Four Festival Neue Literatur Writers on Belonging and Displacement

In News by Porter Anderson

The 2018 Festival Neue Literatur just opened in New York City with German- and English-language writers and readers are coming together to debate this year’s theme of outsiders and insiders.

Participants in this year’s Festival Neue Literatur. Photo credit: John Harris

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Who Defines Inside and Outside?’
Ahead of this weekend’s Festival Neue Literature (March 23 through 25) in New York, Publishing Perspectives asked some of the participating writers for their impressions of the theme of this year’s festival, “Insider | Outsider.”

As we wrote last month, the theme is based in concepts of displacement and belonging—at a time when issues of immigration, diaspora, isolationism, and nationalism are shifting geopolitical conditions in many countries and book markets.

Peter Blackstock of Grove Atlantic has again curated the festival this year. And each of the 14 featured personalities involved will be exploring elements of what press materials describe as “questions of identity and belonging” at a time when Europe faces new challenges to its post-war stability and many other parts of the world, the States among them, face virulent resistance to multiculturalism.

Today, we hear from some of the speakers not only about their ideas on issues of home vs. displacement but also about their writing lives—and how they hope US audiences might react to their work.

For many of the participating German-language writers, this is their first opportunity to share their work in English.

Here are the comments of four in answer to our questions.

‘Projections and Instability’

Fatma Aydemir, Berlin

Publishing Perspectives: What does the theme “Insider | Outsider” mean to you?

Fatma Aydemir

Fatma Aydemir: Both terms describe a position in relation to a space or a group of people. This is something I’m also working with in my novel with such questions as Is an outsider always an outsider? Where do we have to go in order to become insiders?

My protagonist Hazal is a daughter of Turkish immigrants in Berlin, and she decides to move to Turkey. She hopes that she can escape the marginalization she experiences in Germany, but in Turkey she encounters somehow similar problems in different colors: sexism, classism. As a poor girl, she is an outsider again.

PP: Where do you get the inspiration, the ideas for your writing?

FA: I’m not sure. I guess a lot of what I write comes from questions I used to ask myself a lot when I was a teenager, but never found an answer. I think at a younger age we ask ourselves much more interesting questions, we lose that growing up. I am trying rediscover that.

“I think at a younger age we ask ourselves much more interesting questions, we lose that growing up. I am trying rediscover that.”Fatma Aydemir

PP: What does being a part of the Festival Neue Literatur mean to you?

FA: I’m really happy about the invitation, New York is a very important place for me. A lot of stories that shaped me were written there, whether it’s book, music or movies. So it is just an amazing feeling to be invited to read my own story there.

PP: What do you hope American readers get from your work?

FA: I guess US readers won’t have a problem identifying with my story, because in the end it’s a coming-of-age book and a book on violence, and those are things everybody can relate to. Maybe readers can get a better understanding of the Turkish community in Germany, which is the biggest minority there. And also the book is a lot about Istanbul as a city of projections and instability. I guess that can be something readers might be interested in.

You can read an excerpt in English from Fatma Aydemir’s ‘Elbow’ here in a translation by Tim Mohr.


‘This Is German Enough’

Nava Ebrahimi, Graz

Publishing Perspectives: What does the theme “Insider | Outsider” mean to you?

Nava Ebrahimi

Nava Ebrahimi: When I was a child and even in my 20s, I wanted to get rid of my outsider feeling as an Iranian born in Germany. It wasn’t easy because nearly every day I was asked, “Where are you from?” This question had the same effect as telling me: “You’re an outsider.”

But the older I got, the more I asked myself, “What does it mean, to be an insider, to be a German?”

I speak German without any accent, I have a German passport, I’m fine with the German constitution. I went to school in Germany and to university. I separate waste, drink beer and sing carnival songs in Cologne every year.

I decided for myself that this is German enough and that I don’t let my dark hair and eyes be the reason for staying outside.

I think many people consider themselves as being outsiders in some way and struggle to get inside. Because to belong to a community is a strong desire. But who defines inside and outside?

PP: Where do you get the inspiration, the ideas for your writing?

