Susanne Witzgall: One common point in your texts in that both of you describe migration as an incomplete process, as a practice that is not completed with the arrival at the destination, but perhaps even only finds its starting point, its beginning, there. For instance, you Christian Kravagna, have written in your essay that many migrants develop a practice of travelling back and forth, almost like commuting, a process in which there is no definitive home that one can return to. And the protagonists in The Bridge of the Golden Horn often move back and forth between Turkey and Germany or commute within Istanbul between the European and the Asian sides. Do migrants develop more restless, mobile identities in general? This at least seems to pertain to yourself, Ms Özdamar. You have moved back and forth between Germany and Turkey several times.
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: In the 1970s, when I was working as a directorial assistant at the Volksbühne with Brecht’s student Benno Besson, I played with the idea of returning to Turkey after a year, that is, after I had finished studying – and for this reason I made drawings of the whole rehearsal processes. In Turkey, however, the killing and the military coup was continuing unabatedly. These were the unchanging circumstances. Then Besson asked me to come to Paris with him for a staging, and I went along. I didn’t speak any French, but since I could draw everything that happened on stage, he said: “You don’t need to. First just draw the whole rehearsal process and you can learn French along the way.” This third place helped me greatly, I didn’t have to choose between Germany and Turkey when I was there. It was like having a husband and a lover and thinking that you absolutely must choose between the two. But if you have a second lover, then you don’t have to make any decisions at all. What is there to decide then? That’s how it was for me with French and France. Later I even learned Spanish. At first I learned songs by heart, without understanding them, for instance Sara Montiel’s song Le vi por la calle pasó por mi lado. This is how I learned and it was like being at home. They say: “You no longer have a country, but the journey can also be a country.” And [Jean-Luc] Godard once said, you have to betray the fatherland and go to another country so that you can be at two places at once. I really like that, this being at two places at once – not sitting between chairs, but sitting on two chairs at once.
Christian Kravagna: I can’t respond biographically to this, and I also can’t give any fundamental answer, but perhaps – as concerns this third place – I can come back once again to the works of Zineb Sedira, such as Mother Tongue (2002, ), where this third place, England, plays a large role in reorienting. This work concerns the relationships and language barriers between the Algerian mother, the artist socialized in France, and her daughter who is growing up in England. The significance of the third place concerns reorientation in a private, familial context, but also reorientation in the sense of an artistic possibility of further abstracting narrative or further generalizing life experiences, which are then no longer necessarily tied to Paris and Algiers, or rather France and Algeria. Instead of the ‘old home,’ ‘new home,’ ‘lost home,’ or ‘not really achieved home’ always causing opposition, there is the third place, where the child is growing up, going to school, speaking English. There’s a new location, which of course has a quite different quality, that guarantees or facilitates something, but that represents another quality of locating. There is a famous text about exile by Edward Said entitled Reflections on Exile, in which he deals with exactly this question: What does it mean to be psychically on the move and not to have this fixed place? What does this facilitate on the one hand, what kinds of perspectives does it make possible, that other people tied to place do not have – that is, this so-called double vision – and on the other hand what problems, ordeals, and anguish does it cause? This is always an ambivalent position. He refers to a German monk from the twelfth century who commented on the question of home and people’s relation to place, distinguishing between three levels. One is that of people who are simply tied to their place, who think that their own little spot on the Earth is the most beautiful in the world. Then at the next level are those who have freed themselves from this view and love the foreign as much as they do their home, and at the third level – and here we could draw parallels to the works of Sedira (see also MiddleSea 2008,) – one no longer necessarily needs this absolute emotional investment. The third level is also liberating in the sense that it makes all places in the world equally important or unimportant. This is of course somewhat schematic, but it comes from the twelfth century. Emily Jacir’s works, for example, always have this restlessness that you were talking about, which is often reflected in an everyday habitus of unrest. There is simply no rest – something always has to be happening, something always has to occur. This also has something to do with a task, with a charge. The Palestinian exiles that she represents in her work have a sense of obligation toward those who are not mobile, who are stuck at home, whose mobility is heavily restricted. They always have to do something for the others, that is, always bring something, transport something, arrange something, and always perform some act that these others cannot perform. There are, of course, many different consequences from this mobility, which can be a task, a charge.
