Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Monday, 23 february 2015 | VILAWEB


Àlex Susanna: ‘As a language and as a culture we have long been independent’

An interview with the director of the Institut Ramon Llull, the entity which deals with internationalising Catalan culture

The Institut Ramon Llull is the body responsible for projecting the Catalan culture abroad.  According to its director, Àlex Susanna, the work the Institute can do goes further. ‘The Catalan culture is a very effective calling card of Catalonia, of the country’. In 2014, important steps were taken, he explains, above all in the field of translation of Catalan literature, which has been very well received in the Anglo-Saxon market with translations of Catalan works such as ‘Incerta glòria’ and ‘El quadern gris’. But not everything is positive.  In this interview Susanna reports the control that Spanish embassies have long exerted over Catalan activity abroad. ‘There is a control which is belligerent in some cases’, he affirms.


—We recently saw how the pressure from the Spanish Embassy had the presentation of ‘Victus’ suspended in Holland, and has intervened in other events.  What control is exerted by the Spanish government?
—There is control which is belligerent in some cases. You can suffer it in public when you are in the middle of an event explaining yourself and it turns out that the attaché for culture is intervening or the ambassador is there to contradict you, but also in a very grotesque way.  However these kinds of interventions usually turn against those who make them.  People are not silly and realise that this is not coherent with values of democracy.

—The Spanish government is restless.
—That’s obvious. Some days ago the Spanish government came out against the opening of new Catalan embassies.  But let’s be realistic: all the Catalan government intends to open are delegations and not embassies, and what the institute has are not headquarters abroad but rather offices.  This structure of a foreign presence which is conceived from the Catalan government is magnified, distorted and falsified by the Spanish government. If we look at the photograph of what the Catalan government has done up to now and what it intends to do in the future, they have no reason to be concerned.

—They argue that what they want to do from the Catalan delegations could be done from the Spanish embassies.
—Here I would firmly say that it can’t.  Their structures are of no use to us.  Here there was a conflict of interest and brands.  The Spanish government is interested in enhancing its brand.  We are interested in enhancing our brand, which is Catalonia and the Catalan culture. Here you can realise that there is a clash of interests.

—The children’s and youth book fair of Bologna stopped answering and you suspected it was through the influence of the Spanish government.  Will you be able to be there in the end?
—I don’t want to see ghosts and so I just focus on the facts.  We are talking with the Bologna book fair, which is one of the goals we pursue and there is no doubt that sooner or later Catalan children’s and youth literature will be there.

—The Ramon Llull is a key institute for the process towards independence.  How can the Catalan government strengthen itself to achieve this international projection of the process?
—Sometimes I think that the government in general is little aware of the role that the Institut Ramon Llull can play.  One part of my work also consists of explaining all of this potential.  I would like the budget of the coming years to recover everything we had.  We have to think that in the last five years, the institute’s budget has been cut back by fifty percent.

—How would the Institut Ramon Llull have to change in independent Catalonia?
—I think that the institution is well conceived, a correct decision of those who thought of it at the time.  We must know that in other countries different internationalisation bodies coexist, but here I think the fact of having it all concentrated in a single body is very good because it allows all of the cultural sectors to be interrelated with the language. People often realise that the Fura dels Baus deep down is related to Ramon Llull and that Ramon Llull has to do with Gaudí. As soon as these associations between brilliant creators separated by time and disciplines occur, people understand that Catalan culture is very, very powerful.

—What is the core of the Ramon Llull’s present strategy?
—The implicit goals pursued go far beyond cultural action.  Nobody is unaware that the Catalan identity is strongly cultural and, as a result, it is normal that the country should be presented through its culture.  It is a very effective calling card.  As a language and as a culture, we have long been independent, and this is not because we say so but rather because others recognise it.  If not why would a book fair like Frankfurt invite us, if it did not recognise our specific nature?

—Why do you believe that 2014 has been an inflection point in the internationalisation of culture?
—It is the impact and the international importance of the projects.  You can go to the Venice biennial and have your own stand and obtain just a national effect.  This happens in a very large number of exhibitions.  But the good thing about being there is that you have an international effect.  This is what we achieved in 2014 at the Venice Biennial of architecture, at the Beijing Design Week and at the festival of Avignon. And in the field of translations we have achieved it with the classics and also with contemporary literature: leading publishing houses are attracted by Catalan authors and then the foreign critics and readers also give positive opinions.

—Could it be that this effect comes from the Frankfurt Book Fair 2007, where Catalan literature was given a special presentation?
—Frankfurt is a before and an after, but the after coincides with the publishing crisis whose first victims came in the field of translations, because they involve a series of extra expenses that authors who do not have their works translated do not have.  The most extraordinary thing for me in these recent years is that I have seen how both classical and contemporary Catalan literature have been extremely competitive in the most severe years of the crisis.  This has nothing to do with Frankfurt.

—Might we find an example of this at the time when The Economist placed ‘Incerta Glòria’ amongst the ten best works of fiction?
—That a market like the English market might assess a classic of the literature like the Catalan published fifty years ago is unpredictable.  The competition is enormous.  When the North American publisher of ‘Quadern Gris’ takes an interest in publishing the translation of ‘Incerta glòria’ and the English publisher of ‘Incerta glòria’, seeing the success of ‘Quadern gris’ in the United States, also takes an interest, it is here that you see that our literature is highly competitive.

—The crisis has brought the Ramon Llull to concentrate on a single literary event a year.  This year it will be the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto, Canada. What you hope for here?
—As we believe that the most important fact is that in the last two years English has become the second most important target language for translations of Catalan literature, we believe that it is an opportunity we have to make the most of and therefore it is very interesting to us to give Catalan literature and authors visibility.  We have to make the most of this wave and make it as broad and long-lasting as possible.

—Do you think we will soon have a Catalan winner of the Nobel Prize for literature?
—This is the most awkward question because all of this has to be worked on, but I believe it has to be done discreetly.  One thing is what I think, and other thing is everything that we are doing in the Institute to get there; but something which is out of our reach, is knowing when this selection will occur.  Having said this, one day it will occur, and hopefully it will not be too far in the future.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia