everyone in and bring the event to some kind of conclusion, but everyone seemed reluctant to end the debate. In fact, it continued for hours afterwards at our conference reception, and it was only when our venue, the Goethe Institute, was closing that we had to lay the subject to rest, at least for the remainder of the evening. After all, it was quarter to eleven and most of us had work in the morning.

I was all ready to go home, phone poised in my hand to call a taxi, when I noticed some of our writers and audience members trickling across the road from the venue, all seeming to be heading in the same direction. Undeterred by the fact that the conference was over for the night, they were heading to continue the discussions elsewhere.  Work or not work in the morning, it would have been rude not to join them…

Claire Montgomery

The authors at EWWC Brussels

The authors at EWWC Brussels


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Lamrabet in Brussels – Keynote on A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/lamrabet-in-brussels-keynote-on-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/lamrabet-in-brussels-keynote-on-a-national-literature/#comments Thu, 21 Mar 2013 19:15:53 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4195 Rachida640A National Literature

Keynote address given by Rachida Lamrabet

First presented at The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Brussels


Rachida Lamrabet keynote text: “A National literature”

A few months ago I was invited to give a lecture for the occasion of the 200th
anniversary of the great 19th century Dutch writer Hendrik Conscience, the man
who taught his people, The Flemish, to read. This writer played a historical role
in defining the identity of Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium.

Conscience wrote ‘The Lion of Flanders’ an epic novel about the brave
Flemish resistance in the Battle of the Golden Spurs of 1302 against the French
dominancy. He wrote in Dutch which was quite revolutionary. Flemish
writers of his time and those who came far behind him, were only taken
seriously if they wrote in French.

The Flemish writer Maurice Maeterlinck, our only Nobel prize winner for
literature, said for instance that the Dutch language was “un coassement de
grenouilles, mis en grammaire”. Or in plain English; “the croaking of frogs put
into grammar”. Maeterlinck wrote in French.

Conscience defended the importance of the Dutch language through his
literature and played a major role in promoting the idea of a Flemish people. He
adhered to the idea ‘that language is the whole of the people’.

And those who read him began imagining a nation for that Dutch speaking
people. Unfortunately, it is that very idea that divides today our country.

Conscience’s legacy became an important symbol of the Flemish movement, a
movement which at its worst was not afraid to go in alliance with Nazism and

So you can understand that I was unenthusiastic towards the kind of national
literature that Conscience represented because it was too often used to define
a rigid notion of people and of citizens, it was used to justify a politics of
exclusion, and it caused an obsession with identity. Referring to a national
literature was in my eyes referring to something archaic and closed, a monolith
that would not change even if the world was changing.

I felt more comfortable with Ben Okri who said ‘I was born in the world and
I’m at home in the worlds myths’.

So when I was asked to say something about the meaning of Conscience for
me as a writer who came in the seventies with my parents from the north of
Morocco to this brave new country, it was that idea of an almost hostile national literature that dominated my thoughts.

A national literature that I could not touch or add something to it, for it left no
room for other stories because these other stories where simply not considered
to be part of the national patrimony, and they weren’t considered to be part of
the collective narrative.

Sure, these other stories could be very interesting and informative, but they
remained the stories of the others, stories from the periphery, who could
never affect or alter what was considered as the centre and the norm. As
Marc Cloostermans, a book reviewer of one of the two important Flemish
newspapers, puts it plainly; ‘Sure, we like to read allochthonous writers, but
only if they meet our criteria and if they make bold statements we secretly

Here you have it, there is even a word to describe writers like me, I’m
considered to be a special kind of writer; I am called an allochtoon writer. Let
me explain to you what that word means, because there is no equivalent for it in
English. It sounds unfriendly. I can assure you, it is unfriendly.

The word Allochtoon has a Greek origin and means ‘someone who came from
elsewhere’, in opposite to the word autochtoon, which is used to indicate the
Flemish people and means ‘pure, came from the land’. The reality in this
society is that there is a semantic division on the grounds of ethnic origin. You
either are an allochtoon, from the outside or an autochtoon, from the land.

The only chance to get rid of the allochtoon label in this part of the world is
to be a brilliant soccer player who leads the national team to victory and fame.
Guess it’s too late for me to make a career in soccer and so for writers like me,
it is not obvious to just be part of that great guild of writers.

Regardless of the fact that I write in Dutch, my writing is not considered to
meet the norm that has been set out by the centre. I write about identity, about
migration and a changing super diverse world. That is the kind of world we live
in today here in this country, and yet, some readers and critics are convinced
that my literature has nothing to do with them; it is the literature of the others,
as opposed to national literature. I write about Antwerp and readers would talk
to me about my work as if I had described a world far away from them. My
characters are strange exotic individuals for the mere fact that their names are
Younes, Mariam and Marwan and not Isabel, Jan or Peter.

