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An open book: The International Literature Festival Berlin

For the 17th time, the International Literature Festival (Sep 6-16) welcomes an eclectic mix of international authors to Berlin. Read up on it here before you hit the stacks. And keep checking back here for more interviews, blog, reviews and more...

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Arundhati Roy. Photo by Ali Ghandtschi

For the 17th time, the International Literature Festival welcomes an eclectic mix of international authors to Berlin. Read up on it here before you hit the stacks.

Berlin’s sprawling event may not be as venerable as the UK’s Hay Festival, whose crosscultural approach brings together arts and science luminaries in one-on-one discussions. Nor can it boast the exotic charms of the younger Jaipur Festival, which makes good use of its location to deliver an East-West exchange of trends and tropes.

What Berlin has – and don’t we know it – is creative versatility and a rep as a cultural melting pot. The brainchild of one man, our perennially underfunded litfest owes its existence and post-colonial focus to Ulrich Schreiber, a trained engineer, former journalist and co-founder of PEN World Voices. Its five sections (and various subsections) guarantee a multitude of voices: every year, over 200 authors from every continent present visions of societies in all states of being. And the festival’s occasionally long-winded format allows authors to present their work directly, reading passages that they have chosen followed by German translations. Another unique selling point is the ILB’s specifically activist agenda: events in support of causes ranging from Pussy Riot to Edward Snowden have taken place since 2007, and this year is no different.

The International Literature Festival aims to create a network of people who write and people who read, kick-starting literature-based projects worldwide. Whether you want to read prose or poetry at a location of your choice at the Berlin Liest marathon on the opening day (6:00-17:30), sharpen your ideological teeth at the International Congress for Democracy and Freedom or listen to Arundhati Roy read from The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, we at Exberliner are here to help you make your choices. All events are held in their author’s original language with German translation at Haus der Berliner Festspiele (Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf).


Since writing her Booker Prize winning debut work 20 years ago, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s outspokenness on behalf of the environment and Kashmiri independence has kept her in the public eye. These causes and the fight against Hindu nationalism are strands that Roy weaves together as a sprawling tapestry of crossgender, cross-caste narratives in her long-awaited second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which she’ll be reading on Sep 7 at 19:30.

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Elif Şafak. Photo by Hartwig Klappert

Other star authors to look out for include festival opener Elif Şafak, a Turkish writer and inspiring public speaker whose work has covered such beleaguered causes as feminism and free speech (Sep 6, 18:00). This year’s fame-name is 86-year-old Edna O’Brien reading from her latest novel The Little Red Chairs, in which she applies her wry observational skills to the arrival of a (fictive) Balkan war criminal in a rural Irish community (Sep 14, 18:00). Popular American crime-mystery fabulist Donna Leon arrives with the latest exploits of Commissario Brunetti in Earthly Remains (Sep 13, 19:30). British-Indian novelist Hari Kunzru’s fifth novel White Tears explores culture theft as two white record collectors in contemporary New York manipulate and appropriate black musical traditions (Sep 15, 21:00).

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Nadeem Aslam. Photo by Richard Lea-Hair

UK-based Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam brings his most recent novel The Golden Legend, a tale of sectarian violence in Pakistan and its exploitation by the US: a dark fable leavened by the redeeming threads of human integrity and faith in the power of stories. Fellow Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) will be reading from his fourth novel Exit West, (Sep 9, 20:00), while best-selling British Chinese writer/filmmaker Xiaolu Guo presents Once Upon a Time in the East, a memoir of her young life between East and West (Sep 8, 22:30).


The ILB has made a point of showcasing feminist writers with diverse world backgrounds and post-colonial narratives. Namita Ghokhale provides an alternative to Roy’s fragmented India with a more traditional, generationally-inspired reading of colonial servitude in Things to Leave Behind (Sep 8, 21:00). Indian-French author Shumona Sinha presents her new novel Stateless, on the racism and prejudice suffered by two Bengali women of radically different backgrounds (Sep 15, 19:30), while the short stories in Singaporean Amanda Lee Koe’s collection Ministry of Moral Panic (Sep 13, 21:00) are flakily irreverent revelations of the long-term effects of subjugation. From Indonesia, Okky Madasari’s Bound (Sep 11, 18:00) is an all-too-rare example of a non-English language original that’s made it to translation. Its singular approach to the universal issue of personal freedom under societal strictures heralds a fresh, uncompromising female Muslim voice.

