Palestinian author Adania Shibli was meant to accept the "LiBeraturpreis" of the LitProm association on October 20 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which honors women writers from the Global South for a work newly published in German.
Shibli's novel "Minor Detail" received high praise from some critics.
Its English translation, by Elisabeth Jaquette, was published in 2020 and was shortlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Translated Literature, and longlisted for the International Booker Prize the following year.
But others criticized it harshly for what they saw as serving antisemitic narratives.
The Zurich newspaper Tagesanzeiger asked, "In these times, can a novel that depicts Israel as a killing machine be honored with awards?" The paper gets to the heart of the debate unfolding in the run-up to the world's largest trade fair for books: How should literature be dealt with that "allegedly brings anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment into the cultural scene"?
After scenes of pro-Hamas jubilant celebrations on Berlin's streets over the weekend, the German daily newspaper taz was also critical: "Instead of baklava for passers-by who rejoice at the deaths of Israeli civilians," the paper writes, "prizes are also awarded to works that portray the state of Israel as a murder machine, to the applause of perhaps well-meaning donors."
Jury decision long predates Hamas attacks
In its statement announcing the award, the LitProm association said that Shibli's novel was a "rigorously composed work of art that tells of the power of borders and of what violent conflicts make of people."
That was long before the militant Islamist group Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the EU, the US, Germany and others, attacked Israel over the past weekend, massacring the civilian population. But even back when the decision on the award's winner was made back in summer 2023, it caused controversy: Journalist Ulrich Noller of German public broadcaster WDR left the jury in protest at the time.
Born in 1974, Adania Shibli lives and works in both Berlin and Jerusalem. The Palestinian author is currently the Writer-in-Residence at the Literaturhaus Zurich, and in 2021, she held the Friedrich Dürrenmatt Guest Professorship for World Literature at the University of Bern, Switzerland.
Why a German critic sees the book as antisemitic
Her novel "Minor Detail" is made up of two parts.
The first tells of a Palestinian girl who is raped and murdered in the Negev Desert during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.
Israeli soldiers stationed in the desert are bored. The commander has hallucinations. On patrol, he encounters a group of bedouins, whom he orders shot, all except for the girl and a dog, both of which are taken to the military camp.
The second part of the novel takes places decades later.
A journalist from Ramallah tries to understand that crime.
The taz critic felt that the book's first-person narrative and empathetic tone masks a basic problem of the text: All Israeli soldiers are portrayed as anonymous rapists and killers, while the Palestinians are victims of trigger-happy occupiers. Violence against Israeli civilians is not mentioned, perhaps because it is considered a legitimate means in the struggle for liberation against the occupiers.
This, according to the taz, is the "ideological and inhuman basis" of the book.
The conclusion of the novel also seems like "a pamphleteering indictment" in which all the stereotypes of the text are once again bundled, adds the critic.
Not a time for celebration
In the meantime, the LitProm association has responded to the latest developments: "Due to the war in Israel," it was decided to cancel the planned award ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the association wrote on its website.
The statement initially noted that the decision had been taken "along with the author," since "no one feels like celebrating at the moment," but Shibli's US publisher, New Directions, said that the author was rather presented with the decision and that she would have used the ceremony to reflect on the role of literature in the current context.
LitProm, an association for the promotion of literature from Africa, Asia and Latin America, added that it still wants to award its prize to Adania Shibli's novel "Minor Detail," despite the criticism.
The authors' association PEN Berlin had earlier commented on the criticism of the book. "No book becomes different, better, worse or more dangerous because the news situation changes," said PEN Berlin spokeswoman Eva Menasse.
"Either a book is worthy of an award, or it is not. The jury's decision for Shibli, which was made weeks ago, was in my opinion a very good one. To withdraw the prize from her would be fundamentally wrong, from a political as well as a literary standpoint," Menasse added.
Book fair wants to promote Israeli voices
Meanwhile, Frankfurt Book Fair director Juergen Boos commented on the attacks: "We condemn the barbaric terror of Hamas against Israel in the strongest possible terms," said Boos.
He added that the terrorism against Israel contradicts all the values of the Frankfurt Book Fair, which stands in "full solidarity at Israel's side," he said. Therefore, he added, the fair wants to "make Jewish and Israeli voices particularly visible."
To that end, author and peace activist Lizzie Doron, who lives in Tel Aviv and Berlin, will speak about current events in Israel at the literature gala on October 21.
There will also be "additional moments onstage for Israeli voices," Boos announced, such as the event "Out of Concern for Israel."
Due to travel restrictions, however, some events had to be canceled, such as two concerts by Israeli singers.
Salman Rushdie expected in Frankfurt
This year marks the 75th edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair. One highlight is likely to be the appearance of author Salman Rushdie. The Indian-British author will receive the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Strict security precautions are being taken for Rushdie's visit.
As recently as August 2022, the writer, who was threatened by Islamists, was attacked with a knife while onstage in the United States, leaving Rushdie blind in his right eye.
Other big topics at the book fair include artificial intelligence, the climate emergency and the fight against populism and extremism.
On many book fair podiums — in addition to discussing the rise of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the ongoing war in Ukraine — the Middle East conflict is likely to be the main topic of discussion.
Originally, only a discussion on the topic of the "Crisis of Democracy in Israel" was planned in the trade fair event calendar.
This article was originally written in German.
Correction, October 17, 2023: A previous version of this article, published on October 13, 2023, quoted a statement from Litprom which said that Shibli had agreed to canceling the LiBeraturpreis award ceremony. The author reacted to the statement through her publisher, saying that the decision had been reached without her.