The Passa Porta Festival goes digital: why are we so hooked on books?

Kurt Snoekx

The Passa Porta Festival, the biennial Brussels high mass for literature, this year lacks the city as a décor, character and binding agent. Due to the pandemic, the connection between writers and readers will be digital. That might not be the kind of electricity we are all looking for, but something tells us that online, too, there will be eager telling and listening, moving, disconcerting and whispering. Why? What magic does literature hold?

“The honest answer is that I'm still reading the same book as I was in January,” Max Porter admits laughingly via a Zoom connection from Bath, England. A flock of three young boys – growing, hungry for entertainment and needing homeschooling – has demanded his attention in recent months and that, along with the continuous flow of news and a “fucked concentration span”, has meant that he, the normally voracious reader – moving between poetry collections on the loo, children's books by the bed and the odd memoir on his desk – slightly lost his appetite.

“But if I step away from my own situation for a moment, more broadly, philosophically, one of the miracles of literature has always been the ability to travel inside other people's minds, travel to far-away places. That sounds like a very basic understanding of literature, but I think it's also its most profound and its most complex possibility: to understand, get to know, empathize. To be able to travel to Vesuvius and then 30,000 million years in the past to look at the formation of a Scottish rock and then to Los Angeles to look at the fault lines of the San Andreas fault, a long way from this room, where I am necessarily trapped, is radical and quite therapeutic. So I am really pleased to see that due to the global pandemic and us spending a lot more time in our houses, in need of various sorts of content, audiobooks have become very successful, literary podcasts are booming and people are supporting their independent bookshops.”

In times of crisis, when the world is in a bad way, we have a tendency to turn to poets, to turn to these other modes of speaking about and looking at what surrounds us

Carl Norac

Max Porter, the British creator of overwhelmingly heart-breaking and exhilarating books like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Lanny and The Death of Francis Bacon, will be one of the heroes of the upcoming Passa Porta Festival 2021. The biennial festival of literature, which in 2019 enabled 10,000 bookworms to wander through Brussels for a weekend, from one reading to the next meeting, from one interview to the next close reading, has had to trade the city for the broadband for its eighth edition, from 21 to 28 March. “That is not the dream scenario,” admits Ilke Froyen, director of Passa Porta, the international house of literature in the heart of Brussels. “Somewhere there was hope for a mix of virtual and, albeit for a limited audience, live and tangible, but it was not to be.”

And yet. Despite this change of format, despite the occasional stuttering screens, frozen faces and faltering voices, there will again be a lot of telling, listening and sharing. How is that possible? What magical powers does the book possess that mean it continues to enchant? What do we look for and find in that unfashionably quiet bundle of paper? What is hiding in that creature of literature that makes it resonate even louder in these shaky times?

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| Passa Porta’s Steven Van Ammel and Ilke Froyen: “We have the whole of the world’s literature behind us, Netflix will never catch up.”

This is not just a feeling; the numbers also show that literature is very much alive. According to a study conducted by the research group TOR of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 82% of the participants read more frequently during the first lockdown, on average six hours per week. It's not just about cookbooks, comic strips, or Lucinda Riley's madly popular book series The Seven Sisters. Albert Camus' The Plague, published in 1947, is once more appearing on bestseller lists in France, Italy and Japan, and Penguin Books has seen a remarkable increase in sales of pandemic-related literature.

But it goes beyond that. Sales of poetry were up by 10% in 2020 compared to the year before. The turnover of book sales (in Flanders and Brussels) in the usual top month of December amounted to 33.1 million Euros, according to figures from sector organisation Between 30 November 2020 and 3 January 2021, 2,143,024 books were sold – by way of comparison: from 2 December 2019 to 5 January 2020, 2,046,100 books accounted for 30.04 million Euros in turnover. The corona pandemic and the subsequent measures have brought about an unprecedented growth in turnover from online sales, up 65% in the first half of 2020, but in the meantime local bookshops, declared essential by royal decree in November last year, are also back in business.

“As an independent bookseller I have seen this increased interest in books at first hand over the past year,” says Steven Van Ammel, who is not only a programme manager at Passa Porta but also a salesman in the Passa Porta Bookshop. “We have had a good year, and not only in terms of turnover. Despite the justified restrictions on shopping for fun, we have had many customers in our shop and many had ambitious reading projects. Our clientele suddenly appeared to have become much younger, a lot of people in their twenties appear to be keener on literature, and they also want to read more stuff from abroad.”

Life, although it may seem that way, has not stood still. Literature is alive in other words, and you can see that in online reading clubs, festivals and encounters

Steven Van Ammel, Passa Porta programme manager

“Of course, in the first lockdown you had the popularity of literature about pandemics, people were trying to get a grip on things. But there is more to it. Today you see the first corona chronicles appearing, and people still notice them, but they are also looking for a different kind of story. Life, although it may seem that way, has not stood still. Literature is alive in other words, and you can see that in online reading clubs, festivals and encounters.”

“In a way, that makes sense. I've done a lot of Netflixing myself in the past year, but despite all those streaming services with their incredible budgets: we have the whole of the world's literature behind us, they'll never catch up.”

