InterKontinental: Ambassadors for African Writing in Germany
Since the invention of the printing press, it’s not been uncommon for publishers—whether large international operations like Italy’s Rizzoli or small, scrappy independents like Deep Vellum in Dallas, Texas—to decide to open bookshops to sell their wares (as well as those of colleagues or competitors). It is perhaps the easiest way for a publisher to make sure their books are physically on bookstore shelves and available for purchase to the public, and there is a strong commercial argument in favor of this kind of vertical holding.
Less common, but perhaps more interesting, are those passionate booksellers who also decide to become publishers, often because there is a gap in the market for the kinds of books they most wish to champion. The latter is the case of InterKontinental, a specialist bookstore in Berlin focused on literature from Africa and its global diaspora, which won the Deutschen Buchhandlungspreis (German Bookstore Prize) in 2021 and started its own publishing program in August 2022.
Stefanie Hirsbrunner and Karla Kutzner are the team behind InterKontinental. During a phone conversation, Stefanie explained how this progression evolved over the years in an organic fashion. “The festival fueled the idea of having a bookstore, when we realized that no bookseller had the international titles by the invited authors.” So they started to import these books themselves—originally just for the festival, but it was quickly evident that there was a larger demand for these titles year-round as well. And once they opened the bookshop, they soon realized that “what other publishers are putting out, number wise, is not enough for the bookstore.” Repeated requests from customers, as well as what they wanted to see made available themselves, led to their beginning to publish translations into German of works by African authors. Writers like Lauri Kubuitsile from Botswana and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi from Uganda were on last year’s launch list, with works by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma from Zimbabwe and Fiston Mwanza Mujila from Congo scheduled to be published this year.
While Stefanie and Karla are political scientists, and originally came from the events side of things, they are no strangers to publishing: Stefanie writes essays and nonfiction and has published six books so far; Karla is a professional editor. Both have also lived and worked in Africa and are specialists in African-European relations.
“We are not pretending to be spokespeople for the Black German community, which has its own spaces and events and communities,” Stefanie explains, although there are often, of course, overlapping interests. She adds that, from the beginning, “it is essential that the curator of the festival be African.” Past curators include German Nigerian Olumide Popoola and Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga, and this year’s curator is Mohamedou Ould Slahi Houbeini from Mauritania. The festival, whose motto this year is “Breaking Free,” will take place in Berlin August 25 through 27.
Of course, residents of or visitors to Berlin can visit the shop in the Friedrichshain neighborhood at Sonntagstr. 26 and online at www.interkontinental.org.