Cologne literature festival delves into politics and power | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 10.03.2010
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Cologne literature festival delves into politics and power

Now in its 10th year, lit.COLOGNE has become more politicised than it ever intended. Program director Regina Schilling talks about trouble with China and visits from Nobel Prize winner Herta Mueller and artist Ai Weiwei.

Black and white image of Ai Weiwei

Artist Ai Weiwei's visit is a highlight of this year's lit.COLOGNE

Deutsche Welle: How significant is this anniversary for lit.COLOGNE?

Regina Schilling: When we started 10 years ago, we wouldn't have thought that this festival would be so successful. It was a risk. But we are still nervous.

Over the 10 years, what are some of the changes you've had to make to the format of the festival in order to maintain the incredible success that it's had?

lit.COLOGNE event in the Cologne Philharmonie

lit.COLOGNE has sought out unique locations like the Cologne Philharmonie

In the first two years we came up with the idea of readings in very special locations - at the fire department or the police station or in the Cologne Cathedral. At the beginning, we tried to be very unusual and special. And over the years we thought that literature works best in theater places because the acoustic is very good, people can watch, there is a good stage and everything.

This year there has been some controversy already. One of the key authors, Liao Yiwu, has not been allowed to leave China.

Of course we were very disappointed when we heard that he couldn't come. The police took him out of the plane and told him to stay at home until the festival is over. From the beginning, it was clear for us that we would [still] stage the reading, we would have an actor, a moderator, journalists, and the head of [the German branch of] Amnesty International here. People will hear him playing the flute and a friend of his will read a letter he wrote to the Cologne audience.

It's new that we are involved in politics, but this could have happened in our first year. His book was published in Germany last autumn. We loved it and said we would invite him. We were warned about the problems because he could not come to the Frankfurt Book Fair last autumn. We weren't naive.

Have you been in touch with the Chinese authorities?

We have been in contact with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Berlin and with the German embassy in China. We have not been in direct contact with the Chinese government.

One of the big events at this year's lit.COLOGNE is the panel with Herta Mueller, last year's Nobel Prize winner, and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. It seems that lit.COLOGNE is providing a platform for something politically interesting to happen.

It was very simple. Every year we try to invite a writer and an artist and let them talk about the differences or what they share in their work. Last year in autumn, Ai Weiwei prepared a very big show in Munich, which got a lot of publicity. The newspapers were full of the problems he had in China with the police.

When we look for an artist we can bring together with a writer, we're looking for an artist who has a story to tell and who can talk. He also has a tradition of poetry, since his father was a famous writer in China.

The first idea was to invite him. Then we thought, what is the main subject he could talk about? Well, politics. And then it was only a small step to think of Herta Mueller. And all this happened before she won the Nobel Prize. She had a book published in autumn, which we liked very much. In German it's called "Die Atemschaukel". We also wanted to invite her and thought it would be very interesting for these two people to talk about repressive systems.

Interview: Breandain O'Shea (kjb)

Editor: Sophie Tarr

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