Wednesday 30 January 2013


Unless of course you're in Hamburg or thereabouts and fancy a spot of youngish writing. In which case head over to the achingly named Ham.Lit next Thursday, 7 February, where you can wander between readings by Tina Uebel, Inger-Maria Mahlke, Sascha Reh, Frank Spilker, Monika Zeiner, Björn Kuhligk, Tilman Rammstedt, Kevin Kuhn, Matthias Nawrat, Silke Scheuermann, Daniela Chmelik,  Friederike Gräff, Simone Kornappel and Kerstin Preiwuß. I've been twice and had a good time both times, except that it's on a Thursday so it doesn't quite go on for long enough, especially because it's in this night club place that makes you feel like getting drunk and depraved.

Zweig Lovers' Night

Or perhaps you're in London or thereabouts and it's cold and you feel the need for a dead white Austrian writer in your life. No need to raid the cemetery - you can go to Zweig Lovers' Night instead. On Valentine's Day, no less, at the Austrian Cultural Forum, featuring live and kicking Zweig fans Ali Smith, Anthony Beevor and Amanda Hopkinson raving and reading from Anthea Bell's translations. This one has free wine and chocolates. But as you know you should go anyway.

Festival Neue Literatur

You're in New York or thereabouts and it's cold and you feel the need for German-language writers in your life? No need to book a flight to Berlin - go to the Festival Neue Literatur instead. Featuring Ulrike Ulrich and Tim Krohn from Switzerland, Clemens J. Setz and Cornelia Travnicek from Austria, Leif Randt and Silke Scheuermann from Germany and two men called Joshua from America, in translations by Ross Benjamin, Margot Dembo, Tess Lewis, Anne Posten and the rather royally titled Marshall Yarbrough. From February 22-24. I hear the brunch sessions are particularly good - including free food. But obviously you should go anyway.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

India and Me

I was recently rather disparaging about people writing about Berlin, in English. And now I find myself wanting to say quite a lot about India after spending less than two weeks in the country. Obviously I have no idea about the place, so these comments can only ever be wholly subjective.

Dorothee Elmiger, Inka Parei and myself were invited by Pro Helvetia and the Goethe Institut to visit four cities - Kolkata, New-Delhi, Hyderabad and Pune, where we read from Invitation to the Bold of Heart and The Shadow-Boxing Woman and discussed our work at literary festivals and universities. We were incredibly well looked-after, escorted around but allowed our personal space to breathe, shown amazing sights and sounds and heaped with gifts, flattered and pampered and generally treated like literary royalty. We talked to a lot of wonderful people about all sorts of things, and I hope this post can pass on a fraction of what I think I found out.

In general, I arrived in India thinking I knew more about the culture than I really did. The part of London I come from has a very large South Asian population and I've always had Anglo-Indian friends. But celebrating Diwali at primary school and enjoying a good biryani is a far cry from understanding Indian culture, as it turns out. As the days passed I felt more and more ignorant - but had the great privilege of learning from locals what their lives are like. 

India and Literature
We saw bookstores everywhere we went, in some cases book stalls by the road. Books are obviously a highly valued cultural asset in India. And I loved the literary culture - every event we went to provided the audience with free food and drink. On one occasion there was even free vodka. Every event we attended or took part in was free of charge. That did mean there were a few freeloaders asking strange questions after our readings, but I'd rather read to freeloaders who just might buy the books or tell their friends about them than read to an empty room. And I know I'd go to many even more events if there was free food involved. Our audiences were mainly very receptive and didn't seem to feel shy about talking to us afterwards. Possibly because of the free vodka. On the down side, things were usually much more spontaneous than in Germany, so we found ourselves improvising quite a lot on stage. Maybe not a bad thing, and it kept us on our toes.

