Brooklyn Embraces the World: Book Fest, Publishers Boost International Lit

In Feature Articles by Guest Contributor

• The Brooklyn Book Festival, which takes place this Sunday, is devoting a stage exclusively to international programming. Among those authors appearing will be Pakistan’s Feryal Ali Gauhar and UK graphic novelist Nick Abadzis.

• The programming is a reflection of the broad community of independent publishers making their home in the borough, many of which focus on translations, including Archipelago, New Directions, Ugly Duckling, and Zephyr Press.

By John Williams

BROOKLYN, NY: It didn’t take long for the organizers of the Brooklyn Book Festival to realize that the event’s international authors deserved a spotlight all their own. The fifth installment of the annual celebration takes place this Sunday outside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, and it marks the third year of a stage devoted exclusively to international programming.

“When we started out, there was a pretty high representation of Brooklyn-based authors,” said Johnny Temple, chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council and publisher and co-founder of Akashic Books. “But as we’ve grown, it’s become more important to emphasize that the festival happens in Brooklyn and has strong Brooklyn elements and flavors to it, but it’s for authors all over the country, all over the world. We still meet people who recommend authors and then say, ‘Oh, but they’re not from Brooklyn.’ And we have to explain that we have authors coming in from everywhere.”

This year’s participants will include very familiar New York faces (Gary Shteyngart), newly minted Brooklynites (graphic novelist Nick Abadzis, who just moved here from London), and authors traveling considerable distances to get here (novelist Feryal Ali Gauhar is coming from Pakistan, where she’s been contributing to relief efforts in the wake of that country’s devastating floods, to speak on a panel about depicting war in fiction).

Andrea Jeyaveeran, chair of the festival’s international programming committee, said the festival does “an incredible amount with limited resources.” Given the state of the economy, and the cost of bringing authors in from far-flung places, the planners heavily rely on partnering with cultural agencies and publishers. It helps if an author is already going to be in New York for other promotional reasons. “It’s great for authors who would normally only go to Manhattan,” Jeyaveeran said, “that they get to come and see this really vibrant literary reading community [in Brooklyn].”

Temple expressed pride in the fact that, though the festival is rich in diverse talent, it “rigorously” avoids grouping people together purely by political-identity categories. The events scheduled for the international stage this year reflect that commitment to focus on more than just authors’ nationalities: there are panels on food and memory, international noir, and graphic novels.

Internationally-minded Indie Publishers

The festival has always relied on many hours of volunteer work by an impressive roster of publishing people. As the festival expands, more and more big publishers are getting involved (planners are now in the “privileged but uncomfortable position of having to turn away books and ideas,” said Temple), but the borough is home to several smaller publishers focused on bringing foreign voices to American readers.

“I think a lot of the most progressive, visionary international publishing is happening at the independent level, and independent publishers cannot afford to have offices in Manhattan,” Temple said, citing Archipelago, New Directions, Ugly Duckling, and Zephyr Press, all of which will be accounted for at a panel about translation on Sunday. More than 90 percent of the books published by Archipelago are translated, a number that Temple calls “a little heroic in this literary landscape. It’s great to be able not just to feature [Archipelago’s] authors at the festival, but to tap in to Jill [Schoolman’s] expertise in the planning.”

Schoolman is the publisher of Archipelago, and also a member of the international programming committee. “There’s a lot of interesting, innovative publishing that just happens to be in Brooklyn right now,” she said, “doing things out of the ordinary and taking chances on authors and books that won’t be bestsellers.” Temple’s own imprint, Akashic, publishes several Caribbean writers, and he says being in Brooklyn puts him “one step closer to the authors and cultural organizations we work with than if we were in Manhattan.”

Independent publishing is thriving in Brooklyn, but the festival will also focus on the everyday activities of the borough, the connections and contributions that make up one of the country’s most diverse corners. Asked what she’s especially looking forward to this year, Jeyaveeran mentioned the panel on food and metaphor. “Stories about food evoke some of our earliest memories,” she said. “Brooklyn is all about food as well; food and literature.”

DISCUSS: How Effective are Book Fests for Promoting Individual Authors?

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