Should writers boycott book festivals in countries where rights are under threat?

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Here is a question: does appearing at the Emirates Airline festival of literature make an author complicit in human rights violations by the United Arab Emirates’ government? Are authors who attend the festival, which kicks off on Friday, whitewash for a country built on the mistreatment of migrant workers, a country where LGBTQ relationships remain illegal?

Or, is an author who refuses to attend sacrificing the chance to aid local dissenters in favour of futile virtue signalling? These dilemmas are faced not only by authors in Dubai this weekend, but all writers invited to any of the growing number of festivals in countries monitored by Human Rights Watch.

“The growth of large-scale, glamorous national and international literature festivals, with media and corporate sponsorship, has been a worrying trend for writers and literature,” says Kavita Bhanot, author and editor of Too Asian, Not Asian Enough. What concerns Bhanot is the potential for governments of countries under fire for their human rights records, such as Israel, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, to use books festivals to present a facade of open debate, and therefore bat off criticism.

Organisers and publishers argue that these events not only provide a platform for western writers, they enable homegrown talent to reach a worldwide audience. Not so, says Bhanot. “Such international festivals are dominated by a narrow pool of elite English-language writers in host countries and in no way represent the literature of those countries,” she says.

Every year, a new controversy is thrown up by either the location of a festival or its sponsorship. Last year, a handful of authors boycotted the festival in Dubai after writer Jonathan Emmett and blogger Zoe Toft launched the Think Twice campaign, which highlighted the UAE state airline’s environmental record, as well as the Dubai government’s record on human rights and free speech. Matt Haig was among the authors who pulled out of the five-day event, citing it as a “special case”. The festival, he told the Bookseller, made him “very uncomfortable, when [the] government imprisons so many rape victims and pro-democracy supporters”.

The UAE celebration is not alone in leaving authors uncomfortable about sponsorship. In 2016, the Israeli government’s sponsorship of the PEN World Voices festival in New York drew criticism, with more than 100 writers, including Pulitzer prize winners Junot Díaz, Richard Ford, and Alice Walker backing a campaign led by pro-Palestinian group Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, that called for Israel’s government to be dropped as a sponsor. That same year, activists called on authors to boycott the Jaipur literature festival (JLF) in India. Their ire was directed at the sponsor Vedanta, a company whose mining projects have been criticised as damaging to the environment and for displacing indigenous people.

In 2015, travel writer Colin Thubron joined Lionel Shriver and Michael Chabon among 60 writers who protested when sessions at the Ubud festival to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Indonesian genocide were cancelled on orders from Indonesian authorities. Days later in India, Kannada poet Arif Raja and writer TK Dayanand stayed away from the Bangalore festival in a row over intolerance following derogatory remarks about “leftist historians” by festival director Vikram Sampath. Four years earlier in Sri Lanka, author Damon Galgut joined a boycott of the Galle literary festival following protests over human rights led by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

Censorship by oppressive governments tops the list of reasons to protest against literary festivals, but according to Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, such dissent is misguided. “We don’t support boycotts, as essentially we see it as a barrier to free expression,” she says. “Rather than calling for a boycott, we ask authors who go to festivals in one of the Gulf countries or any other country with issues around freedom of expression to use their visit as a platform to speak out.” Boycotts, she believes, are counterproductive, serving to shut down debate rather than challenge the issues that spark outrage in the first place.

Last year, English PEN asked author and philosopher AC Grayling to use his visit to Dubai festival to address human rights and freedom of expression in speeches in and around the event. Today, he admits it is hard to know if his speeches had any effect on the UAE government, but says he believes his meetings with the Emirati dissident Ahmed Mansoor and other dissidents provided them with an important morale boost.

Admitting that he felt “abashed” – because the strongest danger he faced in the country was deportation – Grayling says: “It is out of respect for [friends and colleagues facing prison] that I didn’t refuse to go there and in order to have an opportunity to meet and talk with them and learn about their experiences first-hand.” By being on the ground, western writers can use their influence to monitor the treatment of political prisoners and those facing persecution. “I have writer and academic friends in the Gulf, Malaysia and China whom I’ve visited and with whom I keep in regular contact,” he explains. “If I don’t hear from them for a while I can guess something is up and try to find out and see if anything can be done.”

Grayling’s belief that visiting authors help protect dissidents is echoed by Peter Frankental, economic relations programme director at Amnesty International. “That doesn’t mean to say that cultural boycotts don’t have a role in raising human rights issues,” he says. “But authors should think of the impact of their decisions on civic society in those countries.”

And there is an impact, according to the award-winning Bengali translator, Arunava Sinha, who often attends Bangladesh’s book fair Ekushey Boi Mela. With local writers enduring threats and aggression from fundamentalists “for seemingly flouting Islamic norms in their writing”, the book fair “is an opportunity for [them] to share such experiences and get some support from writers around the world.”

Cairo-based cultural journalist Marcia Lynx Qualey says writers should not boycott, but listen. “I think these connections between literary communities, when allowed to grow organically, can be key in sparking and fertilising new literary movements,” she says, but warns: “Don’t go with the idea of saving anyone.”

The latter point touches on a sensitive issue for British writers attending overseas festivals: the desire to “make a difference” can easily tip into liberal paternalism with a taint of colonialism, says Bhanot, which is why she remains sceptical of their impact on politics. “The focus [of festivals] is on networking and status,” she explains. “The writers become performers, with fragile egos, competing for perks, especially in the case of international literature festivals, where western writers enjoy a recreation of the colonial experience in … luxurious settings.”

In Bhanot’s sights are the experiences of writers at festivals such as the Dhaka literary festival in Bangladesh, where instead of being left to fend for themselves in station taxi ranks on arrival, they are whisked from airport to five-star accommodation in a motorcade. Such an interpretation seems reinforced by Sanjoy Roy, who runs JLF, which this year had 400,000 visitors over five days: “We offer authors six days of an incredible experience, replete with music, elaborate dinners and lunches set against the backdrop of forts and palaces, full board, wine and alcohol, the best heritage hotels in the city, their airfares and an opportunity to speak to audiences that number in the tens of thousands,” he says. In a festival culture where writers often perform free and even pay for their own travel, Roy’s offer is more than alluring – and conflicting.

Roy is also adamant that authors use JLF to challenge India’s political culture. But as Indian author Jaishree Misra points out, it is hard to stand up to thin-skinned politicians, who are only too happy to reach for the army if anything threatens their power base. Misra cites Salman Rushdie’s proposed visit to Jaipur in 2012, which was used by Rajasthan politicians as political capital in the runup to state elections. The Satanic Verses author was dramatically prevented from speaking due to security concerns – news that was announced on stage by a tearful Roy – but a move that has since been viewed by many as calculated to win over the Muslim vote.

To this day, Misra regarded the ban as a missed opportunity. But she acknowledges the difficulty of taking on politics. “In a volatile and unpredictable climate, it pays to be pragmatic sometimes,” she says.

But perhaps western authors should look closer to home when considering boycotts? Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, the billionaire whose foundation funds the Emirates festival, thinks so. “Donald Trump is on a destructive path with his draconian policies. He is creating divisions within his country and the world,” he says, citing the US president’s proposed ban on immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries. Some authors, including Noughts and Crosses author Malorie Blackman, are avoiding the US in the wake of Trump’s election – yet another dilemma to add to the list. “Does attending a US-sponsored event make you complicit in drone bombings?” Qualey asks. “Each writer needs to make their own choices.”