Tagged: Germany

16. Reading: Untenrum frei

Untenrum frei by Margarete Stokowski (Rowohlt, 2016) is only the third book this year I read in German, and it’s already the end of October and on my list are just two more German titles. Now that has absolutely nothing to do with the book, and does not even give for a good explanation for this curiosity. I simply don’t like reading translations, and I don’t get to many recommendations on German books or authors. (You are very welcome to change this, though!) But back to Margarete’s manifesto. I think one can rightfully claim this, as it is a very thoughtful, angry, comprehensive and funny 200-something page thinkpiece on feminism and why you should be in it, too. So far nothing surprising, as this kind of literature has had a new wave for at least the last year with works such as Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable things, or Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s We should all be feminists, among others.

But Stokowski does not just offer a German perspective. She does not limit herself to some regionalism, yet always carefully reflects her position and therefore, the impossibility of claiming a voice for someone other than herself. But her voice will  not be silenced, so much is clear after reading through Untenrum frei. It is enjoyably radical, yet never unjust – no Bra-burning, no man-hating, if you will. Instead, she wonderfully masters a mixture of sound arguments to counter many of the standardized pub talk fears and doubts about feminism, with wit and humor that make it a very entertaining yet educating read. It made me want to learn some of her comebacks by heart so as to always have them ready for the next pub.

How did I come across the book?

I saw it recommended in two magazines I am reading. Also, I have known Stokowski’s columns on gender for Spiegel Online, which I always enjoyed for their No-Shit-attitude. Plus, I often think, she is the only person there doing serious journalism, for her texts are never clickbaity and always very well argumented.

When and where did I read it?

On a four day holiday with my mom at the Baltic sea. My mom will be the next to read it, because she liked the cover a lot (it is very minimalistically chic), and heard me laugh a lot while reading. Plus, she was the one who first mentioned feminism to me and is always interested in my recommendations.

Maybe it says a lot about the fragility of gender that instructions on being the two main ones have been issued monthly for so long.  (Rebecca Solnit cited in Stokowski, p. 94)

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12. Reading: the things i am thinking while smiling politely

Sharon Dodua Otoo is my latest discovery in contemporary literature. She recently won the Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize for a short story about an egg at a German breakfast table. The book I read is her first novel: the things i am thinking while smiling politely (edition assemblage, 2012). In it, Otoo describes the end of a marriage with two children from the perspective of the abandonned wife. The story can be read in at least two different ways: from front to back, or from back to front, as every chapter ends with three dots, and also starts with them. The chapters a numerated from ten to one, and interspersed with what the author quite accurately calls “shrapnels”: parts of hurtful sentences one can imagine in the unspoken fights ensuing during the break-up.

But that’s only half of the story, as it is also a novel about race and prejudice contextualized right at the heart of Berlin Kreuzberg. Otoo wouldn’t be Otoo if she didn’t insert one or another side kick about white-german difficulties with The (black) Other. We learn about harassment at school, well meaning but ignorant white women trying to be friends, and the politics of (re-)naming in divorce. A friend of mine recently did an interview with Otoo for Frankfurter Rundschau (in german), in which Otoo explains that authors (people in general?!) could and should be much more creative in their use of language when it comes to dismantling prejudice. Her text about the egg (Herr Gröttrup setzte sich hin) is an example of this, and a logical consequence of her activist work in the Black German Community. After the things… I am curious about Herr Gröttrup…, because this creativeness in the use of words does not yet come through that clearly. Still, the things… is an impressive and touching account of a hurt and angry woman that never risks the sentimental.

How did I come across the book?

I admit I heard about Sharon Dodua Otoo for the first time when she won the Bachmann prize. Then I saw the interview with her in Frankfurter Rundschau, so I decided to have a look at her texts. A few snipets from Herr Gröttrup… hooked me, but since I am no fan of short stories, I asked at the local bookstore for a novel, and they offered me this.

When and where did I read it?

On a train ride from Konstanz to Berlin. It’s little less then a hundred pages, so it’s easily doable on that ride. A noisy waggon did not frustrate my endeavour, as it is a very enjoyable read, and a convincing story.

“I was dancing to “It’s Raining Men” and feeling on-top-of-the-world. My beer bottle microphone in one hand, my eyes closed and my voice bouncing off the walls. Singing like no one can hear! (Except I did have the feeling that some poor Kazakhstani peasant on the far side of the Mugodzhar Hills had just been wrested from peaceful slumber as I crescendoed on “God bless mother nature!” Never mind.)” p.44

9. Reading: Panikherz

I waited years for this book to appear. To be honest, I waited years for any book to appear. Panikherz by Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre (2016, Kiepenheuer & Witsch) is the autobiography of my German word-and-description-acrobacy hero. So no wonder it’s the first book I finish reading in months. I was literally soaking up every single sentence of the book – it could have been about anything, I would have loved it anyway. If I wouldn’t know better, I’d say he’s a Taussig-style anthropologist working on German upper (middle) class decadence. But then I’ll find myself missing what seems to be so central to the book: it’s an autobiography focussing on cocaine addiction. [Logical consequence: my next read will be Michael Taussig’s My Cocaine Museum.] Also, just as he did in his debut Soloalbum with Oasis, he intertwines the story of his life with the music of Udo Lindenberg, and quotes from his songs pervade the text.

But honestly I don’t care much to review the story here, that’s not why I love his texts. It’s not so much about the stories he tells, it’s about his capacity to move, to affect. This book hurts, if you let it. If you prefer to keep your distance and discuss whether pop literature is actual literature, whether there’s enough story, or too much egocentricity going on (Seriously? It’s an autobiography. Why would one even criticize that? Also, I saw someone criticize name dropping: you seriously have never tried reading Rushdie’s Joseph Anton – that one clearly defined name dropping in biographies. Unreadable to me.), if you think content is more important than form: fine, don’t read it. But if you care about being moved, if you love accurate descriptions of everyday realities (meta level: use everyday language and dismantle it’s superficiality with precisely that kind of language), and if you appreciate authors who take risks not only on paper, here’s your guy.

How did I come across the book?

As I said, I waited years for this book to appear. I’ve been reading every single one of his prior books, desperately hoping for something longer than 200 pages, and something that wasn’t just another essay-collection. This year, my hopes and wishes have finally been heard (and so they will next year, a new book for 2017 is already announced on his publisher’s homepage).

When and where did I read it?

I started chapter-wise before going to bed, then had it with me for a conference-trip (long-distance flight, lonely hotel room). For the last 200 or so pages I almost couldn’t put it away. At the last twenty, I thought about not finishing it, because I just never want his texts to end. Plus, it would have gone so well with a joke he’s making in these pages. Talking about jokes, I think this quote makes clear that the weapons are here first and foremost turned against the author himself:

“Aber ich arbeitete ja nicht mehr für Schmidt; ich lag ja in einem beschissenen Einzelzimmer in der Entgiftungsabteilung einer, ja: Schwarzwaldklinik. Wo war da der Witz? Ich war jetzt selbst einer.” p. 283