The Changing Faces of Literary Life in Wroclaw

Katarzyna Janusik and Irek Grin[1]

Katarzyna Janusik—editor, translator of fiction and non-fiction, manager of culture. Between 2014 and 2016, she coordinated the literary team of the European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016 and UNESCO World Book Capital Wroclaw 2016, and now she is the head of the programme team at Wroclaw Literature House.

Irek Grin—writer, publisher, and manager of culture. Curator of the literature programme of the European Capital of Culture and UNESCO World Book Capital Wroclaw 2016. Publisher at the EMG Publishing House. Founder and head of Bruno Schulz. Festival and International Crime and Mystery Festival. Director of Wroclaw Literature House.

In recent years, a significant change in the richness and diversity of literary life in Wroclaw can be observed. This is a direct result of the implementation of the programmes of the European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016 and UNESCO World Book Capital Wroclaw 2016. This change is visible both on the level of infrastructure and governing finance, as well as in individual long-term projects. For the purpose of this article, several key initiatives from both areas mentioned above are presented. They include new institutions responsible for implementing the literary policy of the city, a private–public funding initiative helping publishers, and some unique publishing and festival projects whose effects permanently changed the literary image of Wroclaw. Altogether, they show the diversity of tools used in Wroclaw to promote literature in the city, and—even more importantly—the number of various groups and communities encompassed by them.

Wroclaw Literature House is a cultural organization devoted to literature and readership promotion (Figure 1). It is the place where writers, readers, publishers, and other people connected with literature come together. The institution publishes books (non-commercial poetry, prose, essays, especially presenting the literary heritage of the region), organizes meetings with authors, debates, workshops, panel discussions, and literary festivals (including the Silesius International Poetry Festival), and Wroclaw Good Books Fair (the third biggest event of this type in Poland). It is also the organizer (since 2018) of the two biggest literary awards founded by the city. The Literature House cooperates in the area of literature on the national and international level and is also the operator of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) in Wroclaw. The institution was established in 2016 as part of the city’s strategy of sustainable development through literature, and also in response to the need voiced by local literary circles for integrating readers, writers, academics, and professionals for a hub integrating and networking various literary activities in the city and the region.

Figure 1. Club Proza at the Wroclaw Literature House. Credit: Rafał Komorowski/Miesiąc Spotkań Autorskich.

An innovative space for education through culture, Pan Tadeusz Museum is a venue unique in the scale of Europe, a literary museum located on the very Main Square of Wroclaw (Figure 2). The idea for the museum is to organize and develop cultural, research, and educational activities around the topic of the most valuable exhibit presented there, namely the manuscript of the Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Apart from the permanent multimedia exhibition presenting Pan Tadeusz in the historical and artistic context, from the beginning of romanticism to the end of the twentieth century, the museum organizes temporary exhibitions and provides spaces for workshops and other activities. It also develops cooperation with other museums and libraries, especially from Lviv, to present in Wroclaw previously unavailable mementoes of Polish literary heritage. The grand opening of the venue was organized in April 2016, as part of the opening ceremonies of UNESCO World Book Capital Wroclaw 2016.

Figure 2. Pan Tadeusz Museum on the Main Square in Wroclaw. Credit: Max Pflegel/Wroclaw Literature House.

Wroclaw Publishing Programme is a unique system supporting the publication of high-quality non-commercial books and magazines. Many valuable publications related to a given region cannot be published due to insufficient financial resources. The programme supports books promoting the city and the region: literary works, guides, picture albums, and historical essays, as well as high-quality literary magazines. The premises are based on regional film funds: books are published in the form of co-editions between the city and publishers—as a result, in the years 2016–2018, 48 books and 34 issues of magazines were published and distributed.

