13 Apr 2023

Emerging dreams at a literary mecca

CELA talents at the Passa Porta Festival in Brussels - By Cristina Vremeș, Writer RO

Performing your text at a literary festival may sound abstract, intimidating and difficult to imagine before it actually takes place and you see the first “Passa Porta” badges and travellers wearing them in a lively, dimly lit lobby of a beautiful hotel in Central Brussels. You wonder who that person checking in might be, trying to get a glimpse of their face, asking yourself whether you will accidentally run into some of the resonant names you’ve read on the festival lineup - Mohsin Hamid, Annie Ernaux, Christophe Boltanski, Vladimir Sorokin - to cite just a few. In other words, being in the midst of a “European literary mecca” begins to take shape in the physical reality, and is no more just a highly anticipated fantasy. For 20 minutes, you will be able to read, and hopefully act a bit, without too many blunders, a scene you wrote or translated, showing it to the wide world out there. 

What is both exhilarating and democratic about Passa Porta is bringing together established writers, artists, literary professionals and encounters between them, as well as emerging ones, like ourselves, the CELA talents invited over to Brussels. The ends of the spectrum meet in the ninth edition of the event, and you have 24 hours left to polish up the details of your presentation.

As writers or translators, we are often confined to a chair, a table, lots of silence and solitude. The literary world especially needs festivals, as it takes both creators, professionals or readers, out of that solipsistic zone where literature happens most of the time: on the page, in our minds, in centuries-old libraries with respectable layers of dust. Suddenly, at such a large-scale, four day event, during which curtains are drawn, revealing stages with witchcraft inspired incantations, debates, interviews, refuge spaces, oracles, letters about disappearing things, that intimacy of the written word comes out into the open, and you celebrate it by running exuberantly from one site to another, sometimes in the refreshing droplets of rain or forceful wind of incipient spring.  

Everyone behind or in front of the printed pages meet, coming out of that sweet isolation. 

Staging an excerpt from a creative text intrigued me from the beginning, and I welcomed it, as a simple reading never seemed to be enough, in order to get close to the gist of the creative act or the act of receiving it. Reading out loud never seemed to do justice to how spectacular the experience of literature is in the private realm. However, we were making little steps into something we didn’t know much about. Some of the CELA talents got together and did a brainstorming session in order to imagine and build up the scene – and I cannot thank enough Joep Harmsen, Charlotte Patoux and Charlotte van Rooden for this. As a writer, I realized what it is to really see your characters come to life and understand their perspective, needs, movement, voices, at a whole new level. 

An intense day that ended in dinner, a couple of drinks and talks about books, creative adventures in India or Central America, writing residencies for refugees, or the question of “productivity” in art. Next morning, I managed to get in and listen to Annie Ernaux talking about her early years and how her writing career started. I imagined the young woman who wouldn’t have known that one day she’d win the Nobel Prize. And I thought of us, starting out, making baby steps on a path that may shower us with immense possibilities and surprises in the future.

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