Sparking Connections: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2012

Source: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

Source: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

Emerging Writers' Festival director Lisa Dempster has, in recent years, become a regular at Arab book fairs. Here, she reflects on her week with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2012.

Travelling and literature have much in common - they educate, entertain and open the mind to the possibilities of the world. For the past week I have been enjoying the benefits of both, as a member of the press delegation at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

Now in its twenty-second year, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair brought together over 900 exhibitors from 54 countries, and showcased over half a million titles in 33 languages. Like Sharjah International Book Fair, Abu Dhabi serves a dual purpose as a trade fair and book market, and also offers publisher training and a diverse cultural program.

Spread across 21,500 square metres, the Book Fair offered a vast geography to explore, both physically and intellectually. While every literary festival is a reflection of its own unique culture, Abu Dhabi International Book Fair facilitates conversations that focus on the Arab world while also crossing boundaries to appeal to a global audience.

“Regular fair-goers love book fairs because each fair has its own character,” said Indian editor Vinutha Mallya, visiting the Book Fair as part of the international press delegation. “In Abu Dhabi, I feel like I am peeking through a pin hole camera, but capturing the expanse of the Arab book market. I feel like a tourist in a strange land, but being struck by something familiar.”

Although the processes and structures of the Arab book selling world may be different to India and also to my Western perspective, many of the discussions that arose from the Fair’s cultural and professional programs were globally recognisable. Key themes included identity, and how and why we tell stories in an increasingly globalised world.

Source: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

Source: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

Tishani Doshi, a poet and dancer who appeared as part of the Fair’s UK country focus, believes that identity is becoming an increasingly important question in a world where so many people move across the globe, living lives in a state of flux. Although her Welsh-Indian heritage and constant travelling has made her feel like a cultural outsider, she has embraced her otherness as she feels it has helped her as a writer.

At the end of the day, no matter where you are in the world, she says, you share what it is to be human. “The basic human questions are the same, whenever you ask them and whenever you ask them,” said Doshi. “Although our stories are each different, it’s also the same story that’s been going on and on.”

McSweeney’s-approved playwright Wajahat Ali also places importance on the commonalities of the human condition, describing his play The Domestic Crusaders as a universal family drama told through the culturally specific lens of his Muslim-American upbringing. When you strip away the layers, he says, people see universal family tensions and relationships. Embracing digital media in addition to his work as a playwright, Ali’s work speaks to the changing face of human identity in a digitised, post-911 world.

“For all the stories that have been told, there is a new way of telling them. The new generation represents a new world. We have messy languages, messy hyphenated identities,“ Ali explains, adding that global citizens are increasingly unwilling to reduce their cultures by pigeon-holing themselves or others. Instead, writing has the potential to explore and celebrate the mutable lives and identities of people around the world.

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is committed to developing its local publishing sector through various means, much of it industry focussed. In addition to publisher training and panels during the festival, the Fair works year-round to promote activity in the region to an international audience. Additionally, they run a subsidy scheme that supports the translation of books into or out of Arabic, meaning publishers who sell rights at the Fair can receive up to $10,000 towards the development of up to ten titles.

Source: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

Source: Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

Readers and book-buyers are engaged through the Fair’s cultural programming, and of course publishers sell their titles direct to the public at the Fair. The importance of writers is also recognised through the presentation of two major literary awards during the Fair, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (known as the “Arabic Booker”) and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. However, less activity is focussed specifically on developing writers, which is vital to any robust publishing industry.

This year, the British Council ran several creative writing workshops with authors such as Marina Lewycka, Phillip Ardagh and Jasper Fforde. The Book Fair also ran a short story competition in partnership with a leading local newspaper. The winner, Katy Shalhoub, won an iPad – but, more significantly, her story was published on a full page in The National newspaper, an amazing outcome for a fledgling writer.

These kinds of opportunities for emerging writers to connect, learn and be recognised during the early stages of their career are vital to developing a healthy literary and publishing culture. It would be great to see these writer-development initiatives grow at the Fair in future years.

A book fair is not just a place to buy books, sell rights, network and undertake training – though those are important. A book fair is also a place and time where a unique group of people come together, learn from each other, and celebrate literature in all its forms. The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair was successful in bringing writers, readers and publishers together, sparking both local connections and global conversations that will continue to resonate in the Arab world and beyond.

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