Gouri Sharma reflects on the success of the first African literature festival in Berlin and how it has opened the door to more festivals of its kind in the city

Late last month, Berlin hosted its first ever African Literature festival Writing in Migration. Around 40 prominent authors from the African continent and diaspora got together in the city for the first time, and the discussions ranged from colonialism, African identity and as per the title of the festival, writing in migration.

Writing in Migration African Book Festival, photo by Esther Heller

 It was a busy three days – alongside the talks were intimate one-on-one sessions with authors like Chris Abani, Bernardine Evaristo and JJ Bola, and performances from Muso Okwonga and Krisz Kreuzer’s group BBXO. Considered a success, it’s paved the way for more events like this in the city, and, with an emphasis on women writers, set the tone for future African literary festivals.

 

The future of African literature is women

One of the major takeaways from the festival was how women are shaping – and look set to dominate – the African literary scene in the future.

There was a strong focus on women in the festival – with feminist topics, women writers and women characters taking centre stage. It was also reflected in the number of women who participated – of the festival’s 37 guests, 22 were women. Curator Olumide Popoola said this wasn’t deliberate. She told Media Diversified: “When I thought of who to invite all these amazing women popped up in my mind. But of course that also has to do with recognising excellence in women and remembering it and not looking towards men as a default. Women are definitely shaping the literary world and doing many exciting things.”

Jana Pareigis, Olumide Popoola and Chris Abani at the festival opening ceremony. Photo by Esther Heller

 It was a sentiment shared by Chris Abani, the award-winning Nigerian writer who has penned a number of internationally renowned works, including The Secret History of Las Vegas and Becoming Abigail. During the opening ceremony, the headliner spoke about the quality of work between his male and female students during his writing workshops. He spoke about how men displayed more of an ego when it came to writing, while the women in his class were telling better stories, because he said, women tend to listen more. He was among the first declare that he sees the future of African literature being women-led.

Hirsbrunner said the theme was one of the highlights. “The Saturday panel chaired by Zukiswa Wanner with Jessica Horn and Chika Unigwe in conversation – The F- Word, Women Shaping the Literary field was an excellent exploration of feminism on the continent and in literature from Africa.”

And it’s these types of conversations that Popoola hopes will continue now that the festival is over. She added: “Firstly there are the personal thoughts and conversations people are having post-festival, which will disseminate into our work, perhaps even “undetected”. I hope people will refer to it in their blog posts, in articles and similar. And we will have more conversations, it is a continuous discussion that is added to all the time. That is the nature of festivals and conferences: topics get picked up and spoken about that have come up in the past. This is how we have an ongoing discussion.”

Berlin’s first African literary festival

One of the big questions that came up throughout the weekend was why had it taken so long for the German capital to host such an event.
Considered a success, it’s paved the way for more events like this in the city, and with an emphasis on women writers, set the tone for future African literary festivals

The timing, some commentators said, is a reflection of what is happening in wider German mainstream society. As the country’s large Afro-Deutsch community continue to raise issues around racism, German identity and the country’s cruel colonial legacy in Africa, events like this are growing in demand. As one festival attendee Rahel Jankowski told Media Diversified: “I think it is happening now because there are possibilities alongside the strength of certain people to address, think differently and say there are many things here that we as a society need to look at.”

The organisers, a leading publisher of African literature to German-speaking readers called InterKontinental, said the image of Africa among German audiences is something that needs to be addressed. As they said in the official press release: “The books by writers coming to “Writing in Migration“ are rarely stocked in German bookshops. A lopsided depiction of Africa as the continent of wildlife and savannas and simultaneously as a place of poverty, exodus, female genital mutilation or child soldiers is continued in bookshops and the media and perpetuates prejudice.

Kenyan author Mukoma wa Ngugi was one of the speakers. Photo by Elisabeth Schmit

 “Moreover the authors are rarely represented in the German media, while they feature frequently in interviews or reports and contribute constantly in intellectual debates in many other parts of the world. Their ideas, knowledge and perspectives are at the centre of the festival – precisely because in Germany they are usually marginalised.”

 

 The organisers are keen for the event to happen annually, and will work with a different curator and theme each time to allow for a focus on a different African region, genre and language.

InterKontinental’s Stefanie Hirsbrunner said: “We hope that the stories and perspectives shared at Writing in Migration will inspire the audience to read more African writers and to allow future debates to not be one-sided but rather truly diverse and international.”  

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Gouri Sharma spent five years working on the production desk of Al Jazeera’s flagship media critique show, Listening Post. She is now freelancing in Berlin for international media outlets, writing on issues of identity, colonialism and culture within the context of current affairs.

Twitter: @Gouri_Sharma


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