The Resonanzen Literature Festival in Recklinghausen in May 2022 was the first festival dedicated to Black writing in German that took place in a mainstream or white institution. It was hosted by Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen and curated by the novelist and activist Sharon Dodua Otoo, who published her first German novel Ada’s Raum (S. Fischer, 2021) last year and won the prestigious Bachmann Prize in 2016. Sandra van Lente attended all three festival days and shares some of her impressions with Literary Field Kaleidoscope.
As this is a blog, I feel it’s ok to start with this: I loved the Resonanzen Literature Festival, was totally blown away by the texts and authors, the jury and the encounters and kept thinking about the conversations for weeks after the last author had left.
But let me give you some more context: It’s not a secret that Black writers in Germany are underrepresented on publishers’ lists as well as at festivals. Hadija Haruna Oelker writes: “Black German writing has a long tradition in Germany. However, the German literary industry has hardly taken note of it.” (link to full article (in German) in the link list below). Those who are published then are often pigeonholed, exoticized, their imagination and skills expected to be limited to commenting on racism… In reviews or interviews, (white) journalists too often focus on the authors’ biographies or activism instead of focusing on the literary qualities of the books (Maryam Aras describes something similar for German-Iranian authors on 54books (link below)).
So, with a nod to Toni Morrison, Sharon Dodua Otoo told us she created the festival that she wanted to attend, but that didn’t exist. Turns out: many of us were looking for the same thing.
In an interview with Isabella Caldard for 54books, Sharon Otoo said: “Resonance is a beautiful word to describe what Black people lack in majority white spaces,” crediting Katja Kinder from the Black queerfeminist association ADEFRA for the title’s inspiration. So with Resonanzen, Otoo did something new for a major venue: an all-Black jury discussing texts by Black writers writing in German. And the Ruhrfestspiele believed in her vision, got behind it and paid Otoo to curate the festival. Otoo wrote on Twitter: „#Resonanzen22 is intended to be an enhancement to existing spaces, it is a place for Black authors and Black literature critics to breathe. It is intended as an intervention, an exploration of what is possible when the constraints of the dominant perspective are removed.“ (link to tweet). And it worked.
So what happened in Recklinghausen from 19-21 May 2022? The overall set up might remind you of the Bachmann Preis – authors reading, jury discussing – but there was at least one major difference: it was not a competition and there was no winner. (Or you could argue we all were winners for being there to share the experience, but you know what I mean.) At Resonanzen, the focus was on visibility, appreciation, nuanced literary criticism and an engagement with Black narratives. And celebration!
After some warm welcoming words and some insights into the origin story by the artistic director of Ruhrfestspiele, Olaf Kröck, and Sharon Dodua Otoo, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Pierrette Herzberg-Fofana gave inspiring keynotes, both honouring the authors and activists – among them Dualla Misipo and Ika Hügel-Marshall, May Ayim und Katharina Oguntoye – who had done important work in the past, challenging the narrative that Black writing in German was a “new thing”, and highlighting the role of literature for individuals and communities.
I have expressed my love an admiration of Alexandra Antwi-Boasiako before (this year she was also the Ambassador and one of the moderators for the African Book Festival in Berlin, among other great projects of hers), and her work as MC was wonderful, once more.
On the first evening, we were invited to the reading by Ada Diagne, a writer from Austria who won the Young Storyteller Award in Vienna in 2021. She read from her short story collection “Menschen. Life is a Story”, stories that were set in Senegal, snapshots into people’s everyday lives, touching on gentrification as well as colonial heritage and the power of creativity.
Musical resonances and joy were created by Joyce Nuhill and Tim Schmiedner (filling in on the first day for heartbroken Malonda, who fell ill) as well as the String Archestra on the last day (link to their site – hands down the best I have heard in a while, amazing choice of composers and pieces with lots of humour) and of course DJ Doctor Love.
The team of the Ruhrfestspiele was very welcoming and friendly and the whole venue and environment rather down to earth (which might be due to the festival’s history, rooted in a secret collaboration between miners and performers in the post-WWII period – “Kunst für Kohle”, or “art for coal” and the idea that the working-classes enjoy art, too).
I was impressed how the whole festival was created to be thoroughly inclusive. Sharon Otoo undoubtedly has a talent for this, but it’s not just a skill you have or don’t. It’s a choice. And she always makes an effort to make people feel welcome, consider what could pose an obstacle and dismantle it. Full disclosure: we work together now, kind of kicked off after our encounter at Resonanzen where, together with Maryam Aras, I live-tweeted for the Ruhrfestspiele. And Sharon’s consequent efforts to knock down barriers and be as inclusive as possible was one thing (in addition to her literature that I greatly admire) that drew me to her.
