A look at Festivaletteratura 2021
15 7 2021
A look at Festivaletteratura 2021

In the company of writers from all over the world, the now-twenty-five-year-old Festival sets about describing our times

Voices from distant continents, memories and premonitions, eco-narratives, theories on power, ideas of youth, exchanges of letters, inexact sciences, social contracts to be rewritten, literary affinities, poetry in motion and nature’s music are woven into a programme that includes events with authors, workshops for children and young people, itineraries, classes, a poetry van, a Dante jukebox... and a radio that never sleeps!

Read also: Alphabetical list of guest authors at Festivaletteratura 2021
(updated 30/08/2021)

Is there still room for the future? How many forms of intelligence exist? Does producing culture warm the planet? What does “real fiction” mean? Are the few better than the many? How much invention is good for history? What does talking about gender in literature mean...? Can a lake write poetry?

Scrolling through the names of the over 250 authors taking part in the 2021 edition of Festivaletteratura and the topics they address, many questions spring to mind. The sensation is one of holding in one’s hands the coloured pieces of a mosaic that reflects modern-day complexities.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of Festivaletteratura comes at a time of expectancy. More than a year after the start of the pandemic, culture is “open for business” again, and trying to understand where and for whom. In 2020, the Festival was determined to be present and was lucky enough to succeed. This meant adopting alternative approaches – at times innovative, at times a little old-fashioned – which ended up being a great deal more than temporary solutions. Festivaletteratura is continuing along some of these routes (and those never abandoned) this year, without yet knowing whether they will prove to be right. Once again there is a need for culture, and along the way answers are being sought.

From 8th to 12th September 2021 Festivaletteratura will again be inhabiting the streets and piazzas of Mantova as well as the airwaves, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary with more live events than last year, including first-time exchanges between authors, revivals of highly successful formats – such as the blackboards and the epistolary bench, spaces for discussion between the humanities and science (Scienceground), itineraries that suggest new ways of looking at the city, a house of art and literature for children, experiments launched in 2020 (the poetry van, Piazza Balcony, bibliophile affinities, illustrated stories, Radio Festivaletteratura), and some novelties such as the Dante Jukebox and poetry fishing.

The 2021 edition will shine in its rediscovered international dimension. Narrators, poets, a wide range of experts, authors and illustrators for children from various countries will be back to meet readers of all ages in the city in person or – for those still too far away – by video link. To herald the return of international literature, the Festival has some exceptional names lined up – Alice Walker, the iconic voice of African-American culture; the American activist and writer Rebecca Solnit; Bernhard Schlink, one of the greats of contemporary German fiction; Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award and a frequent guest at the Festival – not to mention authors who have recently sparked the attention of readers globally, among whom Benjamin Labatut, Mariana Enriquez, Santiago Roncagliolo, Fouad Laroui and Aleksej Ivanov.

After all, it is the trans-pandemic year that demands reflections and thoughts be given a universal dimension. First and foremost, on the environment. With Consapevolezza Verde (Green Awareness), Festivaletteratura has always sought to stimulate debate on the complex issues related to climate change and to implement actions that go well beyond the five days of the event. To these ends, the Festival has joined European projects such as C-Change, dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of cultural events, developing monitoring models and protocols, and devising processes to compensate for its own local ecological impact.

Alongside the more structured series of events on waste, ecosystems, CO2 capture and climate geoengineering addressed in children’s workshops, readings and micro-lessons, the focal point of the debate involving, each from their own perspective, Christiana Figueres, Andri Snaer Magnason and Luca Mercalli, will be how to get across the radical changes of entire geographies and their already dramatic consequences to ensure that this narrative finally becomes second nature, changing habits, lifestyles, political choices and production systems.

A more general focus on science, technology and its effect on our cognitive mechanisms, on the different kinds of intelligence (animal, plant, mineral, artificial) that populate the reality that surrounds us, leads authors including the scientists Giorgio Vallortigara, Peter-Godfrey-Smith and Joseph LeDoux, philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek, and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman to redefine our established representation of the world and reposition man in the order of things.

The relationship with our environment – from the depths of the earth to the world’s highest peaks, from the innermost provinces to the routes travelled over the centuries by merchants and caravans – is not surprisingly the key theme of numerous events featuring narrators, essayists, mountaineers, travellers in space and memory, among whom, Robert Macfarlane, Kapka Kassabova, Marco Belpoliti, Nives Meroi, David Bellatalla, as well as the subject of the radio programme Terre Rare (Rare Earth) hosted by Nicola Feninno. What has radically changed with the pandemic is the boundary between home and the outside world, between the domestic (or domesticated) environment and an “outside” that risks becoming increasingly foreign and wild: this is the starting point for the Festival's philosophical reflection on living and the redefinition of the relationship between city and nature, involving Emanuele Coccia, Luca Molinari, Marco Filoni, Annalisa Metta and Elena Granata.

