Étonnants voyageurs 2013: world literature/littérature-monde

The Étonnants voyageurs festival in Saint Malo once again this year provided a rich programme of talks, films and exhibitions. Demand, as is often the case at this event, outstripped supply, and many were turned away from the more popular sessions with authors such as Azouz Begag (publicizing his latest novel, Salam Ouessant). The salon du livre provided a lively showcase for recently published work in the areas of travel writing, bande dessinée, works in French translation and ‘world literature in French’, and there was a firm assertion of the book as a material object to be signed by the many authors who were present. Memorable sessions included a celebration of the first decade of the Montreal publisher Mémoire d’encrier, appropriately hosted in the Maison du Québec, featuring Rodney Saint Eloi, Dany Laferrière, Laure Morali and Naomi Fontaine, and a discussion between the indefatigable Frankétienne and Helon Habila on the theme of the double. A number of travel writers were present, and I was interested to hear Jean-Luc Coatalem talk about his topical new travelogue on North Korea. What drew me in particular, however, were the sessions arranged by Word Alliance, ‘a strategic international partnership’ of eight of the world’s leading literature festivals ‘which supports and showcases the work of writers, facilitates the creation of international literature projects and provides opportunities to enhance each festival’s artistic programme’. Most notably, Saint Malo provided the stage for the latest meeting of Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. Inspired by the 1962 International Writers Conference in Edinburgh, about which a fascinating history has recently been published by Cargo Publishing, this series of events is asking the same set of questions about literature in a variety of different locations: Scotland, Germany, South Africa, Canada, Russia, Egypt, India, China, Turkey, Belgium, Trinidad, Portugal, France, Malaysia and Australia.

After the flurry of activity around littérature-monde in 2007 and 2008, it might be argued that the festival’s contribution to development of the notion and wider project has the initial lacked focus it enjoyed. Michel Le Bris has noted that the debate has resonated outside France in a series of colloquia and publications, often taking a critical turn perhaps unexpected by the original signatories of the manifesto. The re-launch of the journal Gulliver as a vehicle for the movement has, not, however, happened. Yet what seems clear is that the continued emergence and visibility of ‘translingual’ French writers—i.e. those who have migrated from other languages to French—alongside the overdue visibility of ‘Francophone postcolonial’ authors mean that twenty-first-century literature in French is a very different phenomenon from that of previous centuries, and one worthy of increasingly close attention.

One criticism of the original littérature-monde manifesto was its oxymoronic tendency to juxtapose ‘monde’ with ‘en français’, a gesture that is at once inclusive and exclusive. As writers such as Glissant and Khatibi made clear in the second half of the twentieth century, literary manifestations of postcoloniality are often explicitly or implicitly polyglossic, and the recognition of post-national or globalized literatures requires adjustments that are not only geo-cultural but also linguistic, challenging any residual monolingualism or monoculturalism and all that the reduction to a single language or culture implies. The coupling of ‘littérature’ and ‘monde’ raised additional but largely unacknowledged questions about world systems theory, and the limitations of literary circulation dependent on the centripetal institutions of the Francophone publishing world (Paris-based publishers, metropolitan literary prizes, etc., and the disproportionate control these imply) – this is why it is encouraging to see publishers such as Mémoire d’encrier continuing to be creative in their activity in what is such a difficult market, although Quebec is arguably one of the only genuinely strong publishing poles in the French-speaking world outside France.

The involvement of Saint Malo in the Word Alliance offers the potential for the opening-up of debates around littérature-monde that a number of us have been advocating for some time. In the sessions I was able to attend at this year’s festival, on Peut-on parler de « littérature nationale »?, La littérature se doit-elle d’être politique? and L’avenir du roman, there was some evidence of the debates present in Pour une littérature voyageuse, the first movement to emerge in Saint Malo in the later 1980s and early 1990s: Kenneth White talked about geopoetics as a form of post-national literature; Michel Le Bris himself advocated a type of contemporary fiction that rejects the nouveau roman and structuralism, and reflects a form of narration of the réel advocated by early twentieth-century figures such as Jacques Rivière. What the format of these sessions allowed, however, was the granting of space to new voices from among those translingual writers to whom I have referred above.

The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference format involves a writer presenting a short lecture on the session topic, followed by responses from other authors contributing to debate on the theme. Velibor Colic began the session on national literatures, Atiq Rahimi that on literature and politics. As these debates reverberate in different languages and in different locations, directly addressing questions of politics (and the politics of language, as well as the politics of translation), it can only be hoped that discussions of World Literature, Weltliteratur and littérature-monde will be reignited in ways that emphasize the ‘worlding’ and ‘worldliness’ that these terms imply.


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