India and Translation
I felt people were more interested in translation in India than in the UK or Germany. I assume this is because it's a multilingual country, where many people speak three languages or more on a daily basis. Certainly I was asked a great many questions about my work, and was totally flattered to have my own little Q&A session at New Delhi's Long Night of (German-language) Literature. I spoke to a number of translators in all the cities we visited and the impression I got was that, as in many other countries, they can't make a living out of literary translation. Heck, even I can barely make a living out of literary translation. But they did seem to be making efforts to build networks on a local level, although as far as I understand there is not yet a national organisation of literary translators in India. Please do correct me if I'm wrong. The British Centre for Literary Translation is planning something no doubt rather exciting in Kolkata later this year.

India and Women
This is where I'm going out on a limb. Because of the nature of the two books - both about young women liberating themselves, and one actually addressing the subject of rape - we did talk a lot about women's stuff. And during the second half of our tour we sort of all bonded into a multinational pyjama party, laughing and sharing and discussing our lives. So I feel I did scratch the surface of women's issues in India ever so slightly. What I found out is this: India is a highly patriarchal society, where middle-class women can, however, carve out niches for themselves in the cities. We met successful women at the universities and working in literature and culture. The way sexuality is approached is changing, I think, in India, with people becoming more open about women even having such a thing. Some people talked relatively openly to me about women's sexuality and homosexuality and the newspapers I read reported on things like the morning-after pill and the "pink rupee". But social structures make it difficult for women to live their lives on an entirely self-determined basis. Basically, as far as I understand, they live with their parents until they marry, and then often move in with their husbands' families. Whether that's because of lack of space or tradition I don't know.
An interesting thing that many women told us in New-Delhi was that the city is a particularly bad place for women to live. They felt nervous and threatened when going out after dark and all took precautions to stay safe - not only since the prominent gang rape case. Nobody could quite explain why things were worse there - the only ideas were that it's a city where most people come from elsewhere, many of them from very conservative and backward areas of the countryside, who then come up against women wearing Western clothes and leading fairly Westernised lives. I can imagine some underprivileged men might have issues with resentment towards privileged women, as some men do all over the world. Rape, as we know, is about power after all.

India and Religion
Even more of a limb here - as an atheist, I see religion very much from the outside. What I noticed was that religion is very important in India. Inter-faith conflict is a major issue and has been throughout the country's history. We saw a lot of worshipping and ritual taking place, none of which seemed to be a private matter. The religious sites we visited seemed to be the only places taking obvious care of the poor in a country without a functioning welfare state, although I'm aware that there are less visible projects. I was particularly shocked by the violent and corrupt activities of the Hindu-nationalist RSS, even more so because I'd never really heard of them before. Our last day was significantly disturbed by the inauguration of the party's new leader - the blaring techno beats all day long reminded me of the US's use of heavy metal to grind down General Noriega in Panama. It felt like psychological warfare on the civilian population, an attempt to cement the party's hold on Mumbai after its old leader's recent death. Yet there didn't seem to be any political party with a clean sheet in terms of inter-faith issues.

I shall probably spare you any more amateur analysis now, but I will write more propaganda about Seagull Books and the Seagull School of Publishing.

Sunday 27 January 2013

My India Soundtrack

I'm back from India! I'd almost adjusted to the minus-ten degrees here in Berlin, but thankfully it just got a bit warmer. To start with, here's a list of the music we heard on our travels.

1. Inka Parei and I were welcomed to Mumbai* International Airport by a muzak version of Don't Cry for Me Argentina. It was night, hot, and it smelled of India. There was a great deal of queuing and pink carpeting.

2. In Kolkata, we took part in the Apeejay Literary Festival, which was great. We attended part of an open-air session asking "Is Kolkata still the literary capital of India?" - at which, for some reason, a teenage boy played the Cranberries' Zombie on the electric guitar. A very friendly, relaxed and creative afternoon.

3. Still in Kolkata, we went to an amazing performance in Sasha Waltz's Dialoge series. Mainly German and some Indian dancers took over a crumbling palace and re-enlivened it, along with the Mahler Chamber Soloists. Dance is not something that's usually on my radar and I found it difficult to interpret the stories the artists were telling. But I was still spellbound by the unique atmosphere and the chance to explore the palace, and the music was breathtaking. You can watch a short report on the event (in German but watch it anyway for the atmosphere) at 3Sat. During the two-hour performance the "real-world" Kolkata kept butting in, with processions and fireworks and hooting horns, etc, while there were light projections on the opposite building from within the palace.