What do street names tell us about a city? In conversation with American author Deirdre Mask, Festivaletteratura will be exploring the world of odonymy. In an online documentary research project and some testing on the field, with Mantova as a ‘case study’, the Festival will shine a light on some of the urban changes, power relations, and identity-building processes identifiable through the names of small streets and piazzas. And staying on topic, A city in books – which has been exploring the literary imaginaries of cities since 2015 – is dedicated this year to Helsinki.

The evolution of contemporary societies –with democracies in crisis and growing inequalities, the quality and recognition of work, the decline of ideals and the new relevance of class conflict – is another of the central issues of this year's Festival, thanks to contributions from Nadia Urbinati, Marco D'Eramo, Michael Sandel, Carlo Cottarelli, Pascale Molinier, Massimo Livi Bacci, Giuseppe Pignatone, and economists Gaël Giraud, Anne Case and 2015 Nobel Prize winner, Angus Deaton.

The reality of new citizens from other countries in the social, economic and cultural life of our communities calls for a new civic education. Outmoded ideas and preconceptions not only create discrimination but also risk setting the whole community back. A young, lively and representative generation of “neo-Italian” writers and activists: Abdullahi Ahmed, Nadeesha Uyangoda, Esperance H. Ripanti, Anna Osei and others will be discussing the issue on the Festival radio and at live events. The role of public institutions (museums and schools, among others) in this context is fundamental. Entrusted with spreading knowledge and challenging memory, they are called upon to dialogue with societies in constant flux (an example of this is the exchange of ideas between Christian Greco and Francesca Cappelletti, directors respectively of the Egyptian Museum in Turin and the Galleria Borghese in Rome).

A cluster of stellar events featuring the 2019 Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo, young cartoonist Josephine Yole Signorelli aka Fumettibrutti, French historian Ivan Jablonka, and a tribute to the philosopher María Zambrano will examine some thought-provoking experiences made up of personal stories, narratives and traditions of thinking, often radically different, on gender identity and transition, the philosophy of difference, and the central role of women in the hoped-for “civilisation change” so urgent at this time of global crisis.

And where do the young sit in a world struggling to imagine a future? Mario Desiati, Giacomo Bevilacqua, Giulia Caminito, Alice Urciuolo and Antonio Dikele Di Stefano are some of the (young) storytellers, scriptwriters and cartoonists who will be airing their thoughts about these times of ours and their increasingly uncertain, badly mythicised borders, in a search for homelands and hope.

Young and very young readers have always been at the forefront of the Festival's attention. Through the European project Read On, Festivaletteratura has since 2017 been encouraging and spreading a love for reading among teenagers by organising an ever-increasing number of initiatives aimed at this age group, both during the year – through an extensive network of initiatives involving schools and libraries throughout Italy – and during the five days of events. This year Read On will be launching the third volume of Anthology, the collection of writings by teenagers for teenagers and dedicated this year to “real fiction”, a new cycle of interviews by Blurandevù, a graphic journalism workshop held by Assia Petricelli and Sergio Riccardi as part of My Life in Strips, and the eagerly awaited Fanfiction lab featuring Louise O'Neill. Excitement is mounting too for the events with stars of young adult literature such as Marie-Aude Murail and Katherine Rundell.

After the long months of Covid-enforced isolation, Casa del Mantegna will, as usual, be providing a free space for experiences, play and physical interaction with books, words, and stories of sounds and images for the very young. In the Paduan artist's house, transformed for five days into a universe for children, the traditional “face-to-face” events will make way for dynamic encounters/actions, in which an initial spell of reading and listening develops into a workshop activity, exploration and an immersive fantasy world. With American storyteller Susie Morgenstern as the star guest, the initiative will also feature the ingenuity of internationally renowned artist-writers such as Canizales, Anete Melece and Ole Könnecke, myths and inventions narrated by Christian Hill, and – among the numerous other activities – an insight into “true stories” by Gigliola Alvisi, Eleonora Antonioni, Manlio Castagna and Matteo Corradini.

The game plays out between documentary truth and “instrumental” fiction not only in a great deal of the literature that makes recent history its subject matter. It is equally true in historical narrative as a whole, where invention is necessary to evoke the mood, fill out the characters, and harmonise the divergent details that emerge from archive documents. Antonio Scurati, Fernanda Alfieri and Maaza Mengiste, among others, address these issues through the lens of Fascism, Italian colonialism and, moving backwards, to papal Rome at the beginning of the 19th century. Even more painful is the attempt to rewrite history when – as in the case of Giuseppe Culicchia and Marco Bechis – one is personally involved and memories stir the emotions.

The use of memoirs – in a broader sense that includes intimate and diaristic writings, epistolary fiction and even works in novel-form – is common to many of the guest authors at Festivaletteratura 2021 - Maria Stepanova, Hala Kodmani, Alicia Kopf, Gaia Manzini and Francesca Mannocchi, as well as actor and director Carlo Verdone –, who offer, through a personal and family-oriented lens, a revisiting of mourning and other, lighter, events in our recent history, and of universal issues such as love, illness, education and exile. This year, we will be throwing new light on epistolary writing, with events featuring the correspondence of Fëdor Dostoevsky, Goliarda Sapienza and Stefan Zweig. The Panchina epistolare (Epistolary Bench) is dedicated to the love letters between Guido Gozzano and Amalia Guglielminetti.