I’m not so very young anymore, but I’m still very naïve and I thank God for
that, that’s why I decided to challenge myself for my lecture about Conscience,
I wanted to emphasize the things we had in common. I wanted to draw a line
between Conscience’s writing then at his time and in his troubled society where
his language was not recognized and me writing today in my society, which
had transformed to a place where you can see the world. In Antwerp, Brussels
and Ghent alone you have over 170 different nationalities living together and
these people brought their languages, their stories and their convictions to this
country. For me the main question was how the dominant society reacts upon
claims of recognition of one’s own cultural identity. I think that the way that
society responds to those claims can tell us a lot about how that society defines
itself and how self-confident it is in a changing world.

I had the brilliant idea, so I thought, to make a comparison between
Consciences’s striving for recognition and the aspirations to cultural
emancipation of the new minorities in Belgium. I wanted to show how
literature could be of help when you are trying to form an identity and trying to
define your place in the world.

I tried to connect the search for identity of young citizens with non-European
roots and Conscience’s cultural and linguistic struggle. I was convinced that in
his time Conscience asked himself the same questions as do the young men and
women who live today in the big cities of this country. Questions like; ‘Who
am I? Where do I belong to? What is home and what does language mean to

And then off course, I went too far, I crossed the line, I came too close, and
asked my audience what Conscience would think of Dyab Abou Jahjah, the
former leader of the demonized organization the AEL, the Arab European
League, which advocated for the emancipation of the Arabs in Europe and
Belgium. Jahjah launched the provocative idea to make Arabic one of the
national languages of this country. My audience, mainly white and middle class,
was not amused I can assure you.

That idea encountered resistance in the audience because there was the fear
that their constructed national identity, a Flemish identity which has been
obtained after a hard battle, would be transformed by multicultural, non Flemish
compatriots into something else. I could see the horror in the eyes of my
audience. And it is also that fear that makes it difficult to really open up to
other stories, to let those stories really change ideas, opinions, and the way
we look at things. As long as they don’t get too close and risk changing the
norm, then these stories are ok. But for how long can a society shut out its own

Not for very long, because it bangs at the door.

In fact, this evening, I declined an invitation to a funeral in the city of Ghent, 50
km from Brussels. The funeral of a word.

The city of Ghent decided, on the instigation of a few organizations and artists,
not to use the word allochtoon anymore. And at this very moment, on the
international day against racism, there is in the town hall of Ghent a funeral
ceremony going on. And when the word is buried there will be an enormous
feast, perhaps we could all, after this, take the train and join the people of Ghent
for this celebration of the semantic birth of citizens. History is made by people
who have a lot of imagination.

Thank you.

Copyright: Rachida Lamrabet, 2013


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Kassabova in Brussels – Keynote on A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/kassabova-in-brussels-keynote-on-a-national-literature/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/kassabova-in-brussels-keynote-on-a-national-literature/#comments Thu, 21 Mar 2013 19:15:27 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4207 KKBVAA National Literature

Keynote address given by Kapka Kassabova

First presented at The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Brussels


Kapka Kassabova keynote text: “A National Literature?”

Last year at the Olympic event Poetry Parnassus, I represented Bulgaria. I accepted
the invitation because it was an honour, but felt like a fraud – our family emigrated
from Bulgaria twenty years ago, and I write in English. In the past, because I was
living and publishing in New Zealand, I attended festivals as a New Zealand writer
– and again, I felt like a fraud. Today, I’m honoured to be here as a writer from
Scotland, a country I love and feel at home in, and I’m still struggling with that
fraudulent feeling.

In short, the idea of National Literature gives me a headache. The headache escorts
me to public events where you must appear not just with your name and your book,
but with your nation too. You must be escorted, as if you can’t be trusted on your

The headache comes from a clash between the private and the public. Between my
instinct, shared by many writers, to unsubscribe from the collective, and the collective
claim which is what all things ‘national’ do, they claim – national literature, national
identity, national sport, national pride, national shame, national history… The list is
long and to me, as someone from the Balkans, depressing. The 19th century was in
love with nationhood. And the 20th demonstrated in detail just how nationality, like
ethnicity and religion, is an accident – sometimes a lucky escape, sometimes fatal. An
unnamed child during the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia, clearly a born poet, had the last
word on this: ‘I love my country, because it is small and I feel sorry for it.’

