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So Far Away, Yet Close By

September 10 – 19: Scholars from the Temporal Communities Cluster of Excellence Designed Readings and Discussions for the 20th international literature festival berlin (ilb)

Sep 14, 2020

Writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is Artist in Residence at the Temporal Communities Cluster of Excellence.

Writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is Artist in Residence at the Temporal Communities Cluster of Excellence.
Image Credit: Alvin Pang

A Kenyan writer talking with a fellow writer from Singapore: The conversation between Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Alvin Pang can be seen as part of this year’s international literature festival not only by Berliners who visit one of the venues in person, but also in a live stream worldwide. Because of covid-19, many writers were not able to travel to Berlin, read on stage, and sign books – but for this very reason, the festival this year, with its mix of digital and face-to-face events is perhaps more internationally networked than ever before.

Authors of the dialogue series “Global Encounters” or the readings series “Literatures of the World” speak to each other, even though they are far apart, sometimes even in other parts of the world. Viewers can bring the conversation into their living environment, into their homes.

At Her Desk in Nairobi instead of on Campus in Berlin

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, for example, who wanted to work on her new novel project as an Artist in Residence at the Temporal Communities Cluster of Excellence at Freie Universität is still in Nairobi. In an email interview she said, “I am living a virtual Berlin from my Nairobi desk. It is not the same as the viscerality of inhabiting a place, but perhaps the longing, the absence can enter my work as an emotion.”

A Kenyan who writes in English, Owuor became well known in Germany in 2016, when the German translation of her novel Dust was published (Der Ort, an dem die Reise endet). Her new novel, The Dragonfly Sea, will be published in German at the end of September (Das Meer der Libellen). Readings will not be able to take place for the time being.

Owuor writes in her email that she loves exchange with her audiences very much. In her new book she deals with coffee, and she has many questions for scholars in Germany about warehouses, shops, processors, or collections.

Although she misses face-to-face exchange, the digital conversation creates other encounters. Owuor has been actively using the possibilities of digital networking for many years, including as publisher and editor of the English-language online magazine The Elephant.

For the ilb, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor conducted a dialogue across the Indian Ocean, which connects Singapore and Kenya, with the poet and essayist Alvin Pang. The recorded conversation will be “broadcast” on Sunday, September 19, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. and later be available online.

The Cluster of Excellence is present at the festival with a total of eleven events. The “Global Encounters” series was designed by researchers from the cluster. The new format reflects a basic idea of the cluster: The focus of the conversations based on literature is intercultural exchange and textual correspondence across space and time.

Partnership between Cluster and international literature festival

A panel discussion (with simultaneous online transmission) “Don’t touch!” will take place as a face-to-face event in the “silent green Kulturquartier” in Berlin-Wedding, also on September 19. The writers Elisa Aseva and Sarah Berger as well as the journalist and publisher Christiane Frohmann will be present.

Sarah Berger, for example, uses her Tinder shorts to capture in short dialogues the absurdity of making dates on the dating platform. With her Pre-Raphaelite Girls Christiane Frohmann comments on the phenomenon of “mansplaining” in a wonderfully ironic way. “They use social media as a space to reflect on the limits and possibilities of these platforms,” explains Sara Ehrentraut, who coordinates the cluster’s partnership with the international literature festival.

A Different Proximity to the Text

The panel discussion will also be attended by literary and media scholar Roberto Simanowski, who in his books has dealt with the effects of digital technologies on social interactions. During the 2020/21 winter semester, he will conduct research at the cluster as a Distinguished Fellow and will teach a graduate class.

Nina Tolksdorf, who is a researcher at the Cluster of Excellence, will moderate the event. She deals with forms of digital authorship. She points out that, on the one hand, social media could create closeness to the writers by making it easy to talk to them and participate in the creation of  literature. On the other hand, people read differently in digital space.

She says, “The permanent presence of texts also means that you skim a lot. This creates a different proximity to the text.” This “different proximity” is not necessarily inferior than contemplative reading, which has long been the benchmark for “correct reading.”

This is an important discussion, also for the scholars of the Temporal Communities cluster, as Sara Ehrentraut points out: In past eras, but also in different cultures, there are different ways of dealing with literature beyond the supposedly classic logic of the printed book. There are other cultural practices, and the focus is not on intensive, immersive, and intimate reading.

New Need for Dialogue in Times of Corona

Has the Corona crisis change literature in digital space again, for example, because the usual forms of dealing with and promoting literature, such as readings, had to take place via the Internet? Sara Ehrentraut thinks that there is a new need for dialogue and that the classic format of giving readings has been changed. Literary scholar Lena Hintze is conducting research on this in a project at the cluster.

As Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor writes from Nairobi about her Asian-African “Global Encounter” at the Berlin literature festival: This is “definitely part of the surreality of our times. It is a very Daliesque world right now. Anything is possible, and the impossible has become realistic. ‘Strange’ as a word and adjective no longer applies to our humanity.”

The hybrid, networked festival this year is dealing with literature in a completely new way.

Further Information

Please note that you have to reserve a spot for the live stream. Special conditions apply to the face-to-face events. For details, see the website of the international literature festival berlin finden.
Complete list of all the events: here.