LBF 2018: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Rebecca Hart
Opinion - International Friday, 10 November 2017

Rebecca Hart previews the Market Focus programme at the London Book Fair in April

April 2018 will see the Baltic Countries featured in the 14th edition of the Market Focus at the London Book Fair, the 10th year in which the British Council has partnered to deliver the Cultural Programme. For the first time since the Arab World in 2008, this year's Market Focus will feature multiple countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

As with previous years, the British Council will present writers in a series of cultural events - panel discussions, readings and one-on-one interviews - to showcase the brilliant voices from the Baltic countries. We'll showcase the established, the emerging and the innovative at the Fair itself and across the UK in April, and at UK festivals throughout 2018.

A large part of the Cultural Programme aims to show British audiences what is unique about Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and what connects them beyond their geography. The more we learn about each country and its literature, the more distinct each country becomes in our minds, and we hope this will also be the case for Market Focus audiences.

We are working with a variety of partners including the Estonian Literature Centre, the International Writers' and Translators' House in Latvia, and the Lithuanian Culture Institute, alongside the various publishers' associations, writers' unions, and ministries. Each partner is tasked with promoting its national literature abroad and is a regular presence at book fairs worldwide. Lithuania was the Guest of Honour at the Leipzig Book Fair in March 2017. The great work our partners do is supported by generous translation grant programmes that have resulted in Baltic literature being translated and published around the world.

Literary traditions and publishing
The Cultural Programme partnerships began with scoping visits to each of the countries to learn about their literary traditions and publishing sectors. In Latvia we visited the amazing National Library (its architecture is inspired by a famous Latvian folk tale), where we learnt about Biki Books, the collection of tiny illustrated children's books that cost €1, and about the Latvian market's emerging trend for historical fiction. The country's biggest festival, Poetry Days, sees poets from around the world take over Riga. We left with a vision of Latvia as a country passionately engaged in its literary history.

In February we attended the opening of the Vilnius Book Fair (the largest in the Baltics), which had a vibrancy and accessibility that appealed to professionals and readers alike. As well as being full of schoolchildren flicking through new titles and exploring interactive displays, the fair had talks by an impressive mix of Lithuanian and international writers, alongside music, art and cinema events. We met key figures from the literature scene who told us about trends in contemporary Lithuanian writing, suggested their favourite writers, and introduced us to captivating episodes in literary history such as the "Book Smugglers". We left with a better understanding of the history of Vilnius as a cosmopolitan crossroads of Europe, and how that positioning has influenced Lithuania's literature over the centuries.

Finally, when spring arrived in Estonia, we travelled to Tallinn alongside writers and editors from around the world to take part in the HeadRead literary festival. HeadRead is the pre-eminent festival in the region and has attracted world-renowned writers since its inception in 2008. The festival has a collegiate atmosphere, with events staged in the great hall of the Estonian Writers' Union in both Estonian and English, but remaining intimate, as though you are listening in on a private conversation. Again, after meeting key publishing and literature figures, we developed a better understanding of how Estonia positions itself and its literature as both Baltic and Nordic, and how it remains closely connected to its neighbours, particularly Finland, through shared history.

A flavour of each country
Armed with these experiences and information, and an incredibly long reading list, the British Council now faces the challenge of bringing the flavour of each country to the UK throughout 2018. At the heart of the programme is the author delegation, which will be made up of four authors from each country - writers of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and children's literature - who will be programmed alongside UK writers and commentators to debate, challenge and complement each other, teasing out the ideas that highlight the commonalities and differences in our literatures.

The British Council also aims to build new and deeper connections between each country and the UK through bilateral programmes focusing on a different part of the literature sector: Estonia is looking to forge stronger links between its festivals and those in the UK through visits and commissions; Latvia will produce a commission in which UK and Latvian writers, translators and producers create new works together to be presented in both countries; and Lithuania, after a very successful inaugural Lithuanian translation workshop during the BCLT Translation Summer School, will develop a bespoke professional development programme for those looking to make careers in literary translation.

While the Baltics are known for their stunning scenery, beautiful coastlines and vibrant capital cities, forgetting their literature means missing out. All three countries are passionate about poetry, draw upon folkloric traditions, and champion cutting-edge book design and illustration. They are also closely linked by their 20th-century histories - including their independence in 1918, which celebrates its centenary next year, and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

As with our collaboration on the Poland Market Focus earlier in 2017, we hope that this exciting and wide-ranging programme will demonstrate that while the UK is leaving the EU, we are still very much Europeans, and that the LBF Baltic Countries Market Focus will serve to deepen the connection between the UK and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, increasing trust and understanding of one another through literature.

Photos from left: the National Library, Riga; Vilnius Book Fair; Mihkel Mutt and Tiit Aleksejev at HeadRead Festival, Tallinn.

Rebecca Hart is literature programme manager at the British Council.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch Frankfurt Show Daily.

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