Berlin’s International Literary Fest Provides a Showcase for World Lit, Politics of Publishing

In Guest Contributors by Amanda DeMarco

• All eyes may be turned to Frankfurt, but Germany’s capital Berlin just wrapped up its own popular literary festival with 279 authors from 63 countries appeared at 232 events.

• At the Festival author Alberto Manguel called American publishing “one of the worst and most dangerous things that has happened to the works of art and literature.”

By Amanda DeMarco

BERLIN: “The [American] publishing industry has become, in the past 10–15 years, one of the worst and most dangerous things that has happened to the works of art and literature.” Strong words from Argentine-born Canadian writer, translator, and editor Alberto Manguel. Manguel was speaking at a discussion titled, “What is World Literature?” at the International Literature Festival Berlin (ILB) that wrapped up earlier this week. The intensity of “What is World Literature?” was typical of the energetic intellectual programming at the festival.

The publishing world may be focused on next week’s Frankfurt Book Fair, but from September 15th to 25th, the ILB brought together 279 authors from 63 countries for 232 events spread throughout central Berlin. It’s known for emphasizing the political nature of writing, and for taking on difficult current issues in high-quality events. To name a few, at “New Kids on the Blog,” a reading and discussion of Arab literature on the internet, Drima Abu Hamdan talked about the paralyzing grip of Islamic fundamentalism and how his blog, The Sudanese Thinker, helps him create his own healthier relationship to Islam. At “The Cultural Future of the Balkans,” Borka Pavićević, Beqë Cufaj, and Dubravka Ugrešić all emphasized the complete politicization of everyday life and especially writing in the Balkans, a much-discussed problem at the festival. At “Elizabeth Gilbert Explains How She Made Her Peace with Marriage,” the author discussed various cultural attitudes toward the institution, as well as her own.

Focus: Eastern Europe

Liao Yiwu in Berlin

Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu, a bestseller in Germany, was allowed to travel to the IBL for the first time and received a warm welcome.

“There is no such festival as this one in Europe, maybe not in the world,” said Slovenian writer and public intellectual Drago Jančar, one of 45 writers representing Eastern Europe, which was the focus of this year’s ILB. Jančar is a veteran of the festival, and he notes the ILB’s huge number of authors, and the rapt, abundant crowds they draw, as the factors that make it nonpareil. “You get the impression that literature still has an audience, especially among young people. It’s really something special.”

The spectators also impressed Lidija Dimkovska, who, along with Nikola Madzirov, was the first Macedonian writer to participate in the festival: “During my reading…I felt this connection with the audience, I was aware that I read in front of a really interested audience with open ears and souls, people who love and appreciate poetry.”

Both Jančar and Dimkovska agreed that the ILB met an important need by focusing on Eastern Europe. Jančar explained, “The problem nowadays is that twenty years later we still have not integrated the knowledge of Eastern European countries. Entry into the EU is an economic and political integration, but it doesn’t include understanding of the life in those countries. There is still a wall in the brains of Western Europeans, but also Eastern Europeans.” In many ways the ILB, with its accent on the political and its great audiences, was the perfect platform for exposing more Western Europeans to the politics-soaked realities of Eastern European life and literature.

World Literature

For many authors, as much as the ILB is an opportunity to represent their cultures, it’s also a chance to step into in worldwide literary culture. Young German author Sabrina Janesch, whose novel Katzenberge deals with coming to terms with the guilt and pain of a family’s Polish-German history, commented, “I felt honored to be invited, because it means, somehow, that what I write might not only be relevant to German readers. That it stands, hopefully, in a European context.”

As Publishing Perspectives noted in an article on the Brooklyn Book Festival, it’s difficult for individual authors to gain much recognition at a festival, especially such a large one with such a general focus as the ILB. Single-author readings were often the most poorly-attended events of the festival — even Elizabeth Gilbert’s reading drew a smaller crowd than many of the Eastern European discussions. For many writers, a step onto the literary world stage can mean a step out of the limelight as larger issues take precedence over individual authors.

So what did the “What is World Literature?” panel come up with for an answer to its question? After a spirited but often misguided thrashing of American literary culture, cultural fusion emerged as an important element. American writer, editor, and translator Eliot Weinberger affirmed, “Immigration is the best thing that’s happened to literature in Europe.” British-Indian novelist Rana Dasgupta ventured that world literature could be defined as “that which replaces national literature.” Dasgupta’s assertion that “we now all inhabit a single integrated system” seems a shrewd but rather ironic statement at an festival whose success as an international political forum rests on its presentation of writers as national representatives. Does the ILB’s future read, “Focus: The World”?

DISCUSS: Does American Publishing Have Too Much Influence on Global Book Culture?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.