Goethe de: Hardly Anybody Any Longer Says “Immigrant” –- German literature by authors whose mother tongue is not German

Adelbert-von-Chamisso-awardees: above f.l.t.r.: Yoko Tawada, photo: Yves Noir; Emine Sevgi Özdamar, photo: Helga Kneidl; Libuše Moníková, photo: Renate von Mangoldt; below f.l.t.r.: Galsan Tschinag, photo: Rosemarie von Schnoy; Ilija Trojanow, photo: Yves Noir; Catalin Dorian Florescu, photo: Yvonne BöhlerEver since Melinda Nadj Abonji won the 2010 German, and soon thereafter Swiss, Book Prize for her novel „Tauben fliegen auf“ (i.e., Doves Take Wing), hardly anybody any longer has made much of a fuss about a number of writers whose mother tongue is not German but whose works have lastingly enriched German literature. It has become perfectly natural to see in Rafik Schami, Zsuzsanna Gahse, Terézia Mora, Michael Stavarič and Artur Becker notable contemporary German-language authors. It was a long way.

From trickle to flood

Melinda Nadj Abonji ; photo: Gaëtan BallyThat German literature was never a purely German affair was nearly forgotten in the course of the nineteenth and above all the twentieth century. Exceptions such as Elias Canetti proved the rule that really important literature in the German language can of course only be written by native speakers. It is true that West Germany sporadically registered that at least since 1970 there existed a so-called “guest worker literature”, but it was not taken seriously. An exception was the great scholar of Romance languages and linguist Harald Weinrich, who early on called for a “German literature from outside” and, together with committed colleagues and the support of the Robert Bosch Foundation, launched the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize.

When the prize was awarded for the first time in 1985, people mainly spoke of “foreigners’ literature” and later of “literature of immigration”. It took nearly two decades before Libuše Moníková, Yoko Tawada, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Ilija Trojanow, Catalin Dorian Florescu and Galsan Tschinag were looked upon as important writers of the German language. Genuine poets such as Adel Karasholi, José F.A. Oliver, Zehra Çirak and Jean Krier had an even more difficult time of it. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, it became ever clearer that the former trickle had now become a flood and notable literature in German could also be written by authors who grew up with a very different mother tongue and come from cultures that have little in common with the German or Central European world.

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