Susanne Witzgall: In their contributions to Fragile Identities, Stephen Frosh and Claire Denis formulated the thesis that a fragile openness and instability of identities and subject constructions is not only the consequence, but also the prerequisite for admitting the foreign and the other. Can you confirm that from your experience, Ms Özdamar? I’m also thinking of the protagonists in your novel The Bridge of the Golden Horn, who find themselves in an indeterminate state of becoming, of growing up and orienting themselves.
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: The young woman in The Bridge of the Golden Horn is an actress and she likes using stage sets. At rehearsals in the theatre she asks the director: “When are you going to use the stage again?” You have to use a stage set in the play to show the space. In this case the young woman does this all over Berlin. She is open and naïve and this naiveté protects her. It also depends on what you’re like, how you grew up in your own country. If you grew up nationalistic, then you’re already against the Germans or French or English or Americans from the very beginning – this doesn’t stop. But if you didn’t grow up this way and you’re lucky enough to be a bit privileged, then you can immediately take part in the progressive movements in a foreign country. In my case, I was able to work at the theatre, and then you feel at home. For me, since I came from the theatre, there was also the reading of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, which I like very much. Woyzeck is a German character, but you no longer see Woyzeck on the streets in Germany; you see Woyzeck on the streets in Turkey. Woyzeck is on stage in Germany, but on the streets in Turkey – or the Prince of Homburg. He’s a German character, but he can also be found in Turkish prisons as the young man being punished by the authorities. Hamlet can also be found, by the way. Many Turkish intellectuals are Hamlet. They’re very knowledgeable, but they can’t see anything through. So characters from the theatre also got mixed in for me. What initially gets exchanged between the countries are the characters from the theatre, the characters from novels, old dead persons and new ones. When you go to England, you’re already familiar with Hamlet. But as I said, that’s a special case – so of course, I was lucky.
Susanne Witzgall: Is this also a theme within the visual arts?
Christian Kravagna: Yes, I think so. But Ms Özdamar’s response already shows that it depends a great deal on what assumptions you start off with. There’s forced migration, there’s fleeing, there’s voluntary exile, there’s being forbidden to return home, there are so many possibilities that they can’t all be lumped together. In the novel it’s quite clear that the narrative is also facilitated by its being about a very young person, that the protagonist is not someone who has already definitively organized her life, but someone who’s really just getting going in life. What is also not unimportant – you already mentioned this – is that this person comes from the theatre, that this person is used to viewing language as material or to regarding language as something artificial, as a convention. She’s also capable of acting and knows that language does not represent a natural authority. I see the difference of the dissimilarity between assumptions and their effects, which this has or can have on migrant practice, quite clearly for instance in the refugee movement, which was so strong in Vienna last year. A group of migrants – mostly men, almost entirely men, I think – at first left a receiving centre or a holding centre provided for them and came into the city in protest, where they occupied a church for weeks and months. In this case, most of them are from Pakistan and have a certain level of education as a basis that allows them to articulate their concerns in fairly good English at a level that takes into account the ethical, moral, and legal standards that actually exist or should exist in Europe. They are not just letting themselves be pushed back and forth as lost subjects, but also have the opportunity – perhaps in contrast to others who land in the same place – to aggressively argue their situation politically. That makes a lot of difference.
Susanne Witzgall: This brings us to the question of language and proficiency. In Home (stories) (2008) by the Iranian artist Ghazelthe language proficiency of migrants takes on – as Christian Kravagna has stressed – a quite important role. And in your novels as well, Ms Özdamar, language seems above all to be very central in finding identity. As your protagonists expand their ability to express themselves in the language of their elected home, there is not only an increase of understanding and penetration into that world, but also an expansion of their frames of action and activity – and an increase in personal identity or at least a new understanding of it. Is language particularly essential with regard to finding identity? In one of your interviews you mentioned that one can lose one’s native language in one’s own country – how should we imagine this and is that then something like a loss of identity?