4. We travelled around most of the cities by car, with hired drivers. India is not the place for non-residents to try driving. So we got a sample of taxi-drivers' musical taste, often Hindi love songs from Bollywood movies. Dorothee Elmiger told us she often recognises the backdrops in Hindi films as the song passages are commonly shot on location in the Swiss Alps. In fact there's a whole branch of tourism taking Bollywood fans to Swiss resorts, complete with canteen-style eateries serving genuine Indian food. Yes, cooked by Indians.

5. There was a lot of eighties pop, most notably Stars on 45 in one hotel bar, which reminded me of my local ice-rink in Berlin, rather a marked contrast.

6. Still in Kolkata, we hung out in the Seagull Books office, which is a beautiful space full of beautiful people. You should probably go to India just to pay them a visit. The after-hours music there was Johnny Hodges. Imagine the world outside is stressful and strange and crowded with people and poverty, advertising on every free space - even on the police road blocks - and inside there's great food and wine and company and conversation, calm lighting, books lining every inch of wall, and jazz.

7. In New-Delhi we had the experience that will probably leave the most lasting impression out of many. We were invited to the home of the Nizami Brothers, a group of Sufi qawwali musicians. You can see them playing here - and you can see more of the setting in the movie Rock Star. Watch both. First of all they played what felt like an hour of love songs to Allah, weaving in references to Hindu gods and beauty and just love in general. Sufism is a "people's religion" that works - in my crude understanding - by putting worshippers into a trance so they can better convene with their god. The music worked so well like that on all of us. We were all bedazzled and I was reminded of the ecstatic feeling of dancing myself into a similar state. Giant smiles on all our faces, conjured up by harmonium, percussion, vocals, shouting and clapping, performed by total dudes who we all fell a little bit in love with. There was also the world's cutest boy snuggled in between them, playing air guitar. Watch the Rock Star clip to understand why. After that we were shown around the shrine to the Sufi saint Nizamuddin, and to the poet Amir Khusro, who founded the qawwali tradition. It was a very strange feeling, especially as our party was mainly female and we women weren't allowed inside the actual shrines. Luckily I was reading Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists at the time, which helped me to understand what was going on in my head and to retain my cynicism. But everything had been explained to us beforehand, and afterwards I learned that Khusro's work had clear homoerotic elements and this particular shrine had, up until the rise of fundamentalism about ten years ago, blessed homosexual couples.

8. In another car, there were video screens for the back seat. Unfortunately, I was sitting next to the driver, so I heard rather than saw what was presumably a low point for both Rutger Hauer and Omar Sharif: Beyond Justice. Unaware of the screens, I took it for an EFL audiobook with very simple dialogue - with an Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

9. At the Hyderabad Literary Festival, we saw clips from India's first silent film, Raja Harishchandra, made by Dadasaheb Phalke in 1913. There was actually music to accompany most of it in the background but I can't find a video with music, sorry. It was great fun, very confusing, and the audience loved the slapstick humour.

10. Another bizarre moment: driving through bustling, modern, overrun Hyderabad with Clarence Carter's Slip Away playing in the taxi. I smiled.

11. The last song we heard in India was more muzak at the airport, this time ABBA's Dancing Queen. Nobody said the whole trip could be deep and meaningful.

*My conscience as a Brit dictates that I use the official names of India's cities. Most of the Indians we spoke to didn't, as they felt they'd been imposed by Hindu nationalists using the issue of colonialism as a Trojan horse, or perhaps they just preferred the old names out of habit.

Thursday 10 January 2013

David Wagner: Welche Farbe hat Berlin

Berlin is doing its darnedest to make me look forward to a little sunshine. How many days of rain in a row? It's like living in Birmingham. I just admitted my embarrassing Coke Zero habit to a pharmacist to explain why I wanted caffeine tablets (in case I get caught short of my chosen poison in India), and he was delightfully rude in that flirtatious Berlin way. Apparently other people only take diarrhoea medication and disinfectants with them. Sheesh. He said he'd only manage about half of my daily dose, and I told him I'd been working long and hard on my Coke Zero habit and wasn't about to kick it right now. Just give me the drugs, man. It helped that the three men before me had been picking up methadone, I think.