A kaleidoscope of Black German writing
The six authors and their texts featured in the festival were (in order of appearance):
Raphaëlle Red: “Calvins Väter”
Joe Otim Dramiga: “Adlam”
Bahati Glaß: “Das Geschenk meines Vaters“
Winni Atiedo Modesto: „Loslassen“
Melanelle B. C. Hémêfa: “O le gbo gnea”
Dean Ruddock: “pareidolie”
You can find details about the authors via the first link below. I decided to not say much about the individual texts and it’s not out of a lack of appreciation. Quite the contrary. Seriously, I worked on this blog for a while but was constantly panicking that I won’t do justice to the authors and their texts, so now you’ll have to read them yourselves.
But I would like to share my excitement and one or two observations: Some topics appeared in more than one text, e.g. the influence of heritage and interactions with it, the cultural and personal significance of hair or caring for others, but the voices, style and genres were completely different. From a child’s perspective set around the destruction of the Berlin Wall written in a realist mode to an afrofuturist text in which we leave the earth but cant’s get rid of its destructive essence (to paraphrase juror Aminata Cissé Schleicher). One text in particular haunted me for days after I returned home, another one left me with a sense of connection that I would like to go back to. All texts had in common that they were incredibly dense and there was so much going on that one time listening to it was not enough to grasp all of it. Which was partly due to the poetic language, but in some cases also references I think I did not always get right away.
So I’m really looking forward to the upcoming publication and my simple recommendation is: Read the book. It contains the texts by the six authors mentioned above, short stories by Ada Diagne, but also the conversations of the jury, the speeches, some brilliant photos of the event and some more contextualisation. The book will be published by Spector Books any minute now:
„Resonanzen. Schwarzes Literaturfestival. Eine Dokumentation.“ edited by Jeannette Oholi, Sharon Dodua Otoo and Ruhrfestspiele. Published by Spector Books 2022. (https://spectorbooks.com/resonanzen-schwarzes-literaturfestival – book description on website in English and German; book in German]
And on Saturday, 22 October, there is a wee book presentation and celebration at the Bildungsstätte Anne Frank in Frankfurt am Main (link to event page). So if you’re around, please join in.
In addition to the writers, the jury turned this festival into something really special. The jurors were translator and activist Aminata Cissé Schleicher, publisher and writer Elisa Diallo, curator and “Erinnerungskultur”-Expert Ibou Coulibaly Diop and author, translator and Missy Magazine editor Dominique Haensell (for details about the jurors see first link below).
They managed to contextualise and analyse the texts in a way that is rarely seen. Their close reading revealed many facets I had missed during the first reading/listening and made me want to read or listen to them again. They talked about plot as well as craft, about how the artistic choices were intertwined with the political aspects of the text – and they engaged with the authors in a way you rarely see (if ever). It felt like a break from the everyday life.
‘Heritage’ was the prompt or Impulswort of the festival. There were lots of direct and indirect references to heritage in the stories, but also in the speeches and the festival’s ‘mission’. Jeannette Oholi shared a very personal account in her blog (link below) about what this means to her, how she sees herself as an heiress of Black German writing and how this is an integral part of German history and society that must not be forgotten.
In addition to the texts, conversations and keynotes, there were several occasions in which heritage was made visible, not least via the team of the Theodor Wonja Michael Bibliothek from Cologne that informed about their work and also brought some of their books. The wonderfully filled book table from an indie bookshop in Recklinghausen also contributed to it, too. Noura Asfaha, diversity trainer, translator, editor and activist, had the challenging task of summing up the festival. And she also made sure to highlight continuities and connections as well as other initiatives active in this context, like e.g. the Each One Teach One Archive in Berlin (link to the EOTO website). And journalist René Aguigah emphasised how the festival made links between generations visible and defied the notion that notion that the combination of Black and German didn’t go together or was only a recent phenomenon. In many ways, there was a huge awareness of the shoulders the writers and activists were standing on and who worked on similar solutions in the field.
Coverage and Resonance
The coverage of Resonanzen was wonderful content-wise and I included the articles, radio and videos in a list below. It’s just also interesting to see which newspapers etc. did not cover the festival. I know, space is limited, but I wonder if editors and journalists didn’t know, didn’t care or thought they were not qualified? No way to find out, I guess. The people I spoke to in Recklinghausen all expressed how happy they felt at having been a part of the Resonanzen festival, more than one person described it as empowering and healing. And Jeannette Oholi asks in her blog: „What would be possible in literary studies and the publishing industry if hearts and ears were as open as they were during this festival?”
My head was still spinning for days and I returned to Berlin with a heart full of hope and lovely memories. Everybody I talked to at the festival and afterwards expressed similar feelings and I think it’s fair to say that we all would like to experience this again. So, dear literary institutions, fancy following this good practice example?!
