“Ich bin Diskursfeind”: Zafer Şenocak on Unreadable Archives

The second installment (April 2) of the Zoom event series “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News” invited Turkish-German author Zafer Şenocak in conversation with Deniz Göktürk (Professor of German Studies, UC Berkeley) and Kristin Dickinson (Assistant Professor of German Studies, University of Michigan) to discuss his recent book Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt and Eurasia, a novel in progress. Organized by Deniz Göktürk and Elisabeth Krimmer (UC Davis) and sponsored by the German Consulate General in San Francisco, UC Berkeley’s Institute for European Studies, and the German Historical Institute Pacific Regional Office, the workshops invite contemporary German writers to reflect on questions of truth and fiction and acts of border crossing in the age of the pandemic, when populist movements and nationalist policies precisely hamper transcultural encounters. The first installment of the workshop (March 5, recording available here) featured British-German author Sharon Dodua Otoo and her debut novel, Adas Raum, and the third installment (April 16) features a conversation with Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada on her recent novel Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel.

By asking how poetry and fiction yield resistance to totalizing world views through creative engagement with personal archives, the conversation with Zafer Şenocak aimed to complement our understanding of the historian’s use of archives with the writer’s way of activating, animating, and reimagining historical source materials. Born in Ankara, Turkey, raised primarily in Munich, and now based in Berlin, Şenocak is a prolific writer who publishes poems, essays, and novels in both German and Turkish. Despite the sheer variety of subject matters represented in his oeuvre—from a contemporary German writer’s engagement with his grandfather’s crimes during the Armenian genocide (1915-1917) in Gefährliche Verwandtschaft (German original published in 1998; English translation by Tom Cheesman published as Perilous Kinship in 2009) to the Turkish government’s collaboration with the Nazi regime during World War II in Deutsche Schule (originally written in Turkish as Alman Terbiyesi, 2007; second, revised edition of the German translation by Helga Dağyeli-Bohne published in 2019)—a central theme runs through: the protagonists in Şenocak’s stories invariably possess a briefcase full of papers written in an unfamiliar script and thus illegible to the inheritor. This theme also features prominently in Eurasia, an excerpt of which, titled “Die Rückseite der Dinge,” was translated as “The Other Side of Things” and presented during the workshop by students of the Berkeley seminar on “Archival Resistance.” Göktürk’s choice of the title for the Zoom event, “Unreadable Archives,” highlights precisely this aspect of the past that remains inaccessible to younger generations.

During the workshop, Şenocak spoke about his fascination with unreadable archives and traced it back to his familial background: “My father presented a more traditional way of Turkish culture, while my mother came from a secular family. I was brought into an interesting frame, in which different phrases and points of view came together; I have an atypical Turkish identity, not unified. This kind of difference in the family is part of my life, but the key issue is the sound, the meaning, the locations, different symbols that lead you to think about where you come from.” The clash of worldviews that characterized Şenocak’s upbringing is embodied by the unreadable scripts in his novels, as the Turkish texts written with a mix of Arabic and Cyrillic letters in Gefährliche Verwandtschaft testify to the literary characters’ acts of linguistic and cultural border crossing. His protagonists are always situated at the interstices of Eastern and Western cultures, with their complicated personhood inextricably linked to German, Turkish, and Jewish encounters during the long 20th century.

The unreadable archive’s deep connections to one’s personal identity functions as a major point of reference for Şenocak to take issue with grand narratives of national history. He argues that Germany’s engagement with the past is characterized by curious contradictions (Widersprüche). On the one hand, the nation plunges into a fervor of monumentalizing traumatic moments of war and genocide and sacralizing the culture of remembrance by hosting numerous events featuring contemporaneous witnesses of history (Zeitzeugen) and by repeatedly teaching Germany’s past atrocities to the younger generation. On the other hand, parents staunchly refrain from recounting their personal involvement in history, thereby creating a dark hole in familial memory. In other words, the national narrative of collective guilt (Kollektivschuld) contrasts sharply with the prevalent personal conviction that “Grandpa was not a Nazi,” as the book “Opa war kein Nazi”: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis by Harald Welzer, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnall analyzes. At the same time, Şenocak’s characters embody complex identities that transcend the narrow national framework within which Welzer and his collaborators elaborate their arguments. In Gefährliche Verwandtschaft, for instance, the protagonist Sascha Muhteshem is the symbolic offspring of both German and Turkish perpetrators as well as Jewish victims. He is an “implicated subject” who is not actively involved in acts of violence or suffering, but whose “actions or inactions help produce and reproduce the positions of victims and perpetrators,” as Michael Rothberg persuasively expounds in The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators.

The mysterious, unintelligible literary archive of one’s deceased ancestors therefore functions as a metaphor for this blank spot in the narratives of history, rendered inaccessible and hidden from view, while at the same time providing hope for rediscovery. Indeed, as Kristin Dickinson observed, the archives in Şenocak’s stories are never really completely unreadable. By taking up the task of translation, the protagonists often find ways into the personal narratives of trauma that have no place in dominant national discourses. It is in this context that the author proclaims to be averse to discourses, to be a Diskursfeind: rather than dwelling on the state’s grand official narratives, the personal letters and diaries constitute a treasure case where one can discover the rich mixture of terrible stories, great stories, and love stories written in multiple languages and scripts, which collectively testify to guilt and victimhood from previously unknown angles. At the same time, the mirky terrain of translation, where the constant dilemma of choosing between alternative paths always results in countless possibilities, opens up a myriad of ways to understand the past without giving out one definitive answer. In this sense, Şenocak’s oeuvre echoes that of other contemporary transnational German authors, in that its identitarian politics can never be reduced to fixed categories and labels but must be taken as a fluid concept that is not confined by national, cultural, and temporal borders.

Works cited:

Rothberg, Michael. The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victim and Perpetrators. Stanford UP, 2019.

Welzer, Harald, Sabine Moller, and Karoline Tschuggnall. “Opa war kein Nazi”: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis. Fischer Verlag, 2002.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies, at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the intersections between socialist internationalism and postcolonial studies, particularly the literary and cinematic interactions between Germany and East Asia during the Cold War and beyond.
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