Now in its fifth year running, taking place from 25-27 August in the Alte Münze at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, the African Book Festival Berlin, organised by the team at InterKontinental, serves as a vital platform for African literature in Berlin’s — and Germany’s — literary scene. Its presence not only introduces Berlin’s audience to diverse narratives, but also to some of the star writers from the continent. The organisers have a clear aim: to remedy the lack of African literature found on German bookshelves. They note that of the more than 60 books presented at the ABF 2023, only 14 have so far been translated into German, despite the fact that many have received recognition from various international literary awards. Indeed, in 2021, the Booker Prize, International Booker Prize, Neustadt International, Prix Goncourt, Nobel Prize for Literature as well as the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade were all awarded to African writers! Yet, when Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah — author of ten novels, as well as numerous essays and articles — received the Nobel Prize for Literature, some German media responded with the question “Wer kennt Abdulrazak Gurnah?” [Who knows Abdulrazak Gurnah?] Gurnah writes in English, and his latest work Afterlives was only translated into German by Eva Bonné, as Nachleben, after the award. This case is demonstrative of why an African Book Festival is so important for a German audience.
Tackling the problem head on, alongside their work on the festival, InterKontinental established a publishing house in 2022, and have already released six translations, including Fred Khumalo’s Bevor wir sterben, tanzen wir [Dancing the Death Drill], Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Die Erste Frau [The first woman], and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s Haus aus Stein [House of Stone]. The publishing house, and the festival both indicate a demand and growing interest in African stories. The African Book Festival offers a wonderful platform for those who share this enthusiasm, and creates space to connect people in Europe and Africa, allowing for cultural exchange that empowers participants to broaden their perspectives.
Usually the festival is curated by a writer from the continent: for example, renowned Zimbabwean writer and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, curated the festival in 2019, with the theme “Transitioning from Migration”, and popular Angolan musician and writer Kalaf Epalanga was festival curator in 2021, focussing on “Telling the Origin Stories”. In February this year, peace prize winner, human rights activist, writer and former Guantanamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi Houbeini was announced as curator, with the year’s festival theme focussed on the idea of “Breaking Free”. The announcement was however shortly followed, and promptly overshadowed, by reports from newspapers like Taz and Frankfurter Allgemeine, which reported on Houbeini with a notable lack of objectivity. Reflecting the heightened sensitivity to debates around Islamophobia, the public discussion quickly degenerated, with allegations going so far as to refer to him as a jihadist. Unwilling to have such debates overshadow the festival itself, InterKontinental elected to rescind, “with regret” his curatorial invitation. This may be something of a lost opportunity to confront some of the most difficult and pressing questions that face a post-migrant Germany.
Nevertheless, once again, the Festival’s programme boasts readings, panel discussions, book specials across three stages, as well as live music, an extensive book table and African food trucks and market stalls selling fashion, arts and crafts. There are well-known faces who are returning with new books, established figures and promising young talents. With a total of 32 authors, literary experts, artists and moderators, this year’s event includes writers like Leila Aboulela, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Laila Lalami and C.A. Davids.