Germany’s capital is a magnet for people of all walks of life but finding your footing can be tricky, particularly for foreign writers. Words are their craft, often they write in their mother tongue, and while Berlin offers new freedom and energy, the language is a tough one.
Some writers called this a blessing, enabling them to retreat into their own bubble and focus. Others found their new surroundings a source of inspiration, but one which comes at a price: the collision of their languages and their cultures.
Berlin-based daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel talked with seven expat authors – and you can also see some in video portraits by “Writers@Berlin,” an online directory for German and expat authors, created by LiteraturPort, which promotes writers in the German-speaking world.
I find myself lucky to perceive many cities as hometowns.
Sharon Dodua Otoo
I am often asked whether my surroundings influence my writing, and I always say “yes.” The writer and musician Tilman Rammstedt once told me that whether a writer lives in Berlin or small-town Germany has no impact on his work. I can imagine that there are many authors who need nothing more than a pen, a pad of paper, a little peace and quiet, and their imagination to write. The question about external influences apparently isn’t solely related to language, but also to self-perception. In my specific case, the question is: “How am I?” in England versus “How am I?” in Germany. What subjects move me as a writer? And are they the same, no matter where I am?
I am certainly an author who is critical of society, and that hasn’t changed since I moved from England to Germany 11 years ago. But it was only in Berlin that I became a published author. I doubt that I would have been able to live exclusively as an author in London or Brighton, as I am able to do today. This is simply a matter of money. As a single mother, life in southern England is far more difficult than in Berlin. It also has to do with the promotion of literature, because, in Britain, there is nothing comparable to the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. Besides, I have gotten to know some special people in Berlin. Some are active in anti-discrimination networks and work in political organizations. I have learned a lot from these people, and their influence on my literature is palpable. I have also encountered many wonderful people here who accompany me as members of my chosen family. They inspire me, give me feedback about my work and support me in my writing. I find myself lucky to perceive many cities as hometowns. I have family in London, Accra and Münster, and I also feel very comfortable in Brighton, where I lived for many years. But no matter where I go, I always return to Berlin. Despite the many challenges, this is my home.
Sharon Dodua Otoo was born in London in 1972, where she studied German and management. She moved to Berlin in 2006. Last year, she was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for literature in the German language. She is also a project coordinator at RAA, an educational and youth assistance organization.
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In his book, “It Cannot Be Because Of Beauty,” Peter Schneider says the following about Berlin: “Incompleteness and even ugliness provide a freedom that compact beauty can never offer.” And because Berlin is such an incomplete city, he writes, it “gives every newcomer the feeling that he can still find a niche here and get something going. It is this unique aspect of Berlin that has made the city the capital of creative people from around the world today.”
I share this feeling when I move around Berlin. I came to East Berlin in late 1988 as a chemist, and until my retirement three years ago, I worked as a scientist at research institutes in Berlin and Rostock. Over time, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, Berlin gradually became my home, just as Saigon became my home when, in 1975, after many years of war and Vietnamese reunification, I left my real hometown of Hanoi. It’s a good feeling, having three hometowns! All three elicit feelings of homesickness in me.
My father was a well-known Vietnamese linguist and my brother is a prominent writer, so languages and literature have always been part of my life. But it is here in Berlin, perhaps because of the freedom I mentioned, that I became a productive writer myself – as an author of stories, but primarily as a translator of German literature. Eugen Ruge’s “In Times of Fading Light” was recently published in my Vietnamese translation, and I am now working on novels by Siegfried Lenz and Thomas Bernhard.
Dang-Lanh Hoang, born in 1948 in Nghe An, Vietnam, studied chemistry and completed his doctorate in 1975. He was a scientist at the National Research Center in Ho Chi Minh City and came to East Germany in 1988. Before and after Germany’s reunification, he worked as a research associate at science institutes in Berlin and Rostock. He retired in 2014.
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To be surrounded by German while I write primarily in Portuguese has not been without consequences. The two languages are so different at so many levels that I first felt excluded from my own language. You lose track of all of these subtleties, everything you take for granted: the sounds, the nuances, the appropriate things to say and not to say in a social context. And this feeling doesn’t just apply to the new language that surrounds you, but also the familiar language, the one we call our mother tongue. My understanding of language as a construct, as an almost artificial entity, stems from this experience. This is why the fact that I have lived in Berlin for so long allows me to pay more attention to the tone of my writing than was the case in Brazil. My experiments with Portuguese syntax are also directly influenced by German sentence structure.
