Elise Volkmann, Ph.D. candidate of German Studies at Berkeley, reflects on our event with novelist Ilija Trojanow and his book Nach der Flucht (2017), examining how a person who has fled can turn the loss of language and the struggle with a new language into a source of multi-directional creativity.
The event series “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News,” organized by Deniz Göktürk (UC Berkeley) and Elisabeth Krimmer (UC Davis), continued on October 1, 2021, with a conversation between author Ilija Trojanow and Chunjie Zhang (Associate Professor of German, UC Davis) (event recording available here). The discussion focused on two of the authors’ works, Nach der Flucht [After Fleeing] (2017) and EisTau (2011, The Lamentations of Zeno, translated by Philip Boehm, 2016). Further conversations in this series will feature Saša Stanišić (October 22, register here) and Olga Grjasnowa (November 19, register here).
Born in Bulgaria in 1965, Trojanow and his family fled Yugoslavia to Germany where they were granted political asylum in 1971. Shortly thereafter, Trojanow moved to Kenya with his family and lived in Nairobi from 1972 to 1984. His work, Nach der Flucht, weaves in some autobiographical elements but primarily concerns itself with the question of what Trojanow refers to as the “exemplary sense of the experience of being a refugee.” Whether or not there is, as Trojanow said, a “common anthropological ground” that concerns everyone who has experienced a physical displacement from their homeland is a key question in Nach der Flucht. The book recontextualizes “the flight” as a type of existential freedom in which one is no longer defined by their heritage or as a refugee.
As part of the workshop, Trojanow read several sections of his book Nach der Flucht aloud. Written in an aphoristic style, the excerpts presented highlight the experience of acquiring a new language in a foreign place. In Part One, Section XXVIII (24), he writes:
Irgendwann, wenn er sich hineingehört hat, wenn sich seine Zunge gedehnt und sein Geist gekrümmt hat, wenn er nicht mehr aus seiner eingefleischten Sprache in die Phantomspache übersetzt, sondern den Kaffee bestellt, ohne nachzudenken, wie eine Tasse Kaffee korrekt bestellt wird, irgendwann, wenn er den Unterschied zwischen heiß, heißen und Verheißung verstanden hat, gilt der Geflüchtete als Sprachwechsler.
In this way, not only the physical production of language becomes crucial (i.e. the way the tongue moves to speak) but also the psychological dimension of language (i.e the lack of thought or translation prior to speaking). Language, as a central component of personal identity, has the potential to serve as a signifier that one is from elsewhere. However, in the passage above, Trojanow accentuates the ability to switch between languages, which enables one to capture aspects of the foreign language that could be passed over by a native speaker. It is precisely for this reason that the Sprachwechsler has the opportunity to play with language in creative ways.
The relationship between the role of language as a technical tool for communication and proof of cultural identity is often brought into question for the refugee. As the newly acquired language takes precedence over the inherited mother tongue, the refugees’ struggles to achieve balance often go unnoticed by monolingual natives. Trojanow elaborates on this idea in a later section of Nach der Flucht:
Seine Mutter, sein Vater, machen sich Sorgen über ihr fehlerhaftes Deutsch. Es mag hier und da grammatikalisch nicht korrekt sein, sagt er, aber alles was ihr sagt, ist verständlich. Welcher von den Einheimischen, mit denen ihr regelmäßig verkehrt, beherrscht eine andere Sprache so gut wie ihr seine? Sollte man sich mit den Herausforderungen, die man anderen abverlangt, nicht erst einmal selber vertraut machen? Aber was ist mit unserem Akzent?, fragt die Mutter, der Vater.
Der Akzent ist die Handschrift der Zunge. Stellt euch vor, wir redeten alle wie Nachrichtensprecher. Wie Überbringer schlechter Botschaften. Der Akzent sorgt für die Schönheitsmale auf der Sprachhaut. (99)
The accent becomes emblematic of the tension between old and new––the mother tongue versus the foreign language. In the above passage, the accent could perhaps be understood as a representation of perseverance and resistance against exclusive linguistic standardization. Despite imperfections, a refugee can make the foreign language another one of their own.
Throughout Nach der Flucht, Trojanow incorporates short scenes (Dramolette) in order to convey moments of regular spoken interactions for refugees. These scenes play to a variety of different themes central to the work. One example demonstrates the creative play with language. The dialogue transpires between a refugee and their friend. In the middle of this short scene, the friend explains they were suddenly aware of the absurdity of borders: mit einem Schlag [with one hit]. The refugee then promptly questions whether this realization came schlagbaumartig, playing on the multiple meanings and associations of Schlag [hit] and Schlagbaum [barrier at a border] (47-8). The joke demonstrates the ability of the Sprachwechsler to find points of connection between words or phrases in the foreign language. In this short example, we see a glimpse of what Trojanow referred to in the conversation as the multi-directionality of refugees.
Trojanow also explored the role of memory by suggesting that a refugee’s relationship with their own memory is constantly challenged. The challenging of memory is primarily facilitated by members of the host-society who reinforce certain aspects of a refugee’s experience in a never-ending cycle. Trojanow explained in the conversation, “You are asked about certain aspects of your past, but only certain aspects. The interests of the people who don’t know the place you are coming from is always one which has specialized areas of interest. Certain questions are never asked and certain other questions are always asked.” This leads to an alienated, hierarchical sense of memory wherein some memories are consistently reinforced and others are left to be forgotten in their semi-mummified state. As Trojanow described this phenomenon, “The memories you have are conserved in a very unnatural state of a kind of static inertia.”
It is precisely this “static inertia” that allows for, and perhaps encourages, the refugee to conceive of a multi-directional way of thinking. The term inertia already implies immobility of the body; however, Trojanow expands this to encompass one’s entire being with his concept of “static inertia.” Static inertia arises from the constant challenging, shifting, and re-focusing of one’s physical and mental capabilities. As certain elements become fixed shadows, they are simultaneously present and obscured to the refugee and the host-society. Specific aspects of the past are reconstructed while others are abandoned. Both of these tendencies represent attempts to move beyond or transcend the label “refugee.” Additionally, it is by use of reconstruction and abandonment that several multi-directional avenues of self-defining open up. The notion of fremdbestimmt [as opposed to selbstbestimmt] plays a large part in determining the role of memory for people on the move but it also allows for the possibility of a multiplicity of contemplation unique to each individual and their experience. Engagement with multiple languages is a fundamental component of this multi-directional consciousness that will resonate amongst language learners around the world.