New Trends in Germany's Immigrant Literature

The Guest Who Is a Guest No Longer

Germany's immigrant literature has undergone a paradigm shift. It can now finally focus on everyday life – thus emancipating itself from the traditions of immigrant literature and becoming "normal", writes Andreas Schumann

Dimitré Dinev, left, and Feridun Zaimoglu (photo: Robert Bosch Foundation)
Dimitré Dinev, left, and Feridun Zaimoglu - both were awarded the Chamisso Prize for non-native speakers writing in German

​​Where have they gone, the literary characters eking out their miserable existence in Germany as guest workers and immigrants, asking for understanding and acceptance, struggling to maintain their identity in alien surroundings, defying their host country? Ever since the 1960s we had grown used to these fictitious fellow citizens; even if there were few who read their stories, they were just as present as their counterparts in real life. But in the past few years they have become less common in the works of writers working in German as a second language.

Can this be put down solely to the fact that immigration to Germany is in decline across the boards, while the immigrants living, working and writing here are now in their third generation, increasingly speaking German as their native language? Or has the literature of the immigrants, only just discovered in the 1980s, finally achieved "normality" – has it become an integral part of German-language literature without the stigma of eccentricity and marginality?

Blazing new paths

In 1995 the "Kanak Movement", instigated mainly by Feridun Zaimoğlu, gave a completely new direction to the history of immigrant literature in Germany. Far removed from the "guest worker literature" of the 1960s, lacking the overly political impetus of the "literature of concernedness" (Franco Biondi / Rafik Schami) or the desire for a literature that mediates between the cultures (Yüksel Pazarkaya), many works by authors from immigrant backgrounds are blazing new paths.

Identity issues are detached from the quest for individuality; the fictional scenes are no longer animated by the semantics of Self and Other. The "clash of cultures" has ceased to be the central issue – relieving the literary characters (and, evidently, the real-life writers themselves) from the pressure to integrate or assimilate.

In the year 2000 two anthologies marked a major "turn" away from an "immigrant" or "foreigner" literature: Döner in Walhalla: Texte aus einer anderen deutschen Literatur, i.e. Kebab in Valhalla. Texts from a different German Literature (ed. by Ilija Trojanow) and MorgenLand: Neueste deutsche Literatur, i.e. Morning-Land. Contemporary German Literature (ed. by Jamal Tuschick). Both books give prominent mention to these changes. Ilija Trojanow introduces his anthology with the question: "What traces are left by the guest who is a guest no longer?" and MorgenLand asserts – clearly and radically – "If they're too foreign, you're too German."

Wog speak from the margins of society

We are looking neither at the search for ways to integrate into German society nor at the defiant gesture of self-assertion, as in Zaimoğlu's fictitious documentation Kanak Sprak: 24 Mißtöne vom Rande der Gesellschaft (Wog Speak: 24 Discords from the Margins of Society, 1995), or Koppstoff: Kanak Sprak vom Rande der Gesellschaft (Koppstoff: Wog Speak from the Margins of Society, 1998) – here the very subheadings testify to "immigrant literature's" self-proclaimed independence and marginality. The works in the two anthologies are as far removed from this stance as are other examples of "contemporary German literature".

Yet another tendency emerges in these anthologies, one for which the foundations were laid in the 1990s: the authors' increasingly diverse biographical backgrounds. National origins hardly play any role now; straightforward reasons for immigration such as the search for work or politically motivated flight have become almost impossible to identify.

Moreover, many of these young writers belong to the so-called second and third generations; many were born in Germany, and as a rule most write in German. How can they be expected to develop the common point of view or shared aims that have been repeatedly been called for over the past 30 years?

Focus on everyday life

As a result, by this point it seems inadmissible to speak of an "immigrant literature" in Germany; it has also ceased to be a "literature of the Other" or a literature of cultural mediation. It no longer requires an ideology, political or moral pretensions, historical continuity or national identity; it no longer needs to pass judgment on actions or mourn the failure of communication, it can focus on everyday life and create group identities – thus emancipating itself from the traditions of immigrant literature and becoming "normal".

Of course, many books still focus on the topic of immigration, such as Vladimir Vertlib's Zwischenstationen (Intermediate Stops) (1999) and Das besondere Gedächtnis der Rosa Masur (The Remarkable Memory of Rosa Masur) (2001) or Ilija Trojanow's Die Welt ist groß (The World Is Big) und Rettung lauert überall (Salvation Lurks Everywhere) (1996).

As early as 1998 Heidi Rösch coined the term "systemic migration" for works like these that draw from a specific immigrant background, namely the transition from former "East Bloc" countries to capitalism.

These examples are not representative, however, as is readily apparent from the novels and short stories of Wladimir Kaminer, Zsusza Bánk, Terézia Mora, Radek Knapp and Dimitré Dinev.

The Berlin which Wladimir Kaminer constructed in his debut Russendisko (Russian Disco) from the year 2000 is distinguished by his boundless curiosity and the novelty of his own daily life, a city in which old and new coexist and merge; there is no "dominant drive" (certainly not a German one!) that might determine modes of thought and behaviour; rather, characters must resort to their own imaginative resources.

In Zsuzsa Bánk's novel The Swimmer (2002, English translation 2005), the three protagonists – father, daughter and son – are sent on a journey across Hungary by the mother's defection to the west, but the focus is on the search for an individual language capable of doing justice to the situation the characters experience and endure, the two children's search for identity on a journey without orientation.

Spatial ties no longer play any role, while the concept of a "homeland" is completely up in the air – all that drives the characters is their search for identity.

Lack of contour and meaning

Terézia Mora's novel All the Days from 2004 goes one step further. In the very first scene the protagonist, Abel Nema, is shown hanging head-down from a tree, looking at the world upside-down – which could be interpreted as a traditional metaphor in the context of a literature that mediates between cultures and seeks differences. But this character is doomed to failure not because he is unable to return to his homeland, as soon becomes clear, but because he is unable to express himself to others, despite the fact that he speaks ten different languages.

Abel Nema serves as a surface on which the wishes and desires of all the other characters are projected, but he himself has a lack of contour and meaning which precisely reflects the semantic emptiness of the novel's topography. Categories such as "homeland" or "foreign country" have ceased to exist – at most there is the impossibility of truly arriving in a country, a space, a system, a society. Thus the option of integrating in to a society, or disassociating oneself from it, is no longer available.

This development is also reflected strikingly by the annual presentation of the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize. This prize, awarded since 1985 by the Robert Bosch Foundation for "major contributions to German literature by authors whose native language is not German", is a reliable indicator of developments in what can no longer be called "immigrant literature" – from Aras Ören and Rafik Schami in 1985 to the 2005 laureates, Feridun Zaimoğlu and Dimitré Dinev.

The shifting profile of the prize-winners goes along with a turn to different subject matter. The focus is no longer on depicting the Self amidst Otherness, but on the exploration of new literary techniques, as demonstrated by the examples of Aglaja Veteranyi, Marica Bodrožiċ and Zsuzsa Bánk, or on a reverse ethnographic analysis of everyday German life, as seen most prominently in the awarding of the prize to Asfa-Wossen Asserate (Manieren, i.e. Manners, 2003).

The Chamisso Prize introduces an interested readership to an exciting new body of literature which, far from being the observations of a guest, is beginning to feel at home in German letters.

Andreas Schumann

© 2006

This article was published on - German literature online.

Andreas Schumann is professor of modern German literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

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