The Fancy Festival

March 14, 2019 § 11 Comments


As the name suggests, Dubai’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is faaaaaaaancy. There was an author lounge with a buffet of cute little snacks, swanky hotel meeting rooms, professional A/V services, and an army of volunteers shepherding writers to panels and readings. (Emerging from freight elevators to dodge carts of petits fours and deconstructed salads wheeled through industrial grey corridors by white-clad chefs: rock star!)

(I’m kind of a big deal)

The arts scene in Dubai is two-faceted:

  1. A scrappy group of expats beg, borrow and/or pay exorbitant rent for space to hold an artistic event.
  2. Someone royal loves a particular art form and throws money at it until the dream happens.

It’s astonishing to be in a country where someone with immense money and power is deeply interested in literature, and a large government-owned corporation sponsors a ten-day festival devoted to books. The festival is held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, The Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. His Highness is an author himself, and his books appear prominently in bookstores across the United Arab Emirates.

This was my first festival devoted more to readers than writers, and it’s almost three festivals at once. Their Youth Program brings busloads of students onsite for big-deal children’s authors like Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and Sandhya Menon (When Dimple Met Rishi), and a fringe of student performances, as well as sending authors into schools. Adult readers enjoy literary lions, writers of books-you’ll-definitely-find-in-the-airport, and local authors presenting panels, readings and workshops. Finally, Arabic-language writers draw a fervent audience of Arabic readers. Panels were simultaneously translated—everyone wore headphones, each panelist spoke their most comfortable language, and we all heard our preferred listening language. (Individual live translators handled both Arabic-English and English-Arabic for the same panel—I was in awe!)

Over 400 million people speak Arabic, and Arabic culture holds a strong oral tradition and love of poetry. Surprisingly, there’s no giant publishing industry catering to all these potential readers, and a stream of festival events focused on building the Arabic book pipeline. I moderated a panel on contracts, with a hybrid publisher, a traditional publisher and an attorney from the Emirates Publishers Association, and the sense was that right now publishers set the terms, but there’s a move towards educating authors on their rights, particularly foreign-language sales and digital/audio platforms.

A panel on literary agents featured Dubai’s sole agent alongside UK agents from Susan Mears Literary Agency, and the audience was happy to discover that writers don’t pay agent fees; the agents get their cut from selling your book. The panel also suggested that agents here build an ethics code similar to the Association of Authors’ Representatives in the USA or Britain’s Association of Authors’ Agents.

Writing workshops included all-day manuscript-focused intensives and shorter talks on dramatic structure, social media and authorial voice. I found the ones I attended to be clear, basic information great for the audience of budding writers.

Many UAE writers are expats from India, Europe and North America, and a concern for all was book vetting by the government. One British writer mentioned the difficulty of observing cultural mores that aren’t a formal list, and non-Emiratis often don’t know what may be offensive. His middle-grade book included a girl daydreaming in her bathtub, a setting that had to be changed for publication in his Arabic country of residence.

Other high-priority topics included translation (Who pays for it? Who does the actual translation? How do you know it’s any good?) and distribution. Self-publishers and publishing companies alike face a huge hurdle in the UAE in that there is no unified sales-tracking system. In the USA and 9 other countries, BookScan compiles point-of-sale data. Here, booksellers must be individually billed for money owed the publisher—a paperwork challenge to say the least.

Fascinating to me as an American is the fast-track publishing process. Most Arabic books receive little or no editing from the publisher; many aren’t edited beyond the author reading their own work. While this means a book can be on the shelves mere weeks after submission, it also leads to errors and omissions. Sometimes, a translator told me ruefully, “I spend hours figuring out a paragraph, finally contact the author, and it turns out a typo changed the meaning.” On an editing panel, my fellow speakers seemed mixed on the value of editing versus speed, some saying they only publish the most polished manuscripts submitted, but authors in the audience were eager to find out how, why, and whom to contact for editing.

Festival organizers have seen in these issues a unique opportunity to help shape the book industry in the region. The Emirates Literature Foundation is actively planning year-round workshops, courses, and development opportunities for the emergence of a robust, ethical, and wide-ranging UAE publishing industry. As a festival guest, it was a fantastic opportunity to see this initiative beginning—and the crustless sandwiches and mini-desserts were pretty fabulous, too.

____________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her next Rebirth Your Book full-manuscript retreat will be October 13-20 in Tuscany.

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