“Wortspiele” reading competition Putting texts to the test

Young people are attracted to the “Wortspiele” festival;
Young people are attracted to the “Wortspiele” festival; | Photo (detail): © Klaus Kindermann

The “Wortspiele” (i.e. Wordplays) Festival of Young Literature brings debuts and new publications by young authors to the stage in Munich and Vienna. It is aimed primarily at young urban audiences.

Three evenings featuring 18 young authors pitting their literary skills against one another in a reading competition – that’s the idea behind the Wortspiele festival. At one of Munich’s most beautiful venues, the historic Muffatwerk building on the River Isar that normally buzzes to the sounds of hip bands and DJs, audiences pick the winner of the day after listening to six readings. Does this format, familiar from the slam poetry scene, also work with “high literature”? In 2016, the 18 authors taking part included ten debutants, for the most part unknown names in the literary world. Traditional audiences did not feel that this was their thing – instead, young people came who probably would normally be among the concert-goers. The atmosphere reflected the target group: the book covers were illuminated on two huge projection screens, and a DJ was on hand to rock the house before, after and between the readings.

Scholarship for the Villa Aurora

It is well-known literary publishers from the German-speaking world who send their new authors to the Wortspiele festival to put their recently published works to the test. A short time later the festival goes into round two in Vienna, with the support of the Volltext literary journal. One special feature of the Munich festival is that regional broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk provides not only the experienced presenters but also the attractive main prize at the end – a cash award of 2,000 euros and a scholarship to attend the Villa Aurora artists’ residence in Los Angeles. Young authors dream of having an opportunity to spend time in this house, which belonged to Lion Feuchtwanger, an author from Munich who fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution. In 2016, this dream came true for Katharina Winkler, an Austrian living in Berlin whose novel Blauschmuck (i.e. Blue Jewellery) published by Suhrkamp attracted much comment and praise in social networks. This turned out to be a rare instance of agreement between the jury and the audience, Winkler having also been voted the first evening’s winner. A positive aspect that was noticeable from the text was that the author had taken the time to find appropriate language to tell the authentic story of Filiz, a young Kurdish woman: she marries at the age of 15, is forced to do backbreaking farm labour, has children and is repeatedly mistreated by her husband – which explains the title and its allusion to bruising. Finally she escapes to begin a life of her own in Europe.

Winkler’s novel stood out amongst a whole series of books which focused on themes relating to escape, expulsion and migration at Wortspiele. In Am Ende bleiben die Zedern (i.e. In the End, the Cedars Remain) published by Berlin-Verlag, Pierre Jarawan tells the story of his Lebanese parents who came to Berlin ten years ago. In Eine Handvoll Rosinen (i.e. A Handful of Raisins) published by Kremayr & Scheriau, Daniel Zipfel reports from the perspective of a federal police officer and an Afghan people smuggler who team up. In Weil wir längst woanders sind (i.e. Because We Are Already Somewhere Else), Rasha Khayat describes her search between the cultures of her Saudi father and her German mother. Not all authors have the linguistic capabilities to adequately describe the complexity of the events, thoughts and feelings. Cornelia Travnicek does a good job of this in Junge Hunde (i.e. Young Dogs) published by DVA: she puts herself in the shoes of the Chinese adoptive son of German parents who travels to his country of origin for the first time. Munich author Björn Bicker’s book Was glaubt ihr denn (i.e. What Do You Believe Then) published by Antje Kunstmann Verlag, which was the winner of the second evening, also explores a similar theme. He lets occur polyphonic choirs in antique style: Muslims, Christians, non-believers.

Changed system of moral coordinates

As Johan de Blank, who organized and had the idea for the festival, pointed out, precisely half of the books featured at the 2016 Wortspiele festival related to the subject of refugees. This makes it clear just how much this topic has changed the system of moral coordinates. But there is another half too: stories about relationships such as those by Lena Gorelik (Null bis unendlich/Zero to Infinity, Rowohlt Berlin) and Sandra Weihs (Das grenzenlose Und/The Borderless And, Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt), and a crime novel parody by Jakob Nolte (Alff, Matthes & Seitz Berlin). Thomas von Steinaecker’s large-scale dystopia Die Verteidigung des Paradieses (i.e. The Defence of Paradise) published by S. Fischer is set among a handful of survivors in a Germany that has been devastated by a solar storm, and uses language that is positively grave. Von Steinaecker won the audience prize of the third evening. Marjana Gaponenko, a Ukrainian who has only been writing in German since 1996, won the 2013 Chamisso Prize. In Das letzte Rennen (i.e. The Last Race) published by C.H. Beck, she also demonstrates that she is a narrator with a highly individual cadence. Set in Vienna, the novel is about horses, horse racing, horse-drawn carriages and a fatal father-son relationship. Gaponenko presented one of the few amusing texts in what was otherwise an evening of very serious themes.

Unfortunately, Antonia Baum (Tony Soprano stirbt nicht/Tony Soprano Does Not Die, Hoffmann und Campe) and Kathrin Wessling (Morgen ist es vorbei/Tomorrow It’ll Be Over, Luchterhand Literaturverlag) both had to cancel their readings on the final evening due to illness. Munich-based author Fridolin Schley came in their place and brought the festival to a conclusion with Die Ungesichter (i.e. The Unfaces) published by Allitera-Verlag, which was not included in the competition. This returned the festival to its dominant theme. Schley writes about the experiences of a young woman he sponsors from Somalia. For all that the story makes for grim reading, her name at least is symbolic: “Amal” means “hope”.