When we say ‘national literature’, we are uttering an anguished cry. The very
construct ‘national literature’ is an expression of a nostalgic desire for a home that
can be written in terms of nation. It’s a desire for innocence. Nation as family, mother
tongue as home. How lovely. And how dangerous.

We understand a place through the art that comes out of it. Books, pictures, music,
this is what endures when other things go – political fashions, golden ages, nature
itself. I live in the Highlands, an area of sublime natural beauty, and every day I see
another forest come down, and a pylon replacing it. When the forests are gone, what
is left are the stories of the forests. Sooner or later, a place becomes its literature.
So the real question we’re asking when we say ‘national literature’ is Where is my
home? What is this place? Who are my people?

We might say that in the global era, this is an irrelevant question, and I think it is
privately irrelevant to most people. But it acquires momentum in public. I’ve seen it
discussed in Bulgaria and Britain among others, each country like a family carrying
its ancestral baggage and looking for somewhere to lay it down.

So here’s a suggestion. What if, in this young century where we are simultaneously
victims and beneficiaries of globalisation, there are already two meanings of the word
nation: the traditional and the spiritual. We are familiar with the traditional nation-
state. It has a capital and a periphery (the Diaspora), it’s attached to an approved
language in which it writes its Literature, and it’s in love with its own myths and

monuments. The Roma make other Europeans nervous because they are a nation
without a state – you can’t even tell them, in the international language of the thug –
to ‘go home’. They don’t have one, except in music. From Rajasthan to Andalusia,
via the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the Romany Gypsies are a nation of Music. This
is not to say their plight is romantic – being the underdog is not romantic. It is to say
that Gypsy music distils all human exile. Not unlike jazz, the blues, and the tango,
created in Argentina and Uruguay by immigrants and the dispossessed, and now
consecrated by UNESCO as intangible human heritage.

Back at Poetry Parnassus, I discovered that the poet from Turkmenistan Ak Welsapar
lives in Sweden, and Nikola Madzirov, the poet from Macedonia lives, in his own
words, out of a suitcase. The poet from Australia, John Kinsella, is so opposed to
nationhood that he once asked for a Red Cross passport (he was denied it). When I
asked Christodoulos Makris, the poet from Cyprus who lives in Ireland, how he felt
about the Olympic thing, he said: Well, I could equally be representing Ireland, or
Britain. Many poets of course lived in their original homelands and wrote in their first
language. The point is, this Parnassian gathering was a mini-nation in itself: a nation
of Poetry. I was among my people – those for whom poetry is more important than
other things. I felt at home, because home, as the poet Christian Morgenstern said, is
where they understand you.

On the question of home, here is a haiku by the 17th century poet Basho:

‘Even when I am in Kyoto
When I hear the call of the cuckoo
I miss Kyoto.’

I’ve never been to Kyoto, but I miss Kyoto too, because this haiku is not a patriot’s
song, it’s a spiritual incantation. A yearning for the union of the material – which is
not enough – with the imagined. Kyoto chiming with the idea of Kyoto.

I spent my childhood in Bulgaria in the company of books and languages, as if
they were passports that would lead me out into the world. Like many kids, I was
homesick for the world. Home ceases to be home when the door is removed, and
the Berlin Wall was the opposite of a door. Reading was my ‘internal emigration’,
my cure for homesickness. Even though I was in Sofia, when I heard the tinkling of
the trams, I missed Sofia. Which is why I wrote the memoir Street Without a Name
twenty years later. When we leave our families or homelands to become more fully
ourselves, they haunt us, doubly real with the call of the cuckoo.

Joyce Carol Oates says that for most writers, ‘the art of writing is the use to which
we put our homesickness.’ It makes sense: exile is our essential condition. We are all
exiled – from a landscape, from an original homeland, from our own unlived lives. In
German, it’s Weltschmerz. In Portuguese, saudade. In Spanish, tanguidad, a state of

I am yet to hear a writer say they write to be included in a canon of national literature.
How could you? People move countries. Countries move people. The literature of
a nation is a mirage because the concept of nation is a mirage. Stories, however,

The Scottish-born Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the world’s most translated authors
who died in Samoa and is buried there with his American wife, is to world readers
simply a favourite writer. And so with favourite books: Treasure Island, Peter Pan,
Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Prince, these are books we grow up
with, before we even learn the word nation. The novels of Ismail Kadare are read by
people who know nothing about Albania. I first discovered Morocco – and Moroccan
writers – through the fiction of Paul Bowles, an American-born writer. One of my
favourite books about Argentina is written by the Polish-born Witold Gombrowicz
who went on a ‘casual’ visit to Buenos Aires and ended up staying for twenty four
years. Kafka is almost his own noun, synonymous not with a country or a language,
but with the 20th century – that lover of ideas, that enemy of life.

