Introducing Literally Speaking: a fiction reading series

We would like to introduce a new series of interviews featuring literary reading series and projects in Berlin. To kick it off, we spoke with Traci Kim, the founder of “Literally Speaking“, a monthly reading series dedicated to English-speaking authors in Berlin. The series has become an important get-together for an exceptionally diverse community.

“Literally Speaking” recently celebrated its second anniversary. The fact that the English-speaking writer’s community in Berlin has been given such a dependable stage is largely due to its busy, seemingly never-tired advocate and curator Traci Kim.

Can you tell us in a nutshell what “Literally Speaking” is exactly? What did you have in mind when you started?

“Literally Speaking” is a monthly fiction reading series that features Berlin’s writers and the authors who inspire their stories. Each month, five writers share a piece of fiction they wrote and pair it with an author who inspires their work. It’s a way to see what our writers are reading, to build a collective reading list, and connect as a community through stories.

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How do you find authors, how do authors find you? How do you choose the program for the evenings?

“Literally Speaking”’s readers come from all over. While the series is in English – and other than native speakers – “Literally Speaking” has featured writers from Germany, Finland, Trinidad and Tobago, Sweden, India, France, Israel, and more! I’m actually making an effort to open it up to people who don’t write in English. Writers can submit translations of their work, and we can tinker with verb tenses and prepositions, but it’s really the stories I care about. I want “Literally Speaking” to be an inclusive platform that really showcases what people are writing in Berlin.

Yes, there are some people who have read more than once, but that’s because they keep sending me their stories. Submit early, submit often!

I choose stories that interpret the month’s theme in a nuanced way. I then have to curate a lineup of five stories that work well together. It’s not always a singular function of a good story, rather an entire evening’s journey. I curate based on how an audience will feel throughout the entire event.

You just mentioned that the readings have a specific theme. How do you choose the topics for the readings? Is this a result of looking through the entries or do you already have a topic in mind and are then looking for suitable authors and texts?

The themes for the readings are actually the hardest part for me! I always try to pick something intriguing, yet flexible so that people can interpret it in their own way. It’s more fun when people take the theme in a direction you wouldn’t expect. At the same time, I want this series to really reflect what writers in Berlin are up to and what audiences are interested in, so at the second birthday and print issue launch I put out a suggestions box for themes. There’s definitely enough fodder in there for the rest of the year and then some!

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By now, many know you as a promoter, networker and host of the English-language literary scene in Berlin. But what did you do before you became involved in English-language literature in Berlin? How did it come about that you became so vehemently involved as a cultural ambassador?

As far as I can remember, I wanted to write books. I studied creative writing and Spanish literature, all the while thinking I’d become a novelist. I interned and worked with a couple of indie presses in Chicago, and that’s where I realized that I might be a better editor than writer myself. At first, I didn’t want to give up the dream of writing my first book, but the more authors I worked with, the more I realized that I was just as happy developing other people’s stories.

I’ve since realized that in school, at least in the US, we’re never told about all the different facets of the publishing industry. You’re trained to study as the author, aspiring to write your book, but I was never aware of all the other important roles in publishing. It’s only in the past couple of years that I noticed I’m the most fulfilled when being an advocate for authors and helping other writers find their words.

You could have started your reading series anywhere in the world. And then there was indeed a guest edition of “Literally Speaking” in London. So the question arises: What actually brought you to Berlin?

I wish I had a better answer, but honestly, I’d never been [to Berlin], thought it seemed like a nice place to live, and bought a one-way ticket. Turns out I was right! Now I really can’t imagine living anywhere else in the world.

How did the series come about? What was the trigger for you to get started?

I took some time away from publishing and the literary world when I moved to Berlin. After the grueling WG hunt, I found my first indefinite apartment, and a bookstore opened up across the street. It felt like a sign from the universe. I went in and asked the owner if they had events there. He said they’d been open for five days, so no. The shop was Buchhafen, and it became the home for “Literally Speaking”’s first year. I’m so thankful for Sophie and Enis for letting me pack their bookshop to the gills every month and for being the best home I could have asked for.

Are there any discussions after the readings? Does everything turn into a party at the end?

Always! Lots of people stick around afterwards, and the cool thing is we can talk about all the new stories we just heard. I like that even if you come by yourself, instead of the typical “Where are you from? Come here often?” you naturally have the stories to talk about. After all, everyone just heard the same readings.

I love it when people become so intrigued by a reading that the next month when they come back it turns out they’ve read the book, and can’t wait to discuss it. Then it turns out other people felt the same way, and they automatically have this new thing to talk about.

So many of the new connections that come out of the reading series are grounded in literature, and that’s the best part of “Literally Speaking”.

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Organizing a monthly project can be fulfilling, but what gives you the strength to keep it going? And who are your helping hands?

It is a lot of work, but “Literally Speaking” runs like a well-oiled machine at this point. I’ve promised myself that the day I’m not excited to host a reading is the day I decide to stop running the series. I still get a buzz in the hours leading up to an event and sincerely enjoy bringing the community together around our writers.

I couldn’t have done it without: Andy Jakubowski, my designer who has created so much of the visual identity around “Literally Speaking”. Fred Marschall, who drew the original camel illustration, now named Miles Humphrey. Once I saw a visual representation of what I wanted for the series, it really came to life.

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Enis Oktay and Sophie Wilhelm, owners at Buchhafen who trusted me and let me run events in their bookshop every month. Tom Bresemann, director at Lettrétage who took our family in when we needed a bigger home.

I love that we’re such a caring, supportive community! What’s good for “Literally Speaking” is good for “The Reader Berlin” is good for “Fiction Canteen”, “SAND Journal”, “DADDY Magazine”, and everyone writing and reading in Berlin.

There is one question we have left out of the discussion so far. It is central to many projects: How do you finance the series? Are you supported by sponsors? Can you rely on public funding?

Lettrétage lets us use their gorgeous space every month! This is a 100% crowd-funded, DIY series. Each month, the entry fee people pay is divided up amongst the 5 writers in the lineup, and I save a bit to put towards the print issue at the end of the year.

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From the start, I said I’d put my time into “Literally Speaking”, but not any of my own money. The fact that the series is directly supported by the audience proves that “Literally Speaking” exists based on the interest of the community; there is a direct correlation. People keep coming back every month, and people keep sending in their stories. Rinse, repeat!

You often use the word community. That would almost be worth an interview of its own. But the idea of coming together, meeting each other, supporting and exchanging each other seems to me to be central to you. And that’s something many people are looking for, especially when they’re new to something. Berlin can seem a bit rough at first glance. What advice would you give to young English-speaking authors who have just come to Berlin?

Go to everything! Any arts circle can seem scary or elitist at first, but you’ll quickly realize that we all support each other and it’s a great community. There’s something for everyone, and if you don’t see something you’d like to represent, build it and they will come!

Next date: May 5, 2019 at Lettretage

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Brief Profile

Traci Kim is founder of “Literally Speaking” and contributor to “The Reader Berlin“.

Your 3 favorite authors: That’s really hard! May-Lan Tan, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Gary Shteyngart

Your favorite place in Berlin: Tempelhofer Feld, Körner Park

Your favorite German word: Oh, there’s so many! Probably “Handschuhe” or “Mietwagen”.