New Audience Finds ‘Minor Details’ Following International Book Festival Fallout
Following the October 7 Hamas massacre and kidnapping in Israel, cultural arts institutions around the world began canceling or postponing events on Arab cultures or those critical of Israel. One of the most talked about cancellations resulted in readers flocking to Minor Details by Adania Shibli.
About a week after the attack, Litprom organizers decided they were no longer going to award Minor Details Germany’s 2023 LiBeraturpreis at the Frankfurt Book Festival. This five-day fair is considered the biggest and most important book festivals in the world. Shibli book still won the literary prize, but Litprom felt it was inappropriate to award the title at the festival. Additionally, the festival cancelled Shibli’s public discussion with the novella’s German translator, Günther Orth. Initially, Litprom claimed this was a mutual decision before retracting that framing.
This decision was not to present some weak centrist position after taking stances on things like Ukraine. Amid ongoing apartheid (outlined in Shibli’s book) and a collective punishment bombing campaign against the people in Gaza, the festival’s director, Juergen Boos, declared the festival stands in “full solidarity with Israel.” He also shared that the fair was going to host a day dedicated to Israeli voices.
This frustrating response has been met with resistance by authors, readers, and booksellers alike. Now, thousands of people have read the book for the first time that might not have heard of it otherwise.
The publishing world responds
Minor Details is a short, 140-ish-page novel (or 4 hours on 1x speed audio book) novel mostly set in the Negev Desert a year after the Nakba. Known as “the catastrophe”, the Nakba refers to the forced removal of 700,000+ Palestinians by Zionist militias in 1948. Celebrated as Israel’s independence, the Nakba was an ethnic cleansing and is still ongoing.
The novella’s first half follows a soldier’s perspective during a true and well-documented gang rape and murder of a Arab Bedouin-Palestinian girl. The second half follows a neurodivergent Palestinian woman several decades later. After finding an article about the crime for the first time and noticing it happened exactly 25 years before her birth, she becomes obsessed with learning more.
At a time when the fair has issued a statement saying it wants to make Israeli voices “especially visible at the fair,” they are closing out the space for a Palestinian voice.–ArabLit open letter
Following the actions by Litprom, Arab publishers and organizations pulled out of the Frankfurt Book Festival. Over 1,500 writers and publishing professionals worldwide signed letters of solidarity against the treatment of Shibli. Many continue to speak out against the accusation of antisemitism hurled at Minor Feelings, since the book was first published in 2017 (in Arabic). Over the summer, one of the Litprom jury members resigned in protest upon the awarding of the book. In November, Shibli shared with The Guardian that a recent German reviewer accusing her of framing “Israelis [as] anonymous rapists and killers” influenced Litprom’s decision. Previously, she’s condemned nationalism and here Shibli pointed out that all Palestinians characters are nameless, too.
Following Litprom’s decision, Shibli’s European publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, sought to make the book more accessible. Where allowed, Fitzcarraldo made the e-book free for the duration of the festival. Additionally, American audio bookseller Libro.fm also made the book a free addition to readers libraries through October 22.
Readers line up to read Minor Details
Several BookTok, Bookstagram, and Booktube communities moved beyond just a call to donate to organizations aiding victims of the violence. Many joined together in reading Minor Details and other books by Palestinian authors—especially about the apartheid. The two biggest movements as of late include #ReadingisResistance and #LiberateWithLiterature.
Hana Aisha organized #ReadingisResistance to run at the end of the Frankfurt Book Festival (October 22) to November 2. She kept it to two weeks so that anyone interested could find the time to read and post about the novella. This particular hashtag on TikTok alone has garnered over 2 million views. Even though the tag’s origin goes back before Litprom’s decision, all of the top watched videos are about Minor Details and/or directly mention Aisha’s challenge.
Recognizing the need to speak up and the shared collective struggle against colonialism and racism, a growing enclave of Black readers on TikTok and Instagram created the “Liberate with Literature” reading challenge. Taking place between October 21 to November 21, they encouraged people to read various books by Palestinian authors and donate for each book read.
This initiative is driven by a profound sense of sadness as we witness the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian People. We want to help in any way that we can. With a heavy heart, this initiative seeks to harness the power of literature, uniting people through the written word, to raise funds that will directly support Palestine.Black Romance Connoisseur
Black Romance Connoisseur a.k.a. Torri also organized a Storygraph tracker for those using the Goodreads alternative. Here, Torri added categories on Tigray, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. All these regions are facing genocide simultaneously. Like Aisha, several read and reviewed Minor Details for this challenge.
Read far and wide
While not inline with any particular group, I also read Shibli’s short novella. Even beyond the specific acts of physical violence mentioned in the synopsis, I understand what makes this uncomfortable book effective in undermining pro-Israel propaganda (of all faiths). Both narrators are detached, nameless, and speak as matter-of-fact. This second part details in mundane horror the daily life of Palestinians traveling in the region—the searches, the checkpoints, the demolitions, and the limitations of living as a second-class citizen. This includes via the colored license plates on the vehicle she rents, colors that make the ethnicity and/or religion of the driver apparent from a distance, reinforcing hierarchy.
Since this surge in attention the last few weeks, there’s been no compiled study on the number of Minor Detail readers introduced to the book following the events at the Frankfurt Book Festival. However, Fitzcarraldo shared that 1,500 people downloaded the book on the first day they made it free. The book also made Bookshops’ and Libro.Fm’s top book sold several weeks in a row.
These bestseller lists and more still hold other widely read titles about Palestinians, books like Rashid Khalidi’s The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017. Khalidi’s 2021 history book has stayed on the NYT’s bestseller list for weeks. Outside of a few classics and banned titles, it’s very rare for translated literature, especially historical fiction, to stretch across such a wide readership online. However, the move to hide away Minor Details broke this streak.
(featured image: New Directions Publishing and TikTok screencap)
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