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Traveling in Pandemic Times: Yoko Tawada and Poetic Border-Crossing

Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel" von Yoko Tawada, Buch der Woche -  Bücher - Sendungen - WDR 5 - Radio - WDR

Yoko Tawada’s guest appearance in the third installation of “Archives of Migration” sparked a lively and contemporarily relevant conversation on the potential of poetic border-crossing in pandemic times, where physical mobility has been intensely challenged by closed-off national borders and the anxiety over cross-person contamination. A native of Japan, Tawada writes and publishes prolifically in the Japanese and German languages; in the past three decades, she has gained international prominence for her playful and perceptive engagements with the complexities of intercultural and cross-linguistic exchange. By restaging the feelings of estrangement and displacement as productive qualities, rather than the negative conditions of immigration and assimilation, Tawada demonstrates the benefits of multilingualism and transculturality in her impressive range of literary works.

In 2012, Rivka Galchen aptly wrote in The New Yorker: “Often in Tawada’s work, one has the feeling of having wandered into a mythology that is not one’s own. This is, of course, precisely what it feels like to speak in a non-mother tongue.” Wandering, meandering, and traversing across ideological, linguistic, and physical spaces—these are particularly suitable ways to describe the experience that is Tawada’s newest novel, Paul Celan und der chinesischen Engel (Paul Celan and the Chinese Angel). Tasked with giving a lecture on Celan’s Fadensonnen at an academic conference, the socially anxious protagonist Patrick finds comfort in the auditory-somatic qualities of language, or in other words, the bodily feelings evoked by hearing and voicing certain sounds.

For the non-native speaker, the process of speaking brings about a corporeal intimacy that often eludes the native speaker. As the narrator of Tawada’s “Canned Foreign” expresses, “Most of the words that came out of my mouth had nothing to do with how I felt.  But at the same time I realized that my native tongue didn’t have words for how I felt either.  It’s just that this never occurred to me until I’d begun to live in a foreign language.” By universalizing the feeling of displacement commonly associated with living in a new culture and language, Tawada illuminates a poetic language that is built on feeling and sound, rather than semantic content. As Tawada expressed during the workshop, Celan’s poetry similarly foregrounds sound and feeling, transcending cultural and linguistic boundaries. In “Celan Reads Japanese,” Tawada further expresses that Celan’s language and poetry exist in an in-between space or gateway that is especially favorable for translation.

Through the process of free association that characterizes Tawada’s texts, Paul Celan und der chinesischen Engel’s protagonist Patrick ambles along a journey guided by the evocation of words, akin to a magic spell. The elicitation of the word “Meridian,” for example, takes Patrick on an intellectual journey across geographic, medicinal, corporeal, and poetic spaces—within the span of minutes, he and the mysterious Leo-Eric Fu navigate conversationally from the Paris-Stockholm meridian to the 12 meridians of the body and finally to Paul Celan’s 1960 acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize, Meridian.

While Tawada’s newest text recognizes the reduced mobility of our current time, Patrick and Leo’s free-flowing conversation shows that physical movement is not the only kind of traveling one may consider. At other times, these associations move by way of phonic resemblance; Patrick playfully refers to Populists as poplar-ists, for example, suggesting a desire to denounce the socio-political for the ecological. The German word Pappelisten shares the same syllabic beginning with both Patrick’s name and his nickname for himself: The Patient. “The Patient,” of course, evokes situations of sickliness and hospitalization—indicative of pandemic times to the contemporary reader—while suggesting preference for an impersonal mode of existence. However, more so than a desire to lose individuality, Patrick’s habit of addressing himself as “The Patient” indicates denunciation of a self-centered form of existence.

