For the last 30 years, the LiBeraturpreis has been recognizing and honoring the work of female writers from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Arab world. Past winners include Madeleine Thien, Patrícia Melo, Edwige Danticat, and many others.
On Friday and Saturday (January 26 and 26), during the Litprom Literature Days at the Literaturhaus Frankfurt, the 30th anniversary of the prize was celebrated by a program of 12 female authors from 12 countries.
The prize is organized by Litprom, a Frankfurt-based organization dedicated to promoting literature and authors from countries that are underrepresented in the West. Litprom also provides translation funding to German-language publishers. In an interview with the Boersenblatt, Litprom Managing Director Anita Djafari talks about the history of the LiBeraturpreis, its goals, and its significance.
Anita Djafari on 30 Years of the LiBeraturpreis
Interview by Matthias Glatthor, translated from German by Moritz Noll
Boersenblatt: The LiBeraturpreis was started 30 years ago, and given out only to female authors from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Arab world. Why these regions?
Anita Djafari: The LiBeraturpreis was founded in 1987 by a political religious group. One year later, Maryse Condé from Guadeloupe became the first prizewinner. At that time, there were a lot of political groups that dedicated themselves to solidarity with the so-called “third world.” There were third-world houses and third-world stores that sold books about these countries and by authors from these countries. It became apparent that women were underrepresented here, and so the idea came about to bring attention to this.
The prize has an unusual name. What does it stand for?
The name, written with a capital B, stands for liber, which means both “book” and “free” in Latin. For the founders and for us today, this stands for liberation, in particular from entrenched perceptions.
What has changed in the last 30 years for authors from these continents and regions? Has it become easier for them to find a German publisher?
A lot has changed, and for the better. The number of women who are writing and have been published in translation has noticeably grown. And whereas 20 or 30 years ago, this literature was published by specific niche publishers, today you can find authors from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arab world published by all the large publishers.
That sounds encouraging. Where is the catch?
In contrast to this, print runs have declined. And when the sales figures don’t add up, these authors will only be cultivated by small, independent publishers. Translation funding organized by Litprom is certainly an important factor when it comes to choosing a title from this sector, especially so if translations are done from unfamiliar languages like Hindi or a Kurdish dialect.
Do women authors focus on different topics today [than in the past]?
Certainly, a lot has changed in the last centuries. By no means do women only write about so-called women topics-whatever that means-but also write about historic events in their home countries like Madeleine Thien about Cambodia and China or Laksmi Pamuntjak about the dictatorship in Indonesia. Patricia Melo from Brazil brings up painful subjects by addressing society through her ingenious whodunits. And among the younger generation, sexuality and physicality are being discussed more openly and boldly, and calling for feminism-like Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Has the LiBeraturpreis outlived itself? Why is it still important?
The number of new titles by women is approximately 25 to 30 percent (there are hardworking colleagues who meticulously counted and can prove that). We keep coming back to this number at work as does the Litprom “Weltempfänger” List, which recommends 28 titles per year. Ten of these titles are by women, if we’re lucky. And that’s not because they don’t write as well as men, but because there are fewer who get published and are therefore being noticed. Any more questions? Besides, up to the present day, the prize makes much more sense because most of us still read western literature from North America or Europe which simply is more familiar to us.
Litprom has organized the prize since 2013. How did it start?
Litprom has lobbied for non-European literature for 40 years, and supported the LiBeraturpreis initiative, which was organized completely using volunteers, since its inception. After 25 years, Litprom took over the prize, with the support of the Frankfurter Buchmesse, to continue developing it.
What significance do you want the LiBeraturpreis to have in the future?
The LiBeraturpreis enjoys great popularity, but it’s clear that the public awareness for this prize needs to be much higher. In order to do that, the prize money needs to be higher. We’re working on that. The good thing is that it’s a people’s choice award. The Weltempfänger Jury nominates the authors according to the Weltempfänger high score list, but the public has the last word by voting. We like that very much.
Will there be any changes at the LiBeraturpreis in 2018?
We will organize a kick-off event in Frankfurt again to open the public voting. We tried that last year and it went very well. Maybe the one or other literature house would like to organize a similar event parallel to ours.
Your personal highlight of 30 years of LiBeraturpreis?
That’s hard to say after so many years and authors. Awarding the LiBeraturpreis to Madeleine Thien in 2015 was so wonderful, that there were tears in people’s eyes during the ceremony.
And if you ask me about the literature, I’d like to mention Edwidge Danticat who comes from Haiti and now lives in the USA where she is a big star. She received the prize for Die süße Saat der Tränen, a novel about the dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. About the same time or a bit later, Mario Vargas Llosa (whom I greatly admire) wrote the novel Das Fest des Ziegenbocks. Guess who got more attention? I think Danticat is so much better, but… And this is where we’ve come full circle. Why a prize only for women, you ask? Because of that! This great author doesn’t have the recognition she deserves (of course, that also happens to male authors). I love all of her work, novels, short stories, and essays.
On Friday the Litprom Literature Days started at the Frankfurt Literaturehaus, where the focus is on 30 years of LiBeraturpreis. What can we look forward to?
I think the whole program is one single highlight. We have invited 12 female authors from 12 countries. Among them are also two Germans: Zoë Beck and Anna Kim. Everyone is looking forward to hearing from each other and reading, to discussing and getting to know each other. We want to convey all aspects of female writing and to draw attention to female world literature. Eventually, we will celebrate the way a jubilee is meant to be celebrated. The all-female trio band Kick la Luna will fire us up with their motto ‘Break Ranks’.
Are men also welcome?