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The City and the Writer: In Zürich with Charif Shanahan

By Nathalie Handal

 Special Series / Switzerland, 2014

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

 —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Zürich as you feel/see it?

Always: Composed. Proud. Elegant. At times: Inaccessible. Joyful. 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Not a single moment, but moments, peppered throughout my time there: although I knew Zürich was where I needed to be; I had already been living abroad for a number of years before moving to Zürich; and I did not miss my native New York per se, I still felt distant from those I loved. The pain of disconnect emerged randomly, while riding the tram or grocery shopping, and stayed with me for the duration. 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

A view of the entire city— Zürich, the lake, the Alps in the distance—from the top of Grossmünster church in the old town. In winter, the church is still open to visitors when the sun sets, and there's the most extraordinary view of the sun dropping out of sight behind the hills west of the lake. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

The first names that come to mind are foreign-born writers who relocated to Zürich. Georg Büchner, the German dramatist, for instance, moved there in his late adolescence before dying at twenty-three. James Joyce also famously made Zürich his home later in life: it was there that he finished Ulysses and The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It's also where he passed. Thomas Mann was there for a bit between the world wars, too. Max Frisch is one of the most famous Zürich-born writers of the last century, I'd say. 

Is there a place here you return to often?

All the fresh, swimmable bodies of the water in the city: not only the lake, but either of the two rivers that cut through Zürich. My favorite was the Limmat, which ran just behind our flat. In summer, after taking a long walk along the water, we'd jump off a high bridge into the deepest part of the river. It was a popular hangout for young people, lined with waterside cafes. I go whenever I'm back and the weather's warm.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The historic Cabaret Voltaire in the old town. It was an early-twentieth-century cabaret, a frequent hangout for artists, writers, and intellectuals, and the birthplace of Dadaism. Today, it's a small museum, with a library, café, and gift shop. Definitely worth a visit. 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Langstrasse, a single street of maybe ten or so blocks and the heart of alternative Zürich. It is not so much hidden, but definitely stands apart: primarily Zürich’s red-light district, Langstrasse is also where edginess lives, where queers, freaks, and artists can go to thrive in an otherwise homogenous culture. 

Where does passion live here?

Züri-passion lives, a bit ironically to my mind, in the city’s manicured beauty, efficiency and order. Everything in Zürich is well-calibrated, clean, and on time, and these are not only conveniences in Switzerland, but values. We think of passion as wild, unplanned, uncontrollable, but it’s in their very control and meticulous planning that I’d say the Swiss defy this generalization. On the flip side, if you want to see a calm and collected Swissman lose his cool, tell him his train is running four minutes late.

What is the title of one of your (poems/works) about Zürich and what inspired it exactly?

I have a poem entitled “Lake Zürich,” a love lyric for my partner who is Swiss. After meeting in New York and falling in love in Barcelona, we began to build a life together in Zürich, where I moved to be with him. We shared many lakeside moments in the early days of our relationship. At a difficult juncture for us about two years ago, when I wanted to meditate on our union, my imagination and memory returned to the lake. 

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Zürich does an outside exist?”

Of course, but it exists inside Zürich, too: for me, integration was difficult, even after learning some German, making friends, and being partnered with a local. I felt a kind of emotional distance from the culture and, at times, from the city itself, which kept me on the outside of the inside, in a way. 


Charif Shanahan is a Cave Canem Fellow and holds degrees from Princeton University, Dartmouth College, and New York University, where he earned an MFA in poetry and served as a Starlight Foundation Fellow. The recipient of the 2010 Academy of American Poets University Prize, and a semifinalist for the 2013 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, his poetry, translations, and other writing have appeared or are forthcoming in the New Republic, the Manhattanville ReviewCircumferencePoets & Writers Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the Programs Director for the Poetry Society of America, and serves as the poetry editor for Psychology Tomorrow Magazine.

Published Mar 20, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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