The story takes flight particularly after Patrick’s transcultural encounter with the esoteric Leo-Eric Fu, who is of “transtibetan” qualities and shifts in Patrick’s perception as a North Korean spy, a Tibetan monk, and a Zen-Buddhist from France. Before meeting Leo-Eric Fu, Patrick is inundated by his free association of words, which contributes to his inability to articulate a conference-level argument on Celan’s Fadensonnen: “He would rather be on the move, than think too much.” (“Er will nicht zu viel denken, sondern gehen.”). Through his dream-like correspondence with Leo-Eric, Patrick attains the insight that offers him a breakthrough in his interpretation of Celan’s poetry.

Significantly, what Leo-Eric brings is not merely the suggestion of intercultural productivity, but the encouragement to think beyond linguistic and disciplinary boundaries. In other words, Tawada’s aim in writing this text is not simply to convey the usefulness of East Asian thought and science, but to encourage a mode of living that transcends categorization. Such a transdisciplinary focus aligns with Tawada’s authorly aims—from the beginning of her career, Tawada has eschewed categorization, which shows through her incorporation of various literary genres, characters’ free-flowing travel between the psychic and physical realms, and playful satire of cultural essentialism.

The attempt to transcend boundaries and categories also brings us into considerations of the post-human. A central theme of our third “Archives of Migration” workshop was the two-part question—what does it mean to be human, and what does it mean to be something other than human? With the publication of Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2011), we saw the world through the eyes of an anthropomorphized family. In Where Europe Begins (1991), characters express feelings of disembodiment through physical transformations into mythic creatures. In Paul Celan und der chinesischen Engel, Tawada asks: What does it mean to be sick?

For many of us, these pandemic times have urged us to become intimately aware of our bodies like never before, whether through the experience of sickness or extended confinement, or both. When we are sick, we become private beings, physically and mentally confined within the spaces of our abodes. Such an intimacy with words, foreignness, and the body, is a relationship that Tawada has been exploring for decades. Through her sustained focus on such a relationship, we move towards a somaticized understanding of affect that unsettles the boundary of mind and body, while taking inspiration from animal and mythic forms. And through her characters’ dizzying travels across vast intellectual realms, we are reminded of new possibilities of travel, as long as we keep an open mind.

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Pandemic Palimpsest: Yoko Tawada’s “Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel”

MGP editor Qingyang Zhou and Jezell Lee, both participants in our series of Zoom workshops with authors, reflect on our event with poet, playwright, and novelist Yoko Tawada, examining the transnational homage and fragmentary intertextuality of her latest novel, 2020’s Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel.

In the third installment of the Zoom conversation series on “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News,” renowned author Yoko Tawada led a dynamic discussion with Elisabeth Krimmer (Professor of German, UC Davis) and Jonas Teupert (Ph.D. German, UC Berkeley) on her latest novel, Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel. Originally from Japan, Tawada has written in both Japanese and German and is currently based in Berlin. She has garnered much international acclaim for her intercultural work and is the recipient of numerous literary accolades including the prestigious Goethe Medal, the Akutagawa Prize, the Kleist Prize, the Chamisso Prize, and a National Book Award. 

Tawada’s writing often involves traveling across boundaries, drawing upon her own anecdotal experiences of moving between countries, fostering elements of transculturalism and interlinguistic exchange. Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel is an exquisite, magical treasure case that opens up to a world where Celan’s poetry is woven into a dreamlike encounter between Patrik, a Celan scholar of Polish descent, and his “trans-Tibetan” friend Leo-Eric Fu. The novel explores abstract boundaries such as the linguistic confines of waking life, as well as those that partition thoughts and emotions. 

During the conversation, Tawada traces ways in which Celan’s approach to writing inspired her novel. She mentioned that Celan’s early poems have a distinct musical rhythm to them and could be easily sung during a performance. In his late poems, however, body parts such as mouth, hand, and liver appear frequently as lost, lonely, and strange (verloren, einsam, fremd) beings, as if the author wrote them in a state of bewilderment. In chapter four of Tawada’s novel, body parts such as tooth, beard, heart, and neck likewise become the locus where language disintegrates into letters, so that the symbolic becomes the semiotic and vice versa. 

