Monday, 18 July 2016

Empfindlichkeiten: International Queer Lit Festival


I have been to a lot of literary festivals. So many that I've got a bit jaded by it all. This past weekend, though, the LCB held its first ever international festival of LGBTIQ writing and I was asked to take part, reading aloud short texts in English as part of the evening events. That's me on the right, next to my fellow reader Lavender Wolf and the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia behind the lectern. I stole the picture from my friend Bill Martin. I hope he doesn't mind.

The best place at the moment to find out what happened is the #Empfindlichkeiten tag at Stefan Mesch's blog. Stefan was slogging away to document the panel discussions and events, posting interviews with writers and participants, and generally giving a really good impression of the festival. Great work!

Basically, what happened was this: the LCB invited a whole lot of queer writers over and asked them to write "statements" about whether there even is such a thing as queer literature or a homosexual writing style, in homage to the German writer Hubert Fichte, who was translated a while back by Martin Chalmers but seems to be pretty much out of print in English by now. I understand those statements will be published somewhere at some point. Then they got lots of other people involved, academics and performers and musicians and artists and puppeteers, and made the whole thing into a two-and-a-half-day festival. The days started with panel discussions, interspersed with performances, followed by readings and then concerts. You could consult an oracle round the back or watch Msoke doing dancehall in the rain, and if you found a quiet moment you could view the exhibition of photos by Leonore Mau. I didn't find a quiet moment but the exhibition is still there.

The writers were:

Abdellah Taia (Mor/F)
Alain Claude Sulzer (D)
Angela Steidele (D)
Antje Rávic Strubel (D)
Ben Fergusson (GB/D)
Dmitry Kuzmin (Rus/Latvia)
Édouard Louis (F)
Gunther Geltinger (D)
Hillary McCollum (Ire)
Izabela Morska (Pol)
Jayrome C. Robinet (F/D)
Joachim Helfer (D)
Kristof Magnusson (D)
Luisgé Martin (Es)
Mario Fortunato (It)
Marlen Pelny (D)
Masha Gessen (Rus/USA)

Michał Witkowski (Pol)
Niviaq Korneliussen (Greenland)
Perihan Magden (Tur)
Raziel Reid (Can)
Ricardo Domeneck (Bra/D)
Saleem Haddad (Kuw/GB)
Sami Özbudak (Tur)
Sookee (D)
Suzana Tratnik (Slovenia)
Thomas Meinecke (D)


Not everything was sweetness and light – I wasn't the only person who wished such a progressive festival had worked harder towards gender parity, especially as lesbians have traditionally been  invisible anyway, and there was tension between literary theorists and practitioners at some points. But all in all, the atmosphere was remarkably supportive and positive – possibly because there was so much talk of love, possibly because there was less competition between international writers than in a purely national group, possibly because these were all writers who are generally "othered" and they have good reason to stick together. Or it could have been the wine. At any rate, the compliments flew thick and fast and the conversations went on into the nights. Things that were visibly different, apart from that, were that a lot of writers brought their partners along, and that there was often a kind of school disco-style split, with girls hanging out with girls and boys hanging out with boys. I flitted between and made a lot of new friends.

It was a fascinating experience for me, as a heterosexual cis-gender translator. I am used to being a non-writer among writers, seeing as I'm a rather sociable person who wangles invitations to things, so that was nothing new. But I have rarely been in a public space where I'm the only person who isn't queer and I frequently felt the need to apologize, much to my interlocutors' amusement. Thomas Meinecke kindly explained that he, too, is heterosexual but a big fan of LGBTIQ culture – a fag hag or indeed a fag stag. So that's me, I suppose, a fan-girl for queer writing.

Two articles made me think, read in combination with the festival. First of all Hugh Ryan at Slate on Why Everyone Can't Be Queer. The piece talks about the word queer as denoting marginalization, a rejection of heteronormativity. Ryan writes, and I know people will disagree:
Queer does stand on the precipice of change, but it is not exactly the one Wortham describes. The queer movement of the early 1970s—which demanded a wholesale revolution against the patriarchy and all sexual norms—has given way to an LGBTQ movement that asks for equal rights. This is a more achievable set of goals, and legal equality is of course a good thing. But formal equality inside a hierarchical system that still privileges monogamy, marriage, the child-rearing couple, etc., is inherently anti-queer.
Gains in legal recognition don’t mean queer is going to disappear anytime soon, however. Marginalization is a byproduct of many things, not just legal exclusion, and not everyone granted those rights will rush to take them up uncritically. But all doors go two ways, and as we reach for equality, heteronormativity reaches back for us. Societal pressure is a powerful force, and the more we assert our rights to get married and have children (for instance), the more we will be judged and informally penalized for not doing those things. What was once banned will now nearly be required.
This is important to me because I happen to be leading my life outside of society's most conservative expectations, at least at the moment. I have a child but I've never married and don't intend to and I am no longer with the child's father, I live alone with my child (half of the time) and I don't expect that to change soon. I have to earn decent money because I finance a family-sized home on a single income. I'm not going to write about my love life but it's not like many of my friends' in my age group. And as such, I see queer people as allies in a nebulous and mostly involuntary struggle against conservative expectations of how to live.

The second piece ties in with that basic idea I have of being allied with queer people. It's Natalie Kon-yu at lithub, writing about that old but still tasty chestnut, Sexism in Literary Prize Culture. She tells us:
Given their exclusion from the canon, it is no surprise that women, writers of color, working-class writers and non-heterosexual or non-cis writers do not win prestigious prizes as often as they should (...). 
Yet it is difficult to say what makes a book masculine and even harder to categorize what masculine writing actually is. In any given library catalogue there are hundreds of books and articles with titles that mention “women” and “writing,” or “women’s writing,” but none that feature the phrase “men’s writing.” Bookshop visits will reveal shelves titled “chick lit,” but none called “dick lit” or, as Linda Z, a book editor turned agent, puts it, a “white-guy shelf.”
I'm not sure, especially after hearing the wide range of work at the festival, whether there is such a thing as queer writing style, although of course there are queer themes just as there are subjects women write about more often than men, like motherhood. At Empfindlichkeiten, Antje Rávic Strubel talked about not wanting to be put on one particular shelf, not on the women's shelf when she's an East German writer, not on the East German shelf when she's a lesbian writer, not on the translations shelf (I might add) when she's a woman writer. Does she need a whole bookshop to herself? Very possibly – she's certainly an outstandingly writer. But Kon-yu's piece made me think that if the white-guy shelf is the norm –  a heterosexual middle-class cis-gender non-translated white-guy shelf – many or indeed most of the writers I love are not on it. Can all of us who are considered "other" be allies? Can we have one white-guy shelf and claim the rest of the bookshop for our marginalized selves?

Certainly the Empfindlichkeiten festival made me feel that might be possible. I dearly hope they'll do it again and create a lasting and accessible document of what went on, showcasing some great writers and fascinating discussions. The festival ended for me with a tipsy conversation about writers to invite to an anti-sensitivities festival, die Unempfindlichen, the unreconstructed machos and reactionaries of German-language literature. In retrospect, most of them would go on the white-guy shelf.