Making other experiences count

By Insa Wilke

Tabu (Ausgabe I/2021)

Something unusual happened during the annual German literary event, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2019. When 27-year-old Ronya Othmann read her text “Seventy-Four,” some jury members refused to discuss it. They said that the author and narrator were one and the same and they argued that they, as the jury, would be judging a life story, not literature. And that was particularly problematic in this case: the title “Seventy-Four” refers to the “74th Ferman”. With the word “Ferman”, Yazidis refer to the attempts to exterminate them. This happened for the 74th time in August 2014 with an attack by the so-called Islamic State in northern Iraq which took place while the world was watching.

Ronya Othmann, who then won the audience award in Klagenfurt, had written her text in the first-person. Like the author, the narrator has a German-Kurdish-Jesidic family background. Othmann describes how this young woman follows the reports on the genocide of the Yazidis on German television. She tells how, four years later, she visits her relatives in the Iraqi-Syrian-Turkish border region, talks to a Kurdish fighter and follows in the footsteps of her family history. At one point she says: "Speechlessness still lies beneath language, even when there is a text. Speechlessness is that which is indescribable. It structures the written text, establishes its grammar, its form, its words."

Othmann's text is about the filter between the young woman and experiences of violence - the latter she learns about via eyewitnesses and media reports. It explores how to find a language to convey these experiences. The first-person perspective is important to this question because it doesn't necessarily refer to the author. It acts like a camera, that is, like another filter that interposes itself between the readers and their reading experience. Othmann thus doubles the situation, creating a realistic sense of distance instead of a sense of identification that must remain fictional. This is a clever literary strategy that does not belittle or devalue the traumatic experiences which the narrator unearths.

“Doesn't refusing to discuss this text deny the experiences Othmann recounts their right to exist?”

Leaving aside the question of whether Ronya Othmann's text should really be classified as autobiographical or autofictional, and also disregarding the fact that the author herself labeled her own text as literary when she submitted it to a jury, doesn't refusing to discuss this text deny the experiences Othmann recounts their right to exist?

Ronya Othmann has now published a novel based on the manuscript she read at the 2019 literary competition in Klagenfurt. Titled “Die Sommer” (“The Summers”), she has changed the narrative perspective: The first-person narrator has become “Leyla,” the voice of an anonymous entity. Is this a reaction to the comments by the Klagenfurt jury?

By changing the perspective, Othmann reduces the aesthetic explosiveness of her text, and places it among the more classic narratives homing in on the rift between different cultures and different collective experiences. Is her novel easier to digest in Germany because we can outsource the story to another character and are not as directly confronted with Othmann's questions as we were in its original form?

"I was dust-born; soot-born, born of the cooking salt in the air that settled on the car roofs.”

The disjointedness of the main character has become a classic in the genre of narratives of migrant family and coming-of-age stories. But it is not the only option. “Streulicht,"("Scattered Light”), the debut novel by Deniz Ohde, is also about a young woman. She grows up in an industrial suburb dominated by industry. Her father works on the assembly line in a chemical factory, and her mother immigrated from an Anatolian village. The daughter writes: "I was dust-born; soot-born, born of the cooking salt in the air that settled on the car roofs. Born from the sour stench of the incinerator, from the river meadows and the trees between power poles, from the dark water that beat against the stone, a film of nitrogen and nitrate, not spray.”

Following this growing up process, Ohde tells how society prevents people like her narrator from developing their individuality. It is both the parents who, out of fear and protective instinct, urge their daughter to conform, and the teachers who find it hard to believe that a socially stigmatised child - the father drinks, the mother comes from "somewhere else," neither can read - can be intelligent and worthy of support. Ohde carefully chronicles exclusion and discrimination, but without resorting to clichés. Her novel is a story of closeness under duress, about destructive emotions, and a young woman who slowly finds a language for her experiences. Readers follow this journey and, in the end, ask themselves the question: how is it possible that children like this fall through the cracks?

The gap between Ronya Othmann's main character an ignorant majority society seems irreconcilable at the end of “The Summers”. No less radical, however, is the way Deniz Ohde follows her narrator's process of understanding as well as that of the reader. Both novels can be read politically as a plea for the pluralisation of our collective memory. This is necessary if the members of a society really want to live together. For this to happen, an important first step is to acknowledge the reality of people having different backgrounds, experiences, and realities.

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