Tawada’s reappropriation of the trope of lost body parts constitutes an act of “palimpsestic intertextuality” on two levels (Hallensleben 168). First, by putting a scholar of literature in dialogue with an Asian character well versed in traditional Chinese medicine, Tawada criss-crosses her own linguistic attentions over Celan’s words and lines. In chapter two, Leo-Eric invokes the idea of the Meridian to draw a connection between the conception of the body in Chinese acupuncture and geographical locations hinted in Celan’s poetry. By linking the physical to the literary, this interpretation exposes how “[b]ody and text are seen as performative entities, which constantly represent and simultaneously act as media of spatial memory” (Hallensleben 177). The idea of the skin as a “remediated performance space,” where inscribed cultural identities could be erased and rewritten (Hallensleben 173), becomes embodied in Leo-Eric’s mysteriously malleable identity. 

Throughout the novel, Patrick attempts to pinpoint his friend’s cultural and ethnic background based on the way he speaks and the cultural references he makes, but to no avail. Indeed, the very fact that the “trans-Tibetan” character looks like a freedom protestor in Hong Kong, a Tibetan monk, a Zen-Buddhist from France, and a North Korean spy speaks to the very multi-directional potential that the body has as a fluid textual space. At the same time, the lost body parts also prompt the protagonist Patrik to suture the poet’s body whole, so that it is no longer seen as an entity that is unrecognizable. Patrik then assumes the role of not just literary scholar, but also scientist, piecing together how Celan wrote his poems. 

On a second level, Tawada’s use of “palimpsestic intertextuality” allows for a reconfiguration of memory through archival practices. During the discussion, Tawada mentioned that she had initially planned to write an academic essay on Paul Celan for a lecture series at the Freie Universität Berlin. Nevertheless, during her research at the Literaturarchiv Marbach, she realized that her ideas for Celan’s poems were too “wild” to be contained within a scholarly treatise. Breaking out of the strict logical coherence required for literary analysis, Tawada opens the novel for multidirectional, rhizomatic readings through which the original context of Celan’s suffering during the Jewish Holocaust could be linked to alternative memories. 

For instance, Leo-Eric’s grandfather has a peculiar habit of buying books that Celan read and copying Celan’s reading notes onto his own copies. Leo-Eric then validates this history by paying a visit to the Literaturarchiv Marbach. The novel does not explicitly explain the rationale behind the characters’ archival fever, nor do we fully understand why the grandfather decides to practice Chinese medicine in Paris in the 1960s. Rather, the diverse array of languages, cultures, and texts that emerge in the course of these archival engagements speaks to the idea that trauma is not an exclusive mnemonic property belonging to a specific nation or ethnicity, but a nodal point in a complex web of intercultural entanglements. The very last image of the novel epitomizes this approach: the image of Leo-Eric as an angel ready to fly out with his bird wings attests to the way in which poetic ideas roam about freely, in the language of dreams.

During the conversation, Elisabeth Krimmer noted that Patrik’s inability to venture out of his house resonates strongly with the general sense of languor, fatigue, and immobility that characterizes pandemic life. Affirming that this is indeed a pandemic novel, Tawada plays upon the other meanings of the word “corona,” drawing from Paul Celan’s poem of the same name, which was originally published in the volume Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory, 1952). The introduction of the protagonist not by name, but as “the Patient,” is remarkable in that it denotes the existence of a disease that is not named, in which the reader never uncovers what “sickness” ails the character. On a linguistic level, the Patient becomes a part of the sentence that marks the semantic role of the subject affected by a given verb. The play on the wider meanings of the word “corona” as we know it could relate to the crowning of the beloved or a corona around the darkened sun, in conjunction to the “Fadensonnen” (“thread suns”) in Celan’s poem and referenced in Tawada’s novel. The last few lines, when read by Celan himself, possess a languishing yet rhythmic impatience, resonating with the feeling that surrounds contemporary sentiments of the pandemic. The playful interactions of Celan’s words were woven underneath Tawada’s free-flowing exploration of language, thereby creating a layered and fluid palimpsest.

