Litprom under fire
In an open letter first published on Arablit.org and signed by more than 1200 authors, editors and publishers, the organisers of the German LiBeraturpreis, non-profit association Litprom, which enjoys the support of the Frankfurt Book Fair, faced stinging criticism.
Originally scheduled for 20 October, during the Frankfurt Book Fair, the awarding of the LiBeraturpreis 2023 to Palestinian author Adania Shibli for her controversial novel Minor Detail in its German translation has been postponed to a date as yet unspecified.
"At a time when the fair has issued a statement saying it wants to make Israeli voices 'especially visible at the fair', they are closing out the space for a Palestinian voice", the open letter read. It was signed, among others, by Nobel Prize winners Annie Ernaux, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Olga Tokarczuk and Booker Prize winner Anne Enright.
The postponement was a "scandal", Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek declared at the opening of the book fair. A public discussion with Adania Shibli and her translator Guenther Orth was also cancelled.
Nach dem bestialischen Angriff von Hamas-Terroristen auf Israel mehren sich Stimmen, die die Auszeichnung für Adania Shibli auf der Frankfurter Buchmesse kritisieren. Aber: "Kein Buch wird anders, besser, schlechter oder gefährlicher, weil sich die Nachrichtenlage ändert." /2 pic.twitter.com/V5q8Yb0S6q
— PEN Berlin (@pen_berlin) October 13, 2023
[Translation: In the wake of the bestial attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists, a growing number of voices have criticised the planned award ceremony for Adania Shibli at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But: "No book becomes different, better, worse or more dangerous because the news situation changes."]
Shibli not involved in postponement plans
Cancelling cultural events is "not the way forward", say the authors of the open letter. "We recall the Frankfurt book fair supporting Turkish publishers, and how last year Ukrainian president Zelensky spoke to the fair in a pre-recorded address." The Frankfurt Book Fair has "a responsibility to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections (…) not shutting them down", the letter went on.
“One of the purposes of literature is to encourage understanding and dialogue between cultures," the letter quoted Shibli's British publisher Jacques Testard from Fitzcarraldo as saying. "At a time of such horrific violence and heartbreak, the world’s biggest book fair has a duty to champion literary voices from Palestine and Israel."
In addition to the postponement of the award ceremony itself, the open letter also condemned the spreading of falsehoods: "Due to the war in Israel" it was decided "together with the author" to cancel the planned award ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Litprom website read on 13 October.
According to the open letter, this is wrong – Adania Shibli was not even asked whether she agreed to postponing the award ceremony. The decision was presented to her as a fait accompli. Had the ceremony taken place, she would have "taken the opportunity to reflect on the role of literature in these terrible, cruel times", Shibli is quoted as saying in the open letter. In the meantime, corrections have been made on the association's website; there is no longer any mention of Shibli's involvement in the cancellation.
A book is either worthy of an award or not
According to Litprom, the award itself, an award for authors from the Global South whose books are newly published in German, was "at no time in question" – despite criticism of Shibli's novel "Eine Nebensache" (Minor Detail), which some have accused of anti-Semitic narratives. "Litprom firmly rejects the accusations and defamation levelled against the author and the novel in parts of the press as unfounded in terms of content", the organisation confirmed on its website.
Shibli's novel is a "rigorously composed work of art that deals with the potency of borders and what violent conflicts do to people". The LiBeraturpreis jury had already made its decision many months before the Islamist Hamas attack on Israel.
Author's association PEN Berlin had previously commented on the criticism of the book. "No book becomes different, better, worse or more dangerous because the news situation changes," said PEN Berlin spokesperson Eva Menasse. "A book is either worthy of an award or not. In my opinion, the jury's decision to honour Shibli, which was made weeks ago, was a very good one. To withdraw the prize from her would be politically and literarily fundamentally wrong."
Born in 1974, the author Adania Shibli lives and works in Germany and Jerusalem. In 2021, she held the Friedrich Duerrenmatt Guest Professorship for World Literature at the University of Bern. "Eine Nebensache" (Minor Detail), her first book to be published in German, was shortlisted for the International Literature Prize in 2022. The English translation was nominated for the National Book Award (2020) and the International Booker Prize (2021).
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