Passa Porta Festival Literature as Refuge

Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Dozens of international authors are set to arrive in Brussels later this month and turn the city into the center stage of world literature. For four days, from the 22nd to the 24th of March, the 9th edition of the Passa Porta Festival will take place in the capital of Europe. This is a special edition as it will be combined with the ICORN Network Meeting, a major gathering of the cities of refuge for artists and writers in exile, organized for the first time in Brussels by Passa Porta.

Mohsin Hamid, the Anglo-Pakistani author of ‘Exit West’, will be the guest of honor on the festival’s opening night on Thursday 23 March. Hamid will share an unpublished text on the question of refuge and will present ‘The Last White Man’, his ingenious new novel on the question of identity, a brilliant literary materialization of the issues at the heart of this edition of the Passa Porta Festival.

A multilingual literary event in the capital of the EU has a symbolic significance not only within Europe but beyond. “Passa Porta focuses on global citizenship as it brings together thousands of visitors and more than a hundred writers from across the world,” said Ilke Froye, Passa Porta director. “Different writers, speaking and writing in many languages allow us to acquaint ourselves with an array of stories, views, and ideas and enhance our understanding of the world.”

After the opening night, the festival will offer a choice of three evenings on Friday, before making room for seventy events on Saturday and Sunday. Guests can plan their own course as they journey through the festival’s rich and intriguing program. This 9th edition of the Passa Porta Festival will take place at the Théâtre National, the Ancienne Belgique, La Monnaie, the Beursschouwburg, MAD, La Bellone, the National Lottery, and CENTRALE. There will also be some events in the desecrated church of the Beguinage.

ICORN Network Meeting and Refuge

The ICORN Network Meeting brings together more than 250 ICORN participants from around the world. From writers, artists, journalists, press cartoonists, and human rights defenders to political representatives and cultural professionals from over 80 ICORN Cities of Refuge and sister organizations. 

Within this context, the 9th edition of the Passa Porta festival will explore the notion of refuge. Using the power of music, art, and stories, the program offers a variety of panels, workshops, performances, and political meetings, highlighting issues of migration and mobility, hospitality and solidarity, cultural projects, and activism in exile.

“One of the refugees to be found, especially in times where freedom of expression is under threat, is in literature,” said Steven Van Ammel, program coordinator at Passa Porta. “The word is free or should be. What better place to emphasize this than a literary festival? What better people to do this than artists who use nothing but the written word.”

Cartooning for Peace and the City of Brussels open the event to the outside world and expand into the public space with a press cartoon exhibition which reaffirms the common efforts made by the partners to help cartoonists and other creators who are put in danger because of their work. “All Migrants!” will be on display at the Brussels Stock Exchange from March 21, with works by cartoonists from the Cartooning for Peace network and former ICORN residents Khalid Albaih, Ali Dorani, Pedro X. Molina and Mana Neyestani.

Artist and activist Alaar Satir will create a mural in the public space of Brussels, adding a touch of artistry to the surroundings. All of this is meant to emphasize the vital connection between cultural expression and civic engagement in the development of free and democratic societies. “Hosting the ICORN network meeting is part of a long tradition of the city,” said Delphine Houba, Deputy Mayor for Culture of the City of Brussels. “I stand up for a world in which artists can exist, practice, create, reflect, exhibit, spread, and live without fear, hindrance, or threat. Art can only exist in total freedom.”

A multilingual festival

Award-winning authors and emerging voices: the festival program has been designed in such a way as to embrace the public’s literary tastes but also to surprise them and perhaps broaden them. Local writers who live and work in Belgium were invited, but also British, Italian, French, Mexican, Italian, Senegalese, Ukrainian, Korean, Russian, Norwegian, New Zealand and German authors, with the firm belief that these are voices that count in the contemporary literary landscape. One of the aims of the festival is to bring local authors into dialogue with their counterparts from around the world.

The Passa Porta Festival is international and firmly multilingual. The meetings will take place in Dutch, French, Spanish, English or German, some with simultaneous translation by professional interpreters.


The translation is a central tenet of world literature. It allows the exchange between cultures and literary traditions. The value of language diversity has been fostered across Europe in different ways, one of them being the CELA program or ‘Connecting Emerging Literary Artists’, a European collaboration project of 11 organizations from 10 countries, in 9 different languages. The aim is to bring together writers and translators at the start of their careers, strengthening their talents, offering mentoring, and building their networks. CELA also aims to link all languages of the EU, however widely spoken, closer together. Also, link literary markets and promote translation between European languages.

“Without translation, literature isolates and fragments itself, shutting readers off from stories and realities happening next door,” said Magali Bosmans, program coordinator at Passa Porta. “Translation enriches the world, opening up new points of view, and underlines humans’ capacity to understand each other, beyond language and culture divide.”

Supporting Ukraine

Passa Porta has invited two Ukrainian writers to showcase their work: Oksana Zabuzhko and Victoria Belim. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, Zabuzhko was in a hotel room in Poland, where she was presenting her new book. From that moment on, she knew she had was in exile. At the festival, she will share the story of millions of Ukrainians.

In Victoria Belim’s most recent book, The Rooster House, she reports on Ukraine’s past through her own family history. Raised in the US, Belim traveled to Ukraine to try to know more about the disappearance of her great uncle Nikodim in the 1930s. What happened to him? Why was so little known? Why did her search unsettle her grandmother so much? The book is an attempt to learn the truth about the author’s past, as well as her country’s.

“Both writers will allow us to expand our understanding of the actual situation in Ukraine,” said Ilke Froyen. “This is the heart of the Passa Porta Festival. Its live encounters offer unique opportunities to join in conversations with writers and zoom in on current issues, opening windows on other experiences, realities and places around the world.”  

Festival highlights

The Passa Porta Festival honors established authors who have been widely translated and whose critical and public recognition is well established. “We wish to tempt the Brussels audience to get to know their writings,” said Ilke Froyen. “We hope that readers leave the festival invigorated with lots of new ideas, and hungry to read these newly discovered writers’ works.” Some of the highlights include:

  • After an unforgettable visit in 2017, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Annie Ernaux, at 82 years of age, will be present at the Passa Porta Festival for an exceptional interview.
  • British historian Timothy Garton Ash will share his knowledge of European history on the occasion of the release of Homelands: A Personal History of Europe.
  • The Senegalese writer and academic Felwine Sarr will travel from the United States for two round-table discussions: on decolonization and on the notion, between poetry and politics, of refuge.
  • Franco-Italian author Giuliano da Empoli will come to receive the Choix Goncourt de la Belgique for what has become in the space of a few months a tremendous bestseller, The Wizard of the Kremlin (forthcoming October 2023).
  • Considered one of the greatest living Russian authors, Vladimir Sorokin will discuss his position as a provocative writer unafraid to kick against political and literary trends
  • New Zealand author Eleanor Catton presents Birnam Wood, her first novel since the Booker Prize winning bestseller The Luminaries.
  • The German writer Esther Kinsky, recently lauded with the prestigious Kleist Prize for her oeuvre, will discuss the place of landscape in literature.
  • Palestinian author Adania Shibli represents a new generation of Palestinian writers and artists whose commitment is both political and aesthetic.

In a fast-paced world of social media and streaming, Passa Porta remains committed to its core values. “Reading is like dreaming with your eyes open,” said Steven Van Ammel. “Organizing a literary festival means making all your dreams come true.”


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