Work cited: 

Hallensleben, Markus. “Rewriting the Face, Transforming the Skin, and Performing the Body as Text: Palimpsestuous Intertexts in Yōko Tawada’s ‘The Bath’.” Beyond Alterity: German Encounters with Modern East Asia, edited by Qinna Shen and Martin Rosenstock, Berghahn, 2014, pp. 168-189.

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Radio Plays about the Crimes of the NSU: Part III – From the Victims’ Perspective

In the last installment of the three-part series on the NSU trial, guest columnist Monika Preuß focuses on the personal narratives of the victims of crimes committed by NSU members. You can read this post in the original German here

The first installment of the series, an introduction to the NSU trials and the major radio plays on the topic, is available in English and German. The second installment on the creative use of polyphonic narrative structures in radio plays is also published in English and German.

„Vergesst mich nicht“ (“Don’t Forget Me,” 2016) is based on the ARD docudrama trilogy „Die Opfer – Vergesst mich nicht“ (“The Victim – Don’t Forget Me”) and the book Schmerzliche Heimat: Deutschland und der Mord an meinem Vater (Painful Homeland: Germany and the Murder of My Father) by Semiya Şimşek und Peter Schwarz. Şimşek, then fourteen years old, was sent to a boarding school by her father Enver Şimşek. On the next day Enver Şimşek is found dead, murdered by NSU members Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt. The police initially interrogated Semiya Şimşek and put her family under supervision, and only much later did the xenophobic, far-right character of the crime come to the fore. The initial interrogation created immense emotional burden on the Şimşek family. By recounting an intimate, personal story rather than adopting a detached stance as previous radio plays on the NSU trial has done, “Vergesst mich nicht” highlights the disastrous impact of the murder and the traumatic experience of victimization.

Tuğsal Moğul’s „Auch Deutsche unter den Opfern“ (“Among the Victims Are Also Germans,” 2017) is an adaptation of a theatrical play by the same name. The opening sequence of the play names the victims of crimes committed by the far-right (cf. 01:27ff.; this includes not only victims of the NSU murders but also other hate crimes such as arson attacks on refugees’ asylums), demonstrating that all parts of society are subject to such violence. The radio play focuses on the racial prejudices that came into play both during police interrogation and in the media. Moğul creatively employs genre conventions of fairy tales (cf. 21:27ff.) and rap (cf. 24:55) to expose the absurdity of the mistakes made by the police (new police recruits were sometimes responsible for compiling evidence for the trial) and the scandalous clandestine collaboration between the Verfassungsschutz and right-wing extremists (See more about this in Part II of this series). 

„Blumen für Otello. Über die Verbrechen von Jena“ (“Flowers for Otello: On the Crimes in Jena,” Deutschlandradio, 2014) by Esther Dischereit is an adaption of the novel Blumen für Otello – Über die Verbrechen von Jena: Klagelieder (Flowers for Otello On the Crimes in Jena: Dirges) and was nominated for the German Radio Prize by the ARD. Through a quiet but thought-provoking form of storytelling, the radio play weaves the background stories of the victims and the perpetrators together into a masterful piece of art.

In Maja Das Gupta’s „Weil Deutschland doch ein Rechtsstaat ist“ (“Since Germany Is Still a Constitutional State,” 2016), a student (Amide) writes a blog post on racism in the daily work of the police. She visits the court proceedings and speaks with Marc, a young police officer. This radio play differs from other approaches in that it combines reflective dialogues with a crime story. Amide, her friend Andrea, and Marc decide to steal documents from the police office, but the play does not reveal what happens next. Such a strategy creates suspense for an unpredictable and perilous outcome, an open ending.


