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International Literature Festival 2021: Berlin’s big book bash

The city’s one and only international literature festival is back, and as global and ambitious as ever. We pull apart its vast programme to bring you the events, authors and books you shouldn’t miss.

Image for International Literature Festival 2021: Berlin’s big book bash

The city’s one and only international literature festival is back, and as global and ambitious as ever. We pull apart its vast programme to bring you the events, authors and books you shouldn’t miss. Photo: ILB

Bookworms rejoice! This year’s edition of Berlin’s one and only international lit fest is shaping up well. After a long period spent adapting to the pandemic, it returns to predominantly in-person events: Most of September’s readings and panels will take place in the flesh, with around 130 authors from all corners of the world expected to tread the leisurely lawns of Wedding’s Silent Green, once a crematorium, now a lively events space.

As has become typical for festivals of this nature, the 21st ILB mixes literary exploration with hot-button political issues and current affairs. Our old pal corona gets a brief look-in – via a lecture by Melanie Brinckmann on the topic of communication during the pandemic (Sep 11, 18:00) – but otherwise this is a chance to get distracted by brilliant books and big ideas. Plus you can revel in the inexhaustible thrill of sitting near(-ish) other masked readers, while observing the verbal tics and unfashionable footwear of the authors we most admire.

Women to the fore

The headline theme of this year’s festival is worldwide misogyny and violence against women, with a strong series of readings and panels under the title ‘Words of Love and Hate: Frauenhass vs Female Empowerment’. Leïla Slimani, a Prix Goncourt-winning author whose work is highly attentive to gender, race, migration and class, will give an opening address (Sep 8, 18:00) on what it means for women to speak out at the present moment. (Its eyebrow-raising title, ‘Call for Crime’, could have been plucked from a graffiti wall – in a good way.) Slimani will follow up with a reading and conversation about her latest fictional work, The Country of Others, (Sep 8, 20:30; reviewed on page 44), unfortunately only in French and German.

The series is supported by an impressive roster of international perspectives. UK-born Berlinerin Priya Basil will be discussing misogyny, sexism and right-wing politics on a panel alongside Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste and German-Croatian writer Jagoda Marinić (Sep 10, 18:00). Prize-winning Anglo- Australian novelist Evie Wyld and Brazilian-Swiss author Patricia Melo will discuss femicide as a global concern and a literary phenomenon (Sep 15, 18:00), while Fernanda Melchor, star Mexican novelist and current Berlinerin thanks to the DAAD’s Artists-in-Berlin Programme, will present two of her novels in Spanish with German translation. In another potential highlight, North Macedonian author and gender activist Rumena Bužarovska will read from her novel My Husband (Sep 13, 19:30). Ultra-influential US author (and social media institution) Roxane Gay will make a virtual appearance.

Indigenous voices

Women also feature prominently in the event series ‘Echo. Echo. Indigenous Voices’, which emphasises the long-marginalised viewpoints of the world’s Indigenous authors. First off, Chilean author-philosopher Daniela Catrileo and US-American memoirist Toni Jensen, of Métis heritage, will discuss the political possibilities of Indigenous literature (Sep 16, 18:00).

Particularly promising is the Indigenous poetry night (Sep 17, 21:00), which will feature Catrileo alongside Berlin-based New Zealander Hinemoana Baker and Mexican author Pergentino José, in addition to live-streamed appearances from queer Canadian poet Billy-Ray Belcourt and Pulitzer Prize-winning Latina/Mojave American writer Natalie Diaz. But first, don’t miss legendary US author Louise Erdrich as she reads from her novel The Night Watchman, which won her the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (Sep 17, 18:00).

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John McWhorter has emerged as one of the more thoughtful critics of today’s antiracist movement in the United States. Photo: ILB

From cancel culture to colonial guilt

The festival’s other main theme is quite provocative: ‘Identity Politics and Wokeness – Totalitarianism of the “Left”?’ Its star guest is John McWhorter, a prominent Black American linguist who has emerged as one of the more thoughtful critics of today’s antiracist movement in the United States – although, granted, it’s not a hard field to stand out in. (His forthcoming book Woke Racism will criticise the rhetoric around ideas like ‘appropriation’ and ‘privilege’ as well as what he calls a new form of “racial essentialism”.)