“In times of crisis, when the world is in a bad way, we have a tendency to turn to poets, to turn to these other modes of speaking about and looking at what surrounds us,” Carl Norac, Belgium's National Poet, says over the telephone. The French-language poet and writer of children's books, currently living in Ostend and who has been translated into more than forty languages, has been responding to that searching, questioning gaze of readers in recent months. With the project “Gedichtenkrans/Fleurs de funérailles” he gathered 90 poets from all language regions of the country around him, who wrote personalised poems for more than 100 families torn apart by the pandemic and also offered their words as an embrace to otherwise lonely funerals. At the Passa Porta Festival, Carl Norac is one of eleven international writers participating in “Poets on Call”, a wonderful example of the healing power of poetry, where poets offer comfort and support by phone.

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Ilke Froyen and Steven Van Ammel: “People in their twenties appear to be keener on literature now.”

“These days, we all need poetry,” he says. “At the same time, the poets themselves are delighted to see that a poem can be useful and important in these times. A poet is not just someone who lives on clouds and travels through landscapes, but someone who is part of the world along with others. With everyone, also those who do not like poetry. Poetry is not outside the world, it is in the world, echoes in the streets, adorns walls, is recited for all ears. That is the most important thing for me as a National Poet: I don't want to just put poetry away in a book that touches a few, I want to share words, very simply, with humility.”

The ambition of the writer meets the desire of the reader, as we find out when we get Uschi Cop on the phone, a Molenbeek-based multi-­reader and writer, and recently the founder of Hyster-x, a new collective of womxn and non-binary writers. “There is a great need for connection today. Words and stories are an incredibly important part in that, because they shape our reality and make that connection possible.” During the Passa Porta Festival, Uschi Cop will open her front door to the “City of Stories” project, which delivers stories to the home. “My boyfriend, who is also a lover of literature, and I have been together for two years, and this is my way of surprising him. A lot of things take place online, and that's all good and well but it's out of necessity. I think it is important to make it tangible. When people share language in each other's physical presence, whether through debate, conversation or stories, you can always feel that there is a bit of electricity in the air. Something is created when people share words with each other. A look, a sigh, a posture...that enriches the story.”

During events, I have to have coughing, laughing, falling over, someone being drunk, someone being nervous, someone being suddenly incredibly good, someone holding back...because these are the human things

Max Porter, writer

“During events, I have to have coughing, laughing, falling over, someone being drunk, someone being nervous, someone being suddenly incredibly good, someone holding back…because these are the human things,” Max Porter agrees. “Sure, they can exist on Zoom to a certain extent, but I want to keep on believing that there's a certain kind of alchemy to getting together, breaking bread, sharing songs, telling stories, fighting…”

The “rant” Max Porter wrote for the Passa Porta Festival is one that digs deep into these cursed times, multiplies voices, and reveals a bit more about the circumstances of the online encounter being set up between writer and reader. “I'm grateful to the technology, don't get me wrong, but we must, if at all possible, walk the streets together some time and actually get to know one another. So in the piece, I wanted to sort of set up the idea of being in the same room together, sharing literature as this suddenly very peculiar and extraordinary opportunity we have, but also to interrogate it. What does the author's presence mean? What was the privilege involved in that? What was tied to the economic processes of publishing? What was simply a guy who actually just loves the sound of his own voice? What was mediated by the institution or by the cultural industry? Who are the players in the drama and can we see them not just from above, as characters, but can we be one of them? What happens if we change the viewpoint?”

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It is a story of inclusiveness, a plea for multivoicedness, that echoes in what makes literature a refuge today. As an empathy machine, as a finger on many wounds, as an instigator of tangible change in these virtual times. In the form of a new writers' collective like Uschi Cop's, in the form of a telephone line that lays poetic plasters, in the form of a programme that unites Belgian, British, French, Cameroonian-Swiss, Nigerian-American, Japanese, Norwegian, Guatemalan and German voices.

“The author is present”, the banner under which this year's Passa Porta Festival operates, may ring more true today than ever. Despite the year of great absence, of physical space becoming very limited. Literature enlarges that space mentally, emphasizes Ilke Froyen. “It broadens your thoughts, puts what you feel and what you cannot put your finger on into words. Literature clarifies, stretches and opens your mind. Even in these times into which we have all stumbled. Suddenly, we are all online, and we are all still learning. It is an experiment, but a fascinating one.”

Literature broadens your thoughts. Literature clarifies, stretches and opens your mind. Even in these times into which we have all stumbled

Ilke Froyen, director of Passa Porta

“Of course it is not an ideal scenario and of course you lose people in the process. But the reverse is also possible: last year, for example, we organised a reading club on literature and disability. A group of us read texts together and discussed them. There was one woman who felt very clearly connected and who was very clearly heard by all. She was reading along from her sickbed. We wouldn't have been able to reach her without that digital platform, and now we have. That touched me enormously.”

Reading books is a radical choice today. A radical choice for time, for encounter, for understanding, for empathy, for connection, for the other. “Writing has always been breathing for me,” says Carl Norac. “My father was a writer, literature was just part of daily life, of my body. For me, a poem is a gesture.” An invitation to go back 30,000 million years and admire the formation of a Scottish rock. The reader cherishes that little stone in their shoe.

21 > 28/3,

Watch the interview with author Kurt Snoekx on BRUZZ-radio in the video below:

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