Photo by Hartwig Klappert
Berlin might not have a major book fair like Frankfurt or Leipzig, but for 16 years it's been celebrating international literature in its own unique way. This year's International Literature Festival sees 216 guests from 30 countries – here are our top picks. (Events in English noted.)
The fest opens September 7 (English accessible) with a speech by prolific Argentinian author Cesair Aira, followed by Irish-American author Colm Toibin reading from his novel Nora Webster. A string quartet will be on hand to fill in the silences.
Before the official opening comes an appearance from Algeria's best-known novelist and Islam critic, Boualem Sansal – inexplicably appearing in the International Children’s and Youth Literature section (talk on Sep 6; reading on Sep 7). His latest work, 2084, a thinly veiled Orwellian take on Islam, has critics on the left searching for their pitchforks. This could get interesting! More “Islamismus” as three members of the infamous Manifest of 12, a group of 12 intellectuals who signed an appeal against totalitarian Islam in 2006, appear for a panel to discuss the status quo (Sep 11, in English). Taslima Nasrin, a writer and women’s rights activist who gained notoriety with her debut novel Lajja and subsequent exile from West Bengal, will be joined on the podium by political scientist Mehdi Mozzaffair and sociologist Chahla Chafiq.
Any event in this city has got to cater to the anti-capitalist set, so the Science and Humanities symposium (Sep 13, in English) is focusing on inequality in the 21st century. Talks range from “The Utopia of Rules”, hosted by Occupy veteran and London School of Economics professor David Graeber, to “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality” by Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton.
September 9 has a feminist focus, as Laurie Penny discusses (in English) the state of feminism today and Nasrin appears once more alongside scandalised Brooklynite-turned-bestselling author Deborah Feldman and Zimbabwe’s Petina Gappah. And what would a Berlin festival be without a bit of LGBTQ discourse? Genderqueer author Alex Gino will be on hand Sep 14-15 (in English) to read from and discuss their young adult novel George, about a trans teen.
The feminist subtext of children's book author and illustrator Judith Kerr has yet to be explored, alas, but books like The Tiger who Came to Tea and Forgetful Cats remain timeless gems of kid lit to this day. The 93-year-old Kerr, who fled Berlin with her Jewish family in 1933, will present latest masterpiece Mister Cleghorn's Seal on Sep 15 (English). For more visual fun, don't miss Graphic Novel Day (Sep 11, in English), when stars like Zeina Abirached of I remember Beirut will be showcasing their work.
No literature festival would be complete without the requisite fawning over the most recent Man Booker Prize winners, so double down on Sep 9 with a reading by Han Kang (in English), whose The Vegetarian, charting the devastating consequences of a woman’s switch to vegetarianism, is sure to draw its share of protests from the (undoubtedly many) vegans in the crowd. Speaking of animal rights, elephant lovers will want to join author Tania James as she plumbs the moral complexities of the ivory trade in “The Tusk that Did the Damage” on Sep 15 (in English). If hot-button global issues are what you're after, hit the Festspiele on September 10 for Patrick Kingsley's talk (in English) on migration and asylum seekers, and Guardian colleague and best-selling reporter Luke Harding's fresh revelations on the 2006 assassination-by-polonium of Alexander Litvinenko – remember the bald Russian spy agonising in a London hospital?
Closing the party on Sep 17 is crowd-pleaser Alain de Botton, reading (in English) from his latest novel The Course of Love, because to be French is to have some sort of insight (even if he’s a Swiss man living in London).
With not much at stake (no prize or juries), the possibility of yawns is not to be taken lightly. Having said that, what better reason to skip out on Netflix for a week than to experience literary diversity in the age of globalisation? If you find something interesting, make sure to check the language – not all events, even the ones you'd think, are in English.
International Literature Festival Berlin, Sep 7-17, Haus der Berliner Festspiele and various venues, see website for full programme