Das Gupta, Maja: Weil Deutschland doch ein Rechtsstaat ist. Südwestrundfunk 2016. The manuscript is available at:

Dischereit, Esther: Blumen für Otello. Über die Verbrechen von Jena. Deutschlandradio 2014. Available at:

Dischereit, Esther: Blumen für Otello. Über die Verbrechen von Jena. Klagelieder. Zürich 2014.

Moğul, Tuğsal: Auch Deutsche unter den Opfern. Westdeutscher Rundfunk 2017. Available at:

Şimşek, Semiya: Vergesst mich nicht. Norddeutscher Rundfunk/ Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg 2016. A part of the radio play is available at :

Şimşek, Semiya/ Schwarz, Peter: Schmerzliche Heimat. Deutschland und der Mord an meinem Vater. Berlin 2013.

Die Opfer – Vergesst mich nicht (feature about the film):

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Hörspiele zum NSU-Verbrechen: Teil III – Einblick in die Perspektive der Opfer

In the last installment of our three-part series on the NSU trial, guest columnist Monika Preuß focuses on the personal narratives of the victims of crimes committed by NSU members. You can read this post in English translation here

The first installment of the series, an introduction to the NSU trials and the major radio plays on the topic, is available in English and German. The second installment on the creative use of polyphonic narrative structures in radio plays is also published in English and German.

„Vergesst mich nicht“ (2016) basiert auf dem Drehbuch der ARD Trilogie „Die Opfer – Vergesst mich nicht“ und dem Buch Schmerzliche Heimat: Deutschland und der Mord an meinem Vater von Semiya Şimşek und Peter Schwarz. Die 14-jährige Semiya Simsek wird von ihrem Vater Enver Şimşek ins Internat gefahren. Einen Tag später ist er tot, ermordet von Uwe Mundlos und Uwe Böhnhardt. Die Familie gerät unter Verdacht, wird verhört und überwacht. Dies ist für die Familie eine große Belastung. In die Richtung eines rechtsextremen Hintergrunds wird lange nicht ermittelt. Dieses Hörspiel ist das persönlichste aller genannten Hörspiele und kann sich einen distanzierten Blick und das Spiel der Stimmen wie viele der Stücke über den Gerichtsprozess nutzen, nicht leisten. Vielmehr stehen die Ereignisse und die damit verbundenen Erschütterungen im Vordergrund.

Tuğsal Moğuls „Auch Deutsche unter den Opfern“ (2017) basiert auf einem Theaterstück gleichen Namens. Die Universalität des rechten Terrors wird verdeutlicht durch die Aufzählung von Opfern, nicht nur der NSU-Morde, sondern auch weiterer rechter Gewalttaten, wie z.B. der Brandanschläge auf Asylheime. (vgl. 01:29ff.). Zwei Sprecher und eine Sprecherin stellen u.a. auch auf der Basis von Ermittlungsakten und Prozessprotokollen die Mordopfer des NSU in den Vordergrund und zeigen die Widersprüche und die rassistischen Muster während der Ermittlungen auf, und wie sie durch die mediale Berichterstattung reproduziert wurden. Märchenhafte Erzählstrukturen offenbaren die Absurdität mancher Ermittlungsfehler (vgl. 21:27ff.). Rap-Strukturen werden genutzt, um den Einsatz von V-Männern zu hinterfragen (vgl. 24:55ff.).

„Blumen für Otello. Über die Verbrechen von Jena“ (2014) von Esther Dischereit ist eine Adaption des Romans Blumen für Otello – Über die Verbrechen von Jena: Klagelieder und wurde für den Deutschen Hörspielpreis der ARD nominiert. In sehr ruhigen Szenen werden sowohl das Umfeld der Täter als auch die Opfer und die Hinterbliebenen zu einem ebenfalls sehr nachdenklich machenden Gesamtkunstwerk zusammengefügt.

