From "Educated Kanakster" to Literary Star
For Feridun Zaimoglu, it's been a long hard fight to be taken seriously as a German author. But the linguistic juggler with Turkish parents and a German passport has now received the Corine International Book Award for his novel Liebesbrand. Eren Güvercin traces his path from the early days of Kanak Sprak to his current high
Feridun Zaimoglu sits on a plain wooden chair behind a small table, on it a glass of water and his novel Liebesbrand, 'Blazing Love'. Zaimoglu starts to read, enunciating his words like an actor. It is almost as if he had dived into the book and the fictitious world of its characters.
If you didn't know the name of the writer at this reading in Cologne, it could be any German author. But Zaimoglu has had to fight long and hard – to be accepted as a German and respected as a German writer – and he has had to fight for the German language. In the early days of his career as a writer he caused confusion and even indignation among literary critics, with his statement that he is a German with Turkish parents.
Zaimoglu came to Germany with his parents as a baby. His father worked for BASF, his mother as a cleaning lady.
He initially began a medicine degree, later switching to painting. He dropped out of medical school shortly before his final exams, despite excellent marks. Describing the time before his literary debut Kanak Sprak, he says: "After years of painting, dead-end jobs and university, I ended up in a huge slaughterhouse, where I slit the animals' throats to bleed them to death. I was the archetypal loser; I had no idea what to do with my life. I was a melancholy idiot."
"Renegade of German literature"
It was anger and frustration at his own miserable situation that prompted Zaimoglu to start writing. In Kanak Sprak (1995), he remodelled his friends' angry monologues into a militant and mischievous artificial sociolect. The book made a mark on the German literary scene that remains to this day, and is probably Zaimoglu's best-known work. Feridun Zaimoglu, who dubbed himself an "educated kanakster" – reclaiming the derogatory German term for immigrants Kanake and remixing it with hip-hop culture – gave a voice to the children of the Turkish "guest workers".
But Germany's critics painted Zaimoglu as a satirist, a sociologist or even a social worker, the "renegade of German literature". He was labelled the "Turkish Malcolm X" or the "Rudi Dutschke of the Turkish-Germans". Kanak Sprak readings were often veritable verbal brawls, held in places like youth clubs, schools and universities rather than the usual literary venues.
"My heroines and heroes don't come from the middle class. That's because I don't see anything exciting, seething, growing wild in the German middle classes," Zaimoglu says in hindsight about that time. He couldn't locate the discreet, decadent charm of the bourgeoisie, he says, and that hasn't changed.
Mouthpiece of a unique idiom
Zaimoglu ignored the fact that the critics initially refused to grant him literary relevance. He became the mouthpiece of an idiom never before seen in German literature. For his editor Olaf Petersenn, Zaimoglu's writing has "a direct link to the contemporary", is close to spoken language with a great deal of wit and irony, and open for all types of impressions.
It was his highly successful novel Leyla (2006) that finally surprised readers, showcasing a whole new Zaimoglu. From then on, the critics had no option but to abandon the outsider's role they had allocated to him as a "minority writer". Once again, his readings were standing-room only affairs.
Leyla is mainly based on the story of Zaimoglu's mother, a woman from the first generation of Turks to live in Germany. His language rich in imagery, Zaimoglu describes the difficult conditions under which these women grew up in Turkey. "Nowadays, it's difficult to understand the sense of the dawning of new golden era prevalent at that time," says Zaimoglu, "but just as the German women who rebuilt the country's cities after the war are rightly respected, it is now high time to award these wonderful Turkish women of the first hour the standing they deserve."
In Leyla, Zaimoglu portrays all that these women achieved – women who had not had a voice before then. The author painstakingly recorded his mother's story on a series of cassettes, listening closely to other women from this first generation to work into his novel.
Unpopular with women's rights activists
The work refuses to sweep abuse and certain customs and traditions under the carpet. Nevertheless, women's rights activists were quick to protest at the book, feeling it didn't go far enough. Zaimoglu dismisses these critics as "fanatics" and "Euro-feminists" who attack Islam as a whole, calling their criticism "ridiculous and absolutely pointless".
And that's not the only subject on which Zaimoglu is a passionate contributor to public debate. Invited to participate in the government's German Islam Conference, he gave up his seat to a religious Muslim woman. At the very beginning of the conference he pointed out that although Muslim women were the subject of the discussion, the only women around the table were critics of Islam.
"I think it's a great shame that the women at the conference are generally secular, liberal and critical of Islam, whatever that means, but there is not a single religious woman present," Zaimoglu commented, emphasising that this was a major drawback. He found it unacceptable that women who respect Islam as their faith and the central point of their lives were excluded from the discussion.
A vehement arguer and a man with a mission, Zaimoglu contradicts those who proclaim the doomsday of the western world in apocalyptic tones, alleging Germany's immigrants have refused to integrate.
Although his latest novel Liebesbrand (Blazing Love) – recently presented with the Corine International Book Award – is a whole different ball game, Zaimoglu remains an author who divides opinion, who is not afraid of confrontations, and for whom being an uncomfortable figure has become second nature. For Germany's literary world, not rich in polarising writers, he will no doubt remain a rough and turbulent stroke of luck for years to come.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire