Lucy Popescu

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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

European Literature Days – October 2015

Posted by lucypopescu on November 11, 2015

SpitzThe European Literature Days (ELiT) festival held in the Wachau region of Austria encourages cultural exchange between European based writers, translators, publishers and readers. This year the overall theme was “The Migrants”, a loaded term and geopolitically relevant given the refugee crisis currently being played out in central and eastern Europe.

A.L. Kennedy gave a powerful keynote lecture which served as a resounding call for writers and artists to do more to counter the negative propaganda surrounding migrants and refugees. “True art is not an indulgence,” she warns, “but a fundamental defence of humanity.” Kennedy evokes a past, present and future where ‘Those defined as Others go first. The strangers, the migrants, those forced into desperate motion by cascading cruelties.” But the rest of us face the same threat and fate: “When art fails, failure of imagination follows and thereafter cruelty thrives.” All engaged artists and artists, those interested in safeguarding free expression and culture should view themselves as “voluntary migrants” or “Honorary Others”, she suggests, because they know from experience that art is a more powerful tool than propaganda.

Exploring literary trends in Europe, Rainer Moritz, a German writer, publisher and translator, remarked on the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six autobiographical novels, entitled My Struggle. Books presented as autobiography which contain elements of fiction are increasingly popular, he suggests. Moritz and French-German academic Jurgen Ritte embarked on a lively discussion about ‘novels without fiction’ also called ‘exofiction’. In Germany there appears to be a distrust of fiction and instead a yearning for what is perceived as authentic, including a renewed interest in political novels. Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Going, went, gone, nominated for the German Book Prize, is a case in point. It is about refugees in contemporary Germany. Crime novels continue to be big in Germany. Moritz noted that every city in Germany must have its own detective.

Rosie Goldsmith, who also moderated, responded that if there was a detective in every German town, then almost every English town now has a literary festival. There is also a proliferation of literary prizes and many readers orientate themselves around these awards, using them as a guide to what to read. Goldsmith observed that fantasy fiction continues to be widely read, perhaps prompted by the popularity of various TV programmes and films. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, is a notable example of the genre’s literary potential.

Despite further cuts in arts, the smaller independents continue to publish literary fiction in translation. German authors, in particular, have done well in Britain. Erpenbeck won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The End of Days, there was a German strand at this year’s Cheltenham literary festival and Julia Franck’s West, Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘F’ and Timur Verms Look Who’s Back were published to great acclaim.

True to the festival theme, various international writers who have settled in Europe were invited to contribute. These included graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet, who grew up on the Ivory Coast and now lives in Paris; Lebanese writer Iman Humaydan, president of Lebanese PEN who lives part of the time in Paris; South Korean born Anna Kim; The British-Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub; French Afghan writer and filmmaker Atiq Rahimi; and Najem Wali, an Iraqi writer living in Germany. Once again, EliT explores topical themes and celebrates a diverse range of international authors.

Originally published by

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Book Review – The New Granta Book of Travel

Posted by lucypopescu on November 26, 2011

In Travels with Herodotus, the Polish traveller-reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski remarked that “other cultures are mirrors in which we can see ourselves, thanks to which we understand ourselves better – for we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison”, eloquently summarising what makes a great travel narrative.

Bill Burford compiled the first “Travel Writing” issue of Granta in 1983, and the magazine soon acquired a reputation for promoting this literary form. The New Granta Book of Travel, an anthology that includes writers from Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin to Lavinia Greenlaw and Rory Stewart, carries on the tradition.

What’s particularly interesting is how it illuminates the diversity of modern travel. In “Arrival” we have an asylum seeker’s first experience of coming to Britain. Albino Ochero-Okello’s poignant tale turns the idea of travel for pleasure on its head. For a refugee, travel is a means of survival.

Then there are the more anthropological dissections, such as Andrew Hussey’s provocative analysis of the immigrant banlieues in “The Paris Intifada”, in which he describes “the otherness of exclusion, of the repressed of the fearful and the despised”.

Most of us travel for leisure but, as Jonathan Raban points out in his introduction, “travel” has its roots in “travail” and “trepalium” – an ancient Roman instrument of torture. Sometimes a holiday can turn to horror, as illustrated by John Borneman’s evocative account of the tsunami that devastated his Sri Lankan beach idyll. The collection also includes unexpected journeys such as James Hamilton-Paterson’s descent to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean and Andrew O’Hagan’s description of the Glaswegian sludge boats that double up as cruise ships for the elderly.

It’s disappointing that there are not more female writers included – particularly because two memorable pieces come from women: Decca Aitkenhead provides a damning indictment of sex tourism in Thailand, while Wendell Steavenson gives a voice to a Sunni insurgent in Baghdad.

