Imagining the Other Side of Things: Zafer Şenocak and Hidden Archives

MGP editor Elizabeth Sun follows up on our recent event with Zafer Şenocak, interrogating the possibilities for resistance that lie in the counter-hegemonic reconstruction of historical narrative.

On Friday, April 2, we welcomed the widely published Turkish-German author Zafer Şenocak to the second installment of “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News.” As Şenocak’s readings ranged across decades of writing—Gefährliche Verwandtschaft was published in 1998, while Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt was published in 2018—the theme of archival resistance persisted in various forms: How might we unsettle, challenge, and resist dominant, often totalizing constructions of the historical archive? What aspirations and desires emanate from personal and public archival practices? What is the writer’s role in the imaginative revival of these hidden, buried archives?

The excerpt read aloud from Tom Cheesman’s translation of Gefährliche Verwandtschaft (Perilous Kinship) particularly foregrounded such questions. In this text, the German-Jewish protagonist, Sascha Muhteschem, sets out to reconstruct a family history that is simultaneously entangled with the Holocaust, as victims, and the Armenian genocide, as perpetrators. However, having ascertained the intelligibility of his Turkish grandfather’s Arabic and Cyrillic manuscripts, Sascha decides to rewrite his family biography rather than simply recollect it from the scattered manuscripts at his disposal (“My task was to construct what could not be constructed.”) As Leslie Adelson writes in The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature, this “lassitude” on Sascha’s part contrasts starkly with the monumental historical moments with which his family history is implicated. By accepting the indecipherability of his familial archive, coming from both linguistic and intergenerational differences, Sascha disrupts our oft-complacent acceptance of the undisputed “facts” of collective memory (“I had his diaries which I could not read. What did I need the archives for?”). How can we come to terms with Sascha’s writerly indifference to “objective” historical reconstruction, especially when it contributes to the consciousness of a collective imaginary? To achieve reconciliation, we might take a closer look at the un-used-up side (“unverbrauchte Seite”) of history that speaks to Sascha. This “unverbrauchte Seite” is an untold history that prioritizes affect over detail; it is one that centers on giving voice and personification to Betroffenheit (a state of being moved) over a meticulous reconstruction of historical events.  

Such tensions are exemplified through the juxtaposition of Sascha’s archival methodology with his wife Marie’s steadfast devotion to historical accuracy through her own documentary pursuit of representing the Armenian genocide. One could argue that, though Marie dedicates herself to collecting traces of history that can be revisualized and thereby reconstructed, she overlooks the un-used-up side that is neither written nor voiced, but rather felt. Arjun Appadurai writes in “Archive and Aspiration” that archives are “conscious sites of debate and desire.” At the same time, Şenocak encourages us to become more critically aware of the aspirations that underwrite the incessant formations and reformations of social memory, moving away from the idea of archive as a trace or reflection of cultural history. In other words, the creation and preservation of archives is intrinsically connected to personal and collective aspirations and intentions. Consequently, what inspires Şenocak’s works are dominant, persisting feelings—of loss, guilt, victimization, trauma—which find embodiment through fictional characters. This is where Şenocak separates himself from the task of the documentarian, who seeks to monumentalize historical events and figures, and into the task of exposing the inherent biases of archival practices.

In Cosmopolitanisms, Leela Gandhi suggests a practice of “conjuring” to overwrite dominant, or institutional modes of cultural practices. Through the process of conjuring, one would thereby summon the “other” of alterity, the “queer” of gender theory, or the “stranger” of neo-cosmopolitanism. This practice is especially applicable to Şenocak’s poetic aspiration to evoke the dynamic processes of multilingual and multicultural encounters, and to not only excavate, but revitalize meaning from the “Other Side of Things.” Indeed, as Marianne Hirsch writes in her text on “The Generation of Postmemory,” the connection between second-generation artistic intellectuals and their familial past is not through recall or recollection, but rather through imagination, investment, and creation. When prompted by the enduring question, “What is the task of the novelist?” Şenocak responded: … dem Schweigen abringen—to wrestle out of silence, an endeavor requiring both intent and struggle. For the novelist, this task entails conjuring and reanimating the un-used-up side that has remained within a silent and dark abyss. Moving away from attempts to metaphoricize this “dark hole” as the “incommensurability or aporia of representation in the face of genocide and its traumatic residue (112),” Adelson argues that Sascha “steps into a particular historical moment by inhabiting and bespeaking (literally, giving voice to)” the abyss within which he resides (114). 

While photographic images operate as the space for artistic revival in Marianne Hirsch’s studies on intergenerational memory, Şenocak and his characters summon and reanimate stories from inherited letters and documents. In an excerpt from the essay collection Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt, titled “Empty Archives—Lost Letters” (translated by Kristin Dickinson), Şenocak reawakens memories of his mother’s desire and longing for more intimate connections in her new German environment. Such connections, however, are curbed by her neighbors’ unwillingness to tell their personal histories. Thus, Şenocak’s mother, like Sascha, is left to speculate about the stories of others. Speculation, for Şenocak and his characters, forms the basis of storytelling. By reanimating hitherto unexpressed sentiments and sculpting Betroffenheit into stories, Şenocak resists and redirects archival practices, giving shape and form to the un-used-up side of history. Through his cross-cultural, cross-lingual, cross-generational poetic interventions, Şenocak deconstructs the totalizing tendencies of public memory and conjures new imaginations from the archive’s Other side.

Works Cited:

Adelson, Leslie. The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical Grammar of Migration. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Appadurai, Arjun. “Archive and Aspiration” (first published in Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder, eds. Information in Alive: Art and Theory on Archiving and Retrieving Data, Rotterdam: V2_/NAi Publishers, 2003, pp. 14-25 < (Links to an external site.) (Links to an external site.)>)

Ghandi, Leela. “Utonal Life.” Cosmopolitanisms, edited by Bruce Robbins and Paulo Lemos Horta, New York, USA: New York University Press, 2017, pp. 65-88. 

Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 1 March 2008; 29 (1): pp. 103–128.

Şenocak, Zafer. Perilous Kinship, Tom Cheesman, trans. (Swansea, Wales: Hafan, 2009).

About Elizabeth Sun

Elizabeth is a PhD candidate in German Studies at UCBerkeley. She researches on 20th and 21st century literatures of migration and transculturality in the German and Dutch languages.
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