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An installation of Guest of Honour 2021 Canada, at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2021, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on Oct. 20.DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday evening, Governor-General Mary Simon peered into the darkness of a Frankfurt conference hall and confessed her love of stories to a roomful of strangers. Her favourite tale, she said, was a legend that her grandmother used to tell her, about Sedna, the Inuit girl who became the ruler of the sea.

“It’s a creation myth,” she explained. “I believe that all of our stories are creation myths. Our stories are how we create ourselves.”

Ms. Simon was in Germany on her first state visit to celebrate a momentous occasion in Canada’s continuing creation of itself. As the Frankfurter Buchmesse, the world’s largest trade book fair, opens for business on Wednesday, returning to a physical form after a one-year digital shift prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada is in the international spotlight as the fair’s Guest of Honour.

But this particular story got off to a rocky start.

Dispatches from Frankfurt Buchmesse, the world’s largest book fair

Three authors on their experiences at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and how Canadian writers are perceived abroad

In the spring of 2014, Juergen Boos, the fair’s president and CEO, travelled to Ottawa in hopes of convincing federal politicians to fund a plan for Canada to be the fair’s Guest of Honour in 2017. It would be a glittery capstone for this country’s 150th birthday celebrations, a global declaration of Canadian cultural heft. But, having arrived in the nation’s capital, Mr. Boos failed to even land a meeting with Shelly Glover, the then-Minister of Canadian Heritage, leaving egg on both his face and those of the Canadian publishing executives who had invited him over to help press their case.

Mr. Boos gave the honour to France, instead.

In the fall of 2015, the federal Liberals swept to power with a platform that promised hundreds of millions of new dollars for culture. When Mr. Boos extended the invitation again, Ottawa signed on for the 2020 fair. Caroline Fortin, the president of Canada Frankfurt Book Mart 2020, the publishing industry committee created to oversee the Guest of Honour bid, later quipped to a reporter: “We needed an election to happen.”

In a press release in 2016, the Liberal government’s then-minister of Canadian heritage, Mélanie Joly, framed the book fair project in economic terms, saying it would “enable Canada’s artists and cultural entrepreneurs to maximize their full export potential … and ensure long-term sustainability.”

But as the federal government developed its approach to the Guest of Honour role at Frankfurt2020 – delayed by COVID-19 from last October to this week, when it re-emerges as Frankfurt2021 – other priorities arose. A committee overseen by Ms. Fortin, charged with creating a marketing brand, struggled to encapsulate the country and its literature in a pithy slogan.

With the country stepping into the spotlight, the face it presents to the world reflects the struggle to marry its reputation as the home of writers such as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro with one that mirrors the Liberal government’s vision of the country: flawed but hopeful; aspiring to overcome the sins of its past with efforts at reconciliation; a welcoming home for refugees; a nation that seeks to discover and amplify the vibrant voices of its citizens, especially those of marginalized communities.

It is a lot to bear for a book fair.

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People browse books after the opening press conference of the 2021 Frankfurt Book Fair. Due to the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic this year's book fair is smaller than usual and a significant portion of the program is taking place online. This year's Guest of Honour is Canada.Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images

The Frankfurt Book Fair is a colossus. Known variously as the Olympics of books or the Cannes of books, the fair claims a tradition stretching back more than five centuries, to the creation of the printing press in Johannes Gutenberg’s nearby hometown of Mainz – though, strictly speaking, this year’s is officially the 73rd edition. In a normal (that is to say, non-COVID) year, the Buchmesse sprawls across half a dozen halls, playing host to upwards of 275,000 visitors over its five days.

Since 1976, the Buchmesse has also spotlighted a single Guest of Honour country or region, bringing global attention to one national literature at a time.

Each country comes to the fair with its own domestic and foreign agenda. In a speech to Ontario publishers a few years ago, Kevin Chapman, who headed New Zealand’s Guest of Honour committee in 2012, noted the varying aspirations of some previous honorees.

“My favourite was Lithuania,” said Mr. Chapman. “The head of their Guest of Honour program said, ‘Our aim was simple: It was to explain to the Germans we weren’t Russian.’ The Icelandic aim was primarily to sell the Icelandic sagas into foreign languages. Our aim as a Guest of Honour was to promote New Zealand in as many ways as possible, as widely through Germany as we could.” To that end, it hosted food-and-wine events, which were good for tourism but evidently upset some of the country’s publishing purists back home.

Canada, too, wants to use Frankfurt to demonstrate it is more than just a land of diverse and powerful authors. Federal cultural agencies developed a sprawling program of hundreds of events presented throughout Germany by independent artists in the year leading up to the book fair, which drew in more than a dozen organizations, from Telefilm to the CBC to the National Gallery of Canada and the National Film Board. After dozens of the events planned for last year were cancelled because of the pandemic, some were rescheduled to run through 2022.

Though COVID-19 scuttled many of the organizers’ hopes and dreams – most Canadian publishers, who had to decide back in the spring whether they would risk travelling, have chosen to not go – there are some victories. “Our main objective of this whole project was to translate Canadian titles and put them into the hands of German readers,” noted Gillian Fizet, the executive director of Canada FBM2021.

