Friday, 15 April 2011

Dear Selim Özdogan,

Dear Selim,

How can I possibly review this book? You know I've read it twice, first at the manuscript stage and now the finished, printed product: Heimstraße 52. Did I tell you, by the way, how truly honoured I felt when you sent me the manuscript? I read it through in one night, cold and uncomfortable at my computer, making notes to tell you what I liked and what I didn't. I've just checked my notes and seen that you ignored almost everything negative I said, apart from the thing about the ships being a bit of a corny metaphor. That makes me laugh - you know what you're doing and you just go ahead do it.

And here's what I still love about the book: I love Gül, a character almost like the women in all those nineteenth-century American novels I used to read as a child, led by her conscience and love for her family - a Turkish Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love her drunken husband Fuat, who rounds in the course of the book from an uncaring ne'er-do-well to a three-dimensional man with a wonderful sense of humour and way with words. I love the descriptions of working life in the book, the details like the wheels blocking in the wool factory - too many German writers pretend there's no such thing as work in their novels. I love the quirky character who predicts a dark future for Turks in Germany, and the literature student with his wonderful analysis of German society, even though he's never been there. I love the calm, collected pace and Gül's simple but wise thoughts, which sent tears to my eyes on many occasions as I read the book more slowly.

I've seen you read from the book twice now too, and I really do hear your voice as I read certain passages, especially Fuat's tirades. And those sad moments when you, the story-teller, look ahead and warn us that things won't go according to plan. Having fallen for Die Tochter des Schmieds all those years ago with its tantalising flashes of future tense, I was so pleased to find them again in What Gül Did Next (I'm guessing you've probably never read Susan Coolidge though).

Now I know you hate to be the token Turk and I know you hesitated to write the novel. Turkish family moves to Germany in the 1960s, the immigrant life, the perfect gift for every social worker, the perfect response to Sarrazin. But first of all I agree that it would be just as foolish not to have written the story, cutting off your nose to spite your face. And secondly, hey, nobody else has written it. I genuinely believe that stories can help people to understand the world, and if you can do that without being dragged kicking and screaming onto the "ethnic writer" bandwagon, then Selim, you've done a fantastic thing.

When it comes to the immigrant experience, you've parceled up so many key elements - without wagging a didactic finger. The German neighbour who explains the strange local rituals, the ignorant comments on public transport, the widening of horizons even in a fairly insular community, the envy back home. Even things as banal as language problems are in there, but what you've succeeded in doing is making them peripheral issues. The stories and the characters and the writing are what counts, and they're thoroughly convincing.

Here's what I wish for you (and for me): I wish that an English-language publisher will finally snap up both Die Tochter des Schmieds and Heimstrasse 52 - or 52 Factory Lane as we've christened it. I wish I get to translate them both (and the third part of the trilogy, whatever that may be called). I wish you crowded readings where you play your music and read your stories and the pretty girls in the front row laugh and twirl their hair, and you go home to Maria and all's right with the world. I wish people go out and buy your books and write you fan letters and tell all their friends to read your books too. I wish the kids in the schools where you read are inspired and write books of their own and ask you for a quote for the back cover. I wish everyone learns to pronounce your name, and mine, or at least that they ask beforehand and give it a try.

And thank you so much for putting my name at the back of your book. It's never happened to me before and it made me feel like a million dollars. It just means I can't possibly review it.


David said...

Wow, what an honor! Since I cannot get to a bookstore in Germany, can you share in what context he mentions your name? Is it a quote from you?

kjd said...

Hi David,

He thanks me in the acknowledgements.

Daniel said...

Frohe Ostern Katy!

kjd said...

Danke! I'm having a week off.