Ulrich Schreiber: In 1998, I travelled to Erlangen to the Poetenfest, in 1999 to Medellin, Colombia, to the Poetryfestival and in the year after to Toronto, where I participated in the Harbourfrontfestival. It was a great experience to see all these international writers come together in one place. I thought: why does Berlin not have an international literature festival, underlining its international cultural spirit? That was how it all started.
US: Today, literature doesn’t always come in the same old familiar shape of the novel or the poem. Literature is generally more hybrid. In the past years, we have, for instance, organized events on the story-telling of video games, we have invited young song writers and spoken word artists and continue to present graphic novels and fabulous illustrators like Shaun Tan. Besides, the festival has always put an emphasis on the political stance of literature. We have, for instance, commissioned literary reportages on the situation of refugees worldwide. We have also asked authors to think about the future of artificial intelligence through short stories.
US: Some writers have told us that ilb is the most political festival they have ever been to. And this might be true. We organize collective readings for democracy and freedom and ask writers to take a political stance. Literature doesn’t need to be overtly political, but we encourage authors to speak out loud about politics and to engage the audience in a dialogue about the current situation.
US: The festival began in 2001. At the beginning, it was run in a DIY manner out of my flat. Over the past years, it has grown bigger and more professional. We started with 100 authors; now there are 150-200 coming to Berlin each September.
US: The Word Alliance is a coalition of some of the most influential literature festivals in the world. We exchange ideas amongst each other and try to work together wherever possible.
US: Literatures of the World is our core program section. We usually present approximately 50-80 authors from all over the world. Many of them haven’t been translated into German before and we commission short German translations of excerpts from their novels and poetry collections. For Berlin audiences this is a great chance to discover new writers they otherwise couldn’t understand. So I believe that translation is a very important art. A friend of mine, Vanni Bianconi, organizes a whole litfest around the idea of literary translation: It is called Babel. Check it out!
US: The literature of the past continues to shape contemporary literature. Writers are inspired by writers who are not living anymore. We wanted to pay tribute to this. In the past years we have dedicated events to better and lesser known authors, for instance W.G. Sebald, Lucia Berlin, James Baldwin and the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.
US: We have, in fact, an evening called New German Voices that presents two German authors who have just published their first novel or story collection. Among them have been writers such as Fatma Aydemir, Bettina Wilpert, Senthuran Varatharajah, and in 2019 Miku Sophie Kühmel and Emanuel Maeß. All of them have won important literary awards in Germany.
US: It seems to me that German literature is becoming more diverse. There are new voices that haven’t been heard as much before. For instance, queer authors and authors who haven’t been born in Germany or whose parents stem from somewhere else. There is a new richness of experience as well as a political drive in contemporary writing.
US: Berlin is a vibrant city that has always attracted authors. And rightly so. In addition to its rich independent scene, the city has many beautiful venues that celebrate literature and offer a space for cultural discourse. We see our festival as being part of this network. We regularly cooperate with other institutions like Brecht-Haus, Literaturhaus Berlin, LCB and the American Academy, both set a little bit outside of town by the shore of Wannsee, and the Central Library – to name just a few of them.
US: I was born in Solingen – a town near Cologne. As a young man, I worked as a mason. Before founding the international literature festival in 2001, I did many other things: I studied and worked as a construction engineer, trained to become a teacher for Politics and Russian, edited a cultural magazine… Since 1973 I live in Berlin.
US: Cool, hot, slowly, thinking on future, thinking on the past.
Schreiber is a member of the PEN Centre Germany. Together with Hans Ruprecht, cultural manager from Berne, Ulrich Schreiber is the founder of the Odessa International Literature Festival, which took place for the first time in Ukraine in 2015. He lives in Berlin.