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Opening speech LitFestBergen 2019

Eivind Senneset

Good evening. The man you just met, was the Norwegian poet and priest Petter Dass, in the persona of Oddvar Kleppa.

I am Teresa Grøtan, the director of Bergen international literary festival.

I want to greet you like Petter Dass did 300 years ago: Welcome everyone. Welcome absolutely everyone.

In his great epic, the Trumpet of Nordland, Petter Dass writes about ordinary people, the fisherhusband and his farmerwife, living along Norway’s Northern coast.

At a time when European literary taste buds had other preferences, Petter Dass spread his poetic powder over snow-capped mountains, fjords, fish, islands and oceans, over the same black endless winter nights that I wandered under as a child.

In this epic, there is no division between topography and belief, between Petter Dass himself and the object he studies. There is no opposition between fiction and non-fiction.

In many ways, the Trumpet of Nordland captures the essence of this festival.

We ask: What role does nature, religion, ethnicity or violence play in shaping who we are, in defining our identities?  

This is a festival where politics meets poetry, where society meets art, and where art meets the world.

The Bergen International Literary Festival for Non-Fiction and Fiction is an overarching event where novelists, scientists, poets, journalists and critics come together to discuss the role of literature in today’s world.

It is a festival for specific topics with a broad appeal.

It is a festival for literature which writes itself into the core of what it means to be human.

I Write What I Like is the title of a book by anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, published after he was murdered by the South African police in 1976. In it, he writes: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

That sentence explains why freedom of expression is not a relative concept.

But I like the book’s title – I Write What I Like – even more than this quotation. If I read it in its historical context, it is about daring to fight oppression and terror. As a reader, however, I am a sovereign interpreter and claim the right to read literature so that it becomes right for me, in the here and now.

How I admire this defiant faith in oneself.

How many of us have a room of our own to write what we like?

Around the world, who are free from pressure exerted by the authorities?

Who succeeds in freeing themselves from publishers’ influence, family demands, critics’ expectations?

And, not least, who succeeds in freeing themselves from themselves?

Today is a historic day in world literature. It is 30 years ago that Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa on the author Salman Rushdie. But yet, February 14 it is also Valentine’s day, a day for the celebration of love.

LitFestBergen is not a place where we seek consensus. It is not a festival where we are looking for one answer.

Let us write what we like. Let us read what we want.

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