My writing is mainly based on personal experiences. That’s why my life in Berlin has inexorably merged with my writing. Living in a form of exile and being a foreigner became a subject for me. On the other hand, Berlin has changed my literary engagement with Brazil, in that it allows me to approach it from afar, not just geographically, but also culturally and linguistically. What occupies me today, colonialism and the traces it has left behind in the languages of Latin America, and its relationship to indigenous cultures – all of that would probably have taken a different shape if I had not ended up in Berlin, where my German colleagues are constantly searching for historic traces.
Ricardo Domeneck, born in 1977, is a Brazilian poet and video artist. His first volume of poetry was published by a small publishing house in Rio in 2005. His works have been translated into numerous languages. In Germany, he began studying Dadaist poetry and joined an artists’ collective called the New Berlin Initiative.
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Far away from Buenos Aires, and still not speaking German, my world has become smaller, becoming a deliberate isolation that helps me concentrate entirely on my work. I have been living in Berlin for four-and-a-half years, and so far they have been the most productive years of my life. And yet, the city also has another side, that of the cosmopolitan metropolis with everything it has to offer, that of a lively but multilayered atmosphere, one that is still work in progress. Many things still feel very strange, and you feel a little bit like you are standing on the sidelines. Even the simplest things can lead to new discoveries or absurd misunderstandings, and it’s precisely from this divergence between what I believe things are and what they really are that I derive much of the material for my writing.
Living as a foreigner means being in a constant state of alertness, while at the same time accepting that it’s impossible to understand everything. It means accepting strangers as part of normalcy.
Buenos Aires is the city of my childhood, my family, my oldest and dearest friends. Berlin is where I work, a city I have chosen. I didn’t choose Buenos Aires, and I will only choose it on the day I return there for good. I enjoy this freedom to choose where you want to live. It’s a luxury and a unique opportunity to sharpen your spirit and your view of things. Perhaps this is what Berlin really is for me: The chance to live a new life, one that isn’t predetermined for me, or the illusion that this is even possible.
Samanta Schweblin was born in Buenos Aires in 1978. For her collection of short stories, “Birds in the Mouth,” she received the Premio Casa de las Américas and the Juan Rulfo Prize in 2008. “Fever Dream,” about two excessively loving mothers whose paths in life are intertwined, is her first novel.
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One morning seven years ago, I woke up in my Schöneberg apartment from a dream in which I had formulated a complex and poetic sentence in German. I was amused by the dream, but it also filled me with dread, the fear of losing my Turkish literary language in Berlin, the language with which I had already written two volumes of stories and my first novel.
I actually associate Berlin with liberation instead of fear. A passionate reader of good novels and stories, and secretly determined to be a writer myself, I took a job with the national Turkish bank in Ankara after finishing my studies. The bank then transferred me to its Berlin office for two years. I don’t know if I would have ever had the courage to give up that secure government job if I hadn’t ended up in Berlin. Today, I believe that life in Berlin has allowed me to reach even more important mental milestones. Far away from my social environment in Ankara, I was able to overcome resistance and barriers that inhibited my writing. It is not for nothing that reviewers in Turkey characterize my stories as “bold.”
Ever since I had that dream, I have been living in both Berlin and Istanbul. My subjects, such as migration, foreignness and yearning have become more and more political. I wrote my last novel, to be published in Germany by the Orlanda publishing house in Sabine Adatepe’s translation under the title “The Story of the Woman, the Men and the Lost Fairytales,” both in Istanbul and Berlin. This novel can be read as a story of re-migration. It deals with being a woman in modernday Istanbul and the men who have never arrived in this modern world.
For me, Istanbul has increasingly become the place to collect material, while Berlin is the place for writing down stories. But Berlin, intentionally or unintentionally, keeps reappearing in these stories. As far as language goes, I know today that my sentences in Berlin sometimes strain to be longer than the Turkish language tolerates. In Istanbul, they become shorter but harsher.
