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ILB 2021: A bumper day of cultural interchange

The ILB’s bumper program for Sunday, September 12 was marked by a rich cultural interchange between the United States and Europe.

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ILB 2021: British writer Sharon Dodua Otoo spoke with customary eloquence and wit about how it felt to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a teenager. Photo: IMAGO / Horst Galuschka

Graphic Novel Day returned to Silent Green’s picturesque Kupelhalle for its second day with a series of fascinating presentations, elegantly accompanied by images and videos projected on the screen. Nigeria-born Berliner Elnathan John introduced his satire on the suburbs of Lagos; Italian author Davide Reviati and his translator did the same for his book, Spit Three Times. But a highlight was the appearance of US-American Amy Kurzweil, who provided a glimpse into how she researched, wrote and conceptualised her graphic family memoir Flying Couch. This book, a story of three generations of Jewish women, interweaves Kurzweil’s investigations into her grandmother’s experience of the Holocaust with her personal experience of the family.

Kurzweil, whose cartoons also appear in The New Yorker and The Believer, was insightful and self-deprecating, showing some of her earliest clumsy attempts at the same novel in addition to pictures of her illustrations as they develop from draft to final. With reference to the theorist Marianne Hirsch’s idea of “post-memory” writing, Kurzweil explained that the project attracted her as a way to claim some agency against the background of her family’s traumatic past. Especially interesting were her reflections on historical research, and on how she tried to to make explicit the gap between what she knew and what she had imagined. The multimedia presentation format helped Kurzweil elaborate on the point, showing with examples how Flying Couch’s coexisting visual styles – sometimes cartoonish, sometimes photorealistic – helped her address the post-memory question.

Later on, the Bosnian-born US author Aleksander Hemon read from his own (non-graphic) family memoir, My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You. Hemon is a veteran ILB participant, here for the fourth time this year. His event used a classically bilingual ILB format – introduction in German, author speaking in English, and readings both from Hemon (original) and voice actor Frank Arnold (Henning Ahren’s German translation). Arnold, in particular, was seriously impressive in carrying across Hemon’s lively, ironical, big-hearted prose.

Again, intergenerational trauma and the instability of memory were major themes. Hemon’s book is actually two books – opened from the front, you read a conventional narrative memoir about his family, particularly his parents’ flight from war-torn to a new life in Canada; and from the back, you find a collection of fragments drawn from Hemon’s own memory. “Instead of cramming them into an organised narrative,” Hemon explained of the fragments, “I just decided to let them be. So both the books complement each other nicely: they’re two different ways of remembering.” Hemon is a remarkably accomplished author for someone who writes in a second language. He identifies as “pathologically bilingual”, somebody condemned to the unsettling yet productive experience of seeing things in several ways at once. “To pass between languages in your mind,” he said, “you’re constantly translating – not for precision, but for transformation. And that’s the creative potential of languages.”

The direction of traffic was eventually reversed with a fascinating panel – part of the ILB’s Speak, Memory! series on the influence of now-deceased authors – named Insights from a Master: Writing after Toni Morrison. Here Ethiopian-American author Maaza Mengiste and Kurdish-German novelist Karosh Taza joined Berlin locals Sharon Dodua Otoo and Sasha Marianna Salzmann to discuss Morrison’s legacy within and beyond the specific context of 20th-century USA. The event opened with a video recording of Jesmyn Ward’s eulogy at Toni Morrison’s funeral in 2019, which paid tribute to the inspiration that Black American women have found in Morrison’s writing: thanks to her work, Ward said, “we knew it was possible to write with such careful love, and to be loved”. Yet, as this panel showed, Morrison’s craft and vision has reached marginalised people far beyond the shores of the USA.

Sharon Dodua Otoo spoke with customary eloquence and wit about how it felt to read Beloved as a teenager, having previously only read books designed for a white audience. Morrison, Otoo said, showed her that she could be intended as a reader – and ultimately inspired her to become a writer herself. Black people in fiction by white authors are often portrayed as suffering victims who should be pitied, she added. “But Beloved does something completely different with these figures: they have humanity, they love, they kill, they do all these things.”

Mengiste paid tribute to Morrison’s use of language – “How is it possible that someone puts thunder into words?” – while Salzmann, who is nonbinary and Jewish, reflected on the influence of Morrison’s scholarly work in shaping their own critical stance towards the German literary industry: “Being othered,” Salzmann said, “had been so natural to me.” But perhaps the best line of the night came from Taza, when asked how she responds to white German critics who ask her why she keeps writing about Kurdish people rather than the mainstream. “I quote Toni Morrison at them,” she said, laughing.