Frankfurt Book Fair: open letter supports cancelled Adania Shibli

Frankfurt Book Fair: open letter supports cancelled Adania Shibli

Defending the freedom of expression: a global outcry for Palestinian literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair

by Suswati Basu
5 comments

In these recent and troubling times, we have witnessed a disheartening trend across several European countries—a clampdown on cultural events that seek to amplify Palestinian art, voices, and stories. The Frankfurt Book Fair, known as the largest and most influential international book fair, slated to run from October 18 to 23, has stirred controversy by closing its doors to Adania Shibli and her novel, “Minor Detail.” Simultaneously, the fair issued a statement proclaiming unwavering solidarity with Israel while emphasising the need to highlight Jewish and Israeli voices.

The events that unfolded on October 7th in Israel and Palestine, and continue to reverberate today have had far-reaching consequences, even within the realm of publishing. Shibli, an acclaimed Palestinian author who was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for her book “Minor Detail,” was poised to receive Germany’s 2023 LiBeraturpreis for the same work, published in German as “Eine Nebensache” at the 2023 Frankfurt Book Fair, which commences this week.

Prominent authors and publishers rally in support

In response to the exclusion of Palestinian literary voices, the erroneous claim that Shibli had consented to this decision, and the unwarranted attacks on Shibli’s novel in the German media, crowd-funded collective ArabLit, have rallied to compose a letter of support for Shibli, her book, and the vital presence of Palestinian literary voices, not only at the Frankfurt Book Fair but also in the broader literary landscape. Over the past two days, this letter has circulated, gaining over 600 signatures, including those of Nobel Prize laureates Abdulrazak Gurnah, Annie Ernaux, and Olga Tokarczuk, as well as Booker Prize winners Anne Enright, Richard Flanagan, and Ian McEwan, and 2021 Litprom prize recipient Pilar Quintana, among many others.

Luminaries such as Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, Pulitzer Prize winner Hisham Matar, British-Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, and British historian William Dalrymple, also chastised the organisers of the Frankfurt Book Fair for their failure to provide spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, emotions, and reflections on literature during this trying period.

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The letter begins with a stark reminder of the recent events and their impact on the literary world: “The shocking and tragic events that began on October 7th and are ongoing today have had repercussions all over the globe, including within the publishing world. Award-winning Palestinian author Adania Shibli, who was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for her book Minor Detail (New Directions/Fitzcarraldo, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette), was to receive Germany’s 2023 LiBeraturpreis for the same book, published in German as Eine Nebensache (Berenberg Verlag, translated by Günther Orth) at the 2023 Frankfurt Book Fair, which begins next week.”

“This is untrue; Adania Shibli has said the decision was not made with her, she was presented with the decision. If the ceremony were held, she said, she would have taken the opportunity to reflect on the role of literature in these cruel and painful times.”

Open letter from ArabLit

It further underscores the misinformation surrounding Shibli’s stance on the issue, clarifying that she was not consulted about the decision and that the assertion that she was in agreement was incorrect, as confirmed by Shibli herself. Had the ceremony gone ahead, Shibli expressed her intention to reflect on the role of literature in these trying times. Litprom and The New York Times have since issued corrections.

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Litprom, partially funded by the German government and the Frankfurt Book Fair, justified its decision not to honour Shibli with the LiBeraturpreis in an online statement: “Due to the war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering, the organiser Litprom e.V. decided to not hold the award ceremony of the LiBeraturpreis at the Frankfurt Book Fair,” the statement read. “Litprom is looking for a suitable format and setting for the event at a later point.”

Publisher Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd Literary Agency has stood by Shibli in the wake of the cancellation, reiterating their steadfast support.

Additionally, the Sharjah Book Authority withdrew from the event, stating, “We champion the role of culture & books to encourage dialogue & understanding between people. We believe that this role is more important now than ever.”

Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, chairwoman of the Sharjah Book Authority, echoed this sentiment: “I strongly believe in the fundamental rights of civilians worldwide to live in safety, free from the dangers of armed conflict. In times of crisis and conflict, I strongly advocate for the role of books, culture, authors, book fairs, intellectuals, and artists in promoting unity, de-escalating tensions, and making diverse voices heard. By doing so, we can improve the prospects for peace and harmony.”

Bodour Al Qasimi, chairwoman of the Sharjah Book Authority, condemns Frankfurt Book Fair's decision on LinkedIn, stating: "Given the recent announcement by the organizers of Frankfurter Buchmesse, we have decided to withdraw our participation this year.

"I strongly believe in the fundamental rights of civilians worldwide to live in safety, free from the dangers of armed conflict. In times of crisis and conflict, I strongly advocate for the role of books, culture, authors, book fairs, intellectuals, and artists in promoting unity, de-escalating tensions, and making diverse voices heard. By doing so, we can improve the prospects for peace and harmony.

"The creation of PublisHer was driven by our commitment to promoting diversity and inclusivity in our industry. Unfortunately, we do not feel able to participate in Frankfurt Book Fair this year as it contradicts these core values."
Bodour Al Qasimi, chairwoman of the Sharjah Book Authority, condemns Frankfurt Book Fair’s decision on LinkedIn.

The power of Palestinian literature

“Minor Detail,” the novel at the centre of this controversy, is a profound work consisting of two parts. The first part is based on a true incident—the rape and murder of a Bedouin girl by Israeli soldiers in the Negev Desert in August 1949. The second part shifts decades later, with a young woman from Ramallah seeking to uncover more about the tragic incident.

A distinguished jury, comprising Marlen Heislitz (Büchergilde Gutenberg), Peter Ripken (former journalist and development worker, former director of Litprom e.V.), Sabine Speiser (development policy consultant), Antonia Stock (bookseller), and Raffael Weger (independent literary scholar), explained its choice in awarding Shibli the LiBeraturpreis: “In ‘Eine Nebensache,’ the Palestinian author Adania Shibli creates a formally and linguistically rigorously composed work of art that tells of the power of borders and what violent conflicts do to and with people. With great alertness, she directs her gaze to the small details, the trivialities that allow us to glimpse the old wounds and scars that lie behind the surface.”

According to left-leaning German news agency TAZ, WDR journalist Ulrich Noller removed himself from the judging panel due to the book being honoured. TAZ criticised the book for allegedly depicting “all Israelis [as] anonymous rapists and killers, while the Palestinians are victims of poisoned or trigger-happy occupiers.”

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Consequently, the events surrounding Shibli’s exclusion from the Frankfurt Book Fair have ignited a fervent global response from the literary community. Authors, publishers, and intellectuals worldwide have rallied in support of Palestinian voices and the importance of allowing literature to flourish even in the darkest of times. The struggle for cultural and artistic expression remains a powerful force in advancing unity, dialogue, and understanding, providing hope for a more harmonious world.

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