African Literature Festival in Stuttgart
With more than 40 authors, the festival „Membrane“, subtitled „African Literatures and Ideas“, was the biggest event so far in the 18-years-history of Literaturhaus Stuttgart. This came about, because Stefanie Stegmann, the director of the house, in a joint program two years ago with the Institut français and the authors Fiston Mwanza Mujila, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ken Bugul from Senegal had come to the conclusion that she knew far too little of what was going on on the African continent. Stegmann is especially interested in the many ways in which tensions, even violent conflicts in contemporary politics and society are reflected in literature. She has done programs on Ukraine, where she herself had been for some time, as well as the Arab Spring. Still, beyond Egypt and Tunisia lay a world full of vital energy and new directions which German readers know very little about.
Three curators were chosen: Felwine Sarr, writer and economy professor, is already well known and has been to Stuttgart recently because of the recommendations he wrote with the art historian Bénédicte Savoy on the restitution of colonial objects from French collections. For the English-speaking part, Yvonne Adhiambo-Owuor, winner of the TBC Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2013 and a decade earlier organizer of the Sansibar Film Festival, had been easily available as a fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin. A third party was chosen to represent the growing number of Africans in the diaspora, Afro-Europeans, and especially Afro-Germans, that is children of African and German decent. The best suited person, in this case, was Nadia Ofuatey-Alazard, born in Southern Germany to a German mother and a Ghanaian father and, as the founder of the association “Each One Teach One, organizer of the first big African literature festival in Germany, “Afrolution”, just a year ago in Berlin.
Some would have preferred a Portuguese language section as well. Even as it were, a wide range of authors and experiences was covered, ranging from the refugee experiences in Sudan and Saudi Arabia of the Eritrean author Sulaiman Addonia or from Burundi in the case of Ketty Nivyabandi, living in Canada today, to authors like Sharon Dodua Otoo, born and raised in London and presently living in Berlin. How could their experiences be compared to those of several Kenyan, Nigerian, or Senegalese authors likewise involved? Is there any way to define their presumable shared Africanness?
Answers to these difficult questions were given in many ways. In four panels, following book presentations, authors from varying backgrounds were invited to discuss topics such as the image of Africa, blurred belongings, Afro-futurism, as well as the relations between body and text. Definitive answers could not be given, but room for reflection was opened, with more space for discussions during the breakfast sessions at the French institute of culture. After all, what is African and what is not, is a philosophical question. In this sense, the keynote lecture by Souleymane Bachir Diagne was highly enlightening. In the past, Diagne observed, several theories as to whether Africans were capable of philosophical reflection, were often linked to questions of grammar. Some, like the missionary Placide Tempels, tried to derive an African philosophy from the structure of Bantu languages. Others denied the capability of Africans to philosophize on the grounds that some languages didn’t have certain grammatical forms such as future tense. All of this, says Diagne, can easily be disproved since the Arab language, for instance, doesn’t have certain forms either, still Aristotle arrived in Europe through a process of double translation: from the ancient Greek to Arabic; and from Arabic to Latin. Translation itself, according to Diagne, ist the very essence of philosophy, since it is the only way to reflect language with language. In this sense, most Africans, frequently more than bilingual, are extraordinarily well prepared for philosophy.
The festival was overshadowed by the death of Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan author many of the participants had known, two days before its beginning. One may say he was present, in many ways: in talks, memories, through initiatives he had propelled and writers he had encouraged and promoted.
Africa, it turns out, is an enormously rich, variegated reality of different experiences, contingent, but never congruous, which can hardly be grasped in its totality, even in the most ambitious of literature. One case in point is the Cameroonian author Léonora Miano, living in France since 1991, who presented her recent two-part novel “The Twilight of Torment”. Choosing a male protagonist as her alter ego, she reflects questions such as violence, kinship, belonging, and identity. The brutality of her main character, Amok, towards his wife who has decided to leave him, derives in part from the brutality he had to suffer; on the other hand, this is no excuse, as he himself finally concludes, since everyone has the chance to take his or her destiny into their own hands. He returns to “the continent”, falling in love with a young woman who in turn takes part in an identitarian group, taking great pride in everything that is African, something Amok can only laugh about. Growing up on African soil, in her case in Cameroon, Miano says, people do not think of themselves as Africans, since everyone is. Only elsewhere, where they are easily identified and cornered because of their dark complexion, they learn that they’re different. This may lead to over-emphasizing the difference, while in reality borders are always fluent. Which was precisely the meaning of the festival title: Membranes are permeable.