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An employee sets up the Bastei Lübbe stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Oct. 19.picture alliance/AFP/Getty Images

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Canada was the guest of honour at this year’s Frankfurt Buchmesse, the world’s largest book fair, where usually 7,000 publishers meet to sell and buy rights to all the publishing world has to offer. This year – the fair’s 73rd edition, which ended Sunday – 2,000 companies from 80 countries exhibited, including more than 30 Canadian companies and eight authors. It was a changed fair from the one initially envisaged for Canada’s debut as guest in 2020, but it still ranks as one of the biggest cultural diplomacy missions this country (and certainly the publishing industry) has seen. Here’s a look at the highs and lows of the FBM 2020-21 from a Canadian perspective.

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

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The best

  • The Canadian pavilion: After an endless number of pivots, FBM 2020-21 pulled it off with undulating models of mountains, Prairies, trees and oceans set to the audio and video of authors explaining their books and the country. Did I always understand what was going on with the strange trippy music or know why I kept getting the same three writers on the virtual panels – good to meet you again, Guillaume Perrault – well, no. But this was the fair’s first virtual pavilion and I overheard many guests gushing about it.
  • Singers iskwē and Deantha Edmunds and hoop dancer Dallas Arcand showcased a different Canada than the one of Celine Dion and Bryan Adams. And while the big names were not out in force, the country did not suffer from their absence. The Indigenous performances were electric and Governor-General Mary Simon, who attended the fair, said it best: “For far too long, Indigenous voices, Indigenous stories have been silenced, unheard, forgotten. Canada has a responsibility to ensure that these voices are heard. We have a duty to listen to Indigenous voices and to learn from them. This is an important step on the road to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, a way to reconcile the pain of the past with the hope of the future. I am so proud to see Indigenous artists leading the way … and in the spotlight where they belong.”
  • Hearing Margaret Atwood at the opening ceremony talk about Canada’s literary beginnings (she is an international star, well-known to the public in Germany, where many of her books have been translated) and then moving to end with Vivek Shraya (a trans, queer, brown, multidisciplinary Albertan artist) signalled Canada’s range and put Germans on notice that they were about to be challenged about their ideas of the guest country.

The unexplained

  • I get it. We have French/English authors, and this is an international fair where cross-cultural panels are de rigueur. But having authors from two languages on a panel and translating into a third (German) made some of the events painful. Even worse than seeing some authors just sit there, without translation units until the midway point, there were panels where the panelists not only didn’t know each other’s work but also had no clue what was happening in the genre of their own country.
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Margaret Atwood during the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair in the Festhalle.picture alliance/AFP/Getty Images

The lame

  • Can’t we get a better tchotchke than maple syrup? The Olympics had those nifty red mitts; surely the literary community could have come up with something – a pen, a notebook, a tuque? Although this may just be the gripe of a Canadian who already has enough maple syrup in her cupboards. The international guests seemed delighted with it.

The difficult

  • The logistics of navigating from the Festhalle, the pavilion and the Canadian publishers in Halle 6. If you didn’t have direct contact with FBM 2020-21 or know who to bug about events, then you were out of luck.
  • Trying to find your way around the city to the other Canadian artistic events was also a no-go if you didn’t know who to ask for dates, times and venues.

The actual worst

Black writer Jasmina Kuhnke pulled out of the fair at the last minute after she learned that far-right publishers would be allowed to exhibit, and that one of the publisher’s stands would be near the stage where she was appearing. “There’s no room for Nazis next to me, which is why I won’t be taking part in this year’s fair. I don’t talk to Nazis. I don’t listen to Nazis. I don’t read books by Nazis,” she wrote. Her decision set off debate about freedom of expression. The fair’s official stance was that if German law allowed the publishers to operate, then their stands could not be prohibited on the fair’s grounds. But the spectre of the fair’s decision and the political climate in Hungary, Poland and Russia were the talk of many of the Europeans. It also made the Canadians’ programming, which featured Indigenous and POC authors, stand out more.

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