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#MeetThePartners : Mediart International (Croatia)

In this article we take a closer look at how Mediart International approaches diversity and inclusion within its organization, and at its partnership with Every Story Matters (ESM).

Mediart International Association is actively involved in the fields of culture, art, international cooperation, science and education. Since its founding in 2014 it has successfully organized several international literary events, including eight editions of the Zagreb Book Festival and nine editions of Europea in the Backyard. Mediart has also organized Little Letters, the main objective of which is to generate positive experiences with literature for children, thereby creating both readers of tomorrow and members of a more progressive society.

Zagreb Book Festival

The Zagreb Book Festival (ZBF) is an annual literary and cultural event in the capital of Croatia. One of its goals is to empower all stakeholders in the literary field, from the authors themselves, through publishers and translators, to readers. In addition to its literary programme, the festival has become known for its well-attended panel discussions dealing with current social issues, and for lectures by esteemed domestic and foreign intellectuals, scientists and professors. A significant part of the project is dedicated to children’s literature, with the aim of including the youngest members of society in the reading community as early as possible.

In 2021, the main focus of the festival was diversity and inclusion. Under the heading I want your story, ZBF tried to highlight the importance of inclusive literature and offer tools and strategies on how to achieve it.

This year’s edition was called Apocalypse today: or about the relationship between nature and society. With the motto If not now, when? If not us, who?, The Festival returned to tackling one of today’s biggest problems: climate change.

In both 2021 and 2022, Every Story Matters was one of the projects hosted by the festival. The audience had a chance to talk to one of ESM’s ambassadors, Moroccan-born Flemish author Rachida Lamrabet. Rachida writes about identity, migration and suffering in a world characterized by division. Six young artists, writers and illustrators presented their inclusive stories, created as a part of ESM’s talent development programme. ESM was also in charge of a round table discussion about raising awareness of the diversity among us, especially through the education system.

You can find a detailed description of ESM’s programme at the Zagreb Book Festival here.

We asked Petra Ljevak, director of the Zagreb Book Festival, and Valentin Kikić, PR and marketing manager, for more insight into the workings of the organization and the latest edition of the festival.

Is diversity a hot topic in Croatia?

‘Unfortunately not, or at least not as hot as in many other European countries. Croatian society is ethnically and culturally very homogeneous, so many aspects of diversity don’t seem to awaken much interest. Gender equality and sexual orientation are discussed fairly often, ethnic and cultural diversity rather less. In new Croatian literature, however, diversity is showing up more frequently. This trend has become quite dominant in the past couple of years, both in Croatian literature and in translations. Again, sexual orientation is a dominant aspect of diversity in such books.’

Why did you find it important to make diversity the central theme in 2021?

‘Literature exposes stereotypes and helps us to identify with others. It creates a space where we don’t feel threatened and where we can replace stereotypes with literary heroes. Literature can reshape our understanding of ourselves and the world, thereby changing our social behaviour and increasing our self-awareness. Literature frames human experience and historical events, and makes people more empathetic and open to new experiences. This view of literature is ingrained in all of our programmes. Because of our partnership with Every Story Matters, it felt only natural to make it a central premise in 2021. The 2021 Zagreb Book Festival was the first literary festival focused specifically on diversity, its meaning, its necessity and its future.’

What was it like to organize the ZBF and what were the obstacles?

‘The biggest challenge when organizing a book festival, especially one that puts literature in the context of current social questions, is finding a balance between arousing the audience’s interest and talking about complex issues. We try to achieve this balance by selecting our participants carefully. We make sure our guests have already earned the audience’s trust through their public activities and work. We always pay special attention to the central theme of the festival: its social relevance, its importance and its appeal to a literary audience. Since a lot of aspects of diversity are not reflected in Croatian society, it was at times an overwhelming task, both tackling the theme and creating interest in it. But this only made the final results all the more rewarding.’

Which of the festival’s projects have been most successful?

‘Panel discussions have become a unique aspect of our festival, and they’re what we are mostly known for. They’re characterized by a multidisciplinary approach, with participants coming from different fields, such as literature, science and non-fiction.’

What have you learned from the roundtable discussions during the ZBF?

‘Every year, with every round table, we learn something new. One thing we have learned, which has become a constant, is that a deeper understanding of the world comes from listening to opposing and diverse perspectives.’

How has the audience grown or changed since the first edition of the ZBF?

‘The most drastic change can be attributed to the pandemic. Everybody was forced to move online and it seems that not everyone came back to physical events after the restrictions were lifted. Unfortunately, the pandemic probably isn’t the only reason for this change. The internet drives demand to more obscure niche offerings and we can see the same happening in the book world. The audience for books exists, but it’s very divided, with many specific interests and tastes, making it very difficult to reach in large numbers. The Zagreb Book Festival’s audience, though still fairly stable, is changing. We will have to change some aspects of the festival accordingly.’

What are your plans for future festivals?

‘We live in challenging times and some aspects of the festival will have to change. We plan to keep the basic concept and focus our programme on quality, diversity and current affairs.’

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