The Nature of Literature

18 October 2021

We talk to Michał Paweł Markowski, artistic director of the Conrad Festival, about the future of nature and the nature of the future.

ALEKSANDRA LIPCZAK: Last year’s Conrad Festival closed with the reflection “Let’s Build the World Anew”. This year’s events explore the theme further with the motto “The Nature of the Future”.
It wasn’t just the most recent Conrad Festival which closed with a challenge to rewrite our lives: the festival has had a similar goal since its earliest days, and its mission is to continue providing fresh narratives explaining our world. We believe strongly that literature doesn’t exist purely for our entertainment and to pass the time; quite the opposite: it should demand our time and stimulate us to ask new questions. So we continue to do the same thing we’ve been doing since the start.
This year we want to think about the future, but also about nature. It is a very confusing term, difficult to define; the word “nature” tends to serve as shorthand for the “natural world”. But that’s not all, because it also describes the essence of events and phenomena. When we talk about the nature of the future, we are asking about the nature of contemporary societies, memory, relationships between the sexes, local experience, migration and exile. We find ourselves in crisis; some go as far as saying that we live in unprecedented times. We are investigating this world through words. And that’s what literature is: an attempt to understand the world through words.

This year’s guests don’t include futurologists or authors working directly on the climate crisis, even though the motto would suggest this choice.
Our goal is to go against first impressions. Instead of dedicating our festival to futurology and literature which projects our future lives, we want to contemplate the future on a different, smaller scale. Humankind differs from other species in that it is constantly worrying about its future. And we worry about it while carrying the baggage of the past and while immersed in the present, making it nigh on impossible to separate these elements. This is the most important theme we want to explore.

There are guests whose work focuses on current conflicts. We welcome the Lebanese author Elias Khoury who writes about Palestinian ghettoes, and the Kurdish-Iranian Behrouz Boochani, author of a book describing his long interment in the Australian-run detention camp on Manus Island.
The political elements of our programme are deeply meaningful. We aren’t talking about conflict between parties or between government and opposition, but on the level of interpersonal relations. The authors you mention write from distant corners of the globe about things we cannot experience for ourselves. And it is important, just as it’s valuable for us to know about the experiences of non-binary people in other European countries and how life in Croatia is affected by the past.

You’re talking about meetings with Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and Kristian Novak.
This year we also welcome our first ever Native American guest. When asked about his nationality, Brandon Hobson, finalist of the National Book Award, simply says “Cherokee Nation”. He represents a nation we in Poland know nothing about beyond almost mythical stories. We think of America as somewhere familiar, but is his America – or that of George Saunders – anything like we imagine?
This is another important part of the festival: the major issues we highlight in the title are presented by charismatic individuals describing their own experiences and stepping beyond them – for example, Elias Khoury from Lebanon who writes about Palestine.

Women outnumber men as guests of this year’s Conrad Festival, by a good margin of 32 to 20.
I think we all remember the bestseller by Rebecca Solnit – another guest at this year’s festival – Men Explain Things to Me. This gender balance goes towards breaking through the traditional patriarchal model of literary festivals, which are generally dominated by men. We also aim to crush the ubiquitous phenomenon of mansplaining. Rebecca Solnit and Aoko Matsuda, Helena Janeczek (German-Italian author from a family of Polish Jews), the Korean winner of the Man Booker International Prize Han Kang and the francophone Belgian author Amélie Nothomb all have great literary nous. I’m certain that they will show us that the future truly belongs to women.

But the Conrad Festival also features Polish authors. For example, we will see a debate between three biographers of Zygmunt Bauman.
Zygmunt Bauman was once our guest, and this year we will discuss the unusual event of the coinciding publications of three biographies, penned from completely different perspectives by people who usually work in totally different spheres. They all agree that his biography is at once individual and all-encompassing, since it covers myriad issues of the 20th century.
The Conrad Festival is an institution with numerous important strands. One of them features meetings with authors from Poland and abroad, including Literary Worlds where notable individual from Polish cultural circles introduce other artists. This year’s showcased authors include Julia Fiedorczuk, Mikołaj Grynberg, Angelika Kuźniak, Bronka Nowicka, Maciej Płaza, Adam Kaczanowski and Dorota Masłowska.
Although we are somewhat disappointed that the majority of meetings need to be held online once again, on the upside we were able to start the festival much earlier, launching the year-round cycle of conversations with authors such as Jonathan Lear and Arundhati Roy. Other strands include cycles of meetings bringing together the publishing, screen adaptation, reading and writing circles on a practical level, held as part of Word2Picture and the Book Congress. There are also meetings held as part of the Kraków UNESCO City of Literature programme, a film strand, events for children and young people and other accompanying events.
All these strands come together to form the extensive festival whose aim is to support readers and members of the publishing industry. We want to reach kids, elderly people and individuals with little or no access to literature due to incarceration or social or practical exclusion.
And since we’re talking about the future, I can say that I am hopeful that we will be able to expand our audiences and come up with ever more questions.

The text published in the 3/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

Michał Paweł Markowski
Theorist of literature, philosopher, essayist and literary critic. Chair of the Department of Polish, Russian and Lithuanian Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago and Visiting Professor at the Jagiellonian University. Author and editor of over twenty books on philosophy, literary theory and contemporary literature.

Aleksandra Lipczak
Journalist, reporter and author of two books introducing contemporary Spain and the Muslim and Arab history and heritage of the Iberian Peninsula.
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