Monday, 4 October 2010

Nine Seminars, Five Mini Seminars, Ten Signed Books and Four Days: The Göteborg Book Fair 2010, Pt 1

"... and a bad cold, one could add," was how I opened my first of two posts on last year's proceedings; and here we go again. In that respect, the Göteborg Book Fair delivers like a clockwork.

This year's Fair was held between September 23–26, and the theme this year was Africa. As stated already last year, this is an event of both national and international significance (obviously, given this year's main theme), and it is not aimed exclusively at the publishing world, libraries, education and the like, but is actually open to the general public (with all that that entails, for better or worse). Unlike last year, my schedule started out much less compact, perhaps because of having had less time to pour over the program than I have had the last few years, but also, I think, because of a weaker program. Do not get me wrong. I have enjoyed some mighty fine seminars this year, but there were way too many I decided to skip on. Now, one always has to skip some (need for food breaks and whatnot), but it was much more prominent than previous years. Still, quality over quantity is the ticket, right?

On Thursday, I went to two full seminars and one mini seminar. The first one out was "Sanningen om Röda armén" (Eng. trans. The Truth about the Red Army), in which historian Catherine Merridale spoke with my all time favourite moderator Peter Whitebrook (back after last year's absence for this one seminar) about her book Ivan's War: Inside The Red Army, 1939–45. It was an interesting and rewarding discussion about her interviews with old Russian war veterans and archival research, which certainly left me interested in Merridale's book.

After some time on the floor (Thursday being the best day for milling around down there), and a few accidental meetings (and subsequent socialising), I had the immense pleasure of being present at a brimful seminar with Sofi Oksanen: "Diktaturens formationer" (Eng. trans. The Formations of Dictatorship). The following day's paper stated that the venue, which swallowed 500 people, had not been big enough, and that many people had been unable to attend the seminar because of this. While I have not yet read her work (although I have heard many fine things about it), after hearing her talk about (in particular) her novel Purge, I have to say that this Finnish author of Estonian descent has definitely caught my full interest. The layers of narrative this novel appears to have intrigues me immensely and I will definitely be reading it in the not-too-distant future.

The concluding mini seminar of the day (after some more milling about on the floor and followed by some exhibit stand mingling as the day wound down), was "Verklighetsflykt eller verklighetsspegel" (Eng. trans. Escapism or a Mirror to Reality). In this seminar, children's books author Jo Salmson (whose first book about Tam, I bought at last year's Fair and really enjoyed) talked with Maths Claesson from Science Fiction Bokhandeln about gender and evil in fantasy literature, and whether the way these concepts can be and often are dealt with justifies the genre often being written off as mere escapism. An interesting point that was raised by Salmson was that some of the more social realist children's books around has an audience for which the themes (while somewhat gruesome) may nevertheless constitute a titillating exoticism, and that maybe we need to think twice about what we actually label escapism.

After the seminar, I had wished to buy the second book in her series Drakriddare (Eng. trans. Dragon Knights) about the young boy Tam, and get it signed. Alas, fate conspired against me as only the sixth and last book in the series had been brought along to be sold outside the seminar room. However, things worked out rather well on that account any way, as I opted to pick up books two through six in the publisher's exhibit stand the following day and a few moments later more or less stumbling over a signing session she had at Science Fiction Bokhandeln's exhibit stand, leaving me a happy customer with five signed books after a quick chat about the previous day's seminar.

Friday turned out to be my "theme day", as two out the three seminars I attended that day belonged to the Fair's African theme. The day opened up with an interesting seminar featuring Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah. With the publication of her debut collection of short fiction, An Elegy for Easterly, she has risen to the ranks of notoriety, yet she proved to be a humble and humorous woman. On discussing the issue of ethnicity and identity, she candidly said that she does not first and foremost define herself as a black African woman when she sees herself in the mirror; nor does she believe anyone else has that type of self-definition as their most basic one. One may of course argue that identity always becomes a matter of power (i.e. the age-old game of "you"); we may claim that we are anything, but unless we get someone to play along with us, our own definitions becomes somewhat moot. Gappah, however, responded to the moderator Anna Koblanck's query if it would be appropriate to view her as an African writer by the witty one-liner, "You can see me however you like — as long as you buy my book." Yet, wittiness aside, Gappah pointed to her writing as a serious business, chasing a sense of truth, refusing to subscribe to a positive view of Zimbabwe or Africa; the truth, as she noted, always being a bit more complex than simple positivity.

The second seminar of the day, "Kanske finns det en Magnoliagenre" (Eng. trans. Maybe There Is a Magnolia Genre) featured a discussion between moderator Immi Lundin (literary critic and scholar) and authors Kristina Hård and Gunnhild Øyehaug. Both authors have published books that could arguably belong to a genre which could be called the Magnolia genre, after writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia; that is, multiple stories about multiple "protagonists" making up the whole of the text (in some way, generating a sense of objectivity while nevertheless maintaining subjectivity). Hård's novel in this particular genre is Himalayabreven (Eng. trans. The Himalayan Letters), which is her second novel, and Øyehaug's is Vente, blinke (Eng. trans. Wait, Blink), her fourth book albeit her first novel (her previous outings having been poetry, short fiction and essays). Both authors caught my interest during the seminar and I consequently bought a copy of Øyehaug's book (which I got signed); Hård's two books already sitting on the shelves of my better half at home. (Incidentally, in the wake of the Book Fair, I have started reading Hård's first novel Alba, a fine science fiction novel, which I am sure I will have reason to talk about more later on.)

Friday closed (after a lot of scurrying about on the floor buying a bundle of books and comics, including a copy of Anders Fager's Svenska kulter (Eng. trans. Swedish Cults), which is supposedly Lovecraftian ideas subtly transposed into a Swedish setting – who could refuse such a thing, right? I also managed to get this book signed by the author, so there is that too), with the seminar "Out of Africa". This seminar was a panel debate between Ethopian-born author Maaza Mengiste, Nigerian author Chris Abani, Swedish-Portuguese author Miguel Gullander (who writes in Portuguese and has been working out of Cap Verde and Moçambique, and currently works out of Angola), Kenyan-American poet, performer and intellectual Shaijla Patel, Nigerian author Sefi Atta (first recipient of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature) and Sierra Leonean author Brian James; moderated by author and English professor Stefan Helgesson. While I ended up only attending three of the theme related seminars on the whole, the quality of the ones I did attend were very high and really raised my level of interest in the authors in question (I will definitely be picking something up by at least Abani, Patel, James, and most likely Atta as well). This particular seminar offered not only quality, but also quantity; both in terms of time (clocking in at a full hour as opposed to the regular 45 minutes) and the number of authors present. All in all, an absolutely perfect way to end the day.

Well, I think we would better stop here for now. I will tell you all about my Saturday and Sunday at the Book Fair in my next post.

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