ESÖ It’s true. In Turkey we first experienced a renaissance in the years around 1968. You could listen to love stories in the Bohemian bars every night with the greatest people. People came to Istanbul from all the regions in Turkey and everyone sat together at one table – even the religious scholars from the mosques. One of them, for instance, tried to do a Marxist interpretation of the Quran. It was completely entrancing, how people wanted to change themselves and the world around them, to develop a new language, find new words. People were like speakers who invent something while they’re speaking, becoming even happier because they were inventing something on the journey of speaking. Then came the military coup – a right-wing military coup. People were hanged – seventeen-year-old boys with no proof of guilt – all the intellectuals were killed – five thousand people, right on the street – unionists, journalists, professors, teachers. Then you start to notice what it means to have to hide your words – under your tongue or something else, so that no one hears. During the democratization process, of course, the word had been very effective in Turkey, and since it had such great effect, the word was dangerous, like in every dictatorship, and you could spend half your life in prison because of words. Then I experienced the depressing act of throwing your own books away, chucking them into the sea, flushing your letters down the toilet, burning your writings so that they don’t fall into the hands of the police. You look at your texts and you’re shocked at how dangerous they are, the sentences are something dangerous. They have to stay under your tongue and can no longer be brought into your mouth. Then I thought: “You can lose your native language in your own home, you don’t even have to go to a foreign country.” At the time Bertolt Brecht’s sentences helped me a great deal. Before we did, he had had physical experience with right-wing extremism and had written sentences as a marvellously reflective person and poet, and that helped me forty years later in Turkey. This was why I had the dream of studying with a student of Brecht’s, as if wanting to bring my ailing Turkish words to a sanatorium, to an eloquent man or to a place like the theatre, and that’s how I found my way to Benno Besson. I rolled my tongue from Turkish to German and was happy, that was in 1975. But in 2006 I went through an ugly incident with my editor Helge Malchow from Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch and the Turkish writer Feridun Zaimog˘lu at the same publisher. I noticed that I no longer felt like speaking German, writing in German – quite suddenly. People do something to you, corrupt people manipulate something and then your passion for language gets lost. So I returned to the Turkish language. I have written five books in German, five plays, and then I wrote a book in Turkish. Now I can write in German again, now I love this language again, but for a couple of years I had problems with the German language. I was afraid of the streets, of certain bars. When people were drinking beer in groups I was afraid of the country. It’s really dangerous when something ugly happens to you and you don’t have a group, you no longer have any family, then you fall into the sea quicker than you would in your own country.
Audience 1: You began writing in German. Did this involve any conflict of identity in the decision of whether to write in Turkish or in German?
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: Whether I worried about this when I started writing? No, that wasn’t the case. Probably because I had been working since 1976 in the theatre – with fabulous theatre artists such as Benno Besson, Matthias Langhoff, Claus Peymann, Franz Xaver Kroetz, Einar Schleef, and Karl Kneidl, at the Kammerspiele in Munich, at the Schauspielhaus in Bochum, at the Frankfurt Opera, at the Freie Volksbühne in Berlin or in France and Switzerland. And then I had a quite physical relation to the German words, since theatre is a dialogue between bodies and not between heads. You learn sentences from out of the bodies of the actors. In rehearsals in France for instance – at that time I couldn’t speak French at all – I learned the sentences from the actors that I especially liked. I also had that kind of relationship to German words. They had bodies for me. And when I started writing, I didn’t give any thought whatsoever to what language I would write in. My husband was German, I was living in Germany, when I opened the window my Turkish voice no longer came out. When you open your window in Istanbul you hear: “sssiimiitchiiigeellldi….” It’s all about rhythm. That’s how ordinary life gets into our bodies. I didn’t have the rhythm of Turkish everyday life – or I had it somewhere, but I had to dig it out like an old civilization. Every human body is an old civilization. If you excavate there, you run into old cities. My everyday rhythm was German. When I went into the German bakery the sweet baker lady greeted me: “Hallo, willkommen,” as if she were going to open the door for me with her breasts. She told me all about her lover and she gave me cake. These are quite different voices.
When I wrote my childhood novel, I didn’t have any theatre, Peymann was at the Burgtheater, Langhoff was in Paris, and my husband was working at the opera or at the theatre and was away quite often. Then in Düsseldorf – a city in which I had no relationship to the people, because I was no longer working in the theatre – all I did was look out my window into a courtyard where some nuns lived. A young nun washed the pastor’s car every Sunday or the nuns drank wine together. When the window was open I always heard the youngest nun laughing – “haha” – then I saw the red wine in front of her – I liked these people. This is where I began [to write]. It was a slow rhythm, even the nuns had this slow rhythm, quite different from the otherwise very quick rhythm in Germany, this highly developed industrial country. Everything races: cars, busses. Or if you’re standing in front of a counter buying cheese, you’re already stressed out because you don’t know: “Is that an Italian cheese? What’s it called? How do you pronounce it correctly?” This creates a lot of stress in the body and perhaps I had to go back into another rhythm. For the privilege of writing is that time slows down. I probably also had a magical relationship to the German language because I made a dream come true in German. I wanted to work with Brecht’s student Besson and that happened.