African writers featured this year include Petina Gappah, who pays bright and thoughtful homage to modern Zimbabwe in the short story collection Rotten Row (Sep 11, 19:30); Maaza Mengiste, whose Beneath the Lion’s Gaze explores the price paid by Ethiopia’s resistance to colonialism (Sep 9, 21:00); and Nadifa Mohamed, who in The Orchard of Lost Souls uses the family as a prism for big power machinations in Somalia (Sep 12, 21:00).

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Ulli Lust. Photo by Manfred Bogner

Canadian Booker Prize shortlister Madeleine Thien’s astonishing, panoptic treatment of migration, identity and disruption during and after China’s Cultural Revolution in Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Sep 14, 21:00) will be a quick sell-out, but American Ottessa Moshfegh’s morbid tale of female empowerment, Eileen, is perhaps more entertainingly distinctive (Sep 16, 19:30). From the antipodes, Australian Charlotte Wood’s brilliant The Natural Way of Things is also a favourite (Sep 13, 18:00). Finally, for a “lusty” look at politicosexual identity, Exberliner resident cartoonist Ulli Lust opens this year’s Graphic Novel Day on Sep 10 presenting Wie ich versuchte, ein guter Mensch zu sein, the autobiographical sequel to her prize-winning debut.


Brush up on your “isms” at this year’s International Congress for Democracy and Freedom (September 8-10), where over 100 journalists, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists will debate the embattled state of democracy. Inspired in part by the 1935 International Congress of Writers in Defence of Culture and organised by the Peter Weiss Foundation, the Congress opens with a marathon English-language discussion entitled “The Long Night of Democracy: the State of Affairs”.

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Edward Snowden. Photo by John Valeron (CC-BY-4.0)

The 18 participants include opening speaker and globalization theoretician Arjun Appadurai, Polish publicist and former dissident Adam Michnik, Argentinian digital activist and co-founder of Open Collective Pia Mancini and – over Skype, of course – Edward Snowden. Other speakers over the following two days include German artist Katharina Grosse (What Can Art Do?), US-French social scientist Susan George (Some are More Equal than Others) and a rare appearance of GDR protest icon Wolf Biermann talking one-on-one with Ulrich Schreiber on the Friends and Foes of an Open Society.

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Marie NDiaye. Photo by Heike Steinweg


Following the success of his docu-fictive novel Oorlog en Terpentijn (War and Turpentine), named one of the 10 best books of 2016 by the New York Times, Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans has produced something equally distinct in De Bekeerlinge. An English translation is in the pipeline but if you want a head-start, catch Hertmans presenting the German translation Die Fremde (Sep 11, 21:00).

German journalist Norman Ohler caused an international ruckus with Blitzed, his analysis of drug use in the Third Reich. Cleverly changing gear, his latest work is a novel, Die Gleichung des Lebens, which packs a migrant narrative (Frederick the Great’s plans to settle refugees on flood-liable land to the east of Berlin) into thriller form (Sep 15, 21:00).

Prizewinning polyglot Marie NDiaye, a Berlin-based novelist and playwright of French-Senegalese descent, presents her latest foray into psychological acuity in the original French: La cheffe, roman d’une cuisinière (Sep 14, 19:30). In Die Hauptstadt Austrian writer Robert Menasse’s multi-strand narrative on the burial of Europe’s post-war ghosts argues subtly for a Eurocratic continent – albeit in desperate, mordant need of a personality (Sep 6, 20:30).

Finally, lauded French author and playwright Yasmina Reza closes the festival with a presentation of her latest novel Babylon (winner of the 2016 Prix Renaudot), in which a late middle-aged woman attends a seemingly innocuous birthday celebration that opens the floodgates of memory (Sep 16, 20:00).

The 17. International Literature Festival Berlin, Sep 6-16 | Haus der Berliner Festspiel, see website for full programme