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Italy, London-bound: Review of the Festival of Italian Literature in London

Hosting some of the biggest contemporary Italian and international cultural figures, the 2018 edition of FILL (Festival of Italian Literature in London) celebrated the encounter of Italian literature with the cosmopolitan melting pot of London’s academic and literary scene. Divided into two dates (27-28 October), FILL’s 15 events hosted more than 40 acclaimed writers, speakers, and performers. Held at the charming Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill, the festival offered its participants a delightful, thought-provoking, and intellectually stimulating bilingual weekend.

On Saturday 27 October, one of the afternoon’s highlights was the panel called: “The Politics of Translation,” with authors and translators Vincenzo Latronico and Sophie Collins, hosted by Claudia Durastanti. Amongst the themes discussed during the panel was the role of “mistakes in translations.” Collins, primarily a poetry translator from Dutch to English, spoke eloquently about her own experience working with someone else’s pieces, claiming that “in poetry, no mistakes can be made in the process of translation.”

Latronico, a novel translator from English to Italian, argued that, in the process of novel translation, there is no such thing as a binary between “right” and “wrong” translations; “the fact that you can make many mistakes,” he stated, “doesn’t mean that there is a correct version.” The panel discussed of concepts such as “epistemicide” and “intimacy with a text”, and examined approaches such as that of the Italian Adelphi Publisher, and that of the infamous translator Fernanda Pivano. The panel was a compelling and provoking start to the festival.

Latronico, Collins, and Durastanti. From @FILLFestival Facebook Page.

After “The Politics of Translation,” the most anticipated event of FILL’ s first day was “The Story of Now,” a panel hosted by Italian journalist and translator Fabio Deotto. It boasted award-winning novelists Ali Smith, Olivia Laing and Walter Siti as its guests. The panel’s questions had the present time as its catalyst: “How can a literary story, taking months or years in the writing, try and reflect the turns and shocks of a world that seems to change radically day by day?”

Ali Smith, whose book Autumn was described as “the first post-Brexit novel,” separated herself from this statement by saying that “artists don’t have any responsibilities other than art.” However, she did consider the political aspects of novels, and the role of “the present” as historical context. Intrigued by the search for a meeting point between language and reality, Smith expressed a fascination with aestheticism, which she described as a “hope,” since it provokes “thoughts as well as feelings.”

Olivia Laing, whose latest novel, Crudo, deals with present Italian contexts, spoke about her own perception of fiction saying that it reminded her to “read words as constructs”. Laing considered the importance of historical awareness as a way to capture the “sense of chaos” created by the merging of “the important and the random”, an intricate concept that is brilliantly reflected in her writing approach.

Walter Siti’s contribution to the panel was particularly interesting, as he was the only Italian author, and therefore he was the figure that represented the encounter between Italian and British cultures. Introducing the concept of “effetto di realtà,” (“effect of reality”), Siti argued that in contemporary novels characters cannot be homogenous, but should be fragmented, reflecting our historical context.

Interpreter, Siti, Smith, Laing, and Deotto. From @FILLFestival Facebook page.

One of the hidden gems of FILL was the panel “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again,” a thought-provoking and inspirational event hosted by Giorgia Tolfo, with novelists Veronica Raimo and Sophie Mackintosh as speakers, discussing their latest books Miden and The Water Cure. The central theme of the panel was dystopia in relation to feminism and how storytelling can be used as a political instrument.

Mackintosh revealed that The Water Cure was not initially thought to be a feminist dystopia, and later explained how the inclusion of themes such as climate change and the patriarchy felt like a natural continuation of her writing process. Tolfo, on the other hand, spoke about her perception of dystopia as an “investigation of the present time,” defining it as a political tool, a concept that is very powerful when considered in relation to Miden.

Tolfo, Raimo, and Mackintosh. From @FILL_LitFest Twitter page.

FILL’s calendar was equally hectic on its second and last day, hosting a translation workshop with Vincenzo Latronico, a panel tackling Europe and nationalism with Donald Sassoon, Loreno Marsili and Annalisa Piras, a special stage reading of an upcoming new TV drama with Haydn Gwynne, and a final DJ set with Francesco Nerini. One of its most fascinating and internationally-oriented events was “London as a Second Language,” hosted by Olga Campofreda, where authors Xiaolu Guo, Saleh Addonia and Vanni Bianconi discussed their relationships with London as “foreigners.”

Engaging with concepts such as “broken English” and the emotional labour that goes into speaking a second language, the authors spoke about the idea of London as a plutocracy, debated whether an imperial language can be inclusive, and examined the idea of “political survival” through language. “London as a Second Language” was one of the most impressive panels of the festival with its balance of political engagement, literary themes, and real-life stories of its speakers.

Campofreda, Guo, Bianconi, and Addonia. From @Fill_LitFest Twitter page.

A celebration of Europeanism and literature, the afternoon bilingual panel “Long Live the European Novel” was one of the most politically and philosophically engaged ones of the festival. Hosted by literary critic and Guardian Review contributor Catherine Taylor, the acclaimed novelists Nicola Lagioia and Mathias Énard spoke about Europe, being European, and whether it is still possible to call oneself a “European writer.”

With materialism and xenophobia as recurring themes, Énard spoke articulately about how globalisation started when the “first man started walking”. This concept is reflected in his books, which often deal with the issue of orientalism and the Western fear of the Middle East. Lagioia, on the other hand, was interested in the definition of “European”, and what characterises the European mind, concluding that it is the constant preparation for a “rovesciamento del piano” (“something that can instantly turn the tables”) – an awareness in the European mind that “there is always a possibility of instant philosophical change.”

Figure 2Taylor, Énard, Lagioia, and interpreter. From @FiLL_LitFest Twitter Page.

A celebration of Italy’s rich heritage and contemporary culture in a metropolitan and diverse context, FILL engaged with issues and themes that concern Europe, as well as the international literary field. From ethical questions, to political concerns, to literary discussions, the festival offered an impressive assortment of events that were equally accessible for Italian and English speakers alike. With a widely multilingual and multicultural audience, passionate hosts, and excellent guest speakers, FILL is bound to become a staple in the London culture calendar.

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