Canada to highlight literary diversity as it plays host to Frankfurt Book Fair


The Frankfurt Book Fair bills itself as ‘the world’s most important marketplace for print and digital content.’

Anett Weirauch/Frankfurter Buchmesse

Lisa Moore has only ever visited Frankfurt briefly, stopping on her way to India, but even a quick layover left an impression. As she walked, jetlagged, through the German city, she saw a bridge covered with combination locks – the symbols of everlasting love that now cover bridges around the world – and the image stuck in her head.

That image made its way into the Newfoundland author’s short story, Lovers with the Intensity I’m Talking About – and soon the story itself will be available in German, when a collection of Moore’s short fiction is published in translation next year (her novels have already appeared in German). With luck and a bit of a push from the federal government, 2020 should be a good year for other Canadian authors in Germany: Canada will be the guest of honour at Frankfurter Buchmesse, otherwise known as the Frankfurt Book Fair, the international publishing world’s biggest shindig.

Moore returned to Frankfurt this week in more inviting circumstances, as part of the delegation that kicked off Canada’s year of hosting with a press conference and presentation at this year’s festival. Canada 2020’s slogan is “singular plurality,” and it’s the chorus of different voices that makes Canadian literature appealing to overseas audiences, Moore says. “All these voices, all these writers in Canada, we’re all sharing this effort of bringing a place into being, and influencing each other. I’m not sure there’s anything that binds Canadian literature except that diversity.”

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The Frankfurt Book Fair bills itself as “the world’s most important marketplace for print and digital content.” For five days every October, it is the place where buzz around new books and authors builds to a deafening pitch, agents buy and sell rights, publishers look for new homes for their writers and foreign titles to put in their own catalogues, and authors give talks to sold-out crowds (among this year’s stars are Margaret Atwood and Jo Nesbo, the best-selling crime novelist who hails from this year’s host country, Norway.) Nor is the fair only about books: Digital platforms are the subject of much buying and selling, and there’s a special zone for cosplay.

When Canada received the Guest of Honour scroll from Norway at this year’s fair – think of it as a bookish baton-passing – it began a year of Canadian cultural content in Germany. There will be performances, art exhibits and talks, culminating in a full literary program at Frankfurt 2020 that will be housed in the Canadian pavilion. This year, the Canada Council is sponsoring a translation program – German houses publishing Canadian authors can have up to half the cost of translation subsidized.

Nearly 300,000 visitors and publishing professionals gather at the book fair.

Anett Weirauch/Frankfurter Buchmesse

For Quebec publisher Caroline Fortin, president of Canada FBM2020, next year presents a singular opportunity to show off Canada’s francophone, Indigenous, and anglophone writers on a global stage. “There have been other host countries that have seen a huge increase in sales,” she said. “It will bring authors into the forefront and help them have a career in Germany and around the world.”

And it almost didn’t happen. Seven years ago, when Fortin was running the publishing industry association Livres Canada Books, she was approached by Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt fair, with the idea that Canada should host in 2017, the year of the sesquicentennial. Canadian publishers rallied behind the idea, but the Conservative government in Ottawa refused the invitation, which came with a request for $6.5-million in federal funding. It was unclear whether the invitation would be offered again, but it was, and in 2016 Canada’s role as 2020 host was announced.

The public is invited to the Frankfurt book fair, and nearly 300,000 visitors and publishing professionals gather for a full slate of talks, performances and workshops. That’s unusual for most industry conferences, but perhaps not surprising in Germany, a country of book lovers. Some 30 million Germans, or 36 per cent of the population, bought books in 2017 – and they bought an average of 12 books each, according to a report by the German publishing industry. (Compare with Canada’s 21 per cent.) Of the new titles published that year, nearly 14 per cent were works that had been translated.

“German readers are really interested in foreign literature,” Quebec novelist Christian Guay-Poliquin says. “I don’t think there’s another country that’s so interested.” Guay-Poliquin is part of the Canadian authors’ contingent, alongside Moore and J.D. Kurtness, appearing at this year’s Frankfurt fair. His 2016 novel Le Poids de la Neige (The Weight of Snow), which won the Governor-General’s Award for French-language fiction, is being translated into German and will be released next year by the publishing house Hoffmann und Campe.

By this time next year, many other Canadian authors will have joined him. Fortin hopes that 200 works will be picked up for German translation, and a full slate will be revealed over the coming months as Canada takes its place in the international spotlight.

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