“I never had this idea of a nation”: thinking global with Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days book by Jenny Erpenbeck against a brick wall

Navigating life inside and outside East Germany was robust training for becoming an acclaimed novelist. That’s not to say Jenny Erpenbeck, born in East Berlin in 1967, has had a one-dimensional career: from bakery sales to book binding, opera directing to writing, her CV is nothing if not eclectic. “My dad used to say it’s good if one chapter in your life is connected to the next,” she laughs over a pot of earl grey, “but in my life none is connected to any other!”

Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck
Sophie Baggott and Jenny Erpenbeck in Melbourne

Yet, on the contrary, traces of Erpenbeck’s early chapters suffuse her fiction. A sense of social angst and upheaval permeates the author’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning novel The End of Days, as well as her latest book: Go, Went, Gone. Depicting a (formerly East) Berliner’s interactions with African asylum seekers in the German capital, Go, Went, Gone humanises the faces behind news stories, giving space to individuals’ memories of what had to be left in their countries of origin. “It was also exploring my own society,” Erpenbeck explains. “The adventure was not so much about the Africans but German society – how they deal with the issue, what reality the refugees face, and how my reality takes on a different look in their lives.”

It’s a multifaceted approach that contrasts sharply with the blanket anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right AFD (Alternative für Deutschland), who reap their strongest support from Germany’s east. “Often I’m asked why East Germans are especially against newcomers,” Erpenbeck says, “When I try to make sense of it, I’d say it’s the fear of being put in another situation of instability.” Recalling the West’s reluctance to engage with East Germans in the wake of their society’s collapse, she suggests: “Now by behaving badly, so to say, they’re forcing others to listen. It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke.”

As we touch on the abrupt loss of her childhood setting, the author shares the fears she herself held as her world changed. “I know the feeling of being afraid of not making enough money to pay rent, of being put out on the streets, of having to go somewhere your family can’t stay with you, of being divided,” she admits. “We had never spoken about money, never needed to. It came as a real shock, maybe all the more so because the joy of many in the weeks after the Fall of the Wall was so immense.”

“It’s a question of power, and wanting to provoke”

At a point when human rights lawyers are calling for EU member states to face punitive action over migrant deaths, Erpenbeck is likewise sceptical of the West’s approach to immigration. “The discussion now seems to be so short-sighted and the solutions so cruel: building a wall, or letting people drown in the Mediterranean,” she sighs. “I must say, I see some parallels between letting people drown in the Mediterranean and putting them into Auschwitz. It is a principle of selection. Some are worth allowing to survive, and others aren’t.” I ask her what answer she would give to the question that she poses in her novel: has Hitler won the war in some respects? “We will see,” she replies.

Our conversation spills well beyond the hour we set aside, meandering from the philosophical to the literary to the pragmatic. Erpenbeck pauses often before she speaks, and returns variously to the refugee crisis: “If you think in terms of ‘mankind’, it doesn’t make any sense to let even one person die.” She continues to tug at the thought, “Just imagine, as an experimental thing, it wouldn’t make any sense to let one of your companions die.” Erpenbeck maintains a quietly optimistic outlook when it comes to the future of humanity, even so. “There’s a beautiful sentence by the greatest German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin,” she says, and searches for the right words: “‘But where danger is, there arises salvation also’. This is my hope.” She looks at me, then laughs at herself.

“I know the feeling of being afraid”

Erpenbeck’s cautious positivity is perhaps an attitude dredged from her upbringing in East Germany. “If you have experienced life in two different societies, or countries, or cultural environments, then the relativity of it all comes to your mind,” she observes. “There’s hope involved. If you know there’s another world somewhere, you’re not caught in one. There are different solutions, different ideas.”

So too might her unusual life experience have exposed to her the flaws in nationalism. “I never had this idea of a nation,” she says. “Of course I love my language, I know my family, I have some friends – fortunately! This is what I know. But the idea of a nation is very strange to me.” Her curiosity about individuals, groups, dynamics is evident. “German law is very strict on who is a political refugee, and where they came from,” she comments, “But if you fall in love and marry, this border falls. Even in law, which is normally so strict about all things, love is accepted as an erosional thing that changes everything.”

