In the past two months, hundreds of literary events have sprung up online on a wide variety of platforms: Zoom and Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, StreamYard and more. Some have come off surprisingly well. Others have been plagued by technical snags, screen fatigue, and unprepared hosts.
Most of these online events are the result of temporary shutdowns aiming to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Yet these few months of online talks may also lead to a more permanent shift. Allison Markin Powell, co-host of PEN America’s “Translating the Future” series, said over email that she believes there’s no “going back to mono-medium presentations.” This should be particularly true of translation events, she said, “since so many of us have networks that span the globe.”
The “Translating the Future” talks were originally set to be held in New York City. Instead, talks have been broadcast from translators’ homes, as with a recent conversation between Beirut-based Lina Mounzer and New York City-based Madhu H. Kaza. An event that might have been accessible only to New Yorkers was opened the world.
Previously, Markin Powell said, it’s been hard to convince event organizers that audiences would attend such virtual events. And maybe the audience themselves weren’t aware “that this format could be as engaging as it is,” she added.
Building Online Community
When the first literary events were canceled in February, some organizers believed the shutdowns would be short-lived. A few events were rescheduled for May or June. (See a related article, “Arab Publishers Take a Hit From the Covid-19 Crisis.”) Then, as it became clear that we were in for longer lock-ins, literary events began to transform.
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Some early events went online without much thought to creating community. The announcement of the winner of the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction in April was one such event. Most years, the IPAF winner is revealed at a glittering hotel-ballroom event, followed by a news conference with judges and the winner. This year, a few pre-recorded speeches were streamed without audience involvement.
The ceremony for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award followed just two days later. Although it, too, was comprised of pre-recorded videos, hundreds of participants came to watch and chat with each other beside the livestream: congratulating the winners or just saying a quick hello. (See a related article, “Sheikh Zayed Book Award Honors Authors in a Virtual Event.”)
Such small talk may seem superfluous. Yet it can be an important part of online community-building. The group Publishers Without Borders appeared in late March, started up by publishers Prashant Pathak and Simon de Jocas. Although they host informational events, the Facebook-based group is also a place, according to Pathak, for publishers to “share their love, joy, fears, and emotions. They can talk freely without any judgments,” he said, while they orient themselves to the “new reality that is coming our way.”
“Sometimes I’ll fully engage and sit down in front of the screen, other times I’ll be washing dishes, folding laundry or cooking and have the event on next to me.”Sawad Hussain
The group now has more than 3,000 participants, regular streamed events, and daily posts from publishers around the world.
Larger Audiences, Crisscrossing Borders
This year’s twice-canceled Bologna Children’s Book Fair eventually shifted to an online event, which they held in the first week of May. Surprisingly, more than 60,000 visitors from around the world came to the four-day event, which included webinars, conferences, talks, interviews and awards, including the winner of an Arabic-Italian translation contest. According to a news release, the online events weren’t a one-time thing. Instead, they “will now become a real permanent asset of the fair.”
The Saudi-based Adab group also attracted tens of thousands of viewers to its April and May online events. According Adab’s director, Abdullah al-Sufyani, the group organized 15 online poetry events between April 12 and May 15, which attracted more than 40,000 participants. The talks continue to be available on YouTube.
The poet and scholar Hatem Alzahrani was a guest at an April 17 Adab reading and conversation, and he went on to host two more sessions: one with Bahraini poet Qassim Haddad, and one with U.S.-based scholar and translator Huda Fakhreddine.
Alzahrani titled one of his events “ilaaj al-masaafah,” or “healing the distance.” For all three, he invited “specialists from all around the world to participate in Adab Virtual Salon, since it was my idea to bridge the gap between the Arabic and Western academia in Arabic literature.” He said that, despite a few technical problems, it was “truly amazing to be able to have a conversation with people from Bahrain, Riyadh, Philadelphia, and Stanford, among many others.”
But Don’t Wing It
One thing both Pathak and Alzahrani noted is that online events can be much harder to manage than in-person events. According to the Arabic-English translator Sawad Hussain, some event hosts seem to think online events require little to no preparation, since it’s “just online.”
“It’s really clear when the moderator has prepared beforehand and when they haven’t,” Hussain said. “One of the most successful events I attended had a panel of three people, a separate moderator, and then someone else specifically to collate questions from the chat panel and feed the moderator the questions.”
“Truly amazing to be able to have a conversation with people from Bahrain, Riyadh, Philadelphia, and Stanford, among many others.”Hatem Alzahrani
A poet and scholar
Hussain has been attending a large number of online literary events, noting that she engages in a variety of ways. “Sometimes I’ll fully engage and sit down in front of the screen, other times I’ll be washing dishes, folding laundry or cooking and have the event on next to me.” Organizers should expect all these different types of attendance.
Strange New World
Huda Fakhreddine gave one of the popular Adab talks in May. She said that, although the event worked, online talks require a psychological adjustment. “A big part of readings and panels like this comes from the energy in the room and we miss that very much now. I was aware of 100-some people tuning in, and I could see them adding comments in the chat box on the side of the screen, but it was a ‘dark’ audience.”
Many aspects of human connection have been lost during recent online events, she said. “I wonder if we will find ways to compensate for it or substitute it or maybe just be aware of its loss and that loss itself will inform our interactions online.”