international literary network


In 2008, Het beschrijf joined the HALMA network, which was set up in 2006 by the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin with the support of the Bosch Foundation and the Polish Pogranicze foundation. Currently, HALMA brings together 27 European literary centres in order to create forms of cooperation in which intercultural dialogue and exchange between different regions is of central importance. Within a framework of cooperations, events, and scholarships, Halma creates a forum for transnational encounter.


forging connections

by Sigrid Bousset, director of Het beschrijf

The European literary scene has changed radically over the last decade. The book market has become much more commercialised and all parts of Europe have seen an increase in the numbers of literary promoters, who in turn have become increasingly professional in their approaches. Literature houses, residency centres, literary agencies and festivals provide structures which focus in various ways on the relationship of literature to the reader and the relationship of the author to the public and to other authors and translators.

The availability of literary grants has spread across Europe, helping to support authors and their writing. In many countries, writers and translators are assisted during the creative process, translation guidelines have been developed in order to promote literature across borders, and efforts have been made to publish literary works both at home and abroad.

In every corner of Europe, literary festivals, writers-in-residence schemes, literature houses and literary events are springing up like mushrooms. They attest to the evergrowing interest in cultural and literary exchanges at an international level. International literary mediators are increasingly using book fairs and festivals to cross the barrier of their own language and make contacts, forge agreements, arrange exchanges and discuss joint programmes.

In 2004 the Brussels literary organisation Het Beschrijf set up the Passa Porta International Literature Centre and embarked on an ambitious residency programme for international authors. Passa Porta's mission in Brussels, the capital of Europe, is to open doors between different languages, literatures and cultures. With the hybrid, polyglot, internationally-oriented city of Brussels acting as a biotope and working sphere, we soon felt the need to make contact with other literature houses abroad. We had already started some discussions when, via the Literary Colloquium Berlin, we heard about the new HALMA project, which is building a network of European literature institutions to help link the European cultural and literary scenes. Conceived as a platform for exchanges between European writers, translators and literary promoters, it seemed to have become principally anchored in Eastern Europe.

We thought it was important to expand this excellent project into Western and Southern Europe, to turn it into a pan-European exchange for information, ideas, authors and translators.

My first meeting with members of the HALMA network took place in spring 2007 in the small Serbian town of Sremski Karlovci. I spent three days with representatives of large and small literature centres from places which were quite new to me: Russe, Novo Mesto, the island of Sylt, Krakow and Cetate on the Danube. I listened in as the writer Laszlo Vegal bemoaned the disappearance of multi-lingualism and multi-culturalism in Novi Sad; I visited a publisher of topnotch international literature in both Cyrillic and Roman text; and I learned more about the problem of identity in ex-Yugoslavian literature. I listened as HALMA president Krzysztof Czyzewski shared his years of experience and talked of his Borderland House on the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. And I learned from other colleagues who, despite difficult circumstances, all share a common goal: to work on a daily basis towards bringing together literature from all over Europe, towards developing a kind of European citizenship which is nourished by European writing and narrative.

From this day on I never missed another meeting. I was gripped by what we call the "HALMA spirit." The HALMA network has expanded and attracted new partners, mainly from Western Europe, and it has taken on a more concrete form: 26 literature centres meet twice a year to implement joint initiatives. The process itself is almost as important as the product. We are developing a willingness to listen, we uncover similarities and differences in our working methods and approaches, and in the cultural and political integration of our projects. Above all, we have an insatiable appetite for new literature and for finding a reciprocal way of working together that transcends borders.

The concrete basis for the co-operation between the various authors and literature houses is a writers-in-residence programme which promotes mobility among contemporary authors and opens up possibilities for the translation of their work. All too often, writers find themselves limited to their own language area and have few opportunities to broaden their horizons, gain fresh momentum through a change of surroundings or stimulate their creative processes by having contact with another language, literature and culture. This residency programme is set to expand in 2010: thanks to a European grant, HALMA can offer more than 20 writers a HAL MA scholarship. Each HALMA house nominates an author who has the chance to spend one month in each of two HALMA houses in two different countries. These HAL MA houses act as both hosts and intermediaries: they establish contacts between the writers and the local literary scene and between the writers and the public. They also initiate collaboration with translators and open the door to potential publishers.

A creative catalyst

We have seen time and again that residency programmes act as a catalyst for writers' creativity. The writers often return home with a quantity of material that exceeds their wildest expectations. They bring with them impressions of their time abroad and offer a peek into their inner world: what it's like to write when far from home and their feelings of isolation, combined with the excitement of discovering new things. This also means exploring, roaming around, unashamedly uncovering the secrets of a new place, revising one's prejudices or seeing them confirmed.

Many authors travel and write in a foreign location in order to rediscover something which has been lost. And the local literary and cultural scene is greatly enriched by the intellectual and artistic potential of the foreign authors in their midst. As a ‘payment' to their hosts, the resident authors often act as unofficial promoters.

They read the literature of their host country and then use this knowledge when they return home to help set up contacts with literary mediators such as literary podiums, magazines and publishers.

In April 2009 the translator's house in the Hungarian town of Balatonfüred hosted the HALMA meeting under the banner of "Translating Europe." In September 2009 the HALMA partners met in Novo Mesto in Slovenia to debate the question, "What's new in Europe?" In Hungary the focus was on providing selected HALMA authors with the best possible opportunities for the translation and publication of their literary works. As a result, HALMA travel scholarships will also be offered to translators in the future. Over time, HALMA aims to create a truly multilingual HALMA library under the slogan "What's new in European literature?"

It goes without saying that the works selected for this library will be different from those which are largely offered to the European reading public by the market-oriented world of publishing. The HALMA network is not looking to follow market trends, rather it seeks to offer an alternative in a European literary sphere where decisions about the translation of literature are all too often made by literary agents and publishers who are more interested in the bottom line, commercial prize nominations and ease of consumption than in innovation, literary boldness and high quality.

HALMA seeks to focus on the work of writers who have been encouraged to move around Europe and who have taken the opportunity to cross their own linguistic and cultural borders. It is interested in authors who have thought about what it means to be a writer in Europe and who reflect this in their work.

HALMA facilitates movement across borders through its programme of scholarships for writers and translators and its promotion of these authors through events and translations. This transnational movement creates new opportunities for European literature.

Thanks to HALMA, there is now a structure which enables this kind of transnational co-operation. With the consistent support of the Robert Bosch Foundation, the partners are able to meet twice a year and learn more about each other's limitations and possibilities. This solid structure provides a framework for the creation and development of new initiatives.

We are working towards a future where it is quite normal for European authors to be part of a wider international context, where they can have a presence in both large and small language areas, in both existing and new international literary forums. This brings us to the core mission of all the houses in the HALMA network: opening doors between languages, literatures and cultures.

Translation: Gill McKay



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