NE: Contradictions of any kind inspire me to develop a story: between characters, within characters, between desire and reality, between reality and subjectivity, between intention and result. While I’m working on a novel, almost everything inspires me. Everything I hear, see, or read connects with the story I’m writing.

“The older I got, the more I asked myself, ‘What does it mean, to be an insider, to be a German?'”Nava Ebrahimi

PP: What does being a part of the Festival Neue Literatur mean to you?

NE: Learning about the view of a US audience on the topics of my novel, discussing the difference between being an outsider in the States and in Europe–Germany, Austria)–exchanging with other writers, chatting with students and people who are interested in literature, getting new insights by dealing with the theme of the festival, representing my new home, Austria and, by the way, spending a few days in New York City without children.

PP: What do you hope American readers get from your work?

NE: An understanding of what the so called Islamic revolution did to the Iranian people inside and outside their country. Insights into the humor and intimate feelings of Iranian women among themselves. How it felt to be a foreigner in Germany and how it differs from being a foreigner in the USA.

PP: What are you working on next?

I’m working on a novel, this time with three male characters. Again the question of identity plays a main role. One of the subjects is the Iran-Iraq-War. I can’t tell you more because the themes of the story develop while I write. I don’t know them in advance.

You can read an excerpt in English from Nava Ebrahimi’s ‘Sixteen Words’ here in a translation by Marshall Yarbrough.


At Thursday’s (March 22) opening of Festival Neue Literature in New York City, from left, are Peter Blackstock, the festival’s curator; Robert Weil, editor-in-chief and publishing director with Liveright Publishing; John Wray, novelist and festival chair; Georg Blochmann, executive director with the Goethe-Institut New York; André Schaller, Swiss ambassador and consul general; Barbara Perlmutter, literary scout and 2018 Ulfers Prize winner; and Friedrich Ulfers, associate professor of German at New York University. Photo credit: John Harris


‘Being Excluded/Being Special’

Ursula Fricker, Switzerland

Publishing Perspectives: What does the theme “Insider | Outsider” mean to you?

Ursula Fricker. Image: Susanne Schleyer

Ursula Fricker: There are many different kinds of insiders and outsiders. To me, these words are about belonging to a group or not.

The “group” might be a nation, society, peer group, etcetera. Nowadays, there’s a strong desire in the world that everybody should be included and that no one should have to suffer pain from being excluded. This certainly should be appreciated, but the call for groups and /or societies to be as inclusive as possible denies the fact that at the same time we call for integration, we also call for individuality. This is a sort of contradiction.

Being excluded, as painful as it may be, also means “being special.” It is a distinction that can be either positive or negative.

For example, I come from a vegetarian family. Already in the 1970s and ’80s, my parents were strict vegetarians. I wasn’t allowed to eat any sweets or sausages or whatever at school. One would see me nibbling on carrots and dark brown, homemade bread during school breaks. That made me a target of so many painful bullying-attacks. I wanted to be as normal as everyone. But at the same time, it made me special … against my will.

With this practice today, my parents and I would be considered insiders. But the thing is, my parents would not have wanted to be insiders.

I suspect that being special often makes you a true insider in a world where being special is held in high esteem. It’s a tricky thing with insider/outsider and it’s always worth it to look twice. And it’s often the case that outsiders become insiders and quickly create their own outsiders.

PP: Where do you get the inspiration, the ideas for your writing?

UF: I’m interested in extreme characters. For example, in my first novel, Fleeing Water (2004), one of the main figures is a family man, a father who is a kind of fundamentalist vegetarian–(see above. He terrorized his whole family with his near religious food obsession. In my most recent novel, Past and Present Lies, the character Isa is obsessed with morality, which turns out to be a very selfish motivation. All the themes are already in my head, and then what I write about is inspired by any number of things: a piece in the newspaper, a scene on the streets, a development in politics, etcetera.

“The call for groups and/or societies to be as inclusive as possible denies the fact that at the same time we call for integration, we also call for individuality.”Ursula Fricker

PP: What does being a part of the Festival Neue Literatur mean to you?

