“We have as much to teach as we have to learn”: Sylvia Arthur reflects on her research trip in Switzerland
In April 2022, I travelled to Switzerland with a keen sense of purpose and an open mind eager to learn how to better my organisation’s practice. If I’m honest, it seemed odd to be travelling to a European country renowned for its wealth to learn how to run my African library sustainably. After all, how much could the literary scene of an affluent, educated, Central European nation have in common with that of my own?
My organisation, the Library Of Africa and The African Diaspora (LOATAD), is a decolonised library, archive, research institute, and writing residency based in the Ghanaian capital, Accra. Since our founding in 2017, we’ve run a comprehensive events programme encompassing live literature, live music, film screenings, and theatre, and do both outreach and in-reach to appeal to new and diverse audiences. Because of the scope of our work, it was important for me to connect with individuals and organisations experienced in running similarly multifaceted institutions, and the research trip allowed me to explore the various aspects of our work through their own and gain insights into how to make LOATAD more sustainable.
Before making the journey from Accra to Zürich, I had planned my meetings meticulously thanks to the knowledgeable assistance of Adrian Flückiger from the Pro Helvetia literature team, who provided me with great advice and contacts within the Swiss literary space.
My first stop was Literaturhaus Zürich, a library, reading room, and event space which held a unique place in my mind as an esteemed institution with a long history of promoting literature. Like LOATAD, Literaturhaus Zürich is a private library and I was interested in finding out how their membership model and full events programme brought in enough revenue to sustain them. I was warmly received by Dr Gesa Schneider who, in her office overlooking the river Limmat, told me about Literaturhaus Zürich’s structure within a wider literary organisation, which helps to fund their activities in addition to a combination of public and private support.
At Litar, I met with Dr Christa Baumberger and Nicole Schmid and was struck by the parallels between their work and that of LOATAD. I was amazed at the scale of the archiving work their small team is undertaking and the efforts they’re making to draw the public into the rarefied space between archives and literature. As custodians of the Al Imfeld Collection, Litar is cataloguing and digitising the Swiss literary collector’s archive of newspaper clippings, manuscripts, books, and correspondence with African writers, and working in conjunction with Strauhof to bring his archives to public view.
In fact, Strauhof, which I had been anxious to see since I learned of its existence while doing my research in Ghana, lived up to expectations and was a literature lover’s dream. The idea of a museum dedicated to the exhibition of literature fascinated me, and I was excited to discover how the team, led by Remi Jaccard and Philip Sippel, transform the written word into bold visual forms in innovative and compelling ways.
Two of the highlights of my trip were unplanned. Translation House Looren, a residency for literary translators in a village called Hinwil about a 30-minute train ride outside of Zürich, proved to be exactly what I was looking for in terms of inspiration and a model of what we are aspiring to in terms of location, structure, and sustainability. The hours spent there included a tour of the facilities, a study of the library and a lovely lunch with the director, Gabriela Stöckli and her team, where we discussed the importance of translation in a multilingual world.
Similarly, a rainy morning at Basler Afrika Bibliographien, a centre of documentation and expertise on Namibia and southern Africa located in Basel, consisting of an archive, a specialist library and a publishing house, was deeply insightful, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity of time and knowledge the team there provided me with.
With all these conversations, though, I soon began to realise that, despite the obvious differences in wealth, education, history, and state funding for the arts, literary organisations in Switzerland and Ghana share a similar problem: attracting and retaining audiences of all backgrounds.
The idea that literature is something for everyone is a myth that literature lovers and those who run literary institutions hold dear. We like to think that if only someone found the right author/book/genre they would be a convert to daily bookstore scavenges, weekly author events, and annual literary festivals. But I learned that in Switzerland, as in Ghana, the struggle to get audiences through the door in a sustained and substantial way is real. Whereby I expected there to be waiting lists for readings and queues going out of the door for talks, it seems the struggle to attract audiences is one that plagues us all. One cultural practitioner from the academic sphere told me that even getting her former literature students to come to literary events was a challenge.
The reason for this indifference is, perhaps, where the main divergence between the two countries occurs. Whereas in Africa, illiteracy and lack of access to books, especially contemporary, culturally-relevant books, is a problem, in Switzerland, it is perhaps the abundance of shinier alternatives that makes literature look comparatively banal because literature doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. Painful to admit it though it is, literature is not for everyone, and that’s ok.
Accepting this fact is hard, but it’s also liberating. That our audiences are smaller is not necessarily a bad thing but one that requires fresh thinking and approaches. The challenge now is: How best do we cultivate audiences that we already have while developing new formats, new modes of presentation, new ways of engagement? The literature ecosystem is small, but how do we broaden our bases?
Yet there is another problem facing these institutions, one intimately linked with the first – the perception among some groups that spaces like the ones I patronised were not for people like me. Race, class, and age were key factors in excluding potential audiences from engaging with many literary venues, along with the belief that the literature they showcased was not representative of what Switzerland is today.
I, like many hyphenated people, approach literature from the splintered perspective of multiple identities. When I think of books and writers, I think not just of the Western canon, but of literature by writers from across the entirety of the world. Our history dictates that we take a global view.
And it is in these ways that I think that literary institutions in Europe can learn from us here in Africa. In addition, since we operate from almost a literary ground zero, we are forced to be creative to attract audiences and to do a lot more with a lot less.
Before my trip to Switzerland, my hope was that it would mark the beginning of a relationship of mutual learning, support, and exchange between Swiss literary institutions and LOATAD. Much of that goal was achieved, if not exceeded.
But if there’s one major takeaway from my month in Zürich it is that learning should be a two-way affair and we cultural practitioners in Africa have as much to teach as we have to learn.
[All photos by Sylvia Arthur]