The worldwide impact of the corona virus has made us all take stock. Our hearts go out to our friends and colleagues in the industry who have had to take the unprecedented step of cancelling their Festivals after a year or more of preparation and anticipation. I can only imagine the frustration, disappointment and feelings of devastation that some of you may be experiencing and we feel your pain.
The closure of high-profile events such as the book fairs in London and Paris, and the postponement of the book fairs in Abu Dhabi and Bologna, also disrupt our businesses, and the valuable social interactions that we look forward to at these events. Monetary losses are significant, but we also need to take into account the social losses and impacts that the absence of these events may have. Like elsewhere in the world, in the UAE schools will be closed for the next month, many events cancelled, and we will mainly be confining ourselves to our homes, which hopefully will be a good excuse for all of us to catch up on the ever-growing stack of books that we must find the time to read.
It has been heartening to see the positive spirit with which the book world has faced this situation, particularly the way authors facing cancelled tours have rallied online to support and promote each other’s books. Rather than being dispirited, industry professionals have scrambled to find alternative solutions to keep the conversation going.
However, there is no equal substitute for personal interaction. The rise of book groups and literary festivals has been a social and cultural phenomenon, making books and reading become a social activity and fulfilling a deep need that human beings have. There is often a great deal to gain from discussing the intricacies of character or plot development within a group which may have totally different perspectives to share. The impact that an author can have on his or her audience, being physically present, can be immeasurable, particularly on young people and children who can be forever changed by meeting an author and hearing first-hand his or her view on a book, possibly introducing a different way to look at the world. The energy and enthusiasm of our multicultural audiences here in the Middle East is difficult to convey, but authors always comment on this, amazed at the reception that they receive and the diversity of their audiences, something that they could not have experienced without being physically present. I know that the engagement of such an eager, multicultural audience was something that Hay greatly appreciated at their recent event in Abu Dhabi.
Making connections in the world, bringing people inspiring moments, is one of the missions of literary festivals worldwide. We all hope to make a difference, establishing interactions and stimulating discussion in which literature acts as a portal to new ideas, a window for tomorrow.
There can never be a replacement for the desire to forge personal links in a fractured world, but I am sure we all appreciate that the virtual world has its place, and hopefully this forum will provide an opportunity to air our concerns, ease our burdens, and come together to help each over the coming months.
Words by: Isobel Abulhoul OBE, CEO and Trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation