The Need for Mutual Permeabilities


A membrane is as fragile as it is inconspicuous: the word denotes a thin skin that is permeable to fluids and gases. By hosting the festival »Membrane – African Literatures and Ideas,« we will focus on this inconspicuous skin. Authors from Francophone West Africa, Anglophone East Africa and from countries once under German colonial rule will enter into conversation. The festival will be curated by three important figures from these regions: Felwine Sarr, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, and Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard. We concentrate on these regions, because in putting questions to literature and trying to relate to it, we, with our historical heritage of exploitation and being exploited, need mutual permeabilities. Or, to quote the Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: »Nations that had a role in the catastrophe of other countries have a moral obligation towards these populations. The guilt of colonial times extends to today. The Europeans don’t want to hear that, but it is the truth.« To decolonialize the deeply embedded power structures is a long process and cannot be done in sixty years, says the economist Felwine Sarr: »In this process everything must be decolonialized: language, knowledge, the perception of oneself, mentalities and psyches.« It is here where culture, specifically literature, as an independent visionary space becomes important, where processes of social change in Africa may be thought about, developed, and explained.

It is exactly this permeability in thinking, speaking, and acting that Sarr identifies as the basic condition of change, which we need more than ever in a time of growing nationalism and increasing tendencies toward exclusion and racism in Europe. This permeability means reflecting on our own past and present, which is simultaneously a history of the enlightened European individual, and of that individual’s necessary construction of an other and constant reformulation of its own superiority. Individualism and the fulfilment of the self are categories which have different meanings and values in African countries. »The confrontation of Africa and Europe – and thus of both with themselves – is said to be imprisoned in a paradox: a common history, which is not shared, a simultaneaity of asynchronicity.«

To decolonialize the deeply embedded power structures is a long process and cannot be done in sixty years, says the economist Felwine Sarr: »In this process everything must be decolonialized: language, knowledge, the perception of oneself, mentalities and psyches.«

This is how Tagesspiegel sums up a thesis of the Cameroonian political scientist and theoretician of postcolonialism, Achilles Mbembe, in his essay »Exit From the Long Night.« Here Mbembe paraphrases a sentence by the important Franco-Carribean postcolonial intellectual Frantz Fanon about the great power of colonialism; something we sank into and must now leave behind. In merging cultures, the membrane will become permeable; his hope is for a society based on transnational humanism. This thought, too, goes back to Fanon, but it is more important than ever in a Europe where diffused fears are politically instrumentalized; where prejudices hamper the transfer of knowledge and the engagement with artistic and literary strategies. At no time in history, Mbembe continues, were such vast archives of knowledge available, but their growth parallels a growing ignorance and apathy. Proceeding from these reflections, the festival aims to keep the membrane’s pores open.

Introducing Literatures from Africa

The festival and the issue aim to connect its visitors/readers to literary positions, which are often still unknown to the general public here, and broaden our knowledge of various literatures from African countries. These generally have only a marginal existence in German publishing and rarely reach a bigger audience (and if they do, it’s via the American market).

»Knock, knock! Who’s there? Nobody.«Warsan Shire

Compared to scientific social analysis, literature has the unique power of allowing us to leave the narrow confines of our own ego and enter into other lives. It thus always contains a utopian element, as the British author Taiye Selsi noted in her opening speech at the Berlin Literature festival. She remarked critically on the fact that African authors or authors with an African background are much too frequently asked to discuss politics, questions of identity and immigration rather than their art, their literature.

Focusing on Racism

The festival and the issue aim to join reflections on contemporary racism with feminist positions and social questions of the present and the future. The sensibility for various forms of racism seldom extends to other categories of inequality. Achilles Mbembe notes that »the global precariat is told that class-based society is a thing of the past, but within the transnational elite there is a very pronounced class-consciousness and an enormous cohesion. Genuine changes therefore are halted.« This is equally true for the order of the sexes, the logic of which is always being reformulated in everyday life, a continual exercise. In her famous speech, We Should All Be Feminists, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests that we should, regardless of sex, embrace feminism and start to break up the hierarchies and power structures along the fault lines of obsolete concepts of masculinity and femininity. The education of the next generation seems all-important to her. »Gender and class are different forms of oppression. I actually learned quite a bit about systems of oppression and how they can be blind to one another … Culture does not make people. People make culture.«

It is exactly this permeability in thinking, speaking, and acting that is the basic condition of change, which we need more than ever in a time of growing nationalism and increasing tendencies toward exclusion and racism in Europe.