Being part of Festival Neue Literatur allows me to ask and learn about what else is out there. I’m very grateful to step outside of the German-based language space. I’m very interested in literary life in the US and am curious and excited to learn more about American novels, authors, and readers.

PP: What do you hope American readers get from your work?

I’ve been in New York for almost two months now as a writer-in-residence at Deutsches Haus at NYU. I find life here different in so many ways.

It’s hard for an outsider to decode mentalities and simply figure out the way of everyday life, which is based on histories and experiences that I don’t share. Yet literature can be quite helpful to understand and get into other places, other cultures, and other mentalities. A literary narration can tackle moods, feelings, and issues in an incomparable way and deliver them straight to your heart. In this sense, my novel offers a glimpse of how we deal with life across the Atlantic.

PP: What are you working on next?

I’m working once again on a novel. I’m actually about to be finished. It’s about the danger of misusing freedom to relinquish freedom.

The narration follows a woman, Barbara, who gives up her self-determined life to support an avant-garde immersive performance-project and with it, to support and bow down to a so-called genius theater director. She gets deeper and deeper into a psychologically abusive network, step-by-step losing herself. Although she’s free to leave anytime, she stays on and on.

You can read an excerpt in English of Ursula Fricker’s ‘Past and Present Lies’ here in a translation by Michael Hofmann.


‘Quite Obsessed’

Robert Prosser, Vienna and Tyrol

Publishing Perspectives: What does the theme “Insider | Outsider” mean to you?

Robert Prosser. Image: Melanie Hauke

RP: It’s a hidden topic in my writing: I’m very interested in the outsiders of contemporary societies and their ways of creating an underground culture through rituals, symbols, or actions. The others, the misfits, be it a community of former soldiers in my first novel Geister und Tattoos (Ghosts and Tattoos , 2013) or Graffiti-Artists in my new one, Phantome (Phantoms, 2017), every time it’s a kind of subcultural island, that forms the core of the story.

PP: Where do you get the inspiration, the ideas for your writing?

RP: Mainly through traveling. To travel forms an important part of my artistic work, first to find the hint of a story worth writing about, second to research, as I am quite obsessed with getting into the material for a novel as deep as possible.

PP: What does being a part of the Festival Neue Literatur mean to you?

RP: It’s like one of the great things of being a writer: to get the chance to travel and perform my texts live, to meet new people and see new places. And even better if this leads me to New York, where I’ve never been but always wanted to go. Also, I’m really into contemporary American literature like Marlon James, Jesmyn Ward, and Junot Diaz, and I am happy that finally I’m able to visit the US.

“I’m very interested in the outsiders of contemporary societies and their ways of creating an underground culture through rituals, symbols, or actions.”Robert Prosser

PP: What do you hope American readers get from your work?

RP: In the case of my last novel Phantome: A better understanding of ex-Yugoslavia and the aftermath of the Bosnian War. The book is about the individual necessity to stay in opposition to politic propaganda and nationalism and I hope it’s also an insight into the power of youth culture, be it in Bosnia or Austria, and into the subversive potential of art, be it painting or music.

PP: What are you working on next?

RP: I’m in the middle of a manuscript for a new novel, very chaotic at the moment, but growing. It’s mainly set in the contemporary Viennese martial arts scene, focusing on Olympic boxing and the craziness and obsession it takes to go through with it.

You can read an excerpt in English of Robert Prosser’s ‘Phantoms’ here in a translation by Daniel Bowles.


Festival Neue Literatur curator Peter Blackstock of Grove Atlantic chats with Swiss filmmaker Matthias Gunter and FNL participant Meral Kureyshi at the opening of the 2018 festival in New York City. Photo credit: John Harris

Festival Neue Literatur is an annual cultural event bringing authors from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany with literary voices from the U.S. organized by the Austrian Cultural Forum New York, the Consulate General of Switzerland, the German Consulate General New York, Deutsches Haus at NYU, the Frankfurt Book Fair New York Inc., Goethe-Institut New York, and Pro Helvetia.


More from Publishing Perspectives on Festival Neue Literatur is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.