I would like to give the last words to Sharon Otoo and Jeannette Oholi: “This is not the end, this feels like a beginning,” Sharon said in her concluding speech. And in their editorial to the book, Jeannette Oholi and Sharon Dodua Otoo pass the baton inviting us to create resonance ourselves: “Schaffen Sie selbst Resonanzen”.
Read / listen to more:
Biographies of all people involved in #Resonanzen22 (writers, jury members, advisors, etc.): https://www.ruhrfestspiele.de/programm/2022/resonanzen-schwarzes-literaturfestival-2 (last access 20 October 2022).
Isabella Caldart: „Türen öffnen – Interview mit Sharon Dodua Otoo über das Schwarze Literaturfestival Resonanzen.“ 54 books 12 May 2022. https://www.54books.de/tueren-oeffnen-interview-mit-sharon-dodua-otoo-ueber-das-schwarze-literaturfestival-resonanzen/ (last access 16 July 2022).
[text, in German]
A conversation between Hadija Haruna-Oelker and Sharon Dodua Otoo about the motivation behind the festival and the German book industy: „Man könnte meinen, Diversity war May ein kurzlebiger Trend.“ Frankfurter Rundschau 17 May 2022. https://www.fr.de/kultur/literatur/sharon-dodua-otoo-man-koennte-meinen-diversity-war-ein-kurzlebiger-trend-91553201.html (last access 16 July 2022).
[text, in German]
One of my personal favourite accounts of #Resonanzen22: Jeannette Oholi: “Resonanzen – Eine Reflexion.“ DDGC Blog (Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum) 27 June 2022. https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/ddgc-blog/resonanzen-eine-reflexion (last access 16 July 2022).
[text, in German] The „Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum” blog is also great: https://diversityingermancurriculum.weebly.com/
René Aguigah: „‚Resonanzen – Schwarzes Literaturfestival‘: ein Rückblick.“ Deutschlandfunk Kultur 23 May 2022. https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/resonanzen-schwarzes-literaturfestival-ein-rueckblick-dlf-kultur-6d07bd95-100.html (last access 16 July 2022).
[radio broadcast, in German, 13min]
Ayna Li Taira: „Dieses Literaturfestival feiert Schwarze Autor:innen der deutschen Belletristik.“ Vogue Germany 20 May 2022. https://www.vogue.de/kultur/artikel/literaturfestival-resonanzen-schwarze-autorinnen (last access 16 July 2022).
[text, in German]
Mareike Graepel: „Ruhrfestspiele: Von der unendlichen Vielfalt der Schwarzen Literatur“ Recklinghäuser Zeitung 25 May 2022. https://www.recklinghaeuser-zeitung.de/kreis-re/ruhrfestspiele-von-der-unendlichen-vielfalt-der-schwarzen-literatur-w1757431-6000190862/ (last access 16 July 2022).
[text, in German]
Maryam Aras: „Braune Held*innen, große Literatur – ‚Das Paradies meines Nachbarn‘ von Nava Ebrahimi und das weiße Feuilleton.“ 54books 5 July 2020. https://www.54books.de/braune-heldinnen-grosse-literatur-das-paradies-meines-nachbarn-von-nava-ebrahimi-und-das-weisse-feuilleton/ (last access 1 August 2022). – her other texts on 54books are great, too!
[text, in German]
Philipp Khabo Koepsell could not attend the Festival, but here is a recording of him in conversation with Kenya-based blogger James Murua and Angolan author Ondjaki, critically commenting on the German literary field and possible navigation strategies for Black authors from his perspective. https://youtu.be/v-gd7w3Gedk (last access 16 July 2022).https://www.jamesmurua.com/patreons-ondjaki-philipp-khabo-koepsell-livestream-abubakar-adam-ibrahim-podcast/[video, in English, approx. 1 hour]
Also a great resource: “James Murua’s Literature Blog” – Archiving African and Black Literature, with lots of interviews, articles, etc.: Link to Blog
A short video about the Ruhrfestpiele 2022 by the public broadcast service WDR. Sharon Dodua Otoo speaks about the importance of storytelling – and the importance that “our stories become louder than the populist ones” that have become so loud. And about the importance of an inclusive literary field. „Ruhrfestspiele 2022 setzen Zeichen für Vielfalt und gegen Rassimus | Westart | WDR“ WDR Youtube Channel 18 May 2022. https://youtu.be/_2YXbfvMFRI (last access 16 July 2022).[video, in German, 3:37min]
And don’t miss: Sharon Dodua Otoo’s Opening Speech of the Ruhrfestspiele 2022. 3 May 2022. https://vimeo.com/706996111 (last access 20 October 2022).[video, in German, 22min]
Bonus material for scrolling all the way down 😊 There was also a playlist to get the audience in the mood for the festival: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6SEcRTd4nroj1TqqjGywXI?si=m-VGeXJWSkSXN-4LCgk7bQ&utm_source=copy-link&nd=1 (last access 20 October 2022).