And with that, Erpenbeck has also crystallised the impact of her writing in all its change-making, border-eroding, compassion-inducing powers. As we said our goodbyes, she revealed she is fifteen pages into her next novel. The focus? Ah, only time will give the answer to that one.


Want to read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone (tr. Susan Bernofsky)? Visit here

Sexographies by Gabriela Wiener (tr. Lucy Greaves & Jennifer Adcock)

a nutshell: quite unlike anything I’ve read before, this is a spectacularly intimate anthology from one of Peru’s boldest writers on everything from female ejaculation and polygamy to transgender sex work and motherhood

a line: “With age, unless you make an effort to grow, you’re just more of what you always were.”

an image: Wiener ends the chapter about her body dysmorphia by describing a drawing she did after someone who loves her said he wished he had met her when she was little, so he could have told her she was the most beautiful girl in the world; in her drawing, she sits on his knee, believes his words, and can grow up without tallying her flaws

a thought: recording her conversation with Isabel Allende, Wiener says Allende viewed “women’s writing” as a term used derogatively and fought against this “segregation” for years, which made me feel conflicted – after all, this project’s primary purpose is to read & promote under-appreciated work by people identifying as women globally

a fact: Wiener is among the new generation of Latin American nonfictional cronistas (chroniclers) whose work drew on innovations from the ‘New Journalists’ of the 1960s–70s and is immersive, with a distinctive narrative voice and techniques lent by fiction – according to this v interesting LARB article

 

want to read Sexographies? visit here

The Secret River by Kate Grenville [T/W: racism, colonialism, sexual assault]

a nutshell: the efforts of a London convict, William Thornhill, to reinvent himself as a gentlemanly landowner on a hillside outside Sydney become a microcosm for the atrocities committed by the British colony against Aboriginal people

a line: “in the world of these naked savages, it seemed everyone was gentry”

an image: every scene with Smasher Sullivan, another ’emancipated’ settler, is extremely disturbing – but among the most horrific is one in which he flaunts an Aboriginal woman he has chained up as his sex slave

a thought: on finishing this bleak book I was (as often) left deeply ashamed of Britain’s imperial history; Thornhill’s exploitation of his eventual position of power – despite, or due to, an impoverished background – is irredeemably repulsive

a fact: the main protagonist, Thornhill, is based on a family member of Grenville; the author used to ask her mother what had happened to Aboriginal people on their ancestors’ arrival and ended up digging into her family history to discover the hideous truths

 

want to read The Secret River? visit here

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

a nutshell: a hilarious punchback to the angst of arriving at adulthood & having no idea where to go from there

a line: “deep down I have a talent for wellbeing. I can feel it”

an image: easygoing/haphazard Selin often finds herself in borderline bizarre situations, e.g. over dinner in a Hungarian village she mulls over the words for how best to avoid encouraging a boy to recommence his painful performance on a recorder

a thought: Selin writes lots about her conviction that she’s good at writing and already is a writer … while simultaneously believing she has written & could never write anything people would like (I identify)

a fact: the most encyclopaedic novel I’ve read in years, full of fun facts especially about language – did you know Turkish has a suffix, -miş, that can be added to verbs to report anything you didn’t witness personally, used mostly for fairy tales or gossip? (Selin says a cousin used it to refer to all the things she had heard Selin was guilty of saying/doing)

 

want to read The Idiot? visit here

Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

a nutshell: a Parsee girl, Lenny, candidly narrates her 1940s Lahore childhood as it mutates from a life of carefree mischief & chatter among miscellaneous friends to Partition-provoked horrors & heartache

a line: “Don’t hog God!”

an image: a colonel retells the story of the Parsis’ migration to India from Persia during the Arab invasion in 600s AD, evoking how the Indian Prince noted their arrival with a full glass of milk as a polite signal of his aversion to outsiders & their potentially disturbing alien ways; the Parsee forefathers returned the milk with a teaspoon of sugar stirred in – an indication that they’d be absorbed harmoniously into the country and sweeten the lives of his subjects

a thought: privy to adults’ tense discussions of the inevitable split, Lenny begins to notice that everyone she knows suddenly goes from being just themselves to being ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’, or ‘Christian’; tribalism is forced onto them – as the country breaks, so too does her own community fracture

a fact: India and Pakistan have been embroiled in numerous conflicts since 1947, and just today Pakistan has announced it shot down two Indian military jets; sadly the clashes depicted in this now 28-year-old novel show no signs of abating