Audience 2: In Turkey there’s not only migration to Europe, but also rural flight into the big cities. In the 1970s Istanbul underwent a great transformation. The music that emerged from this is called Arabesque – a synthesis of folk music from Turkey and the Middle East. This music was also introduced as political music during the third coup under Kenan Evren. It’s very plaintive music, about topics like mourning and sentimentality – sentimentality as a rather passive state of enduring. What I’m interested in is whether there was a migration of feelings. Were it not only persons, subjects, and identity constructions that migrated, but also the culturally specific feelings so tightly bound to them? A sadness that is anchored in romanticism, but that has a quite different sense than a melancholy or a sentimentality that is sung about in Arabesque.
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: The generation after mine was sympathetic to this music – Turkish Marxists. They didn’t really listen to it much, but they emphasized that people that couldn’t learn how to read and write had given birth to this Arabesque music [as their only chance at expression]. It is a kind of soul music or jazz, but the words, the sentences found in it, are very superficial. We used to make fun of it, because we in the leftist movement with our Bohemian friends only liked old Ottoman music – and that’s all we sang. I still remember one of those songs: Gelse O S¸uh Meclise. I don’t agree with the representation of the people in Arabesque music from the other parts of Turkey and the Kurdish areas or from wherever as especially sad or as immersed in sadness. It’s not true, they have culture, they’re also clever or they’re also evil, and they’re also good. The problem in Turkey is that people without means come into the world and they know what they are, what they’re called, but they – at least a large part of them – don’t have any experiences. They never experience what they might be, what they could become. That’s why these people also never have the means to fight back [against such prejudice]. They are represented incorrectly in public.
When I wrote my first play, I was very moved by a letter from a Turkish worker who had had gone back to Turkey for good. He typed it, even though he couldn’t type. I found this very moving. Why did this farmer type eight pages, also using the paper in a quite odd way the whole time? He didn’t leave any margins, he filled the pages up completely, also using the back sides. I really liked the fact that he never had a bad word to say about Germany. He wrote: “Our great poet Nâzım Hikmet said: ‘A worker has no homeland.’ Wherever there’s work, that’s our home. So I said to myself: ‘I work in Germany. Germany is my home.’” His problem was his wife in Turkey, who couldn’t stand either Germany or Turkey. The woman constantly travelled back and forth between Turkey and Germany. He himself was sometimes unemployed and wasn’t allowed to leave Germany, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to enter again. Then the woman said that she had eaten cherries from the same tree as his uncle in the village. And that became his problem. He travelled to Turkey to ask relatives what the story was with the cherry eating. In this case, the country of immigration is not the problem, but the hierarchies in Turkey. A farmer leaves these hierarchies, looses his role and has a different role in Germany. Then he goes back there and once again has a different role. Losing this [original] role is hard for him. And then there’s the gossip: “Your wife did this, she did that” and so on. The relatives say this and that. Suddenly there’s a chorus like in a Greek tragedy, which is sometimes with you, sometimes against you, because you’re the star. Why are you a star? Because you earn 1,400 Deutschmarks. Because you come back to Turkey in a car. In Turkey if a farmer or worker works for 50 years and doesn’t own a house, no one says that he’s stupid or an idiot. An idiot, however, is someone who was in Germany or Holland and doesn’t own a car or who hasn’t built a house in his village or his town. That’s probably also why it’s so important for those who go that route, because the sources of love run dry, because they’re missing the everyday voices, which are also a source of love, or your mother’s voice. That’s probably why the only thing left to them is to adorn themselves with material things, to have more money or other things so they can brag. That’s what’s tragic about it, I think. This side of immigration. The conflict with your own country, with your own place.
Kerstin Stakemeier: I have a question for Christian Kravagna. How can we conceive of individualizing the political in transit? I’m thinking here of how important Brecht was for Ms Özdamar. Brecht himself wrote a lot about the workers’ movement, that is, about the mass movement, about the idea of collectivity, about a collective existence, which then fails or returns to being awful. For Brecht the political is always very strongly conceived of as a collective or social form, but what Ms Özdamar said about Brecht suggests that the significance that he had for her can be understood as very strongly individuated – that is, the political as an individual positioning. And this is also very present in the works that you showed. The political is present there, but it precisely does not turn up as a social collectivity or as an attempt to create a collectivity, but exists as an individuation of the political as consciousness. How would you localize the political there?