These writers’ worlds are cosmopolitan, yet pungently rooted in specific reality, with
all the quirks of place and personality. Cosmopolitanism mustn’t be confused with
Coca-Cola. It doesn’t have to breed cultural homogeneity. It is the freedom to come
and go, or indeed stay, without the urge to wave a flag. We Europeans, especially,
can’t afford to snub that freedom – if we are to have a future.

We are surrounded by what Nabokov described with the Russian word poshlust, ‘the
falsely important, the falsely beautiful’, a form of public kitsch. It’s what advertising
gurus and tribal rhetoricians specialize in. Tribal allegiances, like shopping, give us
the illusion of a self, the sugar-pill of familiarity, but it’s never enough if the spirit
centre is missing. The real task in all our lives is to find a true spiritual home.

This is the point Diogenes was making when he walked around Athens with a lantern,
looking ‘for an honest man’. When asked where he was from, he said kosmopolites
– a citizen of the universe. In defiance to the city-state which demanded citizenly
obedience, his allegiance was to common humanity. He lived in an empty tin and he
was a free man.

I’m not suggesting we all get ourselves an empty tin. I’m making a humanist call,
in the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment. Instead of going on a state-visit to the
mausoleum of National Literature, let’s inhabit the living cosmopolis of books, art,
and music. There are no borders and no one will ask the purpose of your visit or tell
you to ‘go home’.

Copyright: Kapka Kassabova, 2013

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KASSABOVA & LAMRABET – A National Literature http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/lamrabet-kassabova/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/lamrabet-kassabova/#comments Thu, 21 Mar 2013 12:34:15 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4026 Edinburgh World Writers' Conference, Brussels
Thursday 21 March 6:30pm CET A National Literature Keynote by: Kapka Kassabova & Rachida Lamrabet. Panel authors are: Stella Duffy, Christopher Meredith, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, Arthur Riordan. Chair: Roland Gulliver. ]]> Kassabova-and-RachidaEdinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Brussels

Thursday 21 March 6:30pm CET

A National Literature

Keynote by: Kapka Kassabova & Rachida Lamrabet

On the panel are authors Stella Duffy, Christopher Meredith, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn and Arthur Riordan. Event Chair: Roland Gulliver

Presented by the Scottish Government EU Office in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council, in association with the Northern Ireland Executive Office, the Welsh Government and the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU.

The event takes place at the Goethe Institute, Rue Belliard, 58, 1040, Brussels.


Author Biographies

Kapka Kassabova  grew up in Sofia and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, her family emigrated to New Zealand where she studied French literature and published her first poetry and fiction in English. After moving to Britain in 2004, she wrote the childhood memoir Street Without a Name, short-listed for the Prix du livre européen. Her novel Villa Pacifica is set in South America, and her travel memoir, Twelve Minutes of Love (short-listed for the 2012 Scottish Book Awards) is a story of Argentine tango and the search for home. Kapka’s latest poetry collection is Geography for the Lost. After years in Edinburgh, she now lives in the Scottish Highlands.

Rachida Lamrabet is a Belgian author and lawyer descended from a Moroccan family. She works for the Centre for Equality of Opportunity and Opposition to Racism in Brussels. In her work with the Centre, Lamrabet regularly encounters discrimination due to race and ethnicity. These experiences largely influence her writing which focuses heavily on minorities’ struggles with identity and migration. In addition, she speaks out against perceived xenophobia in Belgian politics and has been especially critical of the right wing Vlaams Belang party. She made her literary debut in 2006 with her story ‘Mercedes 207’ for which she won the ‘Colour the Arts!’ award. The book describes the experiences of a Moroccan man who regularly travels between Morocco and Antwerp. In 2007, she wrote Woman Country which tells of a woman’s struggle between her adopted Western identity and her Moroccan roots. Her 2008 book A Child of God was very well received, winning the BNG Literature Award.


http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/lamrabet-kassabova/feed/ 3 “A living nation of writers, readers and kindred spirits” – Kapka Kassabova on the EWWC http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/a-living-nation-of-writers-readers-and-kindred-spirits-kapka-kassabova-on-the-ewwc/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/national-literature/a-living-nation-of-writers-readers-and-kindred-spirits-kapka-kassabova-on-the-ewwc/#comments Mon, 18 Mar 2013 22:13:51 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4157 Kapka Kassabova, photo by Liz MarchKapka Kassabova was raised in Communist Bulgaria, university-educated in New Zealand, and now resides in Scotland. She is the author of two novels, four poetry collections and two celebrated travel memoirs, including ‘Street Without a Name: Childhood and other Misadventures in Bulgaria’, which Jan Morris described as “at once evocative, disturbing, and chock-a-block full of charm.” She participated in the Conference in Edinburgh and will give a keynote speech on A National Literature? this Thursday in Brussels.

