Read!Berlin – new literature festival is here to stay

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Read!Berlin – new literature festival is here to stay

Last week, a new literature festival saw the light of day in Berlin: Read!Berlin

The chosen focus of this festival was writing in and about Berlin, a city perceived as a space of contradictions and longing, internationalisation, gentrification and many stories of migration (as the festival inventors claim on their website – link). The organisers also wanted to address the digitisation of contemporary societies and explore new forms of storytelling that might come out of it, including multimedia ones.

And indeed, the first event I went to see was a reading and discussion about “Tweet Poetry” (some impressions are available here: link). The display of funny and thought-provoking tweets about Berlin was entertaining, but the more interesting part came afterwards. The invited authors and the publisher were all interested in exploring new opportunities that digital publishing offers. Needless to say that it would have occurred to nobody there to divide texts into “e-books” and “real books” (you still hear that in other places, though…). Three authors (one of them is also a publisher) read from their texts in which they reflected about their writing on twitter. They also shared some thought with us on how some projects work better in an electronic format while others don’t – and how some publishers just copy and paste digital text to print media and then react surprised when it does not work…

Some other events during the festival were for example a panel with authors from Syria who shared stories of their lives in their home countries before and during the war, a discussion about TTIP, “literary walks” through the city, readings and talks with debut authors, a poetry slam as well as a number of launch events. If you’re interested in a full list, you can still access the programme here (link).

The festival closed with a special reading by the members of the quite recently founded group “Daughters & Sons of Gastarbeiter” (link). The authors Mehmet Ata, Ferda Ataman, Çiçek Bacik, Ebru Taşdemir, Zoran Terzic and Konstantina Vassiliou-Enz told us stories that were intrinsically linked to their lives in Germany as children of immigrant parents from Turkey, Greece and former Yugoslavia; parents, who were once welcomed by their new compatriots (the “aborigines”, as Zoran called them) when man- and womanpower was needed, but often discriminated against when these very same immigrants wanted to stay and raise their children here. The weird expression “guest worker” already hints at this complicated relationship: on the one hand they were seen as the workers the war-ridden country needed, but on the other hand as “guests” – with an emphasis on the temporariness of the stay… Anyway, enough of this digression, back to the lovely reading.

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Every person who read from the text they wrote for this evening brought an item they felt was linked to their stories and cultural identities. A little table was soon filled with Kolonya, Raki and Ouzo, Nivea creame (never to be forgotten on vacation trips to distant relatives), a cup of tea (not only to cherish the tea-drinking tradition, but also the tea-leaf reading), and some others.

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Kolonya, Raki and Ouzo, Nivea cream, tea etc. – items linked to the stories

The stories were very different in tone and style, but they were all very personal and touching. Some parts were hilariously funny, but – as you can guess – their accounts of being an immigrant in post-war Germany or a child of these immigrants was not always a bowl of cherries. When one author read a passage in which the exploitation of the so-called guest workers and the permanent damage to their psyche and health became apparent, you could hear a pin drop in the audience. I felt sympathy and shame. The author said later on that she (almost or not, I don’t remember) regretted to have agreed to read at the festival – and some of the others also expressed their unease about the public telling their own and their parents’ stories. However, in a way, they concluded, they also felt the need to tell their stories, more or less fictionalised memories, which resonated with many people in the audience who have similar family histories of migration. Stories they share with many people in Germany. Stories that are rarely told without hints of victimisation or patronizing attitudes. This evening was very special, also because it had a lot more of an oral tradition and seemed rather raw, i.e. not as streamlined by editors and publishers. Interestingly, although many of the “Daughters & Sons of Gastarbeiter” have worked their way up into established positions culture, politics, industries and society, their voices and stories are still relatively new in the German literary field.

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Zoran Terzic, Ferda Ataman, Çiçek Bacik, Christian Stahl, Ebru Taşdemir, Konstantina Vassiliou-Enz, Mehmet Ata (left to right)

I am very grateful to the authors for their contributions to this moving evening – and to the festival organisers who put together such an amazing bunch of people and exciting programme. I enjoyed to discover new creative ways to think about literature and storytelling. And I liked how the festival showcased and explored a variety of people and perspectives on Berlin – not only the “hipster” version, but also reflections about what it means to live in a metropolis full of diverse people and groups; how you can feel at home and a stranger at the same time. Their attention to new voices, in particular those who are often marginalised – e.g. “Gastarbeiter” families, Jewish authors and refugees – as well as new forms, experiments and e-publishing (in Germany not as developed as in the UK and US, yet, and often not acknowledged as “proper” literature) seems to have struck a chord in the Berlin literary scene. The organisers already indicated that they’d like to go for a second round next year. It would be great to see this festival become an established event in the Berlin calendar.

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Tucholsky book shop in Berlin-Mitte (Tucholskytr. 47, http://www.buchhandlung-tucholsky.de)

P.S.: There is more to come… The very last event in the Read!Berlin context will take place on Sunday, 10 May at the Tucholsky book store in Mitte. Lydia Davis, author, translator and winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2013, will read from her short story collection “Can’t and Won’t”, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). I’m excited to meet the author who Ali Smith calls her hero (link)!

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