When organisers of the International Literature Festival Berlin envisioned its 20th birthday, this is surely not what they had in mind: a global pandemic, travel restrictions, social distancing requirements – and, to top it all off, renovations in their usual venue, the Haus der Berliner Festspiele in City West. But they have done well to adapt to the circumstances. This year’s edition offers a stellar line-up of some 150 authors from 50 countries, participating in a vast range of readings and other events. For 10 days, the ILB will completely take over Wedding’s Silent Green, an events venue housed in what was Berlin’s oldest crematorium. Still, no one’s implying that literature is dead. In fact, the new venue and the Corona-induced digital program – which includes live streams and pre-recorded events with authors as beloved as Neil Gaiman – might just breathe new life into the ILB, and help it draw in new audiences.
The move to Wedding is a blessing in disguise for a festival that has traditionally struggled to engage with Berlin’s younger and (ironically) more international crowds. It’s not the roaring ’20s any more; the city’s creative heartlands now lie some way east of the KuDamm. But will the festival’s usual attendees – Haupstadt literati and ageing culture vultures – make the schlep to Wedding, a Bezirk that’s been up-and-coming forever but has never quite become, well, up-and-come? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, we might hope that a temporary exile from City West gives the festival an opportunity to diversify not just its program but its audience as well.
Coronavirus, too, has changed the face of the festival. Seventeen events will be pre-recorded discussions. Around 40 others will use live remote interview, which audience members are invited to watch together at screenings held in Silent Green’s Betonhalle, Kuppelhalle and Betonhalle Lounge. For those with mobility restrictions, or who simply prefer the comfort of their own living room, livestream links will be shared on the ILB website. Tickets sales are restricted to a mere 25 percent of venue capacity. This year’s opening speech by Peruvian Nobel Prize Winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, will have an audience of some 313 in the Philharmonic’s Kammermusikhalle (the standard capacity is 1180).
Authors to catch and other highlights
For literary festival newbies, the basic format of the festival is simple enough. At readings, authors read first in the original publication language, sometimes followed by translations read in German or English. Many of the follow-up conversations take place in English, but check out the festival program to be sure. Look out for some of the more creative event formats, from panel discussions to poetry nights and even a guided walk in the park. Dussman English bookshop will be present with an on-site pop-up store selling relevant books.
Authors to look out for include the Nobel Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk, renowned for her vegetarian-feminist novel Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead. In a panel including Nora Bossong and Mario Vargas Llosa , Tocarkzuk will be reflecting on the role of literature during the pandemic in the Plea For Democracy and Culture festival special (10 Sep, Philharmonie, 19:00) and independently presenting her controversial recent novel The Books of Jacob (10 Sep, Silent Green, 21:00) – unfortunately only in Polish and German.
This year’s festival highlights a number of urgent social themes through “special” series of events. The Speak Up! Misogyny as a System series sees readings from JJ Bola, UK-Congolese author of Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined (14 Sept, Silent Green, 7:30) and from US queer-feminist horror writer Carmen Maria Machado, who will present her critically lauded memoir of relationship abuse, In The Dream House (13 Sep, Silent Green, 15:00, prerecorded video). Machado will also discuss the feminist-horror genre in detail alongside UK-Nigerian writer Lesley Nneka Arima (12 Sep, Silent Green, 17:00, prerecorded). Palestinian author Adania Shibli will be reading from her novel Minor Detail (10 Sep, Silent Green, 21:00), a searing exploration of gendered violence and its aftereffects. A number of star names will take part in the Art of Writing series, which offers a peek behind the curtain at authors’ various private strategies for reading, writing and storytelling. One highlight is Canada’s Sheila Heti, author of Motherhood, an autobiographical novel that explores her deliberation on the decision to have children (19 Sep, Silent Green, 21:00, prerecorded) series. The series will also welcome the American legend – and notorious Twitter loose cannon – Joyce Carol Oates (12 Sep, Silent Green, 21:00, prerecorded) as well as science fiction author Neil Gaiman (12 Sep, Silent Green, 20:00, prerecorded). For lovers of the historical novel, the first female winner of the Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel (13 Sep, Silent Green, 19:30, livestreamed), presents the final instalment of her Tudor Trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. (Lovers of puns may prefer her forthcoming essay collection, Mantel Pieces .)
The big topics tackled
One of the festival’s self-proclaimed topics is decolonisation – but if you blink, you might miss it. The history of migration in the US and Africa’s colonial history each do figure in a Global Encounters panel (12 Sep, Silent Green, 15:00) with international authors Edwidge Danticat (Haiti/US), Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/US) and Nadifa Mohamed (Somalia/UK).
Race is perhaps the more prominent theme. UK photographer and writer Johny Pitts (19 Sep, 18:00, live streamed ) will be reading from his Jhalak Prize-winning Afropean, a groundbreaking study of African diaspora identity across Europe. From the other side of the Atlantic, rising-star US author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (18 Sep, Silent Green, 19:30, livestreamed) explores systemic inequality in his semi-satirical Friday Black.
For the past 10 years, the festival has made moves to present the newest authors in the world of graphic fiction. This year’s Graphic Novel Day will feature Berlin local Aisha Franz in discussion with Sweden’s Moa Romanova (13 Sep, Silent Green, 17:00). With starkly different drawing styles, but similarly high levels of hilarity, both artists are interested in female isolation, depression and the digital world. Meanwhile Lukas Jüliger, whose graphic novel Unfollow portrays the uncanny life on an eco-influencer, in a German-language discussion on bioeconomics and the climate crisis (16 Sep, Silent Green, 18:00).