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Bringing down the barriers at Literaturhaus Berlin

Since 2018, Sonja Longolius and Janika Gelinek have worked to transform this iconic literary Berlin institution.

Photo: Phil Dera

Founded in 1986, Literaturhaus Berlin is the oldest publicly funded institution of its kind in the German-speaking world. Under the stewardship of Gelinek and Longolius since 2018, the Literaturhaus – aka ‘Li-Be’ – has rebranded itself with a focus on diversity and accessibility, including events in English and other international languages.

When you took over, nearly six years ago now, what were your main priorities for the Literaturhaus?

Sonja Longolius: One of our most important goals was to bring down the barriers to entry, so that even more people feel comfortable coming to visit our beautiful house. After all, it’s such an imposing building – the villa, the fountain – and it’s here in the middle of Charlottenburg, where everything is rather chic.

And we thought it was so important to be able to say, okay, everyone who is interested in literature should be able to come in through this gate. That has meant things like holding a wide variety of events, inviting younger authors – as I said, bringing down the barriers. That was very important to us then, and it still is today.

And how’s it going?

Janika Gelinek: I feel we are now reaping the rewards a little bit, which is nice. One does notice how long it takes for word to get around – that we are an open house, that people can approach us, that we do many different kinds of events. And on good days, I have the feeling that, yes, actually, everybody is coming together here. People who are simply curious, or who just happened to have heard something. At the beginning, we threw a stone into a pond – and now the waves are spreading everywhere. But we aren’t finished yet.

You seem to be doing more events in languages other than German. Is that so?

SL: Actually, we just unveiled a new events flyer about this. Literature in Berlin – as Exberliner readers know – is not only taking place in German. We have so many authors in this city who write and speak and give events in a whole range of languages. And we are trying to host that here as well.

So we made an extra flyer listing out the events that take place in the original languages – plenty in English, but also French, Hungarian, Ukrainian. Sometimes there is simultaneous interpretation, too. We experimented with this a bit early on, and recently we have been doing it more regularly. Language is another barrier that we can maybe bring down.

That sounds very well-suited to a global city like Berlin…

JG: Last night, we had the Syria-born poet Lina Atfah reading here. And at one point, in conversation with the moderator, she said, “I am a German poet who writes in Arabic.” I’ve noticed a change in the city since we’ve been here, and I find it to be such a great paradigm shift – that it’s no longer about ‘foreign authors who live in Berlin’ but instead simply German authors, who just happen to write in different languages.

So, what are your priorities for the next five years?

SL: We have one major limitation at the moment, which is that our house is not accessible for disabled people – we don’t have an elevator, and that excludes a lot of people. So we are planning to fix that by the end of 2025. Then, in June 2026, the Literaturhaus has its 40th birthday! And that will, of course, be a massive celebration.

JG: We are also going to take the opportunity to hold events at various locations throughout the city. My hope is that, in five years, if someone doesn’t know what to do on any given evening, whether they are in Marzahn or Wiesdorf or Friedrichshain, they will think of the Literaturhaus Berlin.