Arnon Grunberg
PEN Blog

Literature in the Black Forest

I spent many summers of my youth in the Black Forest of Germany. My parents, who were both born in Berlin and had fled to the Netherlands from the Nazis, had a weak spot for the German hills.

In the seventies, most of my friends in Amsterdam went on vacation to Italy, France, Spain or even further away. Germany was not a cool destination, so I always returned from my summer vacations with a sense of shame.

Now I’m back in the Black Forest for a literary festival in a small city—actually more of a village—named Hausach.

I ask myself: What’s a festival like this doing in such a village in the hills? It seems more like a place for elderly hikers than for authors and literati.

The answer is the poet and essayist José F.A. Oliver. He was born in Hausach the son of Spanish émigrés.

When his parents came here, his father joined up with quite a few other Spaniards as a guest worker in a straw hat factory. It was the last straw hat factory in Germany, at that.

Apparently, the Spanish know how to make hats.

Although José Oliver spends quite some time abroad, he still resides in Hausach. “This is where I find quiet,” he says.

In 1998, he started a literary festival named “LeseLenz.” The first event was attended by 13 people. According to an author at this year’s festival, a number of people tried to convince Mr. Oliver that Hausach was a nice place, but it was not the appropriate setting for a literary festival.

No serious literature for small villages in the Black Forest, apparently.

But Mr. Oliver didn’t give up.

At this year’s 15th LeseLenz festival, 34 authors were present. They came not only from Germany but from as far away as India (Ranjit Hoskoté) and Nigeria (Chika Unigwe).

The opening event was attended by more than 350 people, including the mayor of Hausach and his wife. Most of the other events were sold out. To my surprise, the audience consisted mainly of the inhabitants of Hausach and its surrounding areas.

So who said that rather conservative country villages and literature are not a good match?

Mr. Oliver does not only organize readings for adults. Part of the festival is that the authors go to high schools to read from their books.

I wonder if schools elsewhere would welcome authors without wanting to know what is going to be read.

“Authors can read from sex scenes in the schools as well?” I asked one of the organizers.

“Of course,” she said. “These kids are at least 17 years old. We don’t do censorship.”

After my reading at a school, Mr. Oliver read a few of his poems aloud for me.

More literary festivals should be like the one in Hausach. Perhaps more literary festivals should be organized by poets. Or by the sons and daughters of straw hat factory workers, for that matter.