On the eve of European Literature Night, EUNIC President Tereza Porybna tells Embassy magazine how this global cultural network promotes European culture in the UK and beyond.
It started with a simple idea: a night walking through the streets of Prague listening to the world’s best literature in the Czech capital’s famous pubs, cathedrals and castles.
The idea caught on and soon other European capitals were staging readings by actors and writers in the coffee houses of Vienna, across the Latin Quarter in Paris and at the British Library in London. And so European Literature Night (ELN) was born.
Now in its seventh year, ELN VII takes place on 13 May and will be staged simultaneously in 24 cities across the continent. The event is run by the EU’s cultural network, EUNIC (the European National Institutes of Culture), with the Czech Centre – the institution for Czech cultural diplomacy – as the lead organisation.
At the helm the event in London is Tereza Porybna, the Director of the Czech Centre. “The Czech Centre, since its establishment in 1993, has always had this strong idea of cooperation and partnership and reaching out. With a small, niche culture and language such as ours you need to work with partners to put the Czech culture on the map and widen the audience,” she explains.
Porybna also happens to be the current President of EUNIC’s London chapter. Collaboration is central to the philosophy of EUNIC too, she adds. “I am a firm believer in the potential of EUNIC because it makes sense to share resources and ideas.”
Formed in 2006, EUNIC has its global offices in Brussels with 33 members from 27 countries. To date there are 94 networks or ‘cultural clusters’ in Member States as well as third countries which, with the help of local partners, arrange a range of conferences, festivals and debates.
For London’s ELN, cultural institutes and attachés bring the pick of European literature to a UK audience, working with partners such as the British Library, the Free Word Centre and the production company Speaking Volumes. The programme is curated by a professional UK-based jury which selects the works to be showcased.
The marquee event traditionally involves a discussion, chaired by acclaimed BBC arts broadcaster Rosie Goldsmith, with the featured writers whose work has been translated. “The philosophy of the main event is to bring the author in conversation with journalists and a big audience and to bring the book to a wider readership,” says Porybna.
Always seeking ways to innovate, EUNIC has introduced a ‘Genre’ event to the line-up. Last year audiences discovered the world of graphic novels with expert Paul Gravett and this year the theme will be ‘In Spoken Word’ which will include a mix of performance poetry, song and stand-up comedy.
The programme has also been extended over two months in venues outside the British Library to find new audiences. A ‘Translation Pitch’ (held at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon) will feature eight works from emerging talent that have not yet been translated which will be ‘pitched’ to an audience and panel of experts.
Reaching out beyond Europe, EUNIC will also host an event at Waterstones Piccadilly focusing on the writing of three writers in exile from Iraq, Eritrea and Uzbekistan.
European Literature Night is one of EUNIC’s major annual projects, but the organisation does much more, Porybna points out.
As a professional network for European culture, EUNIC is a platform to share resources and practical advice. “Cultural attachés can reach out to us and then we can put them in touch with the right people from the right institutions,” explains Porybna.
EUNIC also offers opportunities for training, such as the recent seminar it hosted on how to use social media effectively in cultural diplomacy in the UK context.
“It was a very popular event, attracting a lot of new, younger people from the missions,” says Porybna, who hopes to host more seminars on topics such as project management or campaign building.
EUNIC, often with the support of the EU Commission Office in the UK, also arranges field trips to cultural organisations. At a recent visit to the Whitechapel Gallery, members were introduced to the gallery’s director Iwona Blazwick, the chair of the London Cultural Strategy Group who has been described as “the most important woman in British art”.
Although the focus tends to be on London, says Porybna, EUNIC also visits and supports projects beyond the M25 – from the Durham Festival of Lights, to the Sheffield Doc/Fest (an international documentary festival) where members got to meet the festival organisers and expand their contacts books.
During her term as EUNIC President Porybna is eager to start to build on collaborations with other regions, from Africa to Latin America and Asia.
“London is a great city because it has so many cultures and it draws in so much creative energy – but as the cultural hub of the world it’s a double-edged sword. Any project we do would have to be really good to have impact,” she says. “And the only way to achieve that is to work together.”
Tereza Porybna welcomes graphic novel expert Paul Gravett to the stage