Wednesday, 29 April 2009

German Literature's Problems with Homosexuality

Last night saw the final event in the Literaturwerkstatt's series "Das Fremde und das Eigene" (I wrote about the other two here). And seeing as I get in to all their events for free for the next year, having won this fantastic treat in their prize draw, I could hardly not go, could I?

While the past events focused on migration and migrants in mainstream literature (or at least intended to do so), last night was dedicated to sexual identities. The panel consisted of:

Michael Lentz, writer, heterosexual
Inge Stephan, literary scholar, no sexual preference stated
Claudia Klitschat, writer, lesbian
Christina von Braun, cultural studies scholar, no sexual preference stated
Joachim Helfer, writer, gay
Detlef Grumbach, publisher, gay.

As you may have observed, I wouldn't usually state every participant's sexuality. But the event rather put a spotlight on it, as it asked why heterosexual authors fail to include gay and lesbian characters in their writing. A question which Michael Lentz was forced to try and answer, particularly as he was accused of sidestepping the issue in his novel Pazifik Exil, in which he ventriloquises various German exiles in California. Specifically, as he told us, he deliberately kept homosexuality in the closet, allowing Thomas Mann merely a few sidelong glances at male bodies and Oskar Pastior (whom he transplanted to the USA and for whom he invented an early death) a close male companion.

A number of possible explanations were put on the table. Lentz started out with what seemed the most honest - echoing the reasons other German authors had given for ignoring migrants in their writing - that he was concerned about authenticity. Von Braun argued that men have been creating female characters and indeed first-person narrators for generations, so why the concern? She also suggested that German society is very normative, not just when it comes to sexuality, having been through two splits down the middle - the Reformation and post-WWII. I think she might well have something there, although the exceptions that prove the rule have always been fascinating. And Helfer, who later became entrenched in a testosterone-laden political debate with Lentz, suggested what he called "holy fear". But as Grumbach emphasised (while Helfer seemed to disagree), there is no way to impose subject matters upon writers.

In the end, the event left us wanting more. It did address the question of "das Fremde und das Eigene" in a more focused way than its predecessors and it was interesting to combine what came out of them all. I'd say the series has highlighted one issue about German society: that it's not just those labelled minorities who live in their own little bubbles or "parallel societies". But the subject of representations of minorities in majority literature needs closer attention than it can ever be given in a couple of hours' readings and discussions.

I was most impressed by Joachim Helfer's book (with Rashid al Daif), Die Verschwulung der Welt. I suppose you could translate the title very loosely as "The World's Going Gay". The two authors met as part of a German-Arab cultural exchange, and al Daif very openly wrote down his feelings about meeting an out homosexual in Europe for the first time. Helfer responded in kind, criticising his colleague's own ideas of gender roles. To which, unfortunately, al Daif didn't get to respond (at least not in writing).

Initially, I felt rather sorry for Michael Lentz, who ended up a bit of a scapegoat. But the man was so self-possessed - and put his arguments across so well - that he didn't need anyone's sympathy. Incidentally, he could also more than compete with Feridun Zaimoglu on the clunky jewellery front, something I always grudgingly admire in a man. Determined to get the last word, he pointed out that his students on the Leipzig creative writing programme have gradually begun to take a "so what?" approach to their own sexualities, after initially often making a big song and dance of their literary comings-out. So perhaps the youngest generation of German writers will find gay and lesbian characters a less scary prospect - now that homosexuals are at least more or less equal in the eyes of the law here.


David said...

Did you read "Pazifik Exil"? I'm wondering if Lentz included Salka Viertel in his book. She was the glue of the exile community and was rumored to be one of Greta Garbo's lovers.

kjd said...

Between you and me, David, umm, no. I have it on my shelves though as I did a wee translation from it for the publishers. And that was great fun, I have to say.

But I can't answer your question I'm afraid.

David said...

Oh well, guess I'll have to read it to find out. The topic interests me. By the way, anyone interested in the real story of the LA exile community, I strongly recommend Salka Viertels wonderful memoir "The Kindness of Strangers".

adrian said...

Dear Katy

I just try to write a script for a film. It have to be a kind of art film noir. I like to have the script in English but I´m afraid than my English are not good enough for that. I like to ask you if you are interest in a kind of assistance for this film project. I live in Hamburg and I´m a art researcher at JVE Academie in Maastricht NL.

Kay said...

Dear David I ´ve read "Pazifik Exil" and honestly I also thought about if not Greta Garbo was the someone who loos the... ethernal point?
I ´m not really sure about it but it was a just spontaniuos thought.