April 22, 2019 § 15 Comments
By Kim Hinson
I gripped my mouse in a trembly hand. I’d just registered for New York Times bestselling author Cheryl Strayed’s Writing Camp, and wanted to find out exactly what I was in for. Scrolling through her website, I nervously clicked the link for the Esalen Institute—location of the camp. This was my first famous-person-led writing event and I was in a good, old-fashioned tizzy at the thought of actually meeting and learning from such a wonderful writer.
“Calm down,” I told myself. “It’s just a writing camp, for crying out loud.”
I explored Esalen’s lovely, photo-filled website, repeatedly mumbling, “Knowledge is Power, Knowledge is Power,” to steady myself. Searching for a map of the grounds, I figured that my first priority was to find out where the bathrooms were. Not for obvious reasons, but so I could take my youngest, introvert-iest daughter’s advice to hide out and calm my nerves in the privacy of a bathroom stall.
The more I clicked, the more I relaxed. My eyes lingered on words like “well-spring of energy” and “convergence of mountains and water that is the Big Sur coastline.” I took a deep breath and pictured myself on the beach doing a little shell collecting between workshops. More phrases from the website soothed my lily-livered thoughts—“healing lives”, “retreat center”, “educational institute”. This Esalen Institute sounded more and more relaxing and less and less intimidating. Oh! And “inspiring beauty” and “unparalleled intellectual history.” Now that’s a place I could love!
I clicked on the Visit tab and scrolled down to the Frequently Asked Questions link. Calm now, I casually strolled through other people’s ordinary-type questions starting with—“Is there a Shuttle or Van Service to Esalen?” And at the bottom of page one, “Can I bring my child?” Awwww. So I’ll be among people who love their children, too. I smiled and relaxed even more when I read the answer: “Yes, as long as they’re supervised.” Okay. That makes sense. That’s what I’d say if I were running the place. Page two questions—“What payment methods/credit cards do you accept?” Oh, good. A practical question. I sighed, thought about getting some milk and cookies and let my eyes drift to the last few questions on page three. My eyes bugged and I nearly had a heart attack on the spot. “Must I Get Naked?” someone asked, and “Is Esalen a Nudist Colony?” But no, I thought. Those were just prank questions slipped in by some … prankster. Writer Prankster even.
I clicked the question and Pow! The answer: “The hot springs at Esalen have been in use for over 6,000 years and are clothing-optional. Nudity is common in the baths and the swimming pool but by no means mandatory. We encourage each individual to find their own edge between comfort and growth, either wearing a swimsuit or not.”
Now wait just a ding-dang minute here.
Heart aflutter, I shakily wondered exactly when a pounding heart turned into an honest-to-goodness heart attack. I decided to join the exclusive Facebook group created especially for Cheryl Strayed Esalen Writers Camp attendees. Clearly I needed to scope out the nature of the actual writers I’d (maybe) be associating with.
The first post was from another new attendee—someone who’d never been to Esalen, was nervous, and wanted to know what to bring. One reply suggested bringing layers of clothes, and then, regarding swimming suits, something like, “You’ll feel more naked with a suit on than without.” And it ended cheerfully with, “See you there!”
After a lengthy consultation with, and upon review and approval from my best writer friend, I decided to post my own Newbie Note on the Facebook page:
Hello lovely Esalen Writers! I’ll be new this year too. And Hoo-boy, from what I read in another post, it looks like I’ll be feeling like the naked-est gal in the whole durn swimming pool, what with my black, turtleneck swimming suit, my retro, ankle-length swim cape, my classic, stretch-fit, silicone swim cap, and my knee-high water boots. But I reckon I can handle it, especially if you’ll all kindly avert your eyes whilst I’m in your midst.
That post got an immediate “I’m with you!” from one person and then roughly twenty, “Oh you’ve got to try it! You’ll love it!!!” posts after which I stopped reading and nearly keeled over.
I don’t say private body part words. I don’t even whisper them to myself. And I definitely don’t want to be in the immediate presence of other people’s unclothed, private body parts. My people keep private things private. I shakily assured myself that no amount of writerly peer pressure could change this girl’s modesty policy.
Before keeling over, I went online and bought two separate and totally serious Accidental Death and Dismemberment policies, leaving lots and lots of money to my husband and three daughters upon my seemingly imminent Death by being exposed, overwhelmed, and overcome by the nudity loving writers of Esalen.
The happy conclusion to this self-inflicted psychological thriller is that not only did I not feel pressured to get naked, and not only did I not see anyone else get naked, but instead, my writing spirit was completely refreshed, exhilarated, and energized. The presentations and workshops—led by several brilliant, successful writers—were creative, informative, and inspiring in every way.
