Migrant Literature in Germany

An Unmistakable Intercultural Diversity

For at least a decade now, an unmistakable intercultural diversity has been leaving its mark on contemporary German-language literature. This diversity was triggered above all by many writers adopting another culture in the wake of migratory movements. By Klaus Hübner

Leading more of a shadow existence prior to 1985, over the last two decades the migrant literature scene has developed widely varying poetic concepts and in turn enriched and internationalised German literature.

Today, migrant writers are counted among the popular and widely read representatives of German-language literature. Feridun Zaimoglu, SAID, Rafik Schami, Térezia Mora, Herta Müller and Zsusza Bánk, to name but a few, are firmly established on the book market and with their novels, stories and poems are important representatives of contemporary German literature.

Post-national discourse

Migrant literature (or 'migration literature') is the term generally used to denote linguistic works of art whose authors have undergone a major cultural and, in most cases, linguistic shift. Most of them write in German; some, including almost all ethnic German Romanians, have done so all their lives.

Conversely, some authors prefer to use their native tongues even though they are long-term residents of German-speaking countries. The formats, subject matters and motifs they use, too, are part of the migrant literature genre. According to literary research that focuses not only on Germany, migrant literature is 'not just a trans-national, but also a post-national discourse'.

It is constituted in the act of writing and is per se independent of the language or origins of its authors. The primary characteristic of these works is their cultural complexity, which not exactly a revolutionary concept in that German literature - see Adelbert von Chamisso, Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti or Jurek Becker - never was a pure 'monoculture' to begin with (Carmine Chiellino).

The familiar versus the alien

It took until around 1980 until the literary efforts of labour migrants, then frequently labelled as 'Gastarbeiter literature', finally gained broader public recognition in Germany.

Important representatives of this early phase of migrant literature in Germany were Aras Ören and Yüksel Pazarkaya, the works of the so-called PoLiKunst group (Franco Biondi, Yusuf Naoum, Suleman Taufiq, Habib Bektas, Rafik Shami, Gino Chiellino and others) and the anthologies edited by Irmgard Ackermann.

Most of these were the result of competitions held by the Munich-based Institute for German as a Foreign Language, which was also crucially involved in setting up the Adelbert von Chamisso prize, awarded for the first time in 1985 and today one of the most respected German literary awards.

Many works from this early phase, which lasted beyond the mid 1980s, focused on the relationship between the familiar and the alien, the migrants' change in language and culture and the problems encountered by German society, which at the time only was hesitant to accept its new, multicultural face.

The significance of the 'minority literature' genre, as it was increasingly called after 1985, quickly grew, not only thanks to the works of Emine Sevgi Özdamar.

The writers, several of whom had been forced to flee their home countries in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe for political reasons, gained increasing acknowledgment even before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989/1990.

The Central European discourse at that time was enriched by works that employed new and highly complex linguistic and stylistic devices, some of which hailed back to pre-World War II days, for instance by Ota Filip, Libuše Moníková, Zsuzsanna Gahse, György Dalos, Herta Müller and Richard Wagner.

Writers from Asia, Africa and Latin America, among them the Persian lyricist Cyrus Atabay, a German resident since the 1950s, and the Hamburg-based Japanese writer Yoko Tawada, received public attention, as did - post 1990 - foreign authors resident in the GDR, for instance the Mongolian Galsan Chinag, an ethnic Tuvan, and the Syrian writer Adel Karasholi.

Literary representatives of a hybrid culture

The emergence of writers from the second or third generation of immigrants who attempt to liberate themselves from the 'conflict between inclusion and alienation' evidently signals an absorption of migrant literature in the German literary genre.

Writers such as Zafer Şenocak, José F.A. Oliver and Zehra Çirak prefer to be assigned neither to the foreign nor to the German camp. Feridun Zaimoglu's Kanak Sprak supplied a new buzzword for an entire generation of urban German-Turkish adolescents.

The writer perceives himself quite naturally as a literary representative of a post-colonial, hybrid culture. Writers born after 1970 with a non-German cultural background have created an exceptionally wide range of intercultural forms of expression.

Traditional images of migration in the narrow sense, employed for instance in the works of Kazakh-born writer Eleonora Hummel (*1970) or the Dalmatian-born Marica Bodrožić (*1973), are today just one of the many possible contributions to contemporary migrant literature.

Klaus Hübner

© Goethe-Institut 2006

The autor is a publicist and the editor of the journal "Fachdienst Germanistik". He lives in Munich.

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