An example of a long-term project resulting from the ECoC and UNESCO WBC Wroclaw 2016 is the publication of The Canon. Rhyming Polish Fairy Tales in the Languages of Minorities, presenting a selection of Polish literature for the youngest in bilingual editions. The idea behind the project was to use the best classic and contemporary poetry for children as a tool for ethnic minorities to get acquainted with Polish culture in their own languages and to introduce children to the concept of translations. The books were published in 2016 in ten language versions (including Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, Belarusian, German, Russian, and Romany), and they are used in various cultural projects until today, both in Poland and for example Germany and Lithuania. Another important publication project was implemented in 2017, namely “100,000 Books for Guinea,” together with UNESCO, Sharjah, Wroclaw partner cities Lille and Mons, and embassies of various countries—as a result of a fundraising initiative 100,000 certified textbooks in French were printed and shipped to Guinea to fight illiteracy in this country, where 59% of the population cannot read and write.

Another important long-term project is the Silesius International Poetry Festival accompanying the Wroclaw Silesius Poetry Award, one of the most prestigious in Poland. Organized for the first time in 2016, it then invited to Wroclaw the biggest Polish poetry festivals, including Poet’s Poznań, City of Poetry from Lublin, and International Milosz Festival from Kraków. All the festivals presented their own characteristic original programmes, to show the richness of the poetic world and various ways of experiencing it. Since then, Silesius Festival has been organized every year, becoming one of the most important poetry festivals in Poland and still maintaining intense cooperation and exchange with other events of that type.

Many more examples of changes in the literary life in Wroclaw could be presented here, but what seems even more important is that as a natural consequence of the literary development of the city, new plans are created and implemented, aimed mainly at involving more groups and stakeholders in literary activities, strengthening the city’s development through culture and answering the changing realities of the contemporary world. One such plan is the initiation of a senior volunteering programme focusing on professionally inactive persons 60+. Thanks to a series of workshops, courses, and participation in literary and other cultural events in the city, following results will be obtained: activation and education of seniors, intergenerational exchange, as they will closely cooperate with young volunteers, and counteracting their cultural exclusion.

Another plan focuses on independent booksellers working in the city. To create new opportunities and help this vulnerable industry, which faces financial challenges, competes with huge chains and internet bookshops, the city will initiate a project “Bookshops Everywhere” enhancing the visibility of bookshops in the city. Over the course of four years, the city plans to introduce the sale of books to all big cultural festivals—not only literary, and then to other public events, e.g. city-wide and community picnics. The starting point will be a free stand at Wroclaw Good Books Fair 2019 presenting the new association of local independent bookshops, inspired by the city.

Yet another group the city plans to involve more in the literary life of the city, are new residents from other countries and cultures whose arrival obviously enriches the city, but can also pose challenges related to cultural and linguistic barriers. The idea is to creatively use the multicultural heritage of Wroclaw and to ensure equal access to cultural goods and counteract xenophobia. The city will initiate a four-year project of lectures on Polish literature (eight semesters, in English and Ukrainian) addressed to various groups of foreigners: children and youth, professionally inactive women, and people with disabilities. The goal is to intensify intercultural exchange through education on how Polish literature was shaped by other literature, and how it influenced them, to improve migrants’ chances on the job market, and help them better develop relationships with other residents and celebrate cultural diversity.

The variety of initiatives presented above, as well as the new projects planned by the city, proves that big programmes such as the European Capital of Culture or UNESCO World Book Capital can be much more than just a year-long celebration, but can become an impulse for further development. In the case of Wroclaw, literary life is constantly expanding and diversifying, and more and more groups are invited to participate in it. And this development is not limited to the city itself—Wroclaw is now ready to become a leader in literary projects encompassing not only the region of Lower Silesia, but also neighbouring regions and countries.

Figure 3. The building of the University Library in Wroclaw. Credit: Max Pflegel/Wroclaw Literature House.
Figure 4. The National Ossoliński Institute, the oldest publishing house in Poland. Credit: Max Pflegel/Wroclaw Literature House.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.12


[1] The projects presented in the text, as well as the entire literary programme of the European Capital of Culture (ECoC) and UNESCO World Book Capital Wroclaw 2016, were developed and implemented by a team led by Irek Grin.


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