Mother Tongue. Translated by Craig Thomas

In 1965, the author of this extraordinary volume left Turkey for Germany to work as a Gastarbeiter (guest-worker), beginning first as a cleaning lady in a factory, then becoming a stage hand in Berlin, an actress, a playwright, a director and eventually a prize-winning German author. This collection of pieces evokes the hazy hell of a displaced person trying to make it in an unfamiliar, often hostile culture, learning a tongue-twistingly forbidding language. Eventually, all cultural forms and norms–inherited as well as adopted–seem increasingly strange. “Stay behind. Stay crazy.” is a sing-song saying on one segment of the book (“Blackeye in Germany”), written originally as a theater piece, in which a Turkish donkey recounts stories of his farmer’s adventures as a Gastarbeiter . A fusion of wildly fantastical Scheherazade stories with the nightmarish surrealism of Franz Kafka suggests the book’s overall tone. In the original, Ozdamar plays with the German language as with a dangerous weapon, using words like a circus performer juggles knives. Although not much of that wordplay comes through in the translation, it does retain the mesmerizing quality of the original. And that flowing, jarring word stream propels readers into the world of an outsider, forcing them to hear and see with the ears and eyes of a stranger.

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