Hair and Identity

Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze. Both see the United States as a place where they can achieve more than in their native country Nigeria. Ifemelu lives there – Obinze doesn’t. And it is through Ifemelu’s eyes that I as the reader explored her encounters with love, loss and prejudice. Race was not an issue in Nigeria, but in the USA, Ifemelu learns what it feels like to be judged because of the colour of her skin, her way of speaking the English language and because of – her hair! Whether she straightens it or not is a question of belonging. For me, one of the best parts of the book are set in a braiding salon, where Ifemelu reflects on her surroundings and her decision to return to Nigeria – burning all bridges in the USA, it seems, although she’s a successful blogger and academic. Thankfully, her move is not the end of her blog – the contents simply change after a short work interlude at a publishing house in Lagos. Again, her writing helps her to make sense of the world, of her love for Obinze, who seems to be close and still out of her reach. Obinze, who didn’t quite get to the land of his dreams and ended up in the UK instead – to live a nightmare rather than a nice, sunny promise. Their two lives are intertwined and touch on the lives of many others – and the writer, who holds all threads of their stories in her hand – weaves them into a complex tapestry. I learnt a few things about Nigeria and continue to admire Ifemelu’s integrity.

Translated from English into German by Anette Grube.

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Ein Buch für mich

Kristof Magnusson hatte mit Das war ich nicht bereits ein Buch geschrieben, von dem ich mich (nicht zuletzt wegen des Berufs der Protagonistin) besonders angesprochen fühlte. Und nun das – ein ‚Arztroman‘ – der eigentlich ein Ärztinnenroman ist – über das Berliner Urban-Krankenhaus. Ich habe eine Geschichte mit diesem Krankenhaus – dort waren schon Freunde und meine Mutter und ich habe mehr als einmal in der Notaufnahme gesessen und auf gute Nachrichten gehofft. Und nun fährt Anita Cornelius, von Beruf Notärztin, im Rettungswagen durch die Straßen von Berlin und bringt hin und wieder Patienten in besagtes Krankenhaus. Sie rettet gern, diese Anita – und ich mag sie von Anfang an. Sie macht ihren Beruf gut, verliebt sich nach der Trennung von ihrem Mann (auch Arzt! auch im Urban-Krankenhaus!) neu, bekommt Angst und rennt sich mehrfach den Kopf ein – zumindest im übertragenen Sinne. Damit landet sie nicht in der Notaufnahme, aber beinahe komplett im privaten Abseits. Wenn da nicht der wunderbare mitfahrende Kollege wäre, der sie hin und wieder darauf aufmerksam macht, dass sie sich in die falsche Richtung bewegt. Bis Anita begreift, dass retten auch anders gehen kann. Wie? Bitte nachlesen.

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… dort war sie die erste Frau, die uns die Nachrichten ins Wohnzimmer brachte. Wibke Bruhns, die Autorin eines jener Bücher, bei denen ich gerne missionarisch werde. Meines Vaters Land ist eine sehr autobiografische, ehrliche Geschichte – die Geschichte eines kleinen Mädchens, das seinen Vater gewaltsam verlor und die Geschichte einer erwachsenen Frau, die sich auf die Spuren dieses Vaters begibt. Die beiden Weltkriege haben das Leben der Familie Klamroth in Halberstadt (der Familie, in die Wibke Bruhns hineingeboren wurde) geprägt und wirken bis heute nach. Dieses Buch ist eine Suche nach Antworten, die nicht mehr gegeben werden können. Weil Briefe verschwunden sind, weil Menschen nicht mehr leben und vielleicht auch, weil machmal eine Antwort nicht auszuhalten wäre. Allerdings hält Wibke Bruhns bei ihrer Spurensuche sehr viel aus – und fragt sich zwischendurch immer wieder, ob sie an dieser oder jener Weggabelung noch weitergehen möchte. Gerade das hat mich sehr bewegt, dieses Innehalten und in sich Hineinhorchen. Um sich dem Vater, den Eltern anzunähern und  eine Art Frieden zu finden. Ich empfehle Meines Vaters Land allen, die noch immer nicht müde sind, sich in die deutsche Vergangenheit hineinzulesen, die unbequeme Fragen hören wollen und wissen wollen, warum Konflikte der heutigen Zeit nicht erst gestern begonnen haben.

