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Frankfurt Book Fair faces controversy over Palestinian author’s award cancellation

Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s award cancellation at the Frankfurt Book Fair ignites debate over literature, politics, and the silencing of Palestinian voices.

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The Frankfurt Book Fair, known as Frankfurter Buchmesse, has recently come under fire for its decision to cancel an award that was set to be presented to Palestinian author Adania Shibli.

This prestigious literary event, one of the world’s largest trade fairs for books, replaced the award ceremony with various pro-Israel programs, sparking intense debate and criticism.

According to Litprom’s statement, the German Literature Association that organizes the award has affirmed that the award will be given to the work of an author renowned for the book “Minor Detail.” The novel recounts the true story of the rape and murder of a Palestinian girl from the Baduy community that occurred in 1949 by Israeli soldiers.

Illustration: Frankfurt Book Fair. (Photo: astroawani.com)

 

The novel was translated into German by Berenberg Verlag last year and received recognition through its English translation, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2020 and the International Booker Prize in 2021.

The planned ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair was meant to celebrate the winner of the LiBeraturpreis 2023, a prestigious German literary award presented each year to a writer from Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Arab world. This award is a prominent feature of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which serves as a major gathering for the global publishing industry.

The controversy surrounding Adania Shibli’s victory began earlier this year when one of the Litprom jury members, journalist Ulrich Noller, resigned in disagreement with the decision made by other team members.

Critics from the left-leaning German newspaper Die Tageszeitung also reignited the debate, accusing the novel of portraying “Israel as a killing machine,” although other German literary critics have praised the work.

The ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel has had a ripple effect across various sectors, including the literary world. Juergen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair, declared his firm stance against Hamas and its actions, labeling it as a terrorist organization and condemning its acts against Israel. In response, additional stage time was allocated to “Israeli voices” during the event.

Originally, LitProm announced that the decision to postpone the award was a “joint decision” with the author, but Shibli’s literary agency later clarified that she did not consent to this decision. They explained that had the ceremony taken place, Shibli would have used the platform to reflect on the role of literature during these trying times.

In response to the controversy, an open letter signed by more than 350 authors, including prominent figures such as Colm Tóibín, Hisham Matar, Kamila Shamsie, and William Dalrymple, criticized the organizers of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The letter urged them to create spaces for Palestinian writers to share their perspectives and not shut them down during these challenging times.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair, Adania Shibli, a Palestinian author, was scheduled to be honored with a literary award recognizing her novel “Minor Detail” under the category of “literature from emerging regions.” (Photo: the documentation of Frankfurter Buchmesse)

 

The Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI) also condemned the Frankfurt Book Fair’s decision to favor Israel while canceling an award for a Palestinian author. They criticized the silencing of Palestinian voices, emphasizing that siding with Israel while neglecting the suffering of the Palestinian people was akin to reading only one book to understand the entire world.

IKAPI’s General Chairman, Arys Hilman Nugraha, stated, “Expanding Israel’s presence at the Frankfurt Book Fair while canceling an award for a Palestinian author seems to reflect the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.”

IKAPI firmly affirmed its support for the Palestinian people’s struggle for independence, stating, “The government and the people of Indonesia always stand with the Palestinian people in their quest for self-determination.”

The controversy highlights the complexities of mixing politics with literature, a tension that the Frankfurt Book Fair has encountered on previous occasions, such as when it became a platform for European leaders to campaign against rising right-wing parties in 2017 or when facing a boycott from Iran in 2015 during Salman Rushdie’s attendance.

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