 

want to read Cracking India (aka Ice Candy Man)? visit here

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

a nutshell: Tambu, a young girl in a deprived Shona village, cautiously recounts her years of struggle against sexism & racism in the hope of gaining an education and opening up opportunities for her family within a society that presumes her failure

a line: “You have to keep moving … Getting involved in this and that, finding out one thing and another. Moving, all the time. Otherwise you get trapped” (– advice to Tambu from her semi-westernised cousin, Nyasha)

an image: it’s hard to watch as Tambu’s painstaking efforts to grow maize and earn her primary school fees are thwarted by sabotage & scorn – her brother’s active hostility to the prospect of her schooling is one of many reasons behind Tambu’s frank opening statement that she was “not sorry” at his death; we learn that he constantly gloried in the exclusion & oppression she had faced as a girl since birth

a thought: memory is an ongoing source of anxiety to Tambu, particularly around identity; her observations on how (i) her brother’s British missionary education erased his self-recognition and generated a warped sense of superiority (ii) her cousin’s English upbringing tore at her roots and left her deeply unsettled

a fact: the title is from an intro to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Eartha 1961 text on the trauma of colonisation, which contains the line: “The condition of native is a nervous condition”; Dangarembga does not shy away from exposing the insidious influence of British colonialism, which lurks behind scenes of subservience, conservatism, misogyny, linguistic alienation, trauma,  hypocrisy, injustice… (the ramifications are endless)

want to read Nervous Conditions? visit here

The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal el Saadawi (tr./ed. Dr Sherif Hetata)

Nawal el Saadawi's The Hidden Face of Eve

a nutshell: published in 1977, this landmark discourse on women in the Arab world is as disturbing and compelling as ever – probing FGM, sexual violence/suppression, fertility, marriage, injustice, sex work, religion, history and literature

a line: an extract from Article 67 of Egypt’s Common Law on Marriage here typified the prevailing attitude to women – “No alimony is liable to a wife if she refuses to yield herself to her husband … is the victim of a rape … or if she is suffering from any condition which might prevent the husband from utilising her as a wife”

an image: though the opening scene of Nawal’s own circumcision made a profoundly indelible impression, another image that stayed with me was her depiction of Arab feminist writer May Ziade’s exceptional mind & tragic end – personal setbacks prompted relatives to force her into Asfouria Hospital for Mental Diseases where eventually a report proved she was of sound mind; she returned to Egypt and died alone, aged 55, in a small flat in Cairo 

a thought: Nawal often returns to an essential paradox in how girls are brought up in the Arab world – the insistence on the need to attract an eligible husband, but simultaneously to put her ‘dangerous seductiveness’ out of sight

a fact: scholars have uncovered many depictions of women as the same size as men from the preliminary stages of ancient Egyptian society, indicating gender equality; a subsequent decrease in their size in such drawings/engravings corresponds with the appearance of private property (2420-2140 BC) – Nawal also points out that among ancient Romans the word ‘familia’ constituted a man’s possessions i.e. land, houses, money, slaves, women, children

 

want to read The Hidden Face of Eve? visit here

Time’s Running Out for Scheherazade by Fawzia Zouari (tr. Judith Landry)

I read this excellent essay in Banipal 39 – Modern Tunisian Literature (2010)

a nutshell: a strident renunciation of society’s expectation that women’s words serve men, Zouari kicks out at the story of Scheherazade narrating tales only to distract her would-be murderous husband

a line: “From now on, I am the author of a story which is its own wellspring, not a bid for reprieve”

an image: walking from age to age without raising one’s voice or setting one’s feet where an echo might ring out, women have been silenced through ‘silken wings’ or weighty gold – male attempts to assuage their appetite for flight

a thought: the writer is now invested in “I” and turns her gaze inward rather than downward; her stories are for the purpose of better living with herself

a fact: the story of Scheherazade, which frames the collection of Middle Eastern folklore, One Thousand and One Nights, sees the young woman spend 1001 nights narrating cliff-hanger tales to her monarchical husband, Shahryar, so he’d let her live another day (all his previous wives had been beheaded)

want to read Time’s Running Out for Scheherazade? visit here