Christian Kravagna: I wouldn’t want to make generalizations from these three works, but the longer text that I once wrote about Emily Jacir is entitled Political Feelings. It’s about something Raymond Williams once called “structures of feeling.” These “structures of feeling” are on the one hand something personal or subjective, and on the other they are something that is constituted from out of very particular political and economic class relations, from historical and social circumstances, and they are inconceivable outside of these. In Emily Jacir’s work this is of course brought to a point and at the same time it is never just about the migrant experience, but always about tying back to the Palestinian problematic. There’s another work called From Texas with Love (2002) that I have shown in a different exhibition. Here the artist is driving on the highway in the USA. It’s a typically American image of freedom: just driving in those endless expanses, driving as long as you like and wherever you like. Then you turn on the radio or put a cassette in and then it’s about what music you’re going to listen to. In this context we can perhaps come back once again to the “migration of feelings:” What music is listened to? During the journey the artist is constantly thinking – it’s hard to imagine otherwise – about those at home, who can’t drive because there are roadblocks everywhere and who are cut off from their closest relatives who live on the other side. So the work consists of her asking 50 Palestinian men and women about what music they would listen to if they could drive inside Palestine as long as they wanted. This is political and very emotional with the music. But one can certainly also make an argument based on quite different artistic works, which are aimed much more at a kind of self-organization among migrants in such contexts and that conceive of this in a directly political way.
But since the artistic engagement with migration, flight, asylum, etc. can often be very illustrative and depictive, I became interested in other works in this context that are less so, and that also underscore a processual and productive moment – for instance Jacir’s early work From Paris to Riyad (Drawings for my Mother) (1999), in which the mother constantly draws over the naked torsos in fashion magazines when she’s travelling on planes. This is an ‘artistic’ work that is carried out en route, in order to get beyond this or that external border, for instance, of legality, of importing certain products. But I also see the political – to come back once again to language and identity – in the whole process of translation that takes place. As Ghazel also addresses, above all in her work Home (stories), it’s always about showing or being about the fact that there aren’t two languages. There’s not just Turkish and German, but there are a lot of languages and they are also constituted in this in-between. Like the main character in Bridge of the Golden Horn speaks of a “hossel” for instance. She takes the word as it’s pronounced in her true reality and not in its conceptual idea of language. The 1980s and 1990s was when it first came about to take an intermediate language seriously at all, that is, what was called “Kanak Sprak” in Germany or all of these Creole languages and contact languages. In the 1920s and 1930s for the first time Afro-American was taken seriously and researched as a language – not by everyone by any means, but by some, by the first who concerned themselves with it and who viewed this language not just as an incomplete version of white American English, but as the expression of a particular experience, the expression of a particular history and an identity. I also find this very political. Which is not to say that the rules have to be changed or that the rules should be kept, it’s another level of the political.
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: Yes, this was the case, for instance, with my first play Karagöz in Alamania in 1982. It became a burlesque, a Dadaist play. There’s a farmer who migrates to Germany with his talking donkey. In fact, Germany doesn’t turn up at all. There’s a door, a journey that never ends, and there are stations. What happens on this journey or what happens when you go through this door, whether you’re allowed to or not? What happens with language? I didn’t want people to encounter the Turk in the social role of the poor man. In a rich country, the social role of the Turkish person was the poorest at the time. So I said to myself: “No, people have to meet in language.” That’s why I made the language Dadaistic. I worked with all kinds of language games in this play. From literally translated metaphors that you can’t understand, for instance, “I take it out of my beard and put it on my moustache – take it out of my moustache and put it on my beard.” This means, “it’s not enough” or “something is undecided” or “I am poor.” Up to quite broken German, which was later commercialized as “Kanak Sprak,” but which was used before that by the poet Aras Ören and also by me. When you deal with language, you immediately get the idea of inventing this new broken language. This can’t be separated from the history of migration. Then I wrote this play and thought that language needs to be turned around even more and again even more, so that you meet in a kind of non-understanding. That’s the encounter. I also staged this at the Schauspielhaus in Frankfurt with the German Fassbinder star Volker Spengler and the Turkish film and theatre actor Tuncel Kurtiz as the Gastarbeiter Karagöz.
I love the word Gastarbeiter [lit. guest worker]. I always see two people before me. One is a guest who sits there while the other works. There were magnificent characters in the play, wonderful actors, Spaniards, Greeks, Turks, German actors and there was a real donkey, chickens, and sheep. Even at the rehearsals you could constantly experience the most deeply ingrained petty nationalism: “You vain Spaniard, learn German! You lousy Turk! You are an SS man...” In the end the actors liked each other, but the donkey bit someone once and a Turkish guy said to me: “A Turkish donkey would never do that.” The donkey was a German donkey. Or someone got stepped on by the donkey and the actor Jürgen Holtz (Berliner Ensemble), who played the human donkey, said to me: “Hey, I’m not acting if the donkey is acting – so I can’t act in the same play.” And I had to say: “Okay, I’ll have a talk with the donkey.”
Christian Kravagna: On one hand there’s this language terror, the compulsion to have to learn German. On the other hand there’s an infinity of multilingualisms, of polyglotisms that are often overlooked. I’m more and more aware of this in my immediate circle. A Turkish friend in Vienna, for instance, says that his daughter was suddenly speaking Serbian. When he asked her how she could speak this language, the daughter said: “Yeah, I learned it, and now I can speak it.” There are people who learn languages easily and speak them all. That’s indeed fascinating, also this discrepancy between the idea “there are some who don’t have any language, they have to learn German” and the existence of thousands of languages that are mutually learned and that influence one another.
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: Of course that was possible precisely here in Germany. The French were colonialists, the Dutch also. But the Germans came late to colonialism. They had to create the colonies in themselves with the economic miracle, so to speak, with the Italians, the Greeks, the Turks as Gastarbeiter. In France, the Africans who came to work in Paris or Bordeaux could already speak French. The French didn’t have to organize language courses for their foreigners. In Germany this was not the case. They stumbled over their language and even turned their own language into broken German in order to help people – for instance to describe how to get somewhere: “Where’s the City Hall?” “Yeah, you going to whore hall.” “Nix whore hall, city hall!” “Yeah, whore hall is city hall, don’t matter.”
Audience 3: I’m pondering a phrase of yours that I found quite captivating, and that is “life’s sources of love.” Can you say something more about what your sources of love are?
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: They’re voices, the tones that emerge in love. Let’s say like your grandmother loves you and says: “Gel de öpeyim.” They’re voices, and there’s great love contained in their words. You enjoy taking them into your body and in this way they become a source. In my childhood they were very protected. There was no capitalism yet. It was a very slow tempo and the whole city raised us. The whole city also protected us, even older women and men, because they didn’t live in senior citizens’ homes, but with their families with cats and children. They always sat at the window looking out. They were like our choruses, who watched out for us, and we could play well into the night. Once I fell in the water while playing ball and my taffeta dress turned quite green. I had a pinkish red taffeta dress. The neighbour lady saw this and said: “Come here, come over here. I’ll wash you.” Then she washed my taffeta dress, washed me, ironed the dress and sent me home clean. At that time people were quite different. Also because I was a child, my life at the time seemed magical to me. Of course I must also have had something to do with that. But all these people, all these voices, all their movements, the dresses, their whisperings, their rhythms, they’re all sources of love I think.
Audience 4: As a rule migration is often also understood as a kind of loss, and it’s associated with anxieties and exclusion. How was it for you? After you had completed the transformation from one culture into the other, did you also sense it as enrichment? Is there perhaps a third identity that develops, a kind of meta-identity that stands above the other two – in your case the Turkish and the German? Could this also have meant a transformation for you?
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: I wondered the same thing: “Have I become German?” Who can tell you that? You would also have to think in clichés: “Germany is this way, Germans are this or that.” Then when you discover these qualities in yourself, you can say you’ve become German. But since I never knew what a German is... I don’t know, perhaps my rhythm has changed, the general rhythm that’s dominant in a country, where people now work for two, three people.
Susanne Witzgall: In this context one could add that Christian Kravagna has ascertained two different and polarizing representations of migrants in his analysis of artistic works. On the one hand migrants are represented as a paradigmatic figure of exclusion, and on the other as a nomad that develops new forms of thinking and creativity. How does it come to this polarization?
