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An Interview with Festival Neue Literatur’s Peter Blackstock

By Jessie Chaffee


Words Without Borders spoke with Festival Neue Literatur curator Peter Blackstock about FNL’s eight annual celebration of German-language literature from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, which will take place from March 2-5 in New York City. This year’s theme is “Queer as Volk.”

For those who are not yet familiar with the Festival Neue Literature, how does it distinguish itself from other literary festivals?

Festival Neue Literatur is an annual literature festival and the first and only festival to spotlight German-language and American fiction. It features six German-language writers each year, from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, alongside two American writers, plus other translators, writers, and critics. It’s a celebration of the wide range of contemporary German-language writing, showcasing talented writers under a different theme each year. The festival takes place over one weekend in the winter—this year it’s March 2–5. It happens at different venues in NYC, from the Austrian Cultural Forum to powerHouse Books and the Bowery Poetry Club. The festival’s German-language authors are tremendous voices in the European literary world, but their work still remains to be discovered by many US readers. Read more at www.festivalneueliteratur.org.

Can you speak a bit about the theme of this year’s festival, “Queer as Volk”? How did you select the theme and what types of discussions do you hope that it will inspire?

The brilliant festival director, Brittany Hazelwood, was the one who came up with the title and concept, but I was so delighted to come on board as curator to select the writers. It’s both an important and exciting theme, one that is very broad and I think will lead to a lot of different kinds of discussions—none of them dry. The books showcase a broad variety of kinds of LGBTQ experiences and lives, from the persecution of gay people in the Nazi period, to a bildungsroman about a young German man who doesn’t really know what his sexuality is, to questions of trans identity, HIV, and gay hookup culture. I think we’re going to have a lot of great conversations.


Image: The crowd at the 2016 festival. Courtesy of the Festival Neue Literatur.

In what ways do the authors being showcased (both from the US and from German-speaking countries) explore the festival’s theme in their works?

The theme comes up differently in each book—Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland takes its cue from Christopher Isherwood’s seminal Berlin Stories to explore life in Berlin in the 1980s from the perspective of a black expat American; Simon Froehling’s Long Days of Night throws the reader into the gay clubs and hidden orgies behind the facades of the elegant buildings of Zürich; Antje Rávic Strubel’s Into the Woods of the Human Heart follows a kind of sexual chain reaction among a group of friends and acquaintances traveling in Sweden, the US, and elsewhere. And we are so lucky to have the brilliant and wonderful Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You, as our chairperson this year. Garth is immersed both in the worlds of translation and queer writing and he is the perfect advocate for our festival.

At Words Without Borders we are always looking for ways to reach readers who may be new to international literature. As an editor who seeks out works in translation, have you found ways to reach a broader audience for the works that you champion? Similarly, are there aspects of this year’s festival that might attract new attendees?

That’s one of the great hopes for this festival, especially this year, that we can reach new people who haven’t necessarily thought that much about literature from around the world or ideas of translation. We hope that this year’s theme, which feels particularly timely, will attract people who haven’t been to the festival before. As an editor, I try to find books in translation that have a strong voice and engaging subject and that I think might interest a wide audience, and then to champion those in the same way I would for writers working in English. Often there are cultural organizations who can help support a publication, including by bringing in those who know the work in its original language to help amplify the message. But at the end of the day, I think the work stands alone—if the review attention is laudatory, the subject is intriguing, and the book delivers, it should rise to the top and get attention, whether in translation or not.


Image: Tote bag for the 2017 festival, featuring the theme: “Queer as Volk.” Courtesy of the Festival Neue Literatur.

Did the current political situation in the US and in Europe influence the types of events/discussions that are a part of this year’s festival?

We planned the festival early in 2016 and the central focus is on the writing and the works as literature rather than producing an event that is overtly political. But of course any event that deals with LGBTQ issues must engage with questions of politics and society, and we were happy that this year’s festival had a strong political aspect inherent to the theme. I’m pleased that the participants that we have for the Translation at the Margins event will discuss timely questions. Valeria Luiselli and John Freeman will talk about Luiselli’s piece modeled after the questions asked of unaccompanied child migrants found in the US; John Keene will talk about his essay “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness”; translator of Iranian literature Sara Khalili will discuss writing from the countries affected by the travel ban with Interlink Books publisher Michel Moushabeck; and Susan Bernofsky and Rivka Galchen will talk about the work of Yoko Tawada. It’s a wonderful lineup and I think the events with the German-language writers really showcase the broad range of LGBTQ life and experience, which feels more important now than ever.


Image: Organizers of and participants in the 2016 festival. Courtesy of the Festival Neue Literatur.

This is the eighth annual Festival Neue Literatur. For those who have attended in the past, are there ways in which this year’s festival differs from previous years? What types of events can festivalgoers look forward to?

FNL has an absolutely brilliant team in festival director Brittany Hazelwood, Riky Stock from the Frankfurt Book Fair New York, and those involved from the cultural institutions and consulates that support and amplify the festival. FNL has a strong following already and we haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel this year in terms of events and format, but have made some important tweaks. The events vary from an evening of students of German interviewing each of the authors (a great way to get into the German texts in detail), to bookstore panels where the German-language authors are paired with an American writer and a moderator (this year we are lucky to have Geoff Mak from the Offing and William Johnson from Lambda Literary), to the translation event that deals with questions of translation more broadly. It’s a wonderful lineup and I’m very excited for it all to begin.
 

Peter Blackstock is a senior editor at Grove Atlantic in New York. His list includes fiction, nonfiction, and drama, with a focus on international writing and books in translation. Among his authors are the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Academy Award-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg, alongside house authors like Will Self, Tom Stoppard, and the estates of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. In translation, his authors include Julia Franck, Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Andrus Kivirähk, Annick Cojean, and Sayaka Murata. He has participated in editor fellowships in Jerusalem and Frankfurt, has been a judge for the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants and the Gutekunst Prize for Young Translators. He studied German and Russian at Oxford University and now lives in Queens.


Published Mar 1, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jessie Chaffee

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