More than 350 books by Canadian authors or illustrators have now been translated into German as part of the run-up to Frankfurt2021. Many of them were subsidized by the Canada Council, which offered to pay 50 per cent of the translation costs, up to $20,000 per title, for books that have been sold to German-language publishers. (Author Ian Thomas Shaw told The Globe and Mail that the going rate for long-form translation is 18 cents per word; his 93,000-word novel, Quill of the Dove, likely cost approximately $17,000 to translate.) The Council also offered up to $2,000 for promotional costs and up to $4,000 for production costs on select titles.

All told, Canadian Heritage told The Globe and Mail that it budgeted $13.5-million over five years for the project, then added $7.2-million in last spring’s federal budget. Among the extra expenses: a new pavilion design to take into account COVID-19 safety measures, since the original one wouldn’t have permitted physical distancing among visitors.

Not everyone believes it is money well spent. While the translation program is “worth doing, I wonder if it’s being done in the most strategic way at the moment,” said Mr. Shaw, who worked for Global Affairs Canada for decades, including a stint from 2005 to 2009 as the head of the political and economics sections in the Berlin embassy, before becoming a novelist himself.

“I don’t want to sound too critical … but sometimes I think that they’re not looking at commercial potential, readership potential.” He noted that German readers are known as voracious fans of crime fiction, yet that genre is thinly represented in the Canadian delegation.

“It seems like we’re making the choice of authors and the type of literature more to appeal to sensitivities inside a Canadian literary community.”

Still, it’s hard to know in advance what might sell. As part of the Frankfurt initiative, Canada FBM2020 arranged for delegations of independent publishers to travel to Germany over the previous few years to forge connections with publishers there.

“Those kinds of investments were really important, and I think there are long-standing relationships that have developed as a result of that,” said Dan Wells, publisher of Windsor-based Biblioasis, which sold German-language rights to Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn and, after that became a hit with readers, a previous novel of hers, Alphabet. “It’s certainly obvious that the Germans pay attention to the Guest of Honour.”

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A member of staff is busy setting up at the Piper Verlag stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair.picture alliance/Getty Images

Critics and publishers say Frankfurt is coming at an opportune moment for the country, when Canadian writers are embracing a wider array of muscular storytelling voices. “That sort of diversity, that inclusivity in our literature, is also the thing that makes it more appealing to an international audience,” said Kristin Cochrane, CEO of Penguin Random House Canada. “So it’s less provincial, less inward-looking storytelling.”

How, then, to define a Canadian novel? In fact, go further: What defines a Canadian? That’s what the Canada FBM2021 branding committee grappled with, as its members sought to create an arresting image and marketing tag line to sum up this country’s identity and capture the world’s imagination.

They ended up settling on the slogan “Singular, plurality.”

If that feels like a book that takes a few pages to hook you, so be it; maybe Canada takes some effort to get to know, too. Organizers explained in a statement that the slogan was designed to evoke the “myriad of backgrounds that represent our country.” But there’s something more. Jennifer-Ann Weir, the associate executive director of CanadaFBM2020/21, explained in a recent interview that the branding itself, like the country, grew out of a need to resolve differences.

“Caroline Fortin, the president of our board, she said, ‘You know, at first nobody agreed. And then we talked and talked, and then she was like: “Well, that’s it! We don’t agree, because we have different views, and that’s what’s us, that’s what’s singular about us. Because we’re so diverse, we’re so fragmented, we have our own background, our own cultures, our own languages. But you know, we all come together in that singular way and that plural way.’”

On Tuesday evening in Frankfurt, during the fair’s opening ceremony, the German Minister of State for Culture Monika Grutters praised Canada for continuing to grapple with those challenges, and she called on German readers to open their hearts to Canadian stories. “The plurality of [Canadian] cultures and languages, of world views and ways of life, deserves more space on German bookshelves, where up until now we have mainly found Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro,” she said.

“Germany, too, has developed into a country of immigration over the past decades, bringing diversity which enriches our country, but also bringing challenges here and there. The fact that Canada can share its plurality experience with Germany, in the form of an impressive number of literary translations, is … a tremendous benefit to us.”

It would seem that, in programming the literary component of the fair, Canada is also taking its cues from Germany, and the way that country has worked hard to reconcile with its own ugly history.

Guidelines issued by Canadian Heritage note the project’s priorities include a mandate to “promote an inclusive and diverse society; work toward reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians; engage youth; and reaffirm the importance of strong environmental stewardship.”

The introductory essay to a 130-page glossy literary profile of Canada, distributed at the 2017 fair to pique people’s interest in Canadian books, begins by noting the country is working “hard at being welcoming, inclusive, and open to the world and we are proud of our progressive, liberal democracy.”

It then declares: “But we are far from perfect. We have a long way to go on matters such as redressing Canada’s historically poor treatment of Indigenous Peoples, protecting the environment, and supporting newcomers.”

That tension was nowhere in view when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared with the Vietnamese-born author Kim Thuy for a breakfast time chat at the Munich Security Conference in February, 2020, originally conceived (prior to COVID-19) as a pre-Frankfurt event. Mr. Trudeau listened to Ms. Thuy discuss her experience as a “boat person” in the late 1970s, and then noted that his government had promoted the acceptance of Syrian refugees in 2015.

He told Ms. Thuy and the assembled dignitaries: “It reminded us that welcoming people is a challenge, but one that ends up ideally, and historically, deeply enriching a society.”

Editor’s note: (Oct. 21, 2021): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Biblioasis is Toronto-based. This version has been corrected.

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