So anyway, to make me feel homesick in advance, I've been reading David Wagner's Welche Farbe hat Berlin. It's a collection of short pieces about Berlin, written between 2001 and 2011. Sometimes they're linked into short stories about walking around from place to place. Sometimes they're collections of observations about things like street furniture. One of my favourites is a series about a night out clubbing with a friend, which ends with a bouncer telling them to go home and get some sleep. Or a bike ride around the neat forests and lakes in the West. The places are ugly, dirty, badly designed, there's a deadly dull all-day Schiller reading, there is rubbish on the streets - and it's all so wonderful.

The pieces are calm and clever and full of knowledge and anecdotes about the city's history, architecture, bars, people. It's hard to classify them - perhaps they're miniature essays, perhaps flaneurism, although Wagner isn't detached from what's going on around him and there are references back to himself and others. Probably it doesn't matter what they are, because they're beautifully written. At times sober, at times playful like the title piece on the colour of Berlin, with plenty of dry humour. I've been finding them delightful; they've been making me sigh. This morning I parcelled up the book and sent it to a friend, but I shall want it back very soon, OK, Amanda? I think I shall buy a job lot and give a copy to every friend who leaves Berlin, to make them regret it.

I've been growing tired, you see, of Americans writing about Berlin, which as another friend pointed out is really just Americans writing about Americans in Berlin. With a certain exception, that's not something I care to read about any more. Especially when the writers claim to be giving us profound truths about a place where they don't speak the language. In this respect, I'm a typical immigrant: anyone who came later than I did is a sham and has no idea about anything. You've never lived with a Berliner? You don't have a German child? Well keep your mouth shut. On the other hand, I don't see much point in writing about place in a generalising way anyway, as surely we all experience it differently?

And that's not what Wagner does here. He's not a born-here Berliner but he's been here a long time and he knows his stuff. And he makes no attempt to tell us what Berlin is like. All he does is show us snapshots of the way he's experienced it. Popping out to get bread on Kastanienallee, he notices the tourists and the mothers but they don't prompt a generalisation. There are changes over the years, which he remarks upon, but he doesn't attempt to establish a pattern or make a point. Just good, pared-down writing about a place he seems to love. I wish you all could read it.

Wednesday 9 January 2013


January will be quiet at love german books. On Friday I leave for a two-week trip around India with the writers Inka Parei and Dorothee Elmiger. We'll be reading in Kolkata, New Delhi, Hyderabad and Pune, and also generally hanging out with the people at Seagull Books and attending dinners and receptions and performances and talking to students and having an interesting time. There will be good food and wine, I'm reliably informed. I'm very excited to have been invited and will no doubt tell you all about it when I get back.

For the moment, I'm just pleased to be taking two books featuring young women who liberate themselves from oppressive situations to India right now: Invitation to the Bold of Heart and The Shadow-Boxing Woman.

Monday 7 January 2013

Compare and Contrast: Look Who's Back

It's always interesting when British tabloids report on German books. Compare today's Daily Mail piece on Timur Vermes' Er ist wieder da with the book's description in New Books in German, for which I wrote the report. There are a few similarities. Rights have sold, incidentally, to MacLehose Press, who have an expert translator lined up. The comments section is amusing too.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Residing in the Untranslatable

I believe I've written about it before, but I'm still admiring London's Free Word Centre's translation residency programme. This time around the resident translators are Ollie Brock (French and Spanish) and Canan Marasligil (Turkish). Ollie is currently collecting untranslatable words, which will feature in the first event he's organising for the residency. You can read more about the plan on the website. Book early for the event starring three poets (ticket price includes a drink!) - and email your word, plus its unique definition, to, or tweet @freewordcentre or @Brockollie; or else just contribute it on the night. The best untranslatable words will be mentioned at the event, and discussed in a Free Word podcast.

I am just about to send spießig, which drives me around the bend every time I have to translate it.