Monday, 25 January 2010

Lichterfeste, Schattenspiele - Thoughts on the Chamisso Prize

The 26th Chamisso Prize – for “authors whose mother tongue and cultural background are non-German and whose works make an important contribution to German literature” – was awarded last week to Terezia Mora, along with Abbas Khider and Nino Haratischwili. And the past year has been a busy one for the people behind it, with celebrations of the quarter-century stretching across all twelve months.

November saw a symposium on “Whither Chamisso? German-language literature by writers from around the world”, summed up in the Tagesspiegel by Katrin Hillgruber. And you can read an abbreviated version of Iliya Troyanov’s speech there in the NZZ. The Bulgarian-born writer talked about literature in exile, from Ovid to Conrad to the present day. And he was good enough to kick up a fuss about something I too object to – the way Germanists treat what they now seem to refer to (for want of a better term) as “Chamisso literature”.

There is a whole botanical garden of difference between two such wonderfully innovative writers as Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Terezia Mora. Their sole common denominator is that both are part of a forced worldliness of German-language literature. None of the aforementioned authors matches up to the traditional perception that ‘Chamisso literature’ is something characteristic, new, specifically German. (…) From the very beginning, this discourse had a peculiar scent of the provincial, the homely, arising from West Germany’s banal backyard culture.

Troyanov goes on to talk about trans-cultural writers, including the past four German-speaking Nobel laureates, and how he never felt like a “Chamisso author”.

If we have to make generalisations, perhaps we might agree that this literature has assumed the role once allotted to Jewish-German literature – both buoyed up by an open, flexible, multi-layered intellectualism. Indeed, there is no Chamisso literature any more, merely the growth of German-language literature into world literature with the aid of the agents of cosmopolitanism and multilingualism.

Talk about going out with a bang. But it seems to have had little effect on the Chamisso people so far. The anthology marking 25 years of the award is tweely entitled Lichterfeste, Schattenspiele (festivals of light, shadow plays), with a fireworks pattern on the front. The contributors were asked to provide pieces on the subject of “festivities” – because, as we all know, we foreigners are here to bring excitement into the lives of the staid old Germans. And what better subject for the former prizewinners to write on than folkloristic festivals? The introduction, provided by Péter Esterházy, goes right ahead and plunges the writers in question back into the ghetto. First of all, he tells us, celebrations and festivals are things of the past – touching on that common implication that migrant writers are in some way backward, primitive entities, noble savages in contrast to the hi-tech Germans. And then Esterházy, apparently oblivious of much of what has been said on the subject, gives us this little gem:

We can constantly sense this newness, this almost innocent joy of the new in the work of Chamisso authors. (…) They have left childhood, homeland, language and culture somewhere far behind them, have been torn out of somewhere and have inserted themselves elsewhere, and what they had lost they often found with the aid of the new language, but where they inserted themselves they are not quite at home. Between all stools and under the bench, that is their status, and that is a productive authorial position.

Thankfully, many of the writers in the anthology have thought their positions out without resorting to these old chestnuts. The book unites 40 past winners of the main prize and its “junior” version for emerging talents. In some cases they have obligingly contributed tales of colourful family celebrations back in the homeland. In others they have adopted neutral perspectives or written about something else entirely. And the more poetically inclined play word games around the subject of fest/Fest, a word that can mean solid, determined, constant, a celebration, a festival, a party. In one case, we get Gino Chiellino’s “Schlachtfest”, a long and detailed description of how to slaughter various domestic and game animals.

Three of the writers step outside themselves in terms of ethnic ascriptions: Saša Stanišić, Selim Özdogan and Feridun Zaimoglu. Stanišić’s party is a gathering of evangelical Christians on a Rhine ship observed by an ill-at-ease narrator with tangible linguistic problems, who may or may not be Bosnian like the writer himself, but that is beside the point. Özdogan assumes the persona of a young German racist bothered by Turks barbecuing by a lake. And Zaimoglu’s confusing tale features a brother called Herrmann. None of the three stories are going to make literary history, and one suspects they may have been written to prove a point. But they do make a refreshing change from some of the more conventional pieces.

There are some outstanding stories: Que Du Luu’s “Das Geschenk” tells the story of an invisible man collecting used cups around a university. Yoko Tawada’s “Sakiware” is a disturbingly sexualised tale of Japanese schooldays. Dimitri Dinev gives us a Hemingway-influenced modern-day rise to crime. And I was positively surprised by Galsan Tschinag, a Mongolian who I had assumed was popular merely by dint of being a real-life shaman. As it turns out, there’s more to him than that, a rather political writer with some interesting ideas and a nice turn of phrase.

Of course it’s perfectly natural and legitimate for writers – wherever they may come from – to write about their childhoods or their origins. Sudabeh Mohafez, for instance, reflects on Christmas in Teheran in a charming little piece, rather characteristic of her quiet considerations on identity. What this book plainly proves, though, is that these writers do indeed have very little in common, as Troyanov told us. As such, it doesn’t actually work very well as an anthology, the only thread holding it together being the rather tenuous theme.

A brief article closing the book details the award’s history, pointing out how it has changed along with the German-speaking countries and their literatures over the years. No longer pure do-goodery as in 1984, it now reflects the position of writers from other ethnic backgrounds – they’ve arrived. Yet the Syrian poet Adel Karasholi had a few interesting comments to make in an interview in the September-December 2009 issue of chamisso magazine (available for download at the award’s website).

I was awarded the Chamisso Prize in 1992, shortly after reunification. Before that I had been fully integrated into the East German literary landscape. Nobody called my poems guest worker literature or migrant literature, but simply poems. (…) I suddenly found myself put into a pigeonhole. (…) I said (in 2001) that literature needs neither visa nor citizenship, and that it will make it in whatever specific, provided the noun and not the adjective proves its essential aspect. I can take a more relaxed viewpoint today. This literature has made it now.

The Chamisso Prize walks a fine line, and the Robert Bosch Foundation that runs it would do well to keep a keen eye on how it is presented. With all sorts of behind-the-scenes projects encouraging young people from ethnic minorities to write, it does a lot of good work. Germany is a long way off from equal opportunities in education and the workplace, and literary role models can only be a good thing. But the very fact that established writers are being awarded a prize for being good at German is still, I find, inherently patronising. If there is indeed no Chamisso literature any more, as Troyanov suggests, then it is high time to rethink the award.

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