Festival invites visitors to discover the heartbeat of multilingual Brussels


The biennial Passa Porta festival returns to the capital with a sprawling programme that includes established and lesser-known writers, endurance storytelling and even a yoga session

Multiple events in English

At the end of the month, international literature house Passa Porta hosts the fifth edition of its eponymous biennial festival. The philosophy behind the event is to offer top quality writing in numerous languages, opening up the world of literature to Brussels’ multicultural, international audience.

Passa Porta’s roots go back to 1998, to Het Beschrijf, a centre for Flemish literature. Festival director Ilke Froyen takes up the story. “We wanted to put literature on the stage,” she explains. “We held a festival that year, but we needed structure and wanted to breathe more life into it, so that it wasn’t just a one-shot thing. We were more ambitious and wanted a proper international house that was fit for Brussels.”

The organisers worked with both the Flemish and francophone governments, and, in 2004, Passa Porta was born – a centre to support authors in their work and a means of bringing that work to an audience, alongside a multilingual bookshop. The first Passa Porta festival was held three years later.

“Passa Porta was designed as a showcase of international literature, and the festival reflects our philosophy,” says Froyen. “It’s a passport to world literature and a meeting ground for people from around the country, whatever language they speak. Brussels is really the only place we could be.”

People are intrigued, she says, "by the diversity and all the languages used in this city; it’s a gathering of a very mixed audience. During the festival, texts will be translated and projected in various languages. It’s an opportunity for people to feel the heartbeat of the city.”

Laundry meets poetry

This year’s theme is Now and Then, encompassing ideas such as the author as time traveller, and why story time equals quality time. With this theme in mind, the programme takes established and lesser-known writers and places them in a variety of imaginative contexts.

There are traditional talks and readings, but also a literary walk, a yoga-and-poetry session, an endurance reading event, a poetry slam and live drawing by graphic artists.

High art doesn’t have to be inaccessible

- Festival director Ilke Froyen

“We’ve chosen interesting writers and looked at presenting their work in a playful way, in different places, giving people a chance to discover the city as well as new authors,” explains Froyen. “We’ve got two events in a laundrette – you might consider time spent doing the laundry to be lost, but we’ve got authors using that time to read out 30-minute texts, the duration of a wash cycle.

“We’ve got an event featuring books that have been forbidden at one time or another, or you can go on a bus tour and discover Brussels through fun literary performances,” Froyen continues. “Literature is often considered a high art form. At Passa Porta, we’re focused on quality writing, but we want to offer it in different forms. High art doesn’t have to be inaccessible.”

When it comes to Flemish writers making it abroad, or foreign authors becoming known in Flanders, translation is a big issue. This is something Froyen and the festival team hope to chip away at.

“If you read in English or French, you might be familiar with the work of Russian writers, for example, but they might not be so frequently translated into Dutch. Our aim is really to provide people with discoveries, to give them access to great literature through translation.”

A literary parcours

New this year is a children’s segment of the festival. A highlight is the Long Night of the Short Story at Flagey, in which local and international writers play with the festival theme of Time. Simultaneously at kids’ theatre Bronks, a parallel event for younger readers offers bedtime stories in Dutch, French, Arabic and Turkish. 

On Sunday, a huge programme of events is on offer around Brussels, and readers can design their own parcours depending on their interests. That evening, British novelist Ian McEwan (Amsterdam, Atonement) closes the event. His latest book, The Children Act, is a study of moral and ethical dilemmas that revolves around a High Court judge and her encounter with an extraordinary boy. He’ll be talking to Flemish journalist Annelies Beck about his work and the times in which we live.

Looking ahead, what are Passa Porta’s goals? “If we can continue doing the work we do, that would be good,” says Froyen. “During this festival, we’ll be meeting colleagues from other European festivals and exploring future collaborations. Through our writers-in-residence and other projects, we’re interested in supporting the whole writing process, not just the end result.”

She laughs when asked about her own dream festival line-up; the wish-list is too long. “I would like to bring in more writers from outside Europe, but it’s difficult,” she admits.

26-29 March, across Brussels
Photo: Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg at the 2013 edition of the Passa Porta festival
©Luc Vleminckx

Festival highlights

Passa Porta is a multilingual festival. Along with events in Dutch and French, there are others in Portuguese, German, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and Chinese, and some in complete silence. We’ve picked out the English-language highlights (on 29 March unless otherwise stated).
•  Kevin Barry and Michel Faber are among the writers taking part in the Long Night of the Short Story, with work set to music (in English, Dutch and French). 28 March at Flagey
•  Brazilian writer Luanda Casella reads her work in an endurance storytelling event. At Ancienne Belgique
Comic artists harness the public’s imagination over a creative lunch (in English, Dutch and French). At Greenwich
•  Authors Jiří Hájíček of the Czech Republic and Dan Lungu from Romania discuss Communism. At deBuren
•  Syrian-Palestinian poet Ghayath Almadhoun talks about writing in exile in the wake of the Arab Spring. At Ritscafé
•  Swiss writer Arno Camenisch and Spanish author Ricardo Menéndez Salmón discuss the art of speeding up and slowing down time in literature. At Bozar
•  Valeria Luiselli reads from books that were once banned in the WestAt Goupil Le Fol
•  Meg Rosoff, winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, talks about the past, the future and in between, followed by a premiere of the film version of her novel, How I Live Now (in English and Dutch). At Bronks
•  There’s a chance to hear from Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskayais, whose work was banned under the Soviet regime (in English and Russian). At Bozar
•  American author Jenny Offill talks about her bestselling novel, Dept of Speculation, shortlisted for this year’s Folio Prize, and about life choices, love and the power of literature. At De Markten
•  Celebrated British author Ian McEwan closes the festival in conversation with Annelies Beck. At Bozar