In Maja Das Guptas „Weil Deutschland doch ein Rechtsstaat ist“ (2016) schreibt die Studentin Amide in einem Blog über „Rassismus in der Polizeiarbeit“ über das Verfahren. Mit dem jungen Polizisten Marc kommt sie ins Gespräch. Dieses Stück unterscheidet sich deutlich von den anderen Hörspielen. Es bleibt nicht nur bei den Diskussionen zwischen Amide und Marc. Zusammen mit Andrea, einer Freundin von Amide, entscheiden sie sich, einige Dokumente zu stehlen. Es wird brenzlig und das Ende bleibt offen.

Hörspiele, Texte und Materialien

Das Gupta, Maja: Weil Deutschland doch ein Rechtsstaat ist. Südwestrundfunk 2016. Das Manuskript ist abrufbar unter:

Dischereit, Esther: Blumen für Otello. Über die Verbrechen von Jena. Deutschlandradio 2014. Abrufbar unter:

Dischereit, Esther: Blumen für Otello. Über die Verbrechen von Jena. Klagelieder. Zürich 2014.

Moğul, Tuğsal: Auch Deutsche unter den Opfern. Westdeutscher Rundfunk 2017. Abrufbar unter:

Şimşek, Semiya: Vergesst mich nicht. Norddeutscher Rundfunk/ Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg 2016. Ein Teil des Hörspiels ist abrufbar unter:

Şimşek, Semiya/ Schwarz, Peter: Schmerzliche Heimat. Deutschland und der Mord an meinem Vater. Berlin 2013.

Die Opfer – Vergesst mich nicht (Feature zum Film):

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Archiving Memories in Pandemic Times: Documenting Jewish Exile in Shanghai

In spring 2019, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) hosted an event series titled “Afterimage” to showcase renowned German director Ulrike Ottinger’s critically acclaimed documentaries, while inviting her to discuss her research methods and approach to visual design when making nonfictional films in a Mosse Lecture event and a podcast. From November 2020 to July 18, 2021, BAMPFA again celebrates Ottinger’s transnational oeuvre through the film streaming series “East Meets West,” in a time when encounters with the foreign are precisely hampered by travel restrictions and nationalist sentiments in light of the pandemic.

Ottinger’s fascination for East Asian culture and history is explored in a diverse array of films including Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (Joan of Arc of Mongolia, 1989), Taiga – Eine Reise ins nördliche Land der Mongolen (Taiga – A Journey to the Northern Land of the Mongols, 1992), Seoul Women Happiness (2008), Die koreanische Hochzeitstruhe (The Korean Wedding Chest, 2009), the Japanese-themed documentary Unter Schnee (Under Snow, 2011), China. Die Künste – der Alltag. Eine filmische Reisebeschreibung (China: The Arts—The People, 1985), and most notably, Exil Shanghai (Exile Shanghai, 1997), which portrays the life of Jewish immigrants who came to China for trade after 1840 or for refuge from pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust during the first half of the twentieth century.

Echoing this spirit of investigating German-East Asian entanglements, Shanghai’s municipal government has recently engaged in efforts to document the life of Jewish refugees in the city during World War II by greatly expanding the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which was first built in 2007 at the site of the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue and reopened in December 2020 after a three-year renovation since 2017. The Shanghai Media Group TV News Center also produced a three-part documentary with a total running time of ninety minutes in 2015, titled Survival in Shanghai, about this unique chapter in the history of the Holocaust. A Chinese version of the film (《生命的记忆——犹太人在上海》) was also released and aired on television in the same year.

The Chinese government’s recent fascination with this minority group obscures its past negligence in the preservation of Jewish history in Shanghai. When I first visited the Bibliotheca Zi-Ka-Wei in January 2018 to research the interactions between the Chinese and the Jewish refugees during World War II, the archive was in a dire situation: the catalog of Jewish newspapers in Shanghai was hand-written on discolored papers; the cover wrapping the documents crumbled with every turn of the page; some cataloged newspapers can no longer be found and retrieved, and I was usually the only person present in the reading room. This was hardly surprising. As Achille Mbembe argues in “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits,” the archive is the result of the exercise of a specific power and authority, through which certain documents are granted a privileged status of “archivable” while others are judged irrelevant and unworthy of preservation (20). Since the Jewish refugees were a minority group largely confined to a poor urban enclave (the Hongkou District, formerly spelled as Hongkew), memories of their lives are relegated to the margins of Chinese history.

