FIL Guadalajara © FIL Guadalajara, Bernardo De Niz

FIL Guadalajara © FIL Guadalajara, Bernardo De Niz

I have just arrived in Mexico to attend the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, which is one of the highlights of my annual schedule. But the fair only opens tomorrow (Saturday), so I will spare the Latin American stories for the coming weeks (I’ll be in Mexico for a month). You may wish to check out the blog, however: I will be posting about the goings on at the fair. You might also look up the piece I posted on Monday [in German], where I talk about why this book fair has become so important.

US bookseller Barnes & Noble has finally announced that it is rolling out its Nook App in 32 countries and 21 languages, with customised storefronts.  Sounds nice, and high time BN did this. When you look at how long they have been dithering about the international expansion of the Nook shop, one could not help wondering whether their senior people had somehow misplaced the company’s world map. BN has been having a company in Germany, by far Europe’s largest book market, since early 2012. Well, there was an office address in Berlin, but no registered phone line. And if you look at what’s on offer in the German shop, it is obvious that not much work has been done. Anyhow: given that the Nook App is tied to Microsoft’s Windows 8, don’t count on wildfire-like success. As any fule kno’, there are a couple hundred million people around who don’t use a Windows-based reading device. Whixh probably why Nook is also teaming up with Samsung, which will put the Nook App on its Galaxy3

Metadata – don’t you just love them? Each and everybody seems to be going on about the importance of getting these things right, and if you don’t you are doomed. Does it matter? Yes, of course, it does. Thad McIlroy has an entertaining piece to illustrate the point, in which he describes his searches for James McBride who just won the National Book Award in the USA. His conclusion: if your parents haven’t given you a rather special moniker, you should certainly think about creating one, if you wish to avoid confusion with all the other Toms, Dicks and Harrys out there. Metadata are not rocket science, so I really wonder why so many publishers don’t seem to care.

We dutifully salute the leader of the Russian people, the great and respected Vladimir Putin and denounce the writers who turnd their backs on him when he announced his intention to attend a literary conference in Moscow. Crime writer Boris Akunin and others threatened to stay away from the conference should the president turn up.
Do these ingrates not know of the manifold benefits that a visit by the esteemed leader cab bestow on them? North Korea’s beloved leader Kim Il-sung took many opportunities to stop by working writers and artists and give instant advice, thus creating the world-conquering phenomenon that is North Korean literature. If Russian writers continue to be so obstructive, they will never scale the dizzy heights of this kind of success.

As per usual, there were writers’ conferences aplenty in the past days, and my attention was drawn to an event that brought writers together from Germany and Eypt. The conference was organised by Goethe Institut in Cairo: Three writers from my seasonally cold home country had ventured right into the heat of Egypt, with political protests forcing the venue to be relocated from Goethe’s base, which is close to Tahrir Square. According to a report in Al Ahram, the six writers present agreed to agree on most questions facing a writer today, especially when it comes to the crative processes. Their insistence on writing as an unplannable thing, however, sounded a bit too romantic for my taste. But then, quite a lot of German literature insists on flying in the face of academic Creative Writing courses’ wisdoms. Astonishingly enough, the Egyptian writers blasted the recent thrall of writings inspired by the political upheavals, saying these books had no real significance for everyday life in the country. I wonder what the German participants made of the heated political situation which, despite the protestations of their Egyptian counterparts, certainly does have a bearing on current writing in the country. Al Ahram, being a state sponsored paper, keeps shtum on that.

Staying with the politics of publishing, I was sad to hear that in Belarus, publisher Ivar Lohvinau was stripped of his licence. His company had published a collection of ward-winning photographs which, amongst many other pictures, also had images of anti-government protesters had been violated by the police. In September 2013 the Ministry of Information decided to withdraw its publishing license “for gross violations of the licensing legislation.” This decision has now been upheld by the Supreme Court. Mr Lohvinau had been accused of publishing “extremist” material, a transgression that is not clearly defined in the country’s legislation and has been used frequently in the past to silence critics.

Red Guards

Red Guards Propaganda Poster

We all know that China is not the friendliest country when it comes to dealing with dissidents. China’s first literary Nobel Laureate, Gao Xingjian, who won the award in 2000, recently told the story of how he was forced into exile and how he and his writing have been treated by the ruling party and government. Having been persecuted since the days of the Cultural Revolution in 1967, he was driven to burning his manuscripts and, while on “re-education” in an agricultural community, reverted to burying his ongoing writings in a hole in the ground, before finally resolving to burning them, too.

Art and literature need to break free from politics to achieve total freedom
Gao Xinjiang

Mr Gao, who has been living in France since 1987, never came back to China and says today that he is much more interested in what goes on in Europe. Still, the Chinese government has continued to denounce him and has hailed Mo Yan, the 2010 Nobel Laureate, as the first Chinese writer to be selected. But then, Mr Mo has never set a foot wrong with the powers that be, and governments tend to like their artistic pets. I still remember the furore in France when Mr Gao was denied access to the Salon du Livre in Paris when China was Guest of Honour there – the French organisers got just as much egg on their faces as the good people who run the book fairs in Frankfurt and London when they handed over their events to the Chinese censors. And these people know their job, as writers whose works are translated into Chinese often find out: anything sensitive gets cut, so that foreign ideas may not contaminate the tender souls of the Chinese readership.

When it comes to censorship, we don’t have to look to faraway places such as Belarus or China or Iran to find worrying examples. Apple’s censoring of some 59 comic books is just one more case that should make us wonder who these digital behemoths actually think they are. Self Publishers are still smarting from Kobo’s idiotic decision to chuck them all out following some brouhaha in the United Kingdom, where some scandalmongers kicked up a bit stink when they found that a search for words suchs as “daddy” on retailer WHSmith’s website produced some rather unappetising results: next to kiddies’ books, there was also some pornography. Last year, PayPal decided to shut down payment services for publications that it deemed offensive, forcing Smashwords to send a severe warning to its clients. And a survey by the American PEN shows that many writers have taken to self-censoring out of fear of falling foul of the geniusses at the NSA. No, I do not advocate a free-for-all, there are laws against racism, pornography and advocating violence which are there for good reasons. But these laws have to be acted upon by state authorities, and not by corporations and certainly not by paranoid agenies. We do not need a Blockwart-system on the internet.

Going back beyond the confines of Europe and North America, I discovered a moving plea for African writers to re-discover their own stories and tell them in a contemporary way by Chinelo Onwualu. She argues that colonialism led to Africans losing these stories: “Gone are the tales about our pantheon of Gods and Goddesses and the heroes and heroines who made our world, and with those stories, the cultural landscape they described. We have been reduced to telling ourselves recycled folktales about tortoises and lions and spiders when our true history was actually so much richer.” Instead, and this sadly is true, the plots of today’s novels and films from Africa quite often use traditional beliefs as easy puppets to vilify certain characters by associating them with “black magic” and evil rituals, reducing religious and cultural backgrounds to caricatures.

In case you are not totally bored with my musings, here is what has come out of my personal sweatshop this week:

Keep the comments coming, and have a nice weekend. And, in case you are a poetry lover, check out my weekly “Poem for the Weekend” which I post every Saturday.