Debate At Frankfurt’s Weltempfang: Does a European Literature Exist?

In News by Olivia Snaije

At the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Weltempfang stage, speakers came together on a potentially divisive question of modern European identity in literature.
Audience members at Frankfurt Book Fair's Weltempfang stage follow an exchange between speakers. Image: Frankfurter Buchmesse, Alexander Heimann

Audience members at Frankfurt Book Fair’s Weltempfang stage. Image: Frankfurter Buchmesse, Alexander Heimann

A reminder here that many more articles of this kind bring to light various moments and programs at the just-ended Frankfurt Book Fair 2016 in our Publishing Perspectives Show Daily editions. You can download them all here, free of charge.—Porter Anderson


By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘My Rights Are Precious to Me’
Yes, a “European literature” exists, according to panelists on the Weltempfang stage at Frankfurt.

Moderated in German by Peter Ripken, chair of the board of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), literary critic Mercedes Monmany, Italian author Paola Soriga, and Paris-based Indian writer Shumona Sinha discussed in Spanish, Italian and French the cultural references, connections, and aspirations that come together within European literature.

“I consider myself European and my rights are precious to me. I want to work for these common cultural values that we have today.”Mercedes Monmany

Monmany’s 2015 book Por las fronteras de Europa / Un viaje por la narrativa de los siglos XX y XXI (Through Europe’s Borders, a Trip Through Narratives from the 20th and 21st Centuries) introduces readers to European literature with the notion that borders are permeable. At Frankfurt, Monmany said that Europe must not simply be an economic idea, but a cultural and spiritual one, as well.

“We should think about common references and not differences,” she said. “We have literature in common. There’s no passport necessary for culture.”

Paola Soriga’s 2015 novel La Stagione che verrá (The Season That Will Come) is about the lives of three Italians born in 1979. Like their author, these characters “live in a European world.” They’re part of a generation that speaks several languages, grew up with the European exchange program Erasmus, and travel on low-cost flights that allowed for travel to most European cities.

Soriga, who is from Sardinia, quoted the late Sardinian author Sergio Atzeni, who said that he was Sardinian, Italian, and European. “We are European, but we should also see further than Europe.”

Shumona Sinha has lived in Paris since 2001; her 2012 book, Assomons les Pauvres! (Let’s Beat Up the Poor!) was written in French. Her vision of Europe as a child came via literature, and it inspired her to become a writer.

“I was in Calcutta,” she said, “but in my head I was already living in Europe.” Writing in French, she said, liberates her from her original culture and from the weight of being a woman.

But Europe, said Ripken, is going through a difficult passage. “Europe” is considered a negative term by many, he noted, and depicted by critics as a union of incapable bureaucrats, a union that sufferes from a refugee crisis and member-states’ tendencies toward nationalism and right-wing politics.

Can European Literature Contribute to Saving Europe?
“Thanks to the French language and European culture I have become someone else. I have high hopes for literature and its place in the world.”Shumona Sinha

“I’m optimistic by nature,” said Soriga.

“I know this moment is difficult for Europeans and those arriving in Europe. But I have great confidence in the new generation. They live together within all these borders.

“Of course literature can’t solve things on its own. But with culture and literature and a good political policy, I think it’s possible.”

“My literature is a cultural mix,” said Sinha. “Thanks to the French language and European culture I have become someone else. I have high hopes for literature and its place in the world.”

Literature can’t move mountains, said Monmany, but it can galvanize social progress. “I consider myself European and my rights are precious to me. I want to work for these common cultural values that we have today.”

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature, and graphic novels. She is a contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar Art, The Global Post, The New York Times and CNN.