EWWC: You’re participating in the EWWC Brussels event next week, on a panel of 6 writers from all the regions of the UK and Belgium. Have you any thoughts on the position of Brussels in the world as the seat of the EU, given your mixed nationality background? Do you have any experience of or fondness for Belgium more widely?

KK: The writer Luc Sante comes to mind, with his wonderful memoir about Belgium and living between cultures, The Factory of Facts. I wanted to write a novella once set in Brussels and involving a puppeteer, so I spent a few days in Brussels and had a memorable evening at the Théatre Royal de Toone where I saw The marvellous life and death of the famous doctor Johannes Faustus.

And I remember a graffito I saw: ‘Welcome to Europe’s heart of darkness’. I had difficulty believing it, but you never know.

EWWC: Thinking back to the five days of Conference events in Edinburgh, you were there everyday, very engaged, often vocal. What kind of import or otherwise did the Conference have for you? Have your views on it developed since?

KK: It is only now that I’ve had time to digest it all that I can appreciate the lasting value of that gathering in Edinburgh. Despite the stress of public exposure, the informal and private time spent with other writers brought me a feeling of belonging and richness. It’s precisely because writers spend so much time alone that it’s vital to know that we’re not alone. There is discussion of ‘national literature’ – which is, in my view, a kind of stately mausoleum – but the Conference felt like a living nation of writers, readers and kindred spirits. All the more precious, this sense of belonging, since it matters to us as individuals and artists, not just as participants in a public event.

I felt very engaged by all the topics that were debated. I look forward to Brussels, and to Edinburgh again.

EWWC: You are delivering a keynote address on the subject of A National Literature in Brussels. In Edinburgh, during that same debate, in response to Irvine Welsh’s address, you received a round of applause for urging a joyful reclamation of the notions of cosmopolitanism and transnationalism. You spoke of the great gathering of writers there as just one product of the opening of paths created by these notions. In terms of your own writing, what might have been different had you not left Bulgaria as a teenager?

KK: Every departure and arrival change us, and emigration/immigration is a big one, so it’s difficult to play the ‘what if’ game. Except in fiction where it’s the main game.

But certainly I’d be writing in my mother tongue Bulgarian, which might have been wonderful. Switching languages, for a writer, involves a psychic hiatus during which you are in neither language and you feel like death. Eva Hoffman (Lost in Translation) and Aleksandar Hemon (The Question of Bruno) are brilliant on this.

As to big words like trans-nationalism, globalism, etc. – For me, and many of my background (i.e. the last children of Communism), the cold war remains a defining thing. I think that the experience of those who lived behind the iron curtain and practiced ‘internal emigration’ in order not to go nuts, is hard to grasp for those who have always lived in a liberal democracy and enjoyed human rights and freedoms on tap. With that comes the sweet untested luxury of holding on to dogmas – these dogmas, meanwhile, were being tested on real people on the other side of the divide. They still are. Ask the North Koreans. They don’t have Starbucks, but they have Kim Jong Un. I know which I’d prefer.

In the liberal democracies, we tend to demonise globalisation and equate it with cultural homogenisation and capitalist oppression – which is indeed part of it, and a real threat to human civilisation, no doubt about it. But we forget that another part of it has been a hugely increased freedom of movement, immeasurable cultural enrichment, and an exciting human diversity in many countries, including Britain. When I go to my local Co-op in Beauly, Inverness-shire, I never know who I’m going to run into. That’s the opposite of homogenisation, the opposite of oppression.

Twenty years ago, you knew exactly who you were going to run into.

Perhaps cosmopolitan humanism is the only viable ideology – because it isn’t one.

EWWC: What questions do you think a World Writers’ Conference in 50 years’ time might address?

KK: Why So Many Writers and No Readers?

EWWC: If you had to be exiled permanently to one of the EWWC cities – Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town, Toronto, Krasnoyarsk, Cairo, Jaipur, Beijing, Izmir, Brussels, Lisbon, Port of Spain (Trinidad), St Malo, Kuala Lumpur & Melbourne – which would you choose and why?

KK: Can I be exiled temporarily in all these places? No. Then Edinburgh – because it’s the opposite of exile (home) and because it’s a perfect city. Or Berlin, because it’s the ultimate city of exile, where the past keeps tugging at you, and because there I can go to clubs where they sing Gypsy flamenco and dance Argentinean tango and I can smoke and cry in some corner – which would give me great pleasure.

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