Sweden’s First International City of Literature
by Ulla Forsén
translated by Linda Schenck
The city of Gothenburg is now committed to promoting literature and reading on an active, long-term basis, having applied for and been designated a member of the UNESCO network of Cities of Literature. In this article, originally published in Swedish in Kulturtidningen Zenit, Ulla Forsén takes a closer look at the extensive, trans-institutional efforts that helped to secure this status, and what will be needed to ensure the city continues to live up to its new designation.
Why are people not shouting from the rooftops of Gothenburg that we are the only Swedish city to be a member of the UNESCO network of currently 42 cities in 32 countries? Surely this should be a matter of great pride? And isn’t it?
The announcement was made on 8 November 2021, and in March 2022 it was followed by a relatively modest celebration, including a literature policy summit for specially invited guests and a public information evening at the Museum of World Culture. Since then there has been very little visibility. Not many people outside the literary establishment are aware of the appointment, and even fewer of its implications.
The idea of submitting an application for membership of the UNESCO network was hatched by the then-chair of Writers’ Centre West (“Författarcentrum Väst”), Kristin Bjarnadóttir, back in 2016. Discussions and networking with other local institutions, including the Bok & bibliotek Book Fair, Litteraturhuset and various politicians and representatives of the region, the university, Swedish PEN and others followed.
‘Everyone had a positive impression,’ said Siri Reutersvärd at Writers’ Center West. ‘It could be a way of raising the status of literature, and possibly also of putting some pressure on decision-makers.’
The way forward was not without its twists and turns, however. The Social Democratic members of the local government voted against applying, claiming that the project was too elitist and would drain resources from the important ongoing grassroots efforts to promote reading. The Sweden Democrats and the Democrats (a local Western Swedish party) also voted against. Ultimately, on 25 May 2021, the local council voted in favor of submitting the application, giving responsibility to the local Arts Board for the commitments on the part of the city, should the application be approved.
The application process was time-consuming and demanding. According to Siri Reuterstrand, who represents Writers’ Centre West in the Gothenburg UNESCO City of Literature cooperation group of the main partners, the first step was to produce a survey of the full expanse of literary endeavors ongoing in Gothenburg and the Västra Götaland region. The results were eye-opening for everyone concerned. So many activities and institutions were already in place, and new opportunities for collaboration were opening up. Since that time, layers of detail have been added to the survey, and it has been updated. It is expected to be made available digitally to the general public on the first anniversary of Gothenburg as a city of literature. And it will naturally be updated regularly, as the territory is in continual change.
Linda Johannesson, principal coordinator for Gothenburg City of Literature, presented the survey at the 2022 Gothenburg Book Fair along with Ylva Gustafsson, representing the Västra Götaland Region, and Lena Ulrike Rudeke from Gothenburg University. These are the three main pillars responsible for financing the office of the City of Literature. The survey is primarily a mapping of the various actors (over 500!) and activities to be found in the Gothenburg region.
‘When we started, we barely knew a fraction of all this,’ said Ylva Gustafsson. We’ve dug very deeply.’
‘Yes, and we now have a map by which to get our bearings, as well as a tool for adventurers,’ Lena Ulrike Rudeke added.
I managed to obtain a brief interview with Linda Johannesson and asked her what impact this new designation has had on Gothenburg. ‘It has been a real energy boost as well as giving us the satisfaction of knowing we are doing a good job. Being qualified as an international City of Literature is an acknowledgement of that. We can blow our own trumpets. We are very proud, but we also know that the designation brings with it some obligations. It is a lifelong commitment. One important sustainability factor is that there are three parties in this together: the city, the region, and the university. We can energize each other. Being an international City of Literature makes us a beacon, not a sparkler!
When I asked her why greater efforts aren’t being made to make the City of Literature designation more conspicuous, she replied: ‘We quite simply haven’t arrived at that point yet. Collaboration takes time. When UNESCO asked, a couple months into the project, to see our graphic profile, I had to tell them as much, too. We will, of course, have a profile, but that wasn’t our highest priority. We’ll be working on a logotype, and of course at every event relating to literature we will mention that Gothenburg is a City of Literature. But we are still on the starting blocks.’
In the application itself, six specific areas for collaboration were identified for Gothenburg as: The City Where we Read to our Children, the City as a Collection of Poems, Interweaving Literary and Social Welfare, Freedom of Expression in a new era, the Wor(l)d in the World of Gothenburg, and Exchanges for Change.
