Since 2004, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been designating the “City of Literature” title to key literary cities around the world as part of its Creative Cities Network, which was launched in the same year by the UNESCO’s Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity Initiative. It is just one of many categories which include crafts, design, film, folk arts, gastronomy, media and music as part of the organization’s aim of fostering global cultural diversity through the concept of encouraging “Creative Cities” to spur the economic potential of small enterprises in their respective creative sectors.
Major cities have their unique rosters of literary greats that locals often pride of, books and writers that have left their mark in history by awakening their country’s socio-cultural consciousness. These are often cities with a long tradition of publishing and reading, an environment where people actively celebrate cultural conventions and festivals associated to literature. Some have served as leading pillars of the book publishing industry in their respective countries for centuries, vibrant enough to inspire many young writers to make it big in the discipline and contribute to their country’s literary development. The City of Literature program encourages global literary creativity to flourish across major urban centres involving government and community support to help preserve awareness of the written and spoken word.
To date, some twenty (20) cities have been granted the designation upon thorough compliance of demonstrating their capability to sustain such a title. Sixteen (16) of these are found in Europe, one (1) each in the Middle East and the Americas while two (2) are located in the Asia-Pacific rim:
- Edinburgh, Scotland(2004)
- Melbourne, Victoria, Australia(2008)
- Iowa City, Iowa, United States(2008)
- Dublin, Ireland(2010)
- Reykjavík, Iceland(2011)
- Norwich, England(2012)
- Kraków, Poland(2013)
- Heidelberg, Germany(2014)
- Dunedin, New Zealand(2014)
- Granada, Spain(2014)
- Prague, Czech Republic(2014)
- Baghdad, Iraq(2015)
- Barcelona, Spain(2015)
- Ljubljana, Slovenia(2015)
- Lviv, Ukraine(2015)
- Montevideo, Uruguay(2015)
- Nottingham, England(2015)
- Óbidos, Portugal(2015)
- Tartu, Estonia(2015)
- Ulyanovsk, Russia(2015)
What is it like to live in a city characterized by literature? When I moved to Dublin to pursue university studies in 2010, it was also declared UNESCO’s 4th City of Literature in the same year. The city of Dublin, as James Joyce described it, is an urban jungle small enough to pass as a town and big enough to qualify as a European capital. It is Ireland’s primate city characterized by its colonial past through its well-preserved Georgian architectural gems encircled by small and narrow roads in its urban centre. Many often contend that literature is deeply embedded in Dublin’s identity as many people around the world have first known about Dublin or Ireland through literature. The city itself has produced four laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature, namely William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney for poetry, George Bernard Shaw for drama, and the multi-disciplinary writer Samuel Beckett. Beyond these personalities are other well-known writers like Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), James Joyce (Dubliners), Bram Stoker (Dracula), and Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) among others who have captivated the minds or readers around the world. Many of the city’s streets, bridges, buildings, academic institutions and foundations have been named after these literary figures with historical landmarks dedicated to them and some of their writings. The city also boasts its own Writer’s Museum, a vast network of public libraries and active literary clubs. Dublin City Council has been hosting the IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award annually since 1995 with coveted prize of €100,000.00 (the largest cash prize for a single work of fiction in English) and has attracted writers from all over the world to live in this city.
Qualifying for this title is not easy for any applicant city as it requires a lot of long-term planning and multi-sectoral commitment not to mention the financial expenses that come along with it:
- Quality, quantity and diversity of publishing in the city
- Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature at primary, secondary and tertiary levels
- Literature, drama and/or poetry playing an important role in the city
- Hosting literary events and festivals which promote domestic and foreign literature;
- Existence of libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres which preserve, promote and disseminate domestic and foreign literature
- Involvement by the publishing sector in translating literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature
- Active involvement of traditional and new media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.
This naturally leaves us with the question, which among our cities are actually capable of vying for such a title? Are Philippine cities able to provide cultural infrastructure and pool resources in the advent of a UNESCO City of Literature assessment? Do they have fully equipped private and public libraries, noteworthy publishing houses, government-sponsored book festivals and conventions, academic institutions that offer creative writing courses and workshops, resident award-winning writers and historical landmarks of literary significance? How much do our city governments a lot to support cultural initiatives such as local literature promotion and artist residencies?
How globalized is the Philippine publishing industry? How often do local publications get translated into foreign languages? Do locals also get to read foreign literature in their native language? Is our country’s publishing prowess diversified enough to cater the needs of our multilingual readers? We also need to assess how the teaching of literature in both private and public institutions at all levels is influencing the way our population perceives the importance of literature to society, if our national and public libraries are inclusive enough to cater both local and foreign literature for everybody’s convenience. Or do we live in a country of literary exclusivity where the written word is only accessible to a small intellectual elite?
Do places like Cebu, Iloilo, Baguio or Davao even stand a chance? For now, the only city that could possibly vie and work hard to attain such a title is Manila. But even the capital itself with its lacking cultural infrastructure and meagre state-led funding still has a lot of work to do before attaining such status. It even pales in contrast to other Southeast Asian capitals like Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur or even Hanoi in terms of literary translation and internationalisation alone.
At first, one would think the criteria for assessment could be unfair and are deemed to have double standards since most cities that have so far qualified are situated in western, developed and highly industrialized countries capable of sustaining a vibrant publishing culture and literary market. Are the assessment standards too high for a developing country to achieve? Are financial constraints a valid excuse? The answer is no. If a decade-long war-torn city like Baghdad and a financial crisis-struck city like Dublin were both able to pull their limited resources together in times of great need just to get a UNESCO nod then there would be no reason why a Philippine city would not be able to strive and achieve the same. The quest of an ideal Philippine city fit enough to be granted the prestigious City of Literature status from has come in the form of City X, a city that is not yet physically existent, one still in the making, a dream lingering in the thoughts of literary and cultural advocates in the country waiting to be realized.
This dilemma gives us the opportunity to evaluate the state of our public resources, availability of public funds for cultural causes, our national commitment to literature, the book publishing industry and our ability to sustain them for future generations. The biggest challenge ahead of us in the cultural sector is how to make literature a way of life for every Filipino be it in English, the national language or in any of the regional and indigenous languages spoken throughout the country.
We are vying in vain for that illusive City X to emerge from the shadows in the not so distant future, to be able to submit its application and qualify for the very first Philippine UNESCO City of Literature.