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from the November 2008 issue

Three Myths of Immigrant Writing: A View from Germany

Migrant, immigrant, intercultural or multicultural literature today (in Germany and elsewhere) is considered a category of literature by authors who write from a perspective refracted by at least two cultures, national identities, or languages. An "immigrant background" has become a symptom of today's world, a world suffering from ADHD and a persistent pattern of hyperactivity, as well as from impulsiveness and anger. Wars, social erosion, and even environmental issues are creating a chronic condition of permanent diaspora and migration for which no political cure is available, for it can be delivered neither in the cough syrup called fundamentalism nor in the pill called democracy.

In Germany, I carry my ominous immigrant background in my name and my passport, in the little bump on my nose, in my sympathies for food with lots of garlic, but most of all in my past, having fled a civil war and escaped to another country. I also fled to different aromatic and culinary qualities, to trains that for some delightful reason are named for lakes or scientists or castles, and even to a different way a hairstylist holds his scissors. On top of this, I have written a novel in a language different from the one I learned as I cut my milk teeth, and have come across many opinions on my "immigrant" writing in particular and many views on so-called "immigrant literature" in general.

While reading works by my fellow immigrant authors, I have discovered a number of prejudices about what and how (and what not and how not) fiction written by foreigners is supposed to be and function. So, for example, my "immigrant colleagues" and I don't appear to have so much in common as some critics and philologists wish we did, making it difficult for them to place us neatly next to one another on a bookshelf (I would argue that the colors of the novels' covers has a greater literary relevance than our biographical backgrounds). Also, in placing special value on the enrichment of the literary language, myths are made: there is an odd urge to simplify the exoticism of style and technique which immigrant authors are "brave enough" to "experiment with," as if this quality is a talent one has brought along from one's homeland. Finally, the most unsettling stance is granting the immigrant worldview (if such a worldview truly exists) too much credit, based simply on having an experience of multiculturalism more profound than eating in a Thai restaurant every second Tuesday.

Myth 1: Immigrant literature is a philological category of its own, and thus comprises a fruitful anomaly in relation to national literatures.

To speak of a single "immigrant literature" is simply wrong, because it is wrongly simple. The nature of migration and the level of foreign writers' integration vary too much to be collected in one category, not to mention the authors' unique biographical backgrounds and differing cultural, religious, or social habits. Even these outward literary characteristics point to the great diversity of experiences, possible subjects, and intellectual influences which in many cases become a part of the text or even make up the text as a whole. The goal of objective judgment should be to overcome the fixation on an author's biography and move to a thematically-oriented view of the work.

A Russian girl of Jewish ancestry comes to Germany, falls in love with a German student, and writes a book about a Russian girl of Jewish ancestry who comes to Germany and falls in love with a German student—a funny, stylistically and structurally "clean" book full of harmless ironic stings mingled with Russian and German clichés.

A Bulgarian, born in Sofia and raised in Kenya, studies at a university in Germany and writes a novel about the nineteenth-century British colonial officer Sir Richard Burton—a vivid, many-voiced portrait of an eccentric traveler and adventurer.

These two examples from current German writing—by the authors Lena Gorelik and Ilija Trojanow, respectively (though one could, of course, go backward name-dropping endlessly: Heine, Nabokov, Mann, etc.)—prove that the expression "immigrant literature" places a far too clear-cut frame around a multitude of books linked only by the loose and less relevant facts of an author's background and social status.

If one must think in categories, one may speak instead in plural, of immigrant literatures, and describe new, smaller sets, e.g.: "Literature of Immigrant Laborers in the 60s", "German-Turkish Literature" and "Literature of Second-Generation Polish Immigrants of German Ethnic Origin Who in the Late 80s Were Bored to Death with Being Housewives and Wrote a Novel about Their Neighbor's Chest Hair." But such sorting would then contradict one of literature's major functions: to be an act of preferably borderless creativity and invention on one hand, and a game of reference and relation on the other.

That said, I believe that immigrant literature can only be effectively discussed by subject matter, and in relation to the literary premises of genre, style, tradition, etc. Attention to the aesthetic approach to theme or point of view, particularly in the context of national literatures, affects the quality of the work and its understanding more than the private life of the author ever can.

In countries with high immigration rates, like Germany today, minority culture became long ago one of society's constitutive elements. Immigrant authors are no longer a marginal phenomenon, but a significant reference point with almost-mainstream qualities (a good thing, because it rids the work of the exotic). Immigrant literatures are not an isle in the sea of national literature, but a component, both in the depths, where the archaic squids of tradition live, and on the surface, where pop-cultural waves hit the shore.

Myth 2: Immigrant literature deals monothematically with migration and multicultural issues. Immigrant authors have a closer and thus more authentic perspective on related questions.