McWhorter’s appearance begins with a lecture and discussion (Sep 9, 18:00) followed by a panel with French writer Olivier Guez and Sudanese-British journalist Nesrine Malik (Sep 9, 19:30).

Regular readers of anglophone magazines may feel fatigue at the prospect of polemicising US campus culture further, but hopefully the ILB’s events will shed fresh light on an issue that has a different resonance in Europe. If they don’t, we can all just have a laugh about the fact that the festival has invited Niall Ferguson, Ivy League historian turned Fox News pundit, who claimed that economist John Maynard Keynes’ theories were fatally flawed because Keynes – gay and childless – could not possibly have cared about the future.

If this focus on “wokeness” reflects discomfort with the growing cultural influence of the US, then a number of promising events question Europe’s – and indeed Berlin’s – place in the world from other perspectives. With the newly opened Humboldt Forum still finding its feet, ours is a vital time and place for such debates.

Catch Berlin-based art historian – and prominent Humboldt Forum critic – Bénédicte Savoy alongside bestselling historian Götz Aly and the multitalented German-born Ghanaian Nana Oforiatta Ayim at their panel on the political and curatorial dimensions of colonial-looted art (Sep 14, 18:00). Other events also address themes of colonialism, migration and asylum.

Of particular interest to bookish Berliners is a discussion on the future of Arabic-language lit in Europe, featuring Samuel Shimon, the Iraqi-British founder of Banipal magazine (Sep 9, 16:30). Berlin-based literature and translation collective WIESE will also present a poetry reading in German, Arabic and Turkish (Sep 12, 20:00, Strandburgtheater Tegelsee).

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Berlin-based New Zealander Hinemoana Baker will read from her award-winning poetry collection at this year’s ILB. Photo: ILB

New discoveries

Arguably, the greatest pleasure of a literary festival is not seeing authors you already know, but the chance to discover unfamiliar voices. For expats, that might mean German lit and European writers beyond the big headliners.

Literary wunderkind Pajtim Statovci, the Finnish-Kosovar finalist for last year’s National Book Award, will read from his latest novel Bolla, a queer love story set amid the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s (Sep 10, 19:00, Amerika Gedenkbibliothek). Another must-see rising star is French author Miguel Bonnefoy, who will read from his Franco-Chilean family epic Héritage (Sep 13, 21:00).

Ana Luísa Amaral, celebrated Portuguese poet and longtime translator of Emily Dickinson, will headline a poetry night with three others (Sep 10, 19:30), before performing a solo English-language reading from her collection What’s in a Name? (Sep 12, 21:00).

One especially interesting local discovery – or rediscovery – appears via the ILB’s innovative series of German-language events on Thomas Brasch, an East German author, poet and film director who fled the GDR in 1976 and lived in Berlin until his death in 2001. Expect screenings at the fsk Kino, plus a dramatic reading and musical performances by local artist Masha Qrella back at Silent Green.

On the festival’s final day, Qrella’s music will accompany a conversation between local author Annett Gröschner, visual artist Alexander Polzin and director Andreas Kleinert, whose feature film about Brasch will come out later this year (Sep 18, 19:30).

German-speakers can take advantage of the festival’s rich domestic line-up. Berlin-born  octogenarian Helga Schubert, surprise winner of last year’s Bachmann Prize, will read from her elegant prose memoir (Sep 15, 18:00), while Jackie Thomae – whose novel Brüder (‘Brothers’) on race and family in modern Germany was a runaway hit in 2019 – will give a lecture on the art of writing (Sep 11, 19:30).

Jenny Erpenbeck, a rumoured contender for the Nobel Prize, will be launching her new novel Kairos (Sep 16, 20:00, Babylon) – a fine opportunity to get an autograph, just in case she cracks the big one some day soon.

* Location is Silent Green unless otherwise stated. Individual tickets and day passes each tend to cost €10 (or €6 reduced).