National Book Festival promises to be a ‘holistic cultural experience’

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This feature first appeared on the Sunday Times of Malta’s Culture section.

International authors, a competition for debut writers, book launches, exhibitions, film and myriad other activities are set to transform this year’s edition of the recently-revamped National Book Festival into a holistic cultural experience that should get the most committed non-reader to rethink things.

This year the festival sees a marked increase in participants and events, a development that National Book Council chairman Mark Camilleri attributes in no small way to the change in direction from ‘book fair’ to ‘book festival’.

“We have, of course, preserved the commercial aspect. But un-fortunately, the book fair was being reduced to a bazaar of sorts and I believe we neglected the educational and cultural aspects.

“We will surely fail to make books and reading attractive if we insist on neglecting the educational and cultural responsibility of such a prestigious annual event.

“The switch from ‘fair’ to ‘festival’”, he adds, “was in fact more than a mere rebranding exercise and the event has moved away from the ‘simplistic set-up of a book-sale event towards a more holistic cultural experience’.

“We have reason to believe that the change has already incited public interest in the event. This is not merely a new guise or, worse still, a ploy.

“A festival is a celebration and offers a bigger scope and potential for cultural growth. We believe that this formula is working because this year’s festival programme is jam-packed with events.

“It is very encouraging to experience such a high number of bookings by own-initiative participants interested in holding events,” Camilleri says.

For the first time publishers are being subsidised in order to hold their events. This, Camilleri says, is just one of the incentives initiated by the National Book Council in the hope that it will yield future fruits on the local book market.

“The numbers are still small, but owing to the fact that we are actually in the process of building up the National Book Council as an entity alongside the very market it is, in turn, helping to grow, the challenges are many. Books are competing with an entertainment market which is only becoming more aggressive, so the council is always in need of funding.”

In the meantime, their efforts are being met with a degree of success. Camilleri says schools are responding to the council’s increased drive.

The festival, in fact, puts a priority on attracting young readers and, besides offering children free vouchers to exchange for books, there will be a number of activities specially targeted at the younger ones.

These include an initiative by the Department of Education’s Drama Unit coordinating a programme that includes theatre improvisation and book exploration tasks to help each student become more familiar with the book stands while learning how to browse responsibly.

“There will also be activities aimed towards children held on Saturday and Sunday morning, making this a real family outing.”

This year also sees an increase in foreign participation.

“For the second time round, France will be represented with a bookshop, something that was made possible in no small way thanks to the support of the French embassy.

“We are particularly pleased to have secured the presence of Pierre Assouline, a major French author who is being invited for a public interview.”

The list of foreign participants includes a contingent of Italian publishers who, through the intervention of the Italian Cultural Institute, will be present along with a troupe of their chosen authors.

Other foreign authors are being brought over by Horizons publishers and by the National Archives of Malta. Bookmark bookshop has also organised a visit by Carlo Barroso Garcia, a representative from the Sociedad General Española de Librería, who will be delivering a lecture to Spanish teachers.

More event highlights on the programme include the second edition of Merlin Publishers’ #abbozz, which sees debut writers competing for a publishing contract.

There are also the launch of the journal Leħen il-Malti by the Għaqda tal-Malti – Università, a lecture by professional story-teller Marylyn Peringer being organised by the Malta National Archives, talks by the Malta Historical Society, a debate about contemporary Maltese theatre organised by the National Book Council, an exhibition in collaboration with the National Library and a lecture about the role of libraries and archives in preserving literary, local heritage.

“This year’s festival also sees the first edition of the Literacy Award Ceremony, an initiative by the Literacy Unit in collaboration with the NBC.

“Midesea Books, Kite Group, Horizons, Deer Publications, Faraxa Publishers and a handful of writers and poets have all contributed to this year’s programme,” Camilleri says.

One item on the agenda that is bound to attract major interest is a short film that is an adaptation of Immanuel Mifsud’s short story Mara Morbi. The film, which was shot by Shadeena Films, is intended to sell the council’s idea that local literature and film can be incorporated successfully.

“This film is one of the council’s major projects aimed at executing our vision for the book market. In order for the book industry to grow, it needs to look into other cultural sectors.

“This is especially true for the local market which is, admittedly, a very small and young cog in the grand scheme of things. We are banking on relatively good reception for this project, which will hopefully instigate more concrete ideas along the same lines in the long-term,” Camilleri says.

“The local world of TV and film is, sad to say, mediocre at best. This is a situation partly brought about by a lack of professional, local scriptwriters.

“It would certainly be ideal for all stakeholders if the local literary scene were to be allowed access to our screens. There is also great potential for growth in both cultural sectors, if such a relationship is struck between publishers and authors on the one hand and local TV and film producers on the other.”

Camilleri, nonetheless, does have good things to say about the literary scene, which he believes includes a healthy mix of popular names and emerging authors who are giving their more established counterparts a run for their money.

“Interesting things are happening locally, both on the literary and the academic front. We still need a leap in both content and publishing quality in order to compete with foreign publications.

“Despite a positive outlook, the council can’t help but notice discrepancies in quality in both literature and academia.

“Still, Malta is a young nation with a relatively young literary and academic scene. It is only natural to need some more time,” Camilleri says.

The National Book Festival takes place between November 12 and 16 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta.

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