Indeed, the government’s revived interest in this group is not devoid of political underpinnings. A report in Xinmin Nightly News (新民晚报) indicates that the costly reconstructions were part of a larger mission: as the northern part of the Bund in Shanghai undergoes new development and attracts more foreign visitors in the future, the museum and the documentary played in the exhibition rooms will bear the tasks of recounting the story of transethnic friendship and highlighting the interconnected nature of human destinies.

Made with different objectives, Ottinger’s approach to documenting Jewish history in Exil Shanghai differs significantly from the Chinese approach. According to Prakash Shambhavi, Ottinger’s film presents a palimpsestic model of memory by mapping scenes of contemporary Shanghai onto the survivors’ reminiscences of their life in the 1930s and 1940s, thereby rejecting a single, authoritative account of the past while opening up possibilities for cross-cultural exchange (72-6). At the same time, however, the Chinese citizens of Shanghai become a background image against which variegated scenes from Jewish life could be painted. In a brief scene from a four-and-half-hour film, only one Chinese interviewee recounts the presence of the émigrés in Hongkou, but the camera refrains from lingering on her face, instead slowly panning away to show details of the house’s interior while her voice fades into illegibility. Although the film’s politics of superimposing refugees’ past memories and modern Shanghai does not deny the possibility of affective alignment between the Jews and the Chinese, it does not actively foster an interaction between these two groups and their accounts of history either.

By contrast, Chinese documentary directed by Yan Xiaoying intersperses accounts of Jewish life in Shanghai with memories of a concurrent atrocity, namely the Japanese invasion of China and the subsequent subjugation of ordinary citizens under colonial rule. The interviewees in Survival in Shanghai invariably mention the horrible conditions under which the poor Chinese had to live and their mistreatment by the Japanese soldiers. These reminiscences of wartime Shanghai are also supplemented by both archival footage of the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese residents’ accounts of their interactions with Jews in Hongkou.

The Jewish survivors also recount detailed incidences of how they interacted with their Chinese neighbors. For instance, Vera Sassoon (薇拉 in the Chinese version) remembers a friendly neighbor, Zhou Zhiji (周志基), who always invited her to have meals at his family and who sometimes hired rickshaw pullers to take her back home after school. The documentary also features Sassoon having a video conversation with his daughter Zhou Huizhen (周惠珍), who played with Vera when they were children. Here, the refugees’ more extensive stories of interactions with the Chinese as compared to those in Ottinger’s film could be partially attributed to the filmmakers’ deliberate choice of whom to interview. Made almost twenty years after Exil Shanghai, the Chinese documentary approaches the younger generation of refugees who either came to China as little children or who were born there as “Shanghai babies,” and thus potentially had more chance to mingle with their Chinese neighbors than the older generation of émigrés in Ottinger’s film. On the other hand, this sudden new interest in public memory making is motivated by the Chinese’s conscious act of self-positioning.

At first glance, the juxtaposition of the violence against and exclusion of the Jewish refugees with the equally tragic sufferings that the Chinese had to endure under colonization in Survival in Shanghai seems to be a more inclusive account of Jewish exile in Shanghai. However, this approach falls short of the complex model of multidirectional memory proposed by Michael Rothberg. Rothberg argues that “multidirectionality encourages us to think of the public sphere as a malleable discursive space in which groups do not simply articulate established positions but actually come into being through their dialogical interactions with others” (5). In other words, collective memory must be “partially disengaged from exclusive versions of cultural identity” (11). Survival in Shanghai seeks to paint a picture of Jewish-Chinese interactionbut does not fully interrogate the deeper consequences of this interaction on either the refugees or the native Shanghainese and how incidents of brutality and segregation changed their previous conceptions or challenged their complete lack of knowledge of European anti-Semitism and Japanese colonialism, respectively.

