Perspectives | Culture

Polip’s spread beyond Prishtina makes 2020 edition truly borderless

By - 22.09.2020

Literature festival explores change through new means of expression.

On Friday September 11, a van wound its way through the streets of Prishtina broadcasting poetry. 

Since cultural gatherings, both outdoor and indoor, are currently prohibited in Kosovo the organizers of Polip, Prishtina’s international literature festival, had created an audio tour designed to be listened to on radios; words whispered in the dark in a collage of languages.

The 10th edition of the festival was supposed to take place in May this year, but as with most of the world’s cultural events, COVID-19 put a stop to this. It was postponed until September and reworked, as with the vast majority of cultural events, in a (mostly) online format. Readings that would usually take place in person to rooms full of attentive listeners were now delivered online. 

Polip’s lively side program of panels and discussions now took place on Zoom. It may not have been the celebratory occasion the organizers hoped for, but it remains an achievement that it went ahead at all in this pandemic year that has shifted parameters, an act that can also be attributed to the festival itself.

I’d been longing to visit Polip since I first heard about it at the first Kosovo Theater Showcase in 2018, and had been looking forward to attending in May, before the festival was postponed. It was therefore a bittersweet experience to be physically present in Prishtina while the festival was taking place remotely, the writers scattered across Europe.

Could a festival built upon the idea of connection have the same kind of impact with its participants distanced from one another?

Literary festivals have always been spaces for the exchange of ideas. They lift language off the page and take the solitary acts of writing and reading and make them communal. With Polip, however, there has always been something more at stake, a process of what co-founder Jeton Neziraj calls “literary reconciliation.” 

The reconnecting of two societies, Serbia and Kosovo, separated by war and its aftermath, the traversal of linguistic, cultural and physical borders. 

Could a festival built upon the idea of connection have the same kind of impact with its participants distanced from one another? Coming together has always been a key part of Polip; could this same sense of community be transmitted through screens?

The festival was founded in 2010 by Neziraj and the Serbian writer Saša Ilić, whose novel “The Dog and the Double Bass” recently won the prestigious NIN Award. The pair met at the Leipzig Book Fair and set out to create something capable of “building bridges between their post-conflict societies,” according to Ilić, to revitalize interest in translated literature between the two countries, to combat nationalism and emphasize commonality, to make peace and build trust.

Ilić had not visited Kosovo before 2010, and for most of the invited writers coming from Serbia it was their first time crossing into the formerly autonomous region and, since 2008, a young country. In this way the festival facilitated connections, literally bringing people together. 

They were met with resistance in some quarters; local politicians did not share their vision nor offer their support. According to Neziraj, in the early years of the festival, you had to be either “a little crazy or courageous to take part.” They faced accusations that the festival was Yugonostalgic; some of the participating writers made jokes about being traitors.

Initially focused on poetry, the festival soon grew to include novelists and prose writers. Participating authors came from other ex-Yugoslav countries and further afield, particularly in later years, when Alida Bremer, a Croatian writer based in Germany, joined as co-director. Or, as Neziraj puts it, “the circle of traitors got larger.”

The potential for change has been embedded in the festival from the beginning.

The 10th edition of the festival opened with a welcome letter by Bora Ćosić, who the organizers had long-hoped to bring to Prishtina. He spoke of the need to not “lock ourselves in our small-town courtyards,” to be open to one another.  

Each edition of the festival has an overarching theme or provocation. Previous Polips have explored literature in exile and the Balkans migrant route. This year’s theme was “Change Your Language,” an exploration of the idea that our words, as well as those used by the media and politicians, shape our world, and whether it is possible to create change through finding new means of expressing ourselves and defining our world. 

But, in some ways, this has always been the theme of Polip; the potential for change has been embedded in the festival from the beginning, as has the act of translation, the need for mutual comprehension between speakers of Serbian and Albanian, the location of a common tongue. 

With this in mind, early in the festival’s history they published two anthologies of poetry and prose. “From Belgrade, with Love,” in Albanian, and “From Pristina with Love,” in Serbian, the latter volume building on personal correspondence between the two festival founders.

As someone who speaks Serbian badly and barely a word of Albanian, Polip’s use of English as a bridge was particularly welcome.    

Taking the festival online may have added barriers in the form of cameras, streaming software and screens, but it also opened up the readings to a potentially much wider audience. 

While some writers, including Albanian poet Anna Kove, reading from “The Sunday Bells,” and local writers Plator Gashi, Atrit Bytyci and Aurela Kadriu, were filmed reading their work in the Oda Theater, capturing the intimacy of a reading without the presence of an audience, others supplied pre-recorded videos. 

Turkish poet Naduran Duman spoke with the sea at her back.

Minimalist verse was juxtaposed with deeply sensory prose, poems with longer extracts, memoir and essay. 

Croatian writer Katja Grcić read her work from a rooftop in Split. Turkish poet Naduran Duman spoke with the sea at her back. Faruk Šehić, the Bosnian author of “Quiet Flows the Una,” read an excerpt of his work from his apartment in Sarajevo. Denijen Pauljević from his apartment in Germany. Macedonian author Olivera Corveziroska stirred the senses with a passage intertwining food and love. Greek writer Dimitris Lacos read his work from inside an abandoned train carriage.

I particularly enjoyed Austrian writer Lydia Haidar’s intense, engulfing reading of a piece with the brilliant title of “Seriously Fuck You, You Sow; Are Your Insides Completely Filled with Shit?” and, in complete contrast, Svetlana Slapsak speaking passionately about the position of women in post-Yugoslav society and Western cultural colonialism.

It’s fair to some say some of the writers embraced the challenges of non-presence and un-thereness more than others, but it was still a pleasure to me to hear these different voices interpret their own work in their own way.

Fittingly in this 10th edition, both Ilić and Neziraj read passages of their work having also engaged in a face-to-face (albeit distanced) debate about Polip’s origins, history and legacy. 

Music — always a big part of Polip — was supplied by Ilir Bajri, and the Feziraj band Bystandr played out the festival with a digital mini-gig, performed at Oda and broadcast online. This perhaps created the biggest sense of disconnection for me, live music more than poetry perhaps requiring the presence of bodies in a room.

There was a degree of irony in the fact that the festival, with its decade-long project of peace-building, and what Neziraj called “cultural de-mining,” took place the weekend after the world had watched Serbian president Alexander Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti perched awkwardly in the White House discussing normalization of relations, with Donald Trump unashamedly angling for a Nobel Prize.   

The most significant thing that Polip has achieved over the past decade, Ilić told me, apart from the “re-establishment of literary and human communication which had been interrupted for decades” is the creation of “a free space for thinking, essential for the future of the region.” 

This year that space may have shrunk physically — with no opportunity for the lively and intense debates that usually occur when you get a group of writers in a room with some rakija — but it grew in reach.

While I did miss some of the alchemical in-the-roomness you find at a literary festival, this mixture of recorded and live readings allowed the festival to spread beyond Prishtina’s performance spaces into people’s homes. In its 10th year, Polip became truly borderless. 

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

  • 23 Sep 2020 - 10:14 | gregory solomon:

    Good article. I followed one panel discussion. Here one author's name is spelled wrong. It is Dimitris Lyacos and not Lacos as appeared - hopefully you can correct that, people should be able to check out authors so names should be spelled correctly. Best wishes, Greg