Writing and reading are essentially solitary practices, but they don’t always need to be. During the pandemic, Berlin’s Culture Senator Klaus Lederer called the city’s bookstores geistige Tankstellen or “petrol stations for the soul”— a place people could refuel on ideas at a time when the doors to most of the city’s cultural institutions were closed. Now, with restrictions being lifted, bookish Berlin is once again eager to get together again in person. In recent weeks, a new Writers of Colour program has popped up, the Berlin Writers Workshop has resumed its regular Stammtisch and Lucy Jones’s Fiction Canteen has returned to Lettrétage.
This Tuesday at 7pm, Dussmann English Books and Exberliner will partner to host a free reading dedicated to new Berlin writing—hopefully the first of many such events. The free event will feature UK-born writer, editor and storyteller extraordinaire Paul Scraton alongside Kirsty Bell, an Anglo-American art critic whose debut book-length literary work The Undercurrents was recently released in both German and English to wide acclaim. Short readings from both authors will be accompanied by a moderated discussion, an audience Q&A, book signings—and everyone going for drinks together afterwards. An audio recording will be made available following the event.
Writing some 100 years after Christopher Isherwood, Scraton and Bell represent a new generation of expat Berlin writing. Where Isherwood’s famous motto was “I am a camera”, these two contemporary authors dig below the city’s surface to explore its difficult, multifaceted past. In Scraton’s debut novel Built on Sand, his roving narrator brings together a kaleidoscopic array of stories about a city that may lack secure foundations (both literally and figuratively) but is all the more interesting for it. The Undercurrents similarly positions itself below Berlin, using the motif of water—swamps, canals, groundwater, rising damp—to bring repressed and forgotten narratives to light. In so doing, both avoid the grand narratives that mark many outsider accounts of Berlin: totalitarian history, the genius of creativity, freedom in the ruins. Instead, they write the city from below, ever attuned to the complexity and challenge of what goes unseen.
One of Berlin’s strengths as an English-language literary hub that it doesn’t have a centre. This means that authors get to breathe, to take risks, and to think about things differently than they would have in places like London or New York. But it can also mean that writers and readers don’t come together as often as they should. Our hope for this, and the events to follow, is to showcase the full diversity of literary Berlin—including authors who write in non-English languages, though all events will be conducted in English. Future themes will include not just topics traditionally close to the hearts of international Berliners (expat identity, dark history, nightlife) but also the various preoccupations of authors who work on radically different projects: Yoko Tawada’s border-crossing language experiments, Elnathan John’s Nigerian satires, and Madeleine Watts’s explorations of Australian culture’s dark sides all belong to the Berlin bookshelf just as much as any classic “expat novel” does.
To begin with, however, we will focus on the city itself. Come along to listen to readings, talk with fellow Berlin book lovers, and celebrate a return to in-person events. You can reserve your place over at the Dussmann website – and if it’s all booked up, watch this space for future instalments coming soon.
- Dussman das KulturKaufhaus – Lesezimmer, 1st floor Friedrichstrasse 90 10117 Berlin 19:00