Friday, 27 March 2009

Das Fremde und das Eigene

Berlin's Literaturwerkstatt has been running an interesting small series of events under the above title. The phrase is rather popular but difficult to translate. My trusty Muret-Sanders offers about six column inches of translations for "fremd": strange, foreign, exotic, other people's, extraneous, outside, other, alien... "Eigen" is fairly clear-cut, at least superficially, meaning "one's own". But what is foreign and domestic in literature? What is exotic and familiar? What is extrinsic and intrinsic?

The first event in the series was held at the Social Democratic research institute in Berlin and was a pretty heavyweight affair. It started with a panel discussion between politicians, researchers and "migrant authors" - Imre Török and Zafer Senocak, in this case. Although the discussion was fairly rambling, it soon emerged that nobody is happy with the labels applied to literature written in German by authors with other cultural backgrounds.

One of the key issues for the series is how mainstream literary culture reflects minorities, and indeed the last event will be about German-language literature's difficulties with homosexuality. The panel discussion touched rather briefly on this subject, with the researcher Meral Cerci explaining how other media have actually begun including ethnic and sexual minorities - the Turkish motorway cop, the gay neighbour, and so on. In literature, it seems, that's something reserved for the minorities themselves. Write what you know, they say, and it looks like many German authors don't know many people outside of their own demographic.

The discussion was followed by a reading by four top-notch authors, which I found more productive than the first half. Sherko Fatah, Terezia Mora and Zafer Senocak more than proved that their writing is of excellent quality, wherever they happen to come from, and Michael Wildenhain played the role of the token German, the exception that proves the rule. They were all agreed that they have definitively "arrived" slap-bang in the literary establishment, earning prizes and grants galore.

This week saw the second event, which focused on writing in German as a foreign language. The authors were not quite as established, with stronger accents and (for the most part) less experience. Maria Cecilia Barbetta, Abbas Khider, Orsolya Kalasz and Pedro Kadivar read from their prose and poetry and talked about the freedoms and confines of writing in German. Kadivar, who also writes in French, touched on the controversy over Francophone literature - an issue that has a different weighting in Germany, which never had colonies to speak of.

The presenter, Professor Doktor Norbert Dittmar, was better than I had expected from his slightly embarrassing performance at the first event. He's an expert on second-language acquisition and so comes at the issue from a certain direction - which was absolutely inappropriate on the initial panel but seemed more fitting here. Very affirmative and congratulatory in a way that bordered on the patronising - what a great achievement it is to write literature in German, how well the authors have done, etc. If you're familiar with Zafer Senocak, you can imagine how well that went down with him, but he grinned and bore it. What I did approve of was Dittmar's rejection of the standard labels and insistence on the fact that the authors write German-language literature, period.

It turned out to be a positive evening, if not all that insightful - but if I hear one more person comparing the German language to a lover in the near future I won't be able to account for my actions.


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your posts. Just wanted to point out, in case you missed it, NY Times is running an article on Berlin lit this weekend.

Anonymous said...

Washington Post article and podcast on Maureen Freely/Orhan Pamuk translation.

kjd said...

Thanks Anonymous and Anonymous.