2009 Blue Metropolis Festival

Montreal’s 11th annual Blue Metropolis (or rather, Metropolis Bleu) took place this last weekend, featuring a huge number of international writers, events, readings, and languages. According to an article in the Montreal Gazette, the Metropolis Bleu Festival was the “world’s first multilingual literary festival.” When it started, events were in French and English, and now they take place in French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Italian, and Urdu.

Unfortunately, thanks to my insane travel schedule, I didn’t really have the time/energy to go to any of the main events. I did participate in the “Forum International des Editeurs” though, which was designed to introduce editors from around the world to Quebecois literature and publishing houses.

This forum—which included probably 80 editors, publishing houses, translators, arts administrators, etc.—wasn’t necessarily the best designed gathering I’ve ever attended. It was much too short to really get a sense of the Quebecois publishing scene, and since the “speed dating” section was cut so short, I only had the chance to “date” one other publisher. (Which, as it happens, was probably one of Montreal publishers most relevant to what Open Letter is doing, but still.) Nevertheless, there were a few interesting things that came out of this.

One thing that fascinated me (and here we go with the business of publishing thing again) was how the Francophone and Anglophone publishing scenes in Canada developed completely independent of one another. With few exceptions, publishers publish in either French or English, and depending on which, they use a completely different set of distributors, bookstores, etc. They even belong to different publishers associations (which, of course, are in communication with each other, but are run separately) and the granting mechanisms for foreign publishers interested in translating Canadian/Quebecois books are independent of one another.

It was also interesting to find out that publishing in Canada didn’t really start until the 1960s and 70s. A lot of authors, such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, were involved in the founding of these first publishing houses, many of which still exist today. In some ways this might be due to special protections afforded by the Canadian government to prevent the American publishing industry from taking over. Linda Leith (the organizer of this event and Artistic Director of the Blue Metropolis Foundation) mentioned these protections, which I believe include special government funding for Canadian publishers and other economic benefits. (I’d love to know more about what these “protections” are—if anyone knows, please feel free to leave a comment.)

I hate to say this, but one of the best things about the Forum proper was Erica, our witty interpreter. The event was a bit chaotic, but she did a great job keeping us Anglophiles in the loop and interjecting her own amusing comments. Another fantastic person I had the chance to spend a lot of time with was Alexandre Sanchez, who handles foreign rights for Les Allusifs, one of the coolest of the Quebec publishers and one of the most international.

Alexandre gave me a nice walking tour of Montreal—I finally saw the really hip areas!—and took me to Librairie Gallimard, a spectacular bookshop on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, which used to symbolize the divide between French and English speakers in Montreal, with the French living to the East and the Anglos to the West.

We may well feature Librairie Gallimard as an “Indie Bookstore of the Month” in the not too distant future, so more on the actual store later. In terms of books, they had a very nice selection of titles from both French and Quebecois publishers, including any number of Quebecois writers who have yet to make their way into America. Such as Catherine Mavrikakis whose Le Ciel de Bay City is a finaliste for the Le Prix des libraires du Quebec this year. What really caught my eye about this book though is that I grew up in the smelly little town (thanks Madonna!) of Bay City, Michigan where this novel is set . . . So, to answer the unasked question, yes, we’re definitely publishing it in translation. Mainly to find out how it’s actually possible to write a novel about life in Bay City . . .

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