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What Role Can Literature Play in Cultural Diplomacy?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

flags of the worldToday’s feature story looks at an unusual project: the publication in Uzbekistan of a graphic novel featuring two Uzbek myths, written by an American, and published by the US State Department.

While the project may seem quirky, it is not unusual. The US too has had several soft power initiatives, such as the government’s use of writers as “cultural ambassadors” post 9/11 and the National Endowment for the Arts setting up “Big Read” events overseas. Next month even I will be attending the Lviv Book Forum as a guest sponsored by the US embassy in the Ukraine.

Books are an interesting instrument in cultural diplomacy, more typically known as “soft power.” “Soft power” is itself something of an amorphous term, but it can generally be agreed upon that for it to work, it needs to be seductive and/or attractive — it needs to lure people into becoming engaged with a foreign culture.

Numerous countries around the world sponsor large exhibitions of their authors and the translation of their books abroad. The Guest of Honor program of the Frankfurt Book Fair is perhaps the most powerful venue of all and can have lasting ramifications for a country which suddenly sees hundreds of its books translated into German, and subsequently, other languages. Just ask Turkey or China, countries with significant international PR problems (to say the very least) that have gone on to feature as Guest of Honor at several of the other major international book fairs (London and BookExpo America), for example.

This can mean good business for publishers, booksellers and even literary scouts and agents. Several years ago in Publishing Perspectives Dr. Luc Kwanten of the Big Apple literary agency identified China’s “soft power” promotion of its books and literature abroad as having had a positive impact on his business.

Of course, books, literature and authors are often wildly unpredictable. Orhan Pamuk, in giving a keynote speech at the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair several years ago, used the platform to vehemently criticize the Turkish government (representatives of which were sitting nearby) and when it comes to China, the literature that has garnered the most attention abroad have offered unflattering portraits of the country.

While movies and television often need to play well abroad in order to recoup costs and are often crafted in such as way as to flatter foreign audiences, literature, is not freighted with such expectations. Using books and literature is often a more risky proposition, but writing as someone who is part of the publishing ecosystem, I believe they offer a far greater opportunity for a more intense cultural engagement.

Let us know what you think in the comments below or via Twitter using #ppdiscuss.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.