Menekşe Toprak, born in Turkey and alternately raised there and in Germany, she lives in Istanbul and Berlin. To date, she has published two story collections and two novels. Her ﬁrst novel Temmuz Çocukları (July Children, 2011) explores the long-term impact on a family of the parents’ decision to leave their children behind in Turkey when they move to Germany for work. Her most recent novel Ağıtın Sonu (The End of the Elegy, 2014), which explores an unsettled woman’s life, won the Duygu Asena Ödülü, a major feminist literary prize in Turkey.
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I was lucky, because I was able to choose the city I wanted to live in. That’s a compliment for Berlin, but it bothers me sometimes. So many people can’t live where they want to be. Sometimes I catch myself trying to justify my own good fortune to myself.
Meanwhile, I am still brooding a little over the question of how much the city differs from Warsaw, where I was born. Will the vain Berliners forgive me if I say: hardly at all? For me, a city is not a manual on differences. The fixation on what is different, or foreign, is the first step toward exclusion. And then all you have left is fear and violence.
Berlin is an urban palimpsest, says Andreas Huyssen. I would like to expand the list to include Warsaw, Granada and Beirut – other cities that I like and that I have occasionally lived in. I write about them in my new novel, which I am currently writing in Berlin’s Wedding neighborhood.
My protagonist Jan tries to unravel the secrets of love. He reconstructs his lost memories in the places where he has lived, and with the women he has lived with. Of course, he often thinks of things that never happened. That’s because palimpsests are not just words and cities that are overwritten by new layers of experience, but also people. Each of us consists of fragments of the past, of fantasies and the present, which we construct every day, like a castle of colorful wooden blocks. And every day, like a moody child, we knock the blocks back down to build a new castle. Literature is the record of these moods of memory.
Stanisław Strasburger was born in Warsaw in 1975. His work focuses on multiculturalism, migration, collective memory and utopia. He is the author of “Obsession. Lebanon” and “The Story Seller.” He divides his time between Berlin, Warsaw and cities in the Mediterranean region.
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on the edges of the metropolis, we see massive shells of buildings, white mulberry trees and uncle mammad shops filled with merchandise. on the edge of the funeral procession, children play with plastic balls. in the frenzy of drumbeats, two adolescents gaze at each other in search of meaning; the pupils enlarged, the eyelids eager, the nostrils expanded, the lips restless, as they move toward each other. suddenly someone comes between them, and then there is a collision. the drop of blood in the corner of the mouth tastes like tomorrow. they go to the weekly market, steal fruit and run away, past the hanging robinia blossoms, past the cadaver of production and ideological debris, past the flies with a thin coat of oil on their wings. they run through the run-down ghettoes and opulent mansions, and they come to a standstill in a park, under a walnut tree. then a collision. later one of them records what happened in a blue-and-red diary, and there are smeared drops of blood on the paper.
two years later they separate. that is written in the same diary that has travelled, together with its owner, from a central european city to a large caribbean city, almost 14 years later. he spends his semester abroad there. during the day he creates theater with teatro espontáneo comunitario and at night he writes down his impressions: “today we did game-like physical exercises, and together we developed scenes based on our feelings, ideas and dreams. the exercises are about the development of a social health, a healthy social body, says mario, our guide.”
now, almost nine years later, he is sitting at his desk in a central european capital, his chosen city, flipping through the dairy, which still isn’t full: everyday descriptions and emotionally tinged ideas from the inner world, which came into being in the city of his birth; initial lyrical experiments in the city of his studies; essayistic thought reports from everyday life abroad in the caribbean. And he asks himself: does he write differently in his home of choice? what does it mean to him? and the first thoughts come quickly. what he also notices is the unbearable ease of exclusion, and the swarming of neuroses of civilization. but these are different subjects. what makes this city special is the distinct heterogeneity – of the worlds of language and lifestyles, of the culinary, activist and queer scene, of the theater, literature and music scene, or simply that of the vast empty landscapes. and all of this is permanent contact with the world, all of this is like walnut for the brain, like hum(m)us for writing.
Mehdi Moradpour, born in Tehran in 1979, studied physics and industrial engineering in Nur and Qazvin. He fled to Germany in 2001. He studied Spanish and Arabic philology as well as American studies in Leipzig and Havana, and now works as a translator and interpreter for Farsi and Spanish. His musical “Chemo Brother” had its world premiere at the German Opera Berlin in 2016.
This article was originally published in Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. The contributions were edited and in some cases shortened by Jean-Michel Hauteville of Handelsblatt Global. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.