Und hätte mir für die Übersetzung einen anderen englischen Titel gewünscht….

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Mixing fact and fiction

„Do you know Ernst Toller?“ asked the friend who lent me All that I am by Anna Funder. I didn’t – but now I do. Both the person that lived in Berlin and emigrated and the fictional character in the book. Deeply human, successful, flawed – and betrayed by life. Anna Funder doesn’t judge her characters – she lends them her voice and brings their reality to us. A reality that allowed some of them live and sent some of them to an early or later death. This book pays tribute to the free spirits in Nazi Germany and raises the all-important question once more: „What would I have done back then? Who would I have been?“ Everybody has to answer this question for themselves – and for a moment feel alone like the characters in the book when they have to decide in which direction to go. „These objects made sense only to Ruth; Ruth held them together in a constellation of story.“ This is what it means to have a place in life as a human being. When we’re alive, the objects are meaningful to us and we make sense of them for others. Maybe these objects tell a story to the next generation – or maybe they are lost or „junk“, when we leave this world.

I took Anna Funder’s book with me on a trip to Weimar & Buchenwald. And wondered about the origins of this broken piece of china on the grounds of the former concentration camp.Shard

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Families and a War

A book that ends with a warm soup is comforting – together with all the other emotions The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt evokes. I was lucky to hear the author read from this book in Berlin and plunged into the world of Olive, Humphry, Major Cain and his friend, the ceramic artist Benedict Fludd and  their children. It is a time of change and upheaval in Britain and Germany, portrayed through this microcosm of people in search of fulfilment that isn’t always found – or sometimes – in the case of Philip and his sister Elsie – found in the most unexpected circumstances. Lives are intertwined and families aren’t always the safe heaven they are supposed to be. The title reveals the author’s great empathy for her children characters, and it is often heartbreaking to read what one misunderstanding, a bully or a war can do to (very young) people.

I recommend this book – a slow read – for long winter evenings and as  a present to really good friends and to your family, of course – either in the English original or the  translation Das Buch der Kinder by Melanie Walz, advisor on all things related to Munich/Bavaria and creator of the German version.

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Another literary journey to India

I enjoy it immensely when travelling friends share their stories with me. Sometimes, it almost feels as if I went with them – particularly if the friend’s story is followed up by a great novel about the travel destination. This was the case after Amélia Polonia’s return from a research trip to the Sundarbans. Her photos showed a remote and beautiful world, where people try to preserve the precious ecosystem that is their home. Images of lush greenery and beautiful sunsets were followed by – a book! Amélia kindly lent me Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, suggesting that I might want to read about this enchanted part of India. Little did I know that a translator was one of the main characters in this novel. And that it would make me think about dreamers and realists. And go-betweens. The power of language – albeit unspoken at times – is a recurrent theme in the novel. Thinking that I almost parted with it after reading the first few pages, because I felt the perspective was too ‚male‘ and a little bit one-dimensional when describing Piya and her research, I’m reall glad I persevered, because I realised that this description was exactly right to describe Piya’s environment at the  beginning of the story. Everything began to grow once she entered the realm of her research and found the right people to pursue her passion. Fokir, who helps her in this pursuit, is a very strong character that made me think about fitting in and caring for oneself and for others. All in all, lots of food for thought while exposed to the forces of nature – albeit in the four walls of my Berlin flat.

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Two Christmas presents

To receive lots of books for Christmas was a great joy – especially since my pile of books to read had shrunk to an all-time low and the holidays promised some free time to read. Which means that I can already write about two of these thoughtful gifts.
Book number one is The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi. Polly McLean translated it from French (original title: Sang-e Saboor). The story is set in Afghanistan – a chamber drama in the true sense of the word, since most of the plot takes place in one room. And if something happens elsewhere, it still feels as if everything focuses around the ill man in that very room. I felt acutely with his wife, who is trying to structure her day around nursing her husband, without neglecting her two small children, who are too young to understand what’s going on with their father. They worry about him eating a fly – unaware of the wider consequences of his unconsciousness.
For the woman, he is the ‚patience stone‘ who listens to her – her sorrows and her confessions. She takes the reader on the journey of her marriage. The atmosphere in the book reminded me of Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman and I would really like to see it as a theatre production.

Book number two nurtured my current fascination with the writer and illustrator Judith Kerr. A Small Person Far Away is the third book of her trilogy about emigrating from Germany. Anna’s story is very moving, because she is always very present and acutely feels what’s happening to her in every moment – be it in England with her husband Richard or in Germany, where she goes on a very painful trip down memory lane. During a visit to her parent’s former house in the Grunewald district of Berlin, she suddenly feels like the young German girl she used to be – albeit momentarily. Confronted with her mother’s suicide attempt, Anna revisits their joint past as refugees in London, the hard times they shared and their sense of loss – a loss of a home and of a father and husband. Yet the sense of hope prevails. Of the people Anna meets in Berlin, I liked Hildy best. While reading, I thought of places and what makes a home, especially when Anna muses about her husband’s „unburdened“ nature and her sense of „where she belonged“. My fascination continues …

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Das Buch Dear Doosie von Werner Lansburgh begegnete mir im Studium zum ersten Mal. Eine Dozentin schwärmte davon. Damals las ich das Buch nicht, sondern erfreute mich an den Zitaten unserer Dozentin und ließ es dabei bewenden. Doch vor einiger Zeit erinnerte ich mich wieder an den Titel und ich kaufte dieses Lehrbuch in Form eines Liebesbriefes. Der Autor hat ungeheuren Spaß an Sprachspielen und mixt einen Cocktail aus Englisch und Deutsch, bei dessen Genuss ich immer wieder laut lachen musste. Die Thematik der Eliza Doolittle wird neu gedacht. Es geht nicht um das Blumenmädchen, das sich eine perfekte Aussprache aneignen soll, sondern um die imaginäre Geliebte, die ihren deutschen Akzent beibehalten darf. Eine perfekte Aussprache würde man ihr eher anlasten als sie dafür besonders schätzen. Im Hintergrund des Briefwechsels erfährt man so einiges über die deutsche Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, warum Peenemünde bombardiert wurde und wie wichtig es dem Autor ist, ein gedrucktes Werk aus seinem Geburtsland in den Händen zu halten. Für alle, die ihre englischen (oder deutschen) Sprachkenntnisse auf spielerische Weise ausbauen möchten, ist dieses Buch ein schöner Zeitvertreib mit Lerneffekt.

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A Mumbai Thriller

It all starts with Fluffy’s violent death. The book is a tour de force, not just because of its length (960 pages). The characters are special and I was as fascinated by Sartaj Singh, the hard-working, likeable, but corrupt policeman as I was by Ganesh Gaitonde, the flawed and violent villain. Their personal stories are very complex and deeply linked to the city of Mumbai, its social strata and the layers of power. Knowing the ‚right‘ people can be crucial for police and thieves alike. I read the book in English – well – and Hindi. The author kindly provides a dictionary on his website, which is extremely helpful, even if you just want to doublecheck that your knowledge of Hindi swearwords is 100% up to scratch. One linguistic aspect really surprised me – I thought only Germans used the word ‚Handy‘ for mobile phone, but it is mentioned at least twice here.

I understood Ganesh Gaitonde best through his relationship with Jojo Mascarenas, a woman who runs a very lucrative „business“. And this relationship made me like him in a way and then fiercely dislike him in the end. As for Sartaj Singh: His corrupt dealings and his occasional violence seem natural in the environment he operates in, yet his conscience frequently makes itself heard, particularly when he reminisces about his dead father, who was also a policeman. It almost feels as if his actions are under constant scrutiny by a higher authority that doesn’t approve of unlawful actions.
Then there’s the guru – and the secret service, particularly Anjali – and the Pakistani intelligence officer that takes up knitting as a hobby to calm his nerves – and Mary, Jojo’s sister. They all have their own fascinating story and all these threads are woven into the complex fabric of Sacred Games. Give it to your friends for Christmas – or treat yourself. But be warned: It’s addictive! I didn’t want it to end and it still lingers in my thoughts.

Das Buch gibt es übrigens auch in der deutschen Übersetzung von Barbara Heller & Kathrin Razum.

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Sprach-Gebäude in Berlin

Kürzlich war ich mit der Kamera unterwegs:

Sprache im Film

Prenzlauer Berg

Deutschsprachige Stimmen für internationale Filmstars

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by | September 25, 2013 · 1:10 pm