All these processes had begun even prior to submitting the application and remain ongoing. They provide a foundation for the action plans for the next four years, which include the extensive reading promotion efforts of the libraries, school and institution visits by authors, window and manhole cover poetry, and the project known as Gothenburg Reads, in which one novel by a Gothenburg writer is selected each year for a large print run distributed to various schools, libraries, etc. in the city. The first novel chosen for the program was Drömmen om ett liv (‘Dreaming of a Life’) by Sun Axelsson (1935-2011). Other events during the first year included World Book Day celebrations, and collaborations between the institutions for popular education and local businesses and NGOs to promote Literature for Better Social Welfare.
What does the designation ‘City of Literature’ mean to local literature and its authors? The commitment to becoming an International City of Literature is also a commitment to the support of literature, according to Siri Reuterstrand, who also hopes the designation will make proposed cutbacks increasingly conspicuous. It may also improve Gothenburg’s overall image. Although there will be very few concrete implications for local authors, it will increase their clout as a force to be reckoned with. Becoming an International City of Literature does not bring with it any bonus funding, but new forms for collaboration will hopefully make it easier to use the existing funding, and having the designation should mean that future funding applications will be taken even more seriously. Still, the greatest benefit of all is the fact that so many aspects of the world of arts and culture have joined forces. It is a victory in itself that the municipality, the region and the university are now committed to working together for the promotion of literature and reading.
Gothenburg’s public libraries are the ‘core of the infrastructure of literature’ in that they are open to all, have low access thresholds, are there in people’s everyday lives, and have personnel who are prepared to work actively to create encounters between citizens and books.
Jonna Ulin works as director of libraries and community centers in the regional arts administration. To her, long-term sustainability is essential:
‘We mustn’t allow this to be just a publicity stunt! Our core tasks are important ones, and we must strive to improve our work with them. These are still early days, but our point of departure must be our efforts to promote and encourage reading. We haven’t been given any extra funding. A plan has been drawn up for reading promotion for all ages, and now it is up to each unit in the library system to put the plan into practice.’
Having books readily accessible, not least for children, is an important factor in these efforts. A long wished-for and now temporarily installed little children’s library in the Biskopsgården area has only been promised to stay in service through to the end of the year. What will happen after that? Jonna Ulin’s answer to this question was that the matter is on the agenda for the arts board, and that there are plans to have a small children’s library in the Tynnered area next year.
Clearly, there is concern in the air. The arts administration has indicated that if they are to be able to maintain the current level of activities, they will need a budget boost of SEK 70 million. And the library network needs expanding in any case. A report from 2019 indicated that in relation to population growth, Gothenburg needs 13 new local library branches. For instance, there is no library in either Lövgärdet or Gårdsten, both socioeconomically problematic areas.
In an article about the Gothenburg public libraries (Göteborgs-Posten, 23 October 2022), Ingrid Atlestam wrote; ‘We cannot make do with ‘service centers’ where people can collect and return books.’ In the same article, Jonna Ulin gives her full support to this sentiment, saying:
‘Our intention of encouraging reading promotion cannot be brought to fulfillment through service stations for lending and borrowing.’
The individuals I interviewed are proud of both the full and complete application they submitted, and which received compliments from UNESCO, and of course of Gothenburg’s new designation. But now Gothenburg must show its true colors! Some serious reading promotion efforts will need to be made in collaboration between the city, the region, the university and other actors in the literary domain, to help more people discover the potential of literature, and to make Gothenburg more visible to its citizens as an International City of Literature, as well as to make them feel pride in living in a city where literature and reading are granted such a prominent position.
The international cities of literature are part of the Creative Cities UNESCO network, founded in 2004 for the promotion of collaboration amongst cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development in accordance with Agenda 2030.
The UNESCO Cities of Literature network of 42 cities represents 6 continents and 28 countries, and a combined population of over 26 million. The aim of this network is to proactively develop new ways to promote reading, support literary endeavours and foster creative exchanges.
There are 246 Creative Cities in total. Two other Swedish cities have achieved Creative City status: Östersund as a City of Gastronomy and Norrköping as a City of Music.
We are grateful to Zenit for granting permission to publish an adapted translation of this article, originally published in November 2022.
Launched in 2004, Kulturtidningen Zenit is a magazine that covers culture in the Gothenburg region.
Throughout her professional life as a library consultant, library director and arts center director, Ulla Forsén has always been personally committed to various projects in the arts and culture. Today she continues to be a reader and translator for the Hjulet publishing house and to write articles for the western Swedish art quarterly Zenit.
Linda Schenck is a native English speaker who has lived in Sweden for many years. Professionally, she worked as both a conference and court interpreter and a translator of both fiction and non-fiction. Today she devotes herself entirely to literary translation. In 2018, she received The Swedish Academy Award for Translation of Swedish Literature.