By Valentina Morotti
November, we all know, is the month of the NYC Marathon. This event has an unparalleled catalytic power and, for days and days, it constitutes the only topic of conversation in the city. But in New York, there is always something going on. So, as soon as the final athlete crossed the finish line, the curtains opened on a week of spectacular literary festivals: Editions/Artists’ Book Fair, the New Literature from Europe Festival and, last but definitely not least, the Festival Albertine.
Starting from Thursday, November 5th, with these events taking place simultaneously, an incredible aligning of the stars occurred, and an array of exceptional minds from both sides of the Atlanti, gathered for the occasion: director Abderrahmane Sissako, performer Jérôme Bel, feminist author Katie Roiphe, novelist Dinaw Mengestu and many, many more.
The declared aim of the Festival Albertine is “to gather a group of the French speaking world’s most interesting and brilliant young voices to engage in conversation in the U.S., reflecting the diversity and creativity of the Francophone world today, with all its cultural richness, contradictions and energy.” And the theme this year was to interrogate some of the controversial issues of our times, including identity, racism, artistic creation and terrorism.
Despite being born only last year, this transatlantic dialogue of ideas is destined to become a significant event in the rich NYC cultural panorama, because it has that irresistible je ne sais quoi. It started with champagne offered to those in attendance, helping to foster a feeling of having dinner with intellectual friends in their chic Parisian apartment overlooking the Seine…
Literature was the center of gravity of the festival, and it is not coincidence that the show begun with three vibrant voices talking “Across History” and investigating the topic “Literature as Dialogue,” Curated by Ethiopian-American novelist Dinaw Mengestu, this panel featured Francine Prose, author of Lovers at the Chameleon Club and Kamel Daoud, Algerian journalist who retold the story of Camu’s The Stanger from a post-colonial Arabic perspective in his The Meursault Investigation. Both of them captivated the audience with their acute analysis on the value of literature in our society and the latter, in particular, gained the public’s sympathy admitting with candor “what can I say? Sometimes questions are more beautiful than answers!” Still, the conversation that followed was anything but candid. Comments became sharper and more profound, question after question. “Literature is a form of dissidence, otherwise it’s journalism. This form of dissidence is obligatory” (Daoud), “Literature helps the reader become more comfortable with ambiguity” (Prose). This unforgettable boutade by Daoud closed the session: “Literature is so necessary that even God did not resist and wrote books”.
Another voice from the Arabic world, cartoonist Riad Sattouf, picked up the baton on Friday, where graphic novels became the absolute protagonist. Together with him, graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeknerr and New Yorker editor Françoise Mouly, studied this creative expression that spread across writing, drawing and filmmaking. Their works, The Arab of the Future and Diary of a Teenage Girl respectively, feature eccentric adolescents dealing with their dysfunctional families and provide good examples of how coming-of-age graphic novels are staking a claim as the modern bildungsroman.
Saturday we reached the climax of this embarrassment of riches for book worms. While the Scandinavian House was hosting an afternoon reading by “the most exciting voices in contemporary European literature” (Nicolò Ammaniti, Bernhard Aichner, Tomas Halík and Bettina Suleiman, just to mention a few), the Editons/Artists’ Book Fair was opening its doors to the public and a group of extraordinary women were discussing the heritage of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir at the Albertine. It was a real feast for the brain, even more so given that all these events, apparently diverse and unconnected, created some kind of synergy, in the end. The scholars struggling for women’s rights shared the same concern as the European authors for being a minority. This recurrent theme was further discussed by women investigating gender gap and bias in publications and translations the following day. When literature is at stake, there are no silos but rather communicating vessels.
This marvelous escalation of culture à la carte came to an end, without losing an ounce of quality, with a panel on the future of journalism and an evening with film director Abderrahmane Sissako at the Albertine Festival. Wrapping up, in her announcement to participants, Bénédicte De Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, said: “I truly hope you find it surprising, thought-provoking and uplifting”. Well, to judge from the warmth of the applauses and the enthusiasm of the public, we may well say that it exceeded the expectations. And everyone is looking forward to the next edition.