Renowned for his “literary reportage”, Kapuscinski is the writer who, for me, best sums up the allure of travel, but also its inherent frustrations. In “The Lazy River”, he describes the alienation of over travelling, to the extent that “we are no longer able to connect meaningfully with any image, view or landscape, with any event or human face”.

The upsurge in global travel means that those writing in the field have to do more than convey the essence of a remote place or people. This inspiring anthology celebrates the genre’s literary aspirations, as well as reminding us of the myriad ways in which exploring difference, even for armchair travellers, broadens minds.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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The deadly cost of peace in Sri Lanka

Posted by lucypopescu on May 30, 2010

It’s now a tourist hotspot, but Sri Lanka is still a very dangerous place for reporters

May 19 marked the first anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war. In the past year, there has been frenzied activity to rebuild the country’s tourist industry. Astonishingly, the New York Times has made Sri Lanka its number one holiday destination for 2010. The travel brochures rhapsodise about the country’s natural splendours, stunning beaches and cultural heritage. Holidaymakers are once again pouring into this south Asian island, off the coast of India.

After almost three decades of conflict with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (popularly known as the Tamil Tigers), the Sri Lankan government declared military victory last May.

But many tourists do not know that Sri Lanka is now rated the fourth most dangerous place in the world for journalists, higher even than Afghanistan. The new peace in Sri Lanka has come at a high cost to freedom of expression and the human rights of its citizens.

More than 15 journalists are believed to have been killed since 2006. These include Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, who was murdered on January 8 2009 as he drove to work. Wickramatunga was widely known for his criticism of corruption, government policies and the civil war, and he had received several threats to his life. Just days before his death, chillingly he penned an article predicting his murder. It serves to summarise the threat facing all dissident writers in Sri Lanka:

“I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course, I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted.”

No one has been brought to justice for his murder.

According to Amnesty, despite the official end to the civil war, just for attempting to report the truth, journalists continue to be killed, physically assaulted, abducted, and harassed by both government personnel and members of paramilitary groups aligned with the state.

Newspapers have been seized and burned, newspaper offices have been vandalised and printing equipment destroyed.

On August 31 last year, a Sri Lankan court sentenced Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam (JS) Tissainayagam to 20 years hard labour for causing “communal disharmony”. Human rights groups believe that he was targeted for his earlier reporting on the conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers. After an international outcry, which included President Barack Obama expressing concern during an address to mark 2009 World Press Freedom Day, Tissa received a presidential pardon exactly a year later on May 3 2010. His release proves that external pressure can make a difference in Sri Lanka and the international community can play a part in this.

Emergency regulations, issued by the President, involve far-reaching and vaguely defined “terrorism” offences that have been used to silence critical voices. The authorities frequently misuse the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency regulations to prosecute journalists like Tissa in violation of their right to freedom of opinion and expression.

According to Amnesty, there has been a further clampdown on dissent since the presidential election concluded on January 26 2010. This has included arrests, death threats against several prominent newspaper editors, harassment of trade unionists and state employees who supported the opposition, and the intimidation of independent internet-based media.

On the day of the elections, a political cartoonist and opposition journalist, Prageeth Eknaligoda, disappeared. According to Reporters sans Frontiéres (RSF), he was abducted as he left the office of the Lanka-e-News website, his place of work, and has been missing since then. The police investigation has yielded nothing.

Many journalists and NGOs have wanted to report on the internment camps in Sri Lanka. There are almost 100,000 civilians still detained in these camps. But only pro-government NGOs have been allowed to work in many of the smaller camps. As a consequence, the outside world remains largely ignorant of the real conditions for the detainees.

In the rush to smooth the way for tourism, the government has started to bulldoze various Tamil Tiger landmark sites, including cemeteries and the homes of Velupillai Prabhakaran and other Tamil Tigers leaders. The Thileepan memorial near the Nallur temple was also defaced, apparently with the collusion of the Sri Lankan army.  In a move sure to enflame local tensions, the authorities propose replacing the homes of Tamil Tigers leaders with hotels and resorts.

Many tourists never leave their hotel and most Sri Lankans are too frightened to speak about what is going on in their country. So visitors are unaware of the very different world outside the resorts where ordinary Sri Lankan citizens continue to have their basic human rights trampled on, sometimes involving violence and torture. If civil unrest erupts again, another humanitarian crisis is just waiting to happen.

What you can do

To find out more about Sri Lanka and how you can help visit

Urge the United Nations Secretary General to push for an independent inquiry into war crimes on both sides and appoint a special envoy for Sri Lanka; to ensure that all those held in camps are treated in line with international standards; and to press the government to protect human rights and promote peace and reconciliation.

Amnesty ( publishes regular reports on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

RSF ( is monitoring the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda and reports on attacks against the media.

Published in Tribune Sunday, May 23rd, 2010
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