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Literature

The global expansion of immigrant literature

Cologne is not the capital of the literary world. But this week, it's been a hub for many of the world's greatest authors. Renowned critic Sigrid Löffler explains to DW the significance of 'new world literature.'

Lit.Cologne, which closes on March 22, is one of Germany's largest literature festivals. Readings and discussions take place over 10 days in theaters and concert halls, bookstores and churches across the city on the Rhine River. Based on the number of sold-out events, it seems that Germany is into books - and into talking about them.

The epicenter of it all is the luxurious Hotel am Wasserturm, where the concentration of authors and panel hosts is particularly dense. The fact that lit.Cologne is so indulgent with its guests' accommodations is a sign that, unlike many cultural events, the festival actually turns a euro or two.

Sigrid Löffler, one of the most distinguished literary critics in the German-language scene, is also present at the event. The Austrian author has just released her latest book, "Die neue Weltliteratur und ihre grossen Erzähler" (The new world literature and its great narrators). She used to be a part of the television show "Literary Quartet," along with renowned and recently deceased critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, and published the magazine "Literaturen."

English as a second language

Sigrid Löffler, opyright: Imago/Rudolf Gigler

Sigrid Löffler

Despite her background, the German language is not the focus of Löffler's latest publication. Rather, she digs into the history of how writers have disseminated the English language throughout Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. In an interview with DW, she said it's important to her to lend a structure to this particular brand of English literature, which she refers to as "new world literature."

"The fall of the British Empire seemed to me to be the most evident," said Löffler. The majority of the literature she deals with in her book was written by authors who switched languages and publish work not in their native tongue, but in the lingua franca. "Eighty to 85 percent of the new world literature appears in English," Löffler estimates, adding that a much smaller portion was published in French or German.

Included in the new world literature genre are well-known authors, some of them Nobel Prize winners: V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, Salman Rushdie, but also younger, less familiar names. "This literature is practically exploding; it's getting bigger and bigger and new authors and books appear every year," said Löffler.

A generational shift

Löffler has two aims. She wants to raise awareness of a phenomenon that is no longer niche, but is becoming an increasingly significant portion of the global book market. Many authors, particularly from India and Pakistan, but also from Africa and the Caribbean, have immigrated to North America or Europe in recent years. London and New York have become the epicenters of new world literature. In their new homes, the authors write in English but are naturally influenced by the language, the colors and the cultures of their home countries.

Salman Rushdie, Copyright: AFP/Getty Images

Salman Rushdie is one of the best-known names in new world literature

"We're talking about immigrants from the colonies that went to England and settled there and write about it," Löffler said. In her book she also focuses on another group: "It's also about authors that continue to live in the former colonies and write about these colonies."

This genre of immigrant literature Löffler examines has been around for a number of generations already. The critic begins her research with early novels from the post-war period. But the real boom came later.

"The first generation made this first big life change - immigration - its theme, whether they were looking at their home countries or writing about how difficult it is to settle and integrate into their new countries," explained Löffler.

Younger authors no longer writer about the "mystery of arrival," according to Löffler, but have turned to other themes. "They are no longer poverty-driven immigrants, but belong to the mobile elite. They are already in a completely different position."

A German phenomenon, too

Nevertheless, immigration and being foreign remain the most important themes for all of these authors. They all ask questions like, what's it like to become a nomad, what's it like to switch continents and adapt to a completely new culture, and how does it change your view of the world when you take on multiple cultural identities?

Saša Stanišić, Copyright: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa

Saša Stanišić received the Leizpig Book Fair Prize for his second novel

In Germany, this phenomenon has permeated the literary scene in recent years. Some authors from Turkey, former Yugoslavia and what used to be the Soviet Union, who now live in Germany, are considered German writers because they've completely adopted the language of their new country in their work.

"These authors enrich German literature," said Sigrid Löffler, pointing out Bosnian-born German author Saša Stanišić, who was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair Prize earlier this month and also made an appearance at lit.Cologne. The widespread success of the 36-year-old author is proof of the thesis Löffler presents in her book that new world literature is really taking off.

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