On the occasion of the 700th anniversary of the great poet’s death, special attention will be afforded to the work and success of Dante, celebrated through group poetry readings held by the Teatro delle Albe with over fifty teenagers, the bibliophile affinities at the Biblioteca Teresiana by Carlo Ossola and Andrea Canova on Dante's codices and editions, conversations with Marco Martinelli, Lella Costa and Gabriele Vacis, and Simone Marchesi's Dante Jukebox - critical à la carte reading of Dante's tercets accompanied live by the drawings of Roberto Abbiati.

More generally, visual storytelling occupies ample space in this twenty-fifth edition. While the graphic designer Peter Mendelsund will explain how reading can generate visions in our imagination, during numerous other events, itineraries and workshops, graphic designers and art critics will use their own language of communication to offer the audience stories as seductive as those more explicitly literary. Photography features prominently thanks to guests Donna Ferrato, Alex Majoli and Gianluca Vassallo. In a constant dialogue with fiction, comics are gaining ground at the Festival. In particular, with the illustrated stories – this year at the newly restored Palazzo della Ragione – words and images once again merge into a single story thanks to some live performances: Carlo Lucarelli with Ilaria Tuti and Marco Petrella with Emanuele Rosso are among the authors and illustrators who will accompany one another on stage using their voice and artists’ brushes.

Above all, the Festival is always a great conversation on literature, an opportunity to get caught up in the stories, the ins and outs of the plot, the reasons behind the characters, and literary ancestry and descent. Gabriele Romagnoli and Marcello Fois, Marco Malvaldi and Desy Icardi, Alessandro Piperno and Annalena Benini will be discussing these beguiling literary obsessions. The fact that literature is first and foremost dialogue, a relationship, is demonstrated by the many events that Festivaletteratura has again built around the affinities that link books and writers – Teresa Ciabatti and Elisa Ruotolo on the female body in literature, Claudio Piersanti and Andrea Vitali on love stories written by men, Simonetta Agnello Hornby and Maria Attanasio on the soul of Sicily, to give just a few examples.

If a literary conversation can take on surreal overtones with authors such as Valerio Lundini, it becomes even more incredible if you think of poetry fishing, some technological-literary entertainment thought up by Matteo Loglio, who will be experimenting with artificial intelligence in an attempt to make poetry by translating the changing moods of the Mantuan lakes into verse. After all, thanks in part to the Poetry Van and the radio programme Due punti, poetry has become the sound that percolates throughout the Festival. This year's star guests include the Icelandic Jón Kalman Stefánsson, British author Ruth Padel and Milo De Angelis, and not to be missed is Nicola Crocetti's prodigious translation of Nikos Kazantzakis' Odyssey.

Ensuring that music continues to occupy a prime spot at Festivaletteratura are two concerts on an environmental theme – Tre Sonate Nordiche by pianist Fabiano Casanova and Vox balenae by the Gruppo Musica Insieme, organised in collaboration with Mantova Musica –, a lesson on the history of melodrama with Marcello Fois and the Solisti della Fenice, and storie sonore, where children will engage with the magical and mysterious figure of the noisemaker. The Piazza Balcone experience is also back: among the flag-draped windows of suburban apartment blocks, Giuseppe Antonelli will be along with his grammatica mostruosa (monstrous grammar), while Tullio Avoledo and Luca Crovi will plunge us into the dark atmosphere of the noir, with other literary surprises along the way.

Sound and the spoken word, which lockdown have made ever more meaningful, remain an essential part of the Festival programme thanks to Radio Festivaletteratura. With fourteen radio programmes hosted by journalists, critics and writers and three daily editions of the radio news, Festivaletteratura will be taking a close look at many of the topics discussed at the events and activities taking place physically in Mantova: from Frontiere (Frontiers) by Christian Elia, who will introduce us to some of the transit points of contemporary migration, to Panorama Internazionale (International Panorama) by Simonetta Bitasi and Elsa Riccadonna, featuring interviews with four equally talented authors writing in different languages; from Il primo romanzo (The First Novel) by Cecilia Passarella, who will try to answer the age-old question of which was the first novel in the history of mankind, to Le Decadi (The Decades) with Valerio Millefoglie, who will discuss forty years of recent history through the years 1971, 1981, 1991 and 2001, and much more.

Lastly, a welcome return, or rather: a metamorphosis! The Festivaletteratura programme in print, indispensable for navigating and experiencing the event – besides being an unmissable collector's item for many. After last year's absence, it is back, in the guise of a small catalogue, complete as always with descriptions of all the events and including some original contributions by authors. The new Festival catalogue in Italian, made all the more precious by Lucio Schiavon's cover design, is scheduled for the end of July.

An abridged English version of the programme will be available at the end of August.