Artists and Writers Condemn Cancellation of Award Ceremony for Palestinian Author Adania Shibli at Frankfurt Book Fair

Visual artists, writers, and publishers have released statements of solidarity with Palestinian author Adania Shibli, who was until this week set to receive an award at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

On October 13, the organizers of the prize, Litprom, which is sponsored partly by the German government and the Frankfurt Book Fair, released a statement saying that they were seeking alternatives to hosting the ceremony at the event.

“Due to the war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering, the organizer Litprom e.V. decided to not hold the award ceremony of the LiBeraturpreis at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Litprom is looking for a suitable format and setting for the event at a later point,” Litprom said. The statement added, “Awarding the prize to Adania Shibli was never in question. Litprom firmly rejects the accusations and defamations made against the author and the novel in parts of the press as unfounded.”

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Additionally, a public discussion with Shibli and her translator Günther Orth at the book fair was canceled. Shibli, a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for her book Minor Details, was to receive Germany’s 2023 LiBeraturpreis for the German translation of the same book (published in German as Eine Nebensache).  The novel is based on a well-documented crime, the rape and murder of a Bedouin girl in 1949 by Israeli soldiers.

Litprom’s decision was decried by members of the visual art and publishing community. Cooking Sections, an artist collective comprised of Daniel Fernández Pascual, Alon Schwabe, Rosa Whiteley, and Remi Kuforiji, announced via an Instagram post that they would no longer participate in the fair’s S+T+ARTS Prize program, an initiative to explore the intersection of arts, science, and technology.

“It’s impossible to talk freely about cultural innovation when it is not recognized that people’s lives, culture and environment in Palestine are under an apartheid regime and occupation for the past 75 years, and millions of people are continuously displaced from their homes,” the collective wrote, adding that they would participate only after the fair offered a “sincere apology for curtailing freedom of speech and a reversal of Litprom’s decision.”

According to Shibli’s United States publisher, Barbara Epler of New Directions, Shibli was not consulted in the decision to postpone the award ceremony, as initially reported by major news outlets including the New York Times. In an open letter to the editor of the Times, Epler wrote: “With the unbelievable heartbreak that is now being suffered on all sides, it serves no one to put forward falsehoods, especially about the author of a novel about the Nakba that is so historically true.”

Epler continued: “To cancel the ceremony and so try to silence the voice of Adania Shibli —“due to the war in Israel”—is cowardly…But to say Shibli agreed (amid all the suffering in Gaza) is worse.”

ARTnews has reached out to New Directions for comment.

Epler’s letter was excerpted in a post by Lithub reporting that more than 600 visual artists, writers, editors, and publishers had signed an open letter in support of Shibli. The signatures include the publishing team behind Minor Details, as well as Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk, actor Khalid Abdalla, postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo. The letter was first published in Arab Lit.

“Those of us involved in writing, translation, and publishing strongly assert that canceling cultural events is not the way forward. We recall the Frankfurt book fair supporting Turkish publishers, and how last year Ukrainian president Zelensky spoke to the fair in a pre-recorded address,” the signorties wrote. “The Frankfurt Book Fair has a responsibility, as a major international book fair, to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times, not shutting them down.”

On October 7, 10 members of Hamas, a Gaza-based militant group, launched a brutal assault inside Israel, taking at least 199 hostages and killing some 1,400 Israeli citizens and wounding around 3,500 others. The Israeli government responded with an aerial bombardment of Gaza that is ongoing. According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, as of October 16, around 3,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli aerial strikes. On Tuesday, a reported 500 Palestinian civilians sheltering at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City were killed by an airstrike that initial reports indicated was by Israel Defense Forces. The Israeli government has claimed that it did not perpetrate the attack and said a misfired rocket by Palestinian Islamic Jihad was to blame, a contention since backed by the US Government. However, in the past, the Israeli government has often proved to be an unreliable narrator. Amidst the conflicting reports, other governments in the region have been swift in their condemnation.

The United Nations has warned of a deepening humanitarian crisis inside Gaza. On Thursday in Cairo, UN chief António Guterres called for an immediate cease-fire, urged for delivery of humanitarian supplies to Gaza, and called for Hamas to release the Israeli hostages.

Editor’s Note, 10/19/2023: This article has been updated with new casualty and hostage figures for the October 7 attack on Israel. A previous version of this article cited 150 hostages, instead of the current figure of 199.

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