A Literary Walk to Remember

Photo courtesy of Muhamad Putera Wicaksana

Photo courtesy of Muhamad Putera Wicaksana

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” Ernest Hemingway once said. The American was right – writing, be it a novel, short story or a poem, requires focus and concentration, quiet and peace. Therefore, writing is often regarded as solitary work. At the same time, however, connecting to others and exploring the unknown are also extremely beneficial to a writer’s mind and imagination.

At the recent Temu Sastra literary event, Rumah Budaya Indonesia Berlin (Indonesian House of Culture in Berlin) collaborated with Lettrétage, the “anchor institution” of the independent literature scene in Berlin, to break away from its usual format.

Instead of merely inviting an author to a reading followed by a discussion, this time the event series brought together two authors, one Indonesian and one German, for a whole day.

Rio Johan and Philipp Boehm met bright and early to explore the city of Berlin – mainly in the areas of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln – and eventually headed to the cultural center in the evening to share their experience with an audience.

“Usually, writers meet for an event, share 15 minutes on stage and read from their works and probably will never see each other again afterwards,” said Tom Bresemann, author, poet and co-founder of Lettrétage.

“That’s why we wanted to change the format into a literary encounter and had the idea of hosting a literary walk. It allows the writers to spend more time with each other and it also gave Philipp the opportunity to show Rio ‘his’ Berlin. It’s not about sightseeing, but rather about sharing insights.”

For Rio, who currently lives in Paris and published a novel Ibu Susu (Breastfeeding Mother) last year, it wasn’t his first time in Berlin.

Having spent two months in the German capital two years ago for a residency to do research for his book, he was quick to acknowledge that in comparison the literary walk was a completely different experience – not only regarding his length of stay.

“When I came to Berlin the first time, it was my first trip to Europe and I didn’t quite know what to expect,” Rio recalled. “I rented a room through Airbnb in an apartment owned by a Cuban lady who couldn’t speak German and, since I don’t speak Spanish, we didn’t really communicate at all. I also didn’t have anyone to show me around like Philipp. Back then, I felt like a regular tourist in Berlin, but today I was able to gain more insights into the city.”

Philipp Boehm, who received a literary grant from the city of Bremen in 2014 and was among the finalists at the 2016 Open Mike, a renowned literary competition for up and coming writers in Berlin, is to publish his first novel this year.

“I wanted to introduce Rio to some places in Berlin that are important to my writings, as well as places that show how the city is evolving, where past and present collide, where social change is visible and the consequences it has on the people living here,” Boehm explained.

Photo courtesy of Muhamad Putera Wicaksana

Photo courtesy of Muhamad Putera Wicaksana

One of the stops on the writers’ literary walk was Tempelhof, which was one of the first airports in Berlin and has been used as a recreational space since it ended operations in 2008.

“On one hand, you have this megalomaniac building of the Nazi era, but just on the other side, the Tempelhof Field is housing hippie community gardens,” Boehm said.

When asked how much influence a city or certain place has when it comes to their works, the two writers took a similar stance.

“There isn’t a direct, visible influence,” Rio acknowledged. “None of my stories are set in Indonesia, for instance. Funnily enough, I wrote a short story about 17th century France before I ever set foot in Paris. But of course, even though there are no direct mentions in my stories, the places I live in have an impact on my writings – through the people I meet or what I am experiencing.”

Boehm, on the other hand, wants to stay clear of the cliché of the typical Berlin novel.

“Nobody wants to read another one of those anymore and I took a sacred vow not to write a novel about Berlin when I moved here,” he said. “The city itself, of course, has an indirect influence on my work in terms of themes.”

Despite the fact that the two writers had never met each before, they were able to find some similarities between them over the course of one day, exchange ideas and engage in vivid discussions.

Ahmad Saufi, the education and culture attaché of the Indonesian Embassy in Berlin, said he was happy to learn of this literary encounter.

“We were able to invite established writers from different genres for readings and discussions for our past events,” he said. “It was great to provide a stage for two writers of the younger generation as well and to encourage a conversation between them – which is what the Temu Sastra is all about.”

This article was first published in the Jakarta Post on 2 February, 2019.