Individualism vs. Community

The festival and the issue want to increase the permeability of the membrane – to change the Eurocentric Western gaze on other societies, the gaze that wants to see an »Other« opposed to the enlightened West. Edward Said has described constructions of oneself and of the Other in his analysis of Orientalism’s construction of Occident and Orient. Such processes of cultural splitting by defining a Self and an Other can be observed in other regions. The enlightened Western perspective is, as Said shows, based on a concept of a subject defining itself by limitation and exclusion. The process of Western individuation stresses the fulfilment of self and lends the ego a larger importance than the We; it is also closely connected with achievement and success. Splitting and projection continually lead to cultural stereotypes. These are the more stable the longer they have been dehistoricized and taken to be universally true.

Potential and Challenge of Afropolitanism

The festival and the issue wants to critically explore the relevance for Europe of the concept of »Afropolitanism,« which implies a new organization of society, politics and culture and has become important for the self-image of many intellectuals (especially writers) with African roots.

»A world without nations, without skin colors, without borders? We cannot be all artists. But we can all be readers. We can all belong. And if this sounds like a utopian premise: a world without African literature, even without a desire for it, a world with human literature, then I would say – yes, sure, it’s a utopia.«
Taiye Selasi

»There is no African literature« – that’s how the Nigerian author Taiye Selasi began her opening speech at the Berlin Literature Festival in 2013. Selasi was speaking for that segment of internationally mobile authors of African background who no longer position themselves in reference to a specific past lost to colonialism. This new transnational elite sees Africa as a place without a center. Instead of idealizing a specific geographical home, Afropolitans stress the hybrid character of their own identity, which they see as fluid rather than as a static whole. The label »African authors« then becomes as empty and meaningless as »European authors.«

The skills one must consequently develop to move within various cultures and make the best of structurally discriminating situations can be of great interest for our reflections on Europe and on the concept of nations. As a contrary position, we can quote economist Felwine Sarr: »Africa needs a center of its own to get ahead. That doesn’t mean that you marginalize yourself or don’t relate to others. But the starting point for getting ahead is what is your own, your own history, your own geography, in short: your own cultural resources.« Thus he relates identity definitely to history and specific places. However interesting the concept of fluidity is, it seems important to name geographical frames of reference and make them visible and audible through literature. Authors, after all, do not move within a space free of power.

From these thoughts we have generated key questions for our festival:

  • During a crisis of democracy and capitalism how can people create a common cosmopolitan consciousness that would permit lasting changes? Looking at other cultural frames, how can we distance ourselves from our own supposed certainties?
  • How can we work to overcome racism, gender hierarchies, and social impenetrabilities; how can we reflect on these and research them? How can we keep the membrane in our head breathing by concentrating on art and literature? To go on with Mbembe: How can I, in an age of enmities, make the concept of enmity more permeable and ideally overcome it?
  • How can I channel emotions of strangeness not into fear, but interest and empathy? What kind of an ego is needed for that? How can we explore origins without being linked with them inexorably?
  • How can we learn from Afropolitan mobility for a Europe of the future?
  • In light of historical experience, how can precolonial institutions be strengthened again?
  • How can new modes of expression be developed ?
  • How can another Enlightenment be invented, from which the West might learn in its turn?


Stefanie Stegmann, Director of Literaturhaus Stuttgart
Elke aus dem Moore, Director of Akademie Schloss Solitude
Johanne Mazeau-Schmid, Cultural Officer Institut français Stuttgart


Translated from German by Joachim Kalka


»Membrane – African Literatures and Ideas,« taking place in Stuttgart May 23 – 26, is an international festival organized by Literaturhaus Stuttgart, Institut français, and the Akademie Schloss Solitude.