For instance, in one of the opening scenes of the Chinese documentary, the filmmakers follow Betty Grebenschikoff (贝蒂), author of the memoir Once My Name Was Sara (1993), through the San Francisco Chinatown, as she dines at a Chinese restaurant and buys soy sauce at an Asian grocery. Later in her home, Betty showcases a jacket made in the style of the Qing Dynasty. The narration attributes Betty’s hobbies to her upbringing in Shanghai, declaring that “almost seventy years after she left Shanghai, traces of China still permeate Betty’s life” (离开上海已近七十年,中国的印痕依然渗透在贝蒂的生活里). At the same time that these scenes might suggest Betty’s special affinity to Chinese culture—with a tinge of orientalism—which she might not have developed had she not lived in Shanghai for over a decade, it also trivializes Jewish-Chinese encounters as nothing beyond ethnic cuisine and exotic clothing. The Chinese filming team seems to be searching hard for imprints of Shanghai in the contemporary life of the Jewish émigrés in order to validate their claim of Shanghai’s lasting impact in providing refuge for the persecuted, whereas a deep and continuous engagement with Chinese culture by the émigrés does not really exist. As Birgit Maier-Katkin mentions in her article on this film, the interviewees observed the horrid malnutrition and brutal treatment that the Chinese experienced from a distance; although the film attempts to put exemplary moments of collaboration under the spotlight, it does not fully deconstruct the deeply engrained Chinese-Western binary mindset.

In this sense, neither Ottinger’s palimpsestic model nor the Chinese documentary’s more interactive approach fully explores the complexity of the exchanges that happened between the Jews and the Chinese in Shanghai. Instead, a more desirable path might lie in the middle: rather than mapping Jewish memories of the past onto contemporary Shanghai at the expense of competing local remembrances of encounter, and rather than creating an exaggerated narrative of impassioned interactions, new narratives of this history could explore how the city of Shanghai functions both as an actor that bridges together diverse perspectives and as a meeting ground where no singular view of the past emerges as representative. Indeed, it is precisely the spirit of multidimensional and transnational ways of remembering that must be celebrated in the age of the pandemic.

Works Cited:

Maier-Katkin, Birgit. “Documentaries about Jewish Exiles in Shanghai: Witness Testimony and Cross-Cultural Public Memory Formation.” Forthcoming in The German-East Asian Screen: Cinematic Entanglements in the 20th and 21st Centuries, edited by Joanne Miyang Cho. New York: Routledge, 2021.

Mbembe, Achille. “The Power of the Archive and Its Limits.” Refiguring the Archive, edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, Jane Taylor, Michele Pickover, Graeme Reid, and Razia Saleh, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002, pp. 19-26.

Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford UP, 2009.

Shambhavi, Prakash. “Representations of Jewish Exile and Models of Memory in Shanghai Ghetto and Exil Shanghai.” Transnational encounters between Germany and East Asia since 1900, edited by Joanne Miyang Cho, Routledge, 2018, pp. 62-81.

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

MGP editor Elizabeth Sun and Ardo Ali, both participants in our new series of Zoom workshops with authors, follow 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” (trans. forthcoming in Transit). 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).

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“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.

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Hörspiele zum NSU-Prozess: Teil II – Auditive Dissonanzen im Gerichtssaal und in der Öffentlichkeit

In this second installment of the three-part blog post series on the NSU trial, guest columnist Monika Preuß analyzes the polyphonic structure of several radio plays and the resulting “Rashomon” effect created by the layering of diverse perspectives of the trial participants and the general public. 

You can read an English translation of this text here. The first installment of this series is available in English and German.

Die Ermittlungen und der Gerichtsprozess haben eine Vielzahl an Stimmen und Perspektiven zu Tