Devyani Saltzman offers an insider's look at Luminato

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A little more than a year ago the artistic team at Luminato sat down and began discussing the shape of the 2011 festival. Our artistic director, Chris Lorway, outlined our major theatre commission — an original adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights, directed by British director Tim Supple, and adapted by consummate Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, the first woman to adapt the stories.

Today, with three days until opening night, a cast of more than 30 performers, from Lebanon to Syria, has landed in Toronto to stage an epic production performed in two three-hour segments. At the same time, I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of more than five authors whose commentary over the past four months has brought the region to light through the genre I'm most passionate about — the written word.

We program along thematic lines at Luminato. Back at that fall meeting in Toronto, it became clear that we would be building a large part of our program using One Thousand and One Nights as our foundation. I went away from that meeting and began to brainstorm and research about an area of contemporary literature I knew little about — writing from the Arab world. I had of course read some of the great voices — Mahfouz, Darwish, but who were the new voices working today?

My first stop in this journey was an article about the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). The prize is run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London, England, and funded by the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

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Joumana Haddad, photo by Laurent Denimal

I contacted Joumana Haddad, who in addition to being an author and an editor of the culture pages of Beirut's An Nahar newspaper, was one of the administrators of the IPAF. It became clear that a large part of the goal of initiatives such as IPAF is translation. Although there is much work written in Arabic and distributed by local presses, it's clear that the translation of contemporary Arabic literature into English is a relatively recent phenomenon, and prizes such as the Arabic Booker are a big part of bringing local work to global audiences.

After speaking with Joumana, my next stop on this journey was the discovery of another recent initiative aiming to introduce young Arab writers to a wider audience through translation. Funnily enough, this led me back to a cultural institution I've long been a fan of — the Hay Festival, which began in Wales. Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World was published by Bloomsbury last spring and was launched in Beirut, Lebanon, as part of Hay Festivals, an international festival of literature and ideas with chapters around the world.

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An anthology of stories and poetry, Beirut39 brings together 39 of the best writers of Arab heritage under 39 years of age. I was blown away by the book and immediately picked up the phone and called the Hay offices in London. I realized this was the perfect project to answer my question about who were the new voices writing from the region. It also felt like a perfect fit with Luminato. My phone call was answered by the wonderful Cristina Fuentes la Roche, a Hay program director who also runs Hay Festivals in Colombia and Spain. I spent part of the fall shaping a partnership with Hay and discussing which of the 39 authors would be a good fit for Luminato. Together, Cristina and I invited five writers from Morocco, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt/U.S. to Toronto.

At that time, little did we know that Tunisia was about to transform politically, starting a domino effect across North Africa and the Middle East, culminating with Tahrir Square and now Yemen. At the end of this week, these writers will land in Toronto to join CBC's Jian Ghomeshi for an onstage conversation about contemporary writing from the region and the role of literature in the Arab Spring. Randa Jarrar, an Arab-American will share her views as someone who straddles both worlds. Joumana Haddad will join Luminato to discuss her work in Lebanon and initiatives such as the Arabic Booker. Mohammed Hasan Alwan, a Saudi author, will share his work as will Moroccan journalist Yassin Adnan, and Hyam Yared, a Lebanese poet and writer whose work has won several awards including the France-Liban Prize, will share her thoughts as a woman writing in Lebanon.

After 10 months of planning, I can't wait to join them at the Glenn Gould Studio for a conversation that promises to be nothing less than fantastic.

Devyani Saltzman is the Curator of Literary Programming for Luminato, Toronto's Festival of Arts and Creativity, and is currently working on her first novel, Army of Peace.




The Luminato Festival runs from June 10-19 in Toronto, Ontario. For a complete list of programs and events, visit the Luminato website.

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