Thursday, 5 March 2009

Chamisso Prize: "Seismograph and Symbol"

In the Frankfurter Rundschau, Katrin Hillgruber interviews the winners of this year's Chamisso Prize, Artur Becker, María Cecilia Barbetta and Tzveta Sofronieva. For those not yet familiar with my personal stance on this award (or indeed the award itself), a brief summary:

The Adelbert von Chamisso Prize is awarded to "authors whose mother tongue and cultural background are non-German and whose works make an important contribution to German literature." I personally feel it and the way it presents the writers in question ghettoises their work - but it does raise their profile significantly and they get either 15000 or 7000 euro - certainly not to be sniffed at. You can read previous rants on the subject here and here.

If you ask me, anyone who chooses to write in a particular language is automatically part of that literature - whether their mother spoke to them in Spanish or Swahili or Serbo-Croat. Of course they may be influenced by Latin American writing or African literature, but then so may writers of German ethnic origin. Artur Becker sees that differently though. In the interview he talks about a long discussion he had with the ubiquitous Feridun Zaimoglu, who vehemently defines himself as a German writer regardless of his Turkish background. Becker's response: "Look in the mirror, if you're a German author then I'm an elephant." I for one would have punched him for that. He sees himself, he says, not exclusively as a German-speaking writer but also as a Polish author in the German language.

Towards the end of the interview, however, Becker seems to have changed his mind:

About fifteen years ago I wouldn't have dared to criticise my German compatriots. Now I can allow myself to do so, because it really has become my country through and through. And I feel it's the goddamned duty of a writer and intellectual, if they love their homeland, not to turn a blind eye on certain problems. I lived here in a paradise for a long time, and at some point my eyes opened. I knew I'd arrived at the moment when I stopped thinking: 'That's a German.' Suddenly I realised: 'They're people.' And that's something you only think in your mother tongue about your own compatriots.

I'm uncomfortable with this language, which often crops up in conjunction with the award, because I feel it reduces individuals almost entirely to their ethnic origins and identities - and aren't we actually much more than the sum of our parents' nationalities?

What the article points out is how the award has changed over the 25 years of its existence. If you look back over the list of winners, you can see they've changed from representatives of the typical "guest worker" nationalities such as Turks and Italians to a more diverse mix. And what I find most telling is that many of the recent winners have also received other awards, been translated into various languages, sold huge numbers of books and so on. The FR adds that mixed languages and national identities have become more normal phenomena - and that the award thus has a dual function, as a seismograph and symbol.

In my humble opinion, it would be a great deal more symbolic to scrap the award and give the money to writers who reflect Germany's diversity in their writing, whatever passport they hold.

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