Shortly before coming to Iowa I spoke with a Polish-German author, Artur Becker, who just finished his eighth novel. He told me that he circles exclusively around one aesthetic and metaphysical topic: stories set between two cultures. One could easily refer to his oeuvre as the literature of cultural syntheses. Other "characteristic" topics for immigrant authors are questions of identity, home, and crossing cultural boundaries, producing such interesting plots as: "Holy Cow! My daughter wants to marry a German! I'll first live in denial, then teach him that cows are holy and, in the end, after he's learned to say 'How are you?' in Hindi and saved my life on the German autobahn, I'll accept him as my son-in-law."

As a matter of fact, most works of immigrant authors I have read deal in one way or another with a single (often autobiographical) experience of migration. This basic statistical observation speaks for itself. But these percentages lead, in my opinion, to overhasty and deficient assumptions about subjects "reserved" for an author with a certain background. Any "good" author should, at any time, be able to write "good" fiction about a child suffering from cancer, a dog with three legs, or a dogleg telling a story about a immigrant author, all without ever having even talked to a child sick with cancer, without ever owning a dog, or without personally being friends with me. Writing fiction also means inventing worlds which are not part of the writer's own world. Through research, travels, interviews, and other methods of approaching the unknown, these experiences are within the reach of any author. Though he can choose not to, any writer can become aware of new aspects of life and, from it, construct the "tellable" by choosing a perspective or a voice that even a writer who stands in the middle of the topic might even have overlooked. Personally, I find non-immigrant authors trying to get behind the questions "reserved" for immigrants equally remarkable.

I'm always keen on reading the second or third book from a immigrant author—the one coming after he has told his exile-story. I find it more provocative to witness how someone from one cultural sphere sees his new environment without focusing on the "new." It is worth every effort to tell an everyday story in the voice of a local German clerk, a love story without the exotic flair of an intercultural embrace, or to tell of a war not being fought in the country from which the author fled.

In order for an author's work of literary fiction to be significant, being a immigrant is as essential as it is to be a guy named Jeff living in a three-thousand-person town in South Carolina with a 1967 Ford Mustang coupe parked in your garage. That is to say, it is entirely irrelevant. It doesn't make a work any more special or any more deserving of a careful review. The quality of the writing does not automatically increase because an immigrant author survived five wars and tells the world about it. Biographic facts and legends will always appeal to both audiences and critics. I deem them, exciting as they may be, notable only in discussions of biographical nonfiction.

Myth 3: An author who doesn't write in his mother tongue enriches the language he has chosen to write in.

Asked if it's hard to write in a language I learned so late (I was fourteen), I answer no. It's never late to learn a language, I say, it just eats up more time that would otherwise be spent on fishing trips as you get older. And then I say: There is nothing special about writing in a foreign language so long as you think you can use it in a sufficient and productive way.

For me, writing itself is a foreign language. For every story, for every play, for every new creation, I have to learn a new language: I have to find the narrator's voice, I have to decide on my figure's specific verbal characteristics, and I have to learn and keep the rhythm and flow of the whole.

Many authors now writing through that filter of a foreign language had to make, at some point in their career, a choice of which language to use. Never as smart as Nabokov or Kundera, I never even considered the possibility of becoming literarily bilingual. For me, it was merely a pragmatic matter. I picked my "better" language: German.

In one review of my novel, a well-known critic wrote: "Stanišić puts our old German under the oxygen tent!" I, of course, took that as a compliment and bragged about it a lot, as I do now. Still, I am very suspicious when, in terms of literary quality, the fact that an author writes in his second or even third language leads to a more favorable critical judgment, even when the "uncommon" use of linguistic constructs is highlighted, the "exotic" figures and the "rich" vocabulary. Giving an immigrant author credit for every little language-game he tries is (to exaggerate slightly) nothing more than another way to say, "Oh, look how well that foreigner learned German." Of course, moving without caution into a second language can lead to beautiful results, through direct translations of phrases and sayings, through structural transformations and rhythmical imitations and even neologisms inspired by the first language. This is a good writing strategy, but only if done in a meaningful and logical way, not just to create a "sound" or a "feeling."

Though critics may find it inconvenient when an author working in a native language (or in his native artistic traditions) exhibits words and images that are unusual, rich, or unique, it is neither impossible nor forbidden for a domestic author to experiment, to produce uncommon linguistic structures or to connect to another folklore. A language is the only country without borders. Writers, indeed anyone, can (and should) use the privilege to make a language bigger, better, and more beautiful by planting a wordtree here or there, one never grown before.

Copyright 2008 by Saša Stanišić. All rights reserved.

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