Writing as an (Im)migrant: Calls to Action in Fatma Aydemir’s “Work”

In the latest blog post inspired by Berkeley’s “Archives of Migration” conversation series and Prof. Deniz Göktürk’s German and American Studies seminar on “Cultures of Migration,” Kavina Peters (Berkeley Freshman, Environmental Economics and Policy major) analyzes Fatma Aydemir’s short essay from that volume, focusing on how Aydemir challenges her readers to reflect on their own role in the “German Heimat” by narrating her working-class parents’ experience of societal rejection and her own burnout in the face of more subtle racism against second-generation immigrants in contemporary German society.

Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum / Your Homeland Is Our Nightmare, published in German in 2019 and translated into English in 2021, is a provocative call to action for those who live in predominantly white Christian host countries that have been experiencing demographic shifts. The anthology was written in response to the renaming of the German Interior Ministry as the Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat, which is commonly known as the Heimatministerium. Long associated with fascist ideas of belonging in the nation-state, the use of the word Heimat (homeland) excludes many marginalized positionalities from ideals of “Germanness.” In response, fourteen authors wrote their personal stories on being German but perceived as different, challenging the implication that Germany is solely a “homeland” to white Christian natives (or those considered integrated enough for their taste). Thus a key goal of the anthology is to encourage audiences to self-reflect on their role in that “homeland” in all facets of life.

Co-editor Fatma Aydemir’s short story “Work” contributes a particularly powerful call to action for the anthology. Through a provocative use of language and storytelling, she challenges her readers to discard their subconscious biases of immigrant labor. On the first page of “Work,” Aydemir recalls her experience with a gesture of microaggression from a white peer, who ironically wears harem pants while complaining about the unfairness of migrant bonuses [jobs reserved for those with migration backgrounds]. Aydemir thus exposes the experience of many second-generation immigrants–including many of her readers–with casual racism in the supposedly more “open-minded” corporate workplaces. Later on, she demonstrates a situation in which someone like her could be regarded as a “token hire,” in that she is only “acceptable” to her coworkers because she fulfills the corporate need for diversity. For an immigrant with similar experiences, reading these anecdotes would legitimize their struggle and make them feel part of a larger community of immigrants othered by white German society. 

Fatma Aydemir also confronts her audience with the history of the treatment of migrant laborers in Germany that has led up to the current realities of tokenism. She mentions that her parents and grandfather came to Germany in the seventies as Gastarbeiter, the migrant population for which Germany had the least respect and gave the lowest-paying jobs. In Aydemir’s discussion of her parents and grandfather, she makes it very clear that their decades of hard work in menial labor jobs was not due to a virtuous sense of diligence, but instead a crippling fear of unemployment or deportation. She also demonstrates the unfortunate invariability of burnout due in part to white Germans’ low appreciation for manual laborers like her parents. This unique fatigue from doing unappreciated labor in a country that demeans immigrants is something that many readers with migration backgrounds would connect to. Aydemir is thus able to compare her working-class migrant parents’ experience of racism to the one she experiences in corporate workplaces and challenge the ideologies of “hardworking immigrants” that plague her parents’ generation. Aydemir’s mention of ideologies held by immigrant communities that trivialize burnout, such as “you have to work twice as hard as the Germans” (19), also prompts the immigrant audience to question their own philosophies of labor and mental health. 

Fatma Aydemir stresses the tragedy of generations of disrespect for immigrant labor through the inclusion of Semra Ertan’s poem and story. Ertan was a poet and the child of guest workers from Turkey who protested German xenophobia in the 1980s. She famously committed public suicide days after broadcasting her poem Mein Name ist Ausländer (My Name Is Foreigner). This poem is the emotional centerpoint of “Work” and confronts the audience with the tragic history of guest workers’ labor. The mention that Ertan’s suicide took place when “racism in Germany was reaching a newly recognizable high” (17) further establishes the urgency with which Aydemir delivers her call to action. Though Ertan’s writings remained largely unknown after 1990, a 2019 publication of her poems has led to a rediscovery of her insights in relation to the revival of right-wing sentiments in Germany. 

The truly provocative nature of “Work,” through which Fatma Aydemir confronts her audience head-on, is realized in her unique narrative voice. Arguably the most memorable aspect of the piece is Aydemir’s defiant and sarcastic tone, which she utilizes in phrases such as “Thanks for nothing” (19) and “But it’s only ever Germans who suffer from burnout. Odd” (16). In an especially outspoken manner, Aydemir writes: “I want to take their jobs. I don’t want the jobs that are intended for me, I want the ones the Germans want to reserve for themselves: with the same pay, the same conditions, and the same opportunities for advancement” (19-20). With this sentence, Aydemir shows that she has no qualms about seeming pleasant or palatable to a white German society. She even acknowledges that saying these things is perhaps “dangerous” (16), referring to how “respectable” German society would react, while refusing to care. It would likely also come as a great surprise to her audience, whether they are immigrants in a similar position to her, or not. Challenging the audience in this way is one of the greatest strengths of the call to action and the piece as a whole. 

Through this direct defiance of norms, Aydemir corrects one of the most common subconsciously held views on immigration: that immigrants should feel fully indebted to their host countries for offering them a more economically viable future than their countries of origin. Aydemir includes one similar idea in her own writing: “Migration is always a promise of a better future, a German Dream” (19). This statement is often taken to mean an unconditional loyalty to the host country and a need to assimilate completely. The author swiftly destroys this image with one simple phrase at the end of the piece: “My German Dream is that we can all finally take what we are entitled to—and not die trying.” Here, simply the idea that immigrants could be “entitled” to respect, as well as to a well-paying job for which they are qualified, is an act of defiance.

Fatma Aydemir demonstrates another key part of her persuasive voice through references to pop culture. When discussing the harmful rhetoric inherent to immigrant burnout, she states: “we are all familiar with this phrase. We have internalized it, and it’s gotten stuck in our heads with the persistence of an Ariana Grande song” (19). The reference to the popstar’s songs with an earworm quality–along with other pop-culture references–gives Aydemir’s relationship with the reader a colloquial backup and addresses them as if they were the author’s peer and friend. This unique way of connecting to the audience also defines the short story’s call to action, as it definitively places the challenge of self-reflection on the younger generation. 

As Aydemir challenges her young audience to self-reflect, the hope is that new generations will in turn challenge the biases of the old. The call to action is for both immigrants and non-immigrants to respect the personhood of immigrants and unconditionally accept their entitlement to equal citizenship. Ultimately “Work” and the anthology as a whole represent a plea by historically marginalized groups for a true homeland, not a Heimat from which they are excluded.

Work Cited

Aydemir, Fatma. “Work.” Translated by Be Schierenberg, Your Homeland is Our Nightmare, special issue of TRANSIT, vol. 13, no. 2, 2021, pp. 16-20.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies at UC Berkeley. She researches on the intersections of German-Asian cultures, particularly as they pertain to the cinematic entanglements among Germany, China, and Korea.
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