Talking to the director of the first Tunisian Book Fair

Tunisian writer Mansour M’henni is director of the first edition of the fair, which will run October 19-28 at the Tunis City of Culture.
Sunday 07/10/2018
Tunisian books to the fore.  Director of the national Tunisian Book Fair, Mansour M’henni.  (Courtesy of Mansour M’henni)
Tunisian books to the fore. Director of the national Tunisian Book Fair, Mansour M’henni. (Courtesy of Mansour M’henni)

Tunisia will have a national Tunisian Book Fair, a literary event that has been much awaited by the country’s intellectuals and writers.

Tunisian writer Mansour M’henni is director of the first edition of the fair, which will run October 19-28 at the Tunis City of Culture.

M’henni acknowledged the importance of the time-honoured legacy of the Tunis International Book Fair in reviving and promoting books and sees a special role for the new Tunisian Book Fair in bringing attention to not-enough recognised Tunisian books and writers.

“When visitors go to the international book fair, they do not pay that much attention to the national books but, rather, focus on foreign publications and international book publishers and books,” M’henni said

Insufficient attention to Tunisian books prompted intellectuals, writers and publishers to find other channels to promote their works.

“This is how the idea of promoting Tunisian books came about. It comes also as a part of a whole new cultural policy that seeks to promote and encourage Tunisian production for its role in the cultural and economic development of the country,” M’henni said.

“The Ministry of Cultural Affairs dedicated the year 2018 to the Tunisian book and doubled the budget devoted to publishing and supporting Tunisian books. The City of Culture was also inaugurated this year, which also inspired the idea to hold a fair for the Tunisian book in this new cultural compound.”

The fair will feature conferences, roundtable discussions, workshops and film screenings and competitions in four categories: Best Children’s Book, Best Creative Writing, Best Intellectual Writing and Best Translated Text.

In addition to its attention to the state of Tunisian literature, the fair will reflect on the nation’s common concerns as the first edition’s theme, “The Tunisian Book Unites Us,” is intended to serve as a call for national unity.

“The slogan was chosen to underline the idea of unity that is much needed in Tunisia now. We want to unite all talents and competencies around the ideas of patriotism and love of one’s country. This occasion should serve to unite Tunisians,” M’henni explained.

M’henni said Tunisian books remained at a disadvantage in the Arab world despite their high literary quality and strong presence in international literary forums and fairs.

“There are no permanent channels to distribute Tunisian books in the Arab world. The literary production is important and the number of writers is increasing greatly. The government is also supporting writers and books as well as publishing houses. Tunisian books and writers are present in all international fairs in the Arab world but there is no strong strategy of communication by publishers,” M’henni said.

“Also, translation can serve as one of the mediums to reintroduce Tunisian books in the Arab and international scenes,” said M’henni, himself an award-winning, French-language writer.

“In Tunisian literature, there are pioneer texts but they couldn’t earn their deserved status. There is a missing link that needs to be found.”

M’henni noted that Tunisian books have a unique cultural identity different from other Arab world literature. Part of the particular identity of Tunisian thought is its modernist and reformist streaks.

“Tunisia has a cultural tradition that is characterised by enlightenment and avant-garde thinking. When it comes to Arab modernism, the Tunisian school was a pioneer,” M’henni said.

Openness to the world has always come with Tunisian modernist thinking. “Tunisian literature is famed for its combination of modernist thinking and Islamic-Arabic influences as well as its other cultural roots. It has remained faithful to its cultural roots but it is also open to the cultures of the world.”

M’henni sees a role for Arab intellectuals and writers, in general, in promoting values of modernity and tolerance.

“Some parts of the Arab world became aware of this necessity to be modern. Yet this does not deny the existence of some forces that are dragging the Arab world back. There is an ongoing intellectual debate and there is even violent pushback,’’ M’henni said.

But M’henni sees coexistence as inevitable. “People need to know that mankind will have no choice but to coexist. Despite their differences, they need to maintain respect, communication and constructivism.”

M’henni called on Tunisian writers to have an intellectual project in their writings to combat the effect of consumerism on the printing world.

“Tunisian literature remains a literature with a purpose and a mission but how can we share this project with others and how can we get the others involved? Writers need to find the right channels to attract the attention of readers to carry their project with them,” M’henni said.

For the recently named director of the Tunisian Book Fair, the issues related to publishing remain at the heart of the struggles of the literary scene in Tunisia. Despite the support of the government, Tunisian publishing houses and writers alike struggle to have Tunisian books published and distributed. M’henni said the fair will be an opportunity for Tunisian publishers to discuss their issues and come up with new solutions. M’henni suggested that Tunisian publishing houses need to adapt to the digitalisation and use all possible means to promote their work.

“The digitalisation of the world cannot leave the world of print and literature unscathed. I personally chose for years to publish only in Tunisia and today I realise I was unfair to myself. Lately, I published my books in France and Egypt.  French publishing houses rely on the digital tools to sell the product,” M’henni explained.

“We need to abandon our traditional methods. Today, we have publishing houses that print 3,000 copies, which are left unsold. We must find a mechanism to engage the reader through the digital world and the use of digital platforms. We need to use all possible means to get the book closer to the readers.”