Last summer Cheryl Strayed retired as the leader, but the Esalen Writers Camp, now led by authors Pam Houston and Samantha Dunn, continues in full strength. With distinguished returning and new faculty that includes Lidia Yuknavitch, Steve Almond, and Lynell George, my final thought on this magical camp is, “Wow.”
Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. She believes that finding a home—a capital H Home—and having a good horse are what life’s all about. Add a lot of great books to that mix and Poof! It’s Heaven on Earth. Find out more about Kim and see lots of pictures at http://kimhinson.com/
April 16, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Lorri McDole
When Talking Writing’s editor Martha Nichols asked if I’d be at AWP Portland to sign the Into Sanity anthology I’d contributed to, my first thoughts:
Too Damn Big. Too Much Anxious.
But second thoughts:
It’s only a 3-hour drive, and I’ll get the new experience of signing books at AWP. Plus, it’s only October! Surely, I’ll be in a better emotional space by March?
As soon as I registered, Dread moved in for real and unpacked his bags, which were legion: thousands (and thousands) of people…alone this time (I’d gone to AWP Seattle with a friend)…alone-Lyfting (was it safe?)…no MFA friends (because no MFA) to cower with. Etcetera.
On March 12th (verified by my journal), I started scheming about bowing out, because I hadn’t heard whether the anthology would, in fact, be published in time. On March 13th, Austin Kleon tweeted a page from Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate that, very loosely translated, read, “You can say no.” Permission! Relief.
Later that same day (really), Martha emailed, also loosely translated: The book is done, it’s beautiful!
Dammit all to hell.
If I had to go, I needed more than a how-to-kick-AWP’s-ass plan. I needed a finely-honed mission.
Beth Ann Fennelly
I discovered Beth Ann’s book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, through The Writer, which ran a micro-memoir contest that Beth Ann judged. My story was published as a finalist, so I packed Heating and Cooling and my copy of The Writer (thinking I could just point in case I couldn’t squeak the words out). I got up super early for her Thursday morning panel, snagged a second-row seat, and watched her walk in: long red hair, skirt printed with rows of books, teal velvet crop top (!), multi-colored shoes. I don’t remember what she talked about (I have notes somewhere), but after all her University of Mississippi students, who also love her, made it through the line, I got to meet her. She wrote something lovely in my book and said, “I remember your story! It was so good!” Swoon.
Yi Shun Lai
Yi Shun, an editor at The Tahoma Review, is a passionate, no-nonsense speed talker. I knew she had another panel to run to, and I surprised myself by matching her fast talk when it was my turn, leaving out my notorious comma-speak: “I know you’re in a hurry but awhile back you gave me great feedback on a short piece that I then submitted for Beth Ann Fennelly’s contest at The Writer and they published it!”
“I love stories like that!” Yi Shun said, and she was off. Short, sweet, no time for awkwardness.
On Saturday, heading to lunch with fellow Talking Writing contributors, I saw Ira, the editor of Sweet, going up the escalator while I was going down. Time was diminishing (as I once misheard my husband say on the phone), so I threw my arm up and waved. “Hi Ira! You don’t really know me, but you published me a couple of years ago.”
“Hi!” he waved back. “Come by the booth later!”
I almost didn’t—I’d already said hi, what next?—but I also wanted to buy one of his books. He’d sold out, but I did snag a beautifully-designed chapbook Sweet had published. When I confessed that AWP made me nervous, Ira gave me some personal picks and tips for choosing a smaller nonfiction conference to attend. He was as generous as I imagined he would be.
There were things I didn’t accomplish. I didn’t see Liz Prato, with whom I originally workshopped the story that would make it into Talking Writing’s anthology and whose book, Baby’s on Fire, I carried the entire weekend, hoping to have her sign it. I didn’t visit the mentor booth (I’m probably too old to be mentored anyway, right?). And when Allison K. Williams called out before her panel started, “Hey, this is So-and-So (I’m sorry So-and-So, I didn’t catch your name), and he’s in the book Flash Nonfiction Funny,” why didn’t I stand up and call back, “Hey, I’m in that book, too!” I didn’t even get to meet Allison—who had rejected my story (positively!) for Brevity’s podcast—because I had to leave the panel early.
But there were other things I experienced on the fly. An engaging conversation with Jennifer Jean, poet and Managing Editor of Talking Writing, about hybrid texts, how you can use dreams and suppositions and maybes in nonfiction stories if you clearly signal what you’re doing. The serendipity of sitting next to a guy in a panel who heard me fangirling over Beth Ann (again) and said, “Hey, I hired her at Mississippi.” Finding out that the company I was keeping in the new anthology (you never know, right?) was stellar.
I could have gotten a lot more out of AWP, but I also could have gotten a lot less. It’s been two weeks since I made the 5-hour trip down to AWP (an anxious girl has to stop more than most to use the bathroom), and this is what it still feels like: I brought the behemoth that is AWP down to my size, and I killed it.
Lorri McDole’s writing has been published in The Writer, Cleaver, Prime Number Magazine, Sweet, The Offing, and Brain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include Into Sanity and Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net award.
April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Alexa Weinstein
I TRIED TO WRITE DOWN SOME OF THE GREAT THINGS WRITERS SAID
James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.
Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.
Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.
I GOT TIRED AND STARTED WRITING DOWN PHRASES I LIKED WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT WHO SAID THEM*
(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)
who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges
how it made me feel • how many pages
a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air
in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit
not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft
the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away
no long speeches
as the plane crashes • as I learned to write
so weird and unique • so enchanting
for the picture • for the end • for taking it
like a sentence • like lying down
to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over
more silence • more attention
wants to arise
I PERIODICALLY LEFT THE CONVENTION CENTER TO ROAM MY OWN CITY
At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.
At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.
On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.
At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.
At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.
Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at alexaweinstein.com. Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.
April 2, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Bonnie Martin
“Okay, I will have the chicken option please,” I say to the woman at Marukin Ramen, a ten minute walk from the Oregon Convention Center. I add, “And can I—or I mean, may I—”
The woman laughs, and looks at the AWP conference badge hanging by a blue lanyard around my neck. One that thousands of others are sporting in Portland this weekend.
“You must be from that writer’s conference,” she conjectures. “You’re the sixth person today who has corrected themselves in this line for saying ‘can’ instead of ‘may.’”
Now we both laugh. However, in my head, the other conference goers are saying something far more sophisticated, like “Can I—or I mean, may I—add fried leeks to my ramen order?” versus what I ended up saying… “And can I—or I mean, may I—please have a fork?” I peered around the small shop on Ankeny Street with my eyes widening at the chopsticks in view, imagining the scene of noodles flopping from bowl to table, me unable to use the sticks.
And that’s a pretty accurate summary of how I felt at my first AWP conference. I was a fork in the midst of a bunch of chopsticks, taking a stab at what it means to be a writer, a reader, and a good literary citizen.
It took me a few hours of being asked by vendors in the book fair what I do before admitting “I guess I am a creative nonfiction writer.” (I realized a three minute description of my path to AWP was too laborious and stale for anyone–including myself–to endure anymore.) It took sitting in on three author panels before I realizing these writers’ advice might truly apply to me, that it was more than hypothetical, nebulous learning in which I was partaking.
This conference was truly a dizzying experience for me, and I have been processing it since, trying to figure it all out.
But that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? A recurring theme in many of the panels I attended hinged on meaning. We write to create meaning and order in our lives. For ourselves. For others. And that’s why I started down the path in English literature years ago in my undergraduate career. A floundering student at a Big 10 university, I was desperate to create meaning in my college career. And through a series of choices which might be called planned happenstance, I landed in the English department, where meaning is made, is written, is explained.
It’s through this same planned happenstance I made it to the AWP conference. A professor suggested I join a graduate certificate. She mentioned in passing there was a travel grant for a writing conference at our university. I followed down this path out of curiosity and ended up in Portland.
And I ask myself “now what?” I went to AWP and what will I do next? Well, my tools may be different than others, using my metaphorical fork instead chopsticks, my nontraditional career trajectory instead of the traditional creative writing MFA, but I will do what I know how to do best: attempt to create meaning. And acknowledging such, and writing this down thus far, is just the beginning.
Bonnie Martin is a graduate student and writer in the Midwest. Her work has been published in Orion’s The Place Where You Live column. Outside the classroom, Bonnie enjoys refinishing furniture and a good cup of coffee.
March 26, 2019 § 17 Comments
By Jennifer Niesslein
I’m not a hater of AWP, but if you say “Montaigne” three times in the mirror, I’ll appear and scratch you.
- “AWP” stands for “Association of Writers and Writing Programs,” although the vibe the conference feels, to me, more geared toward writers in writing programs. I’ve never been enrolled in a writing program and I don’t teach in a writing program. The AWP schedule is pretty packed with sessions titled with “re-” prefix (“rewriting,” “reclaiming,” “reimagining”) and other academic speak. There is probably a ton of value for some people in these talks. I’m not one of them.
- It’s expensive. I’ve been a presenter a few times, and they’re the only times in my life I’ve had to pay for the privilege of giving my time for preparation and speaking—and more. Last year, I flew to Tampa where AWP hosted a conference. I spent over a thousand dollars between airfare, registration fees, taxis, meals, and the hotel. I didn’t have anyone to comp me for this; people involved in writing programs do, from what I understand. I ran into a good friend at the airport who’s a Big Deal. Someone was paying her to fly first class. On the plane, I passed her with my clunky carry-on luggage I bought at TJ Maxx. “I’ll be back in steerage,” I joked. Kind of. I wrote the expense off on my taxes (and we’ll see if that’s legal anymore, given the tax overhaul), but even that’s a luxury—I have the money to front.
- SO MANY GENRES! I edit and write creative nonfiction. It’s a genre relatively new to the MFA world; my own alma mater has an acclaimed MFA program and they still don’t offer CNF. So if you’re thinking you’ll sit at an AWP-sanctioned hotel bar and strike up a conversation with a stranger about craft, you might be speaking different languages; it’s not that poets and writers of creative nonfiction can’t have a nice conversation—it’s just that if you’re looking for a tribe, it doesn’t just happen organically. For that, you might want to check out conferences specifically for your genre.
- Home is awesome! When AWP-goers are taking off their shoes and shoving laptops into bins, I’ll be chilling in my slippers. When they’re waiting for an elevator that, when it finally arrives, they eye and wonder if it’s straining the weight limit, all the while contemplating their own deaths, I’ll be quietly making a cup of tea that’s not the temperature of lava. When they’re waiting forty-five minutes to be seated for lunch in what may or may not be a good restaurant chosen only because it’s within walking distance, I’ll be zapping last night’s leftovers and watching trash TV on my couch. And when they post pictures of a fabulous party filled with writers whose work I admire? There will be a twinge, a flicker of I should have gone. But then I’ll wonder who I think I’m kidding—after a certain point in the evening, the bra comes off and the robe comes out, no matter where I am in the world. I’ll go to my very own bed draped with a soft blanket that smells like my own detergent and realize that no one invoked Montaigne to me in some time, and I’ll dream the dreams of a homebody: all the places I don’t have to go.
Jennifer Niesslein is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She also co-founded Brain, Child magazine. She’s the author of one memoir, Practically Perfect in Every Way, the editor of two Full Grown People anthologies, and an essayist. She’s on leave from Full Grown People to write another book.
March 22, 2019 § 5 Comments
We’d love to see our readers and writers in Portlandia, and we’d love you to see us. We don’t have a table, but we’ll be around plenty. Maybe buy us some avocado toast?
Here are some scheduled events featuring Brevity‘s finest:
THURSDAY, March 28th
- Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore will be part of the panel Que savent-ils?: What Classic Essays Can Teach Contemporary Essayists even though he can’t pronounce part of the panel title (10:30 am to 11:45 am)
- Dinty W. Moore is also reading and speaking as part of the 25 Years of Creative Nonfiction: An Anniversary Reading and celebration, alongside Lee Gutkind, Brenda Miller, and other fantastic writers and surprise guests (1:30 pm to 2:45 pm)
- Nonfiction luminaries Phillip Lopate and Michael Steinberg, along with Assistant Editor Ana Maria Spagna, will debate the proper role of “I” in CNF (3:00 pm to 4:15 pm)
- The panel The Yellow Wallpaper: Women Writing Mental Illness in 2019 includes Assistant Editor Penny Guisinger, who promises that she will be “showing up with all her crazy” (4:30 pm to 5:45 pm)
- Penny Guisinger is also part of the Incite: Queer Writers Read event from 6 to 7:30 pm at Literary Arts, 925 SW Washington Ave.
- Assistant Editor Colin Hosten will participate in a reading and reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Courtyard Marriott Downtown, featuring numerous Woodhall Press authors, co-hosted by Hosten’s MFA alma-mater Fairfield University and Woodhall Press, which Hosten co-founded in 2016.
FRIDAY, March 29th
- Assistant Editor Ana Maria Spagna signs copies of her latest book Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going Friday noon to 1 p.m. at the Artsmith table T10095
- Founding Editor Dinty W. Moore will be signing copes of Flash Nonfiction Funny on Friday, from 3 to 4 pm, at the Fairfield University/Woodhall Press Booth 3013
- Social Media Editor Allison Williams will be reading at the Hippocampus/Under The Gum Tree/River Teeth/Fourth Genre offsite event at the White Owl Social Club, starting Friday at 5:30 pm
SATURDAY, March 30th
- Social Media Editor Allison Williams will be keeping it brief on the panel The Most Versatile Essay: Flash Nonfiction in Any/Every Classroom (10:30 am to 11:45 am)
- Five women writers will get Back to Basics in order to untangle environmental truths, moderated by Ana Maria Spagna (12:00 pm to 1:15 pm)
Be there, or be square.
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!)
The arts scene in Dubai is two-faceted:
- A scrappy group of expats beg, borrow and/or pay exorbitant rent for space to hold an artistic event.
- 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.