Christian Kravagna: Well – first off it’s quite obvious that such polarization exists. There are also phases in which a certain representation goes through a boom and another subsides again. In the early 1990s “nomadology” was a quite popular motif in the new understanding of identity and subjectivity, but also of productivity and so on. But this was actually a time – I’m speaking now from the Austrian perspective – when for instance there was no truly critical migration theory or a critical migration debate. At that time one could apply a romanticizing perspective, well before the extreme rise of the New Right and racism. Then a great deal more came out of a critical artistic, curatorial, theoretical, or migration perspective – for instance the word racism started appearing for the first time. It wasn’t used before. Of course it was used, but it was reserved for the Holocaust or for “white-black racism.” But the term racism didn’t exist in a wider discourse, one spoke of xenophobia. Only when terms like racism were used from a critical political perspective and exclusion, discrimination as an argument became strong enough to thematize something like institutional racism, no longer locating it on a personal level, did the migrant appear even more as the victim, as the excluded. This always had a lot to do with the specific political, economic, and social conditions before which or against which certain artistic engagements could then also be positioned. When, for example, immigration and residency laws are constantly tightened and people die in the process of expulsion, then it hardly makes sense any more to operate with a romanticized figure of the nomad.
Emine Sevgi Özdamar: When my books came out in the 1990s, I was invited to do a lot of readings, either by myself or with other German or West European writers: Sten Nadolny, Christa Wolf, Günter Grass, Katja Lange-Müller, Christoph Hein, John Berger, Juan Goytisolo. Later I was more often invited to read with other Turkish writers. I didn’t so much like reading with the Turkish writers, as if there were now a Turkish stall where we all belonged, as if there were no individuality. I almost slapped a publisher once when he said: “Emine, you’re the grandmother, Zaimog˘lu is the father, Imran Ayata is the grandchild.” As if there were a family there. How come? I experience this kind of categorizing as an annihilation of artistic individuality. The story is incredible.
After September 11, 2001 I was invited to do readings with Muslim, Arab writers. In the 1990s my first novel Life is a Caravanserai: Has Two Doors I Came in One I Went Out the Other was declared to be magical realism. After September 11, I was asked if this novel could be read under the aspect of friendly, human Muslimism. This made me very sad. Not bitter, but sad. In my first novel the main character talks about a word. It means “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” But at first the young girl doesn’t know what the Arabic word means. Turks used the word “Bismillahirahmanirahim” in their everyday lives, for instance when you enter the house you say “Bismillahirahmanirahim,” when you celebrate the circumcision ceremony the circumcisor says “Bismillahirahmanirahim.” The young woman makes fun of this word. She tells anecdotes and only at the end, when she’s already 18 years old, does she find out what the word means. It’s about an almost mystical word. If you’re afraid of flying you say the word and some spirit or other will rescue you. I read this passage from my novel time and again, and people liked it and laughed. After September 11 I was a guest lecturer at a university in London. Doris Lessing was there as well. We were very fond of one another and did a reading together. Beforehand I said: “Oh Doris, what should I read? I’ve always read this part, but now I’m afraid to read it because it’s about this word – almost religious, but also not religious, almost mystical-religious.” And she said: “You’re reading it!” Then I read it and the people liked the passage again. It was no problem. But beforehand I was full of fear, as if I had something to do with the terrorist group Al Qaida through the word “Bismillahirahmanirahim.”
Christian Kravagna: This compulsion to a particular collective identity also existed quite strongly in the field of art. All artists that I have previously shown were heavily affected by it – from this post-September 11 phenomenon. All of them wanted to do some sort of Orientalist Middle East exhibition, for preference with Middle Eastern artists, and force them into a particular identity. Even when some of them – and I know this from my personal acquaintanceship with artists – really refused to take part in projects, they were still forced in by some means or another, by loans or something else, although they had stated their express refusal to join in such an Orientalist women’s exhibition. This pressure on art institutions was obviously so strong that they couldn’t bear it.
What is the current state of the subject and what about the status of its self-image? In contemporary discourses we encounter more and more “fragile identities,” in artistic works as well as in scientific theories, and those are today much less referring to a critique of the concept of identity, but much rather to the relationship those concepts of identity entertain with the overall precarious state of the subject in current social conditions that are characterized by political upheaval and change.
The book Fragile Identities investigates among other things the chances and also the possible endangerments of such a fragile self and asks for the resurging urgency of a contemporary concept of subjectivity. The publication combines international artistic and scholarly contributions, discussions and project documentations in relation to the second annual theme of the cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.