Starting Thursday, Berlin is set to have it’s very first festival of African Literature, entitled “Writing in Migration”. The event will include 37 different writers and artists from diverse backgrounds, and includes more than 80 books, multiple panel discussions, concerts, West-African food experiences and more.
It comes at a time when migration is the hot-button issues in German society, and is intended to shed light on the perspective of African immigrants through stories from around the world.
For many of the festival’s featured artists, who are comprised of award winners like Chris Abani and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, the road to appreciation in Germany has been no easy task.
Expat or Migrant?
Musa Okwonga, a British multi-talent who is known for his poetry, journalism, fiction writing and music, says he has faced personal stigmatisation as an artist with African heritage.
Okwonga’s parents originally fled Uganda for England during a time of conflict in the country. Okwonga, who has lived in Berlin since 2014, was born and raised in London, where he went on to become a qualified lawyer before leaving his corporate job to pursue his dream of being a poet. Along the way, he has worked as a sports and political journalist, published a sci-fi novel, and is currently part of the band BBXO, who count Ed Sheeran among their fans.
Despite his British roots and numerous accolades, Okwonga explained that his experience abroad is very different than that of many of his British compatriots.
“My white friends do not call themselves immigrants, they call themselves 'expats.' I am not an expat, though – I am a migrant. I know what that means,” Okwonga told The Local, explaining the stigmatisation that comes along with being a black man in Europe.
“Part of this festival is trying to define what it was to be an immigrant on our own terms, because its definition in this country has taken our voice in the matter from us. To be a migrant or a refugee is a status, not a title,” said Okwonga. “You could be a refugee for six months in Germany, and you will be considered a refugee for the rest of your life.”
Musa Okwonga is an artist living in Berlin and performing in Berlin's African Book Festival. Photo: Musa Okwonga
African voices absent from school curriculum
The idea for “Writing in Migration” was born out of what Stefanie Hirsbrunner, co-founder of InterKontinental – the literary agency that is putting on the festival – sees as a hole within the German system concerning African talent.
“The German school system does not require students to read even one African author. It’s just not in the curriculum. For this reason, I am not surprised by the sheer amazement of German audiences when they see that this level of literature exists by African authors,” she says.
Hirsbrunner expressed her hope that “the festival is part of opening the stage and raising awareness that amazing work comes from the African continent.”
'Berlin is a city of extremes'
Berlin will play a very key role for the festival. It was chosen as the location not only for being Germany’s capital, but also for its reputation as an artistic hub. The city and Germany as a whole, however, have been criticised by many in the black community as not being accepting of African perspectives.
Okwonga explains that he sees Berlin as a place with two sides for those in the African community.
“Berlin is a city of extremes. The bad extremes are terrible,” claimed Okwonga, and went on to tell the story of his experience as a black resident of Germany's capital.
“There has been visible change… one of the worst experiences happened while I was leaving a football match. It was the first time a black man had started a game [as captain] for the German national team, so it was an amazing day for Germany….and then I head back home on the train in Westkreuz and a guy put up a Nazi salute (towards me) when he was getting off the train,” Okwonga said.
He attributes much of this increased racism to the rise of the political right, as well as events in recent German history. The New Year attacks in Cologne, where numerous women were sexually assaulted by predominantly immigrant men, Okwonga said, “had such a huge effect on German psyche, that the old trope of the black sexual predator has resurfaced. I am profiled openly as a predator because of my skin, so I have experienced this bias on a personal level.”
Berlin as a haven for outsiders
It is, however, the good side of Berlin that makes Okwonga hopeful about it’s future for the African community.
“Berlin is the only place I’ve been where everything cool in the art scene is run by queer women of colour. Anyone can come here and be a part of it. Because everyone in Berlin is a kind of outsider, everyone feels welcome,” he says.
He went on to say that, “the reason I am still here is because the good Germans are the most loyal, most friendly, empathetic people that I have met anywhere. The support I have from the regular people – that is why I am still here, because the good people are worth it.”
Concerning the prospect of a German audience, Okwonga added, “It is one of the reasons I am very excited for the festival to be in Berlin.”
36 of the acclaimed authors and speakers who will be featured in this year's Writing in Migration festival. Photo: InterKontinental.
Giving a stage for the African voice
The “Writing in Migration” festival will address many of the political themes facing migrants abroad, including panels about issues of feminism and how to correctly portray history from the African perspective.
Hirsbrunner said that she sees this festival as an important step for letting African people lead their own discourse concerning politics within German society.
“What is important is the space that white Germans allow for black or African voices…most of the time, German news tends to have German experts. If something happens in Turkey, for example, we will call on a German in Turkey to tell us what is happening. We don’t ask the Turkish. It’s a question of who we let speak,” she argues.
As for her role in the festival, Hirsbrunner said that as a white, German woman, she wants use her position to open the door for other people to speak.
“The idea is that, when you have this white privilege and you went through the process of realizing your own position, then you learn where it is that you can be of help. And that very well may not be on the stage – why don’t you just open the door for other people?”
For Okwonga, the existence of the festival itself may be of equal importance to the content held within.
“This festival is so important, not just to remind people that we are great writers, but that we are actually human,” said Okwonga. “I am really glad to have this platform to restate my humanity.”
The festival will be held at Babylon Theatre in Mitte, a historic location worthy of such a landmark festival.
Hirsbrunner stresses that this will be a festival in every sense of the word: visitors can expect dancing, food, music, t-shirt sales, book signings and even the coveted wristbands.
The two-day, three-night festival includes many not-to-be-missed events, said both Okwonga and Hirsbrunner, including a panel entitled “Between Myth and Trauma – How to write about the unspeakable” and the play “You Think You Know Me”.
Ending the festival on the night of the 28th will be a headline concert by Okwonga’s band BBXO, which will combine the theme of African migration with poetry and dance.
As to what they want visitors to take away, Okwonga was quite clear: “I want it to completely blow them away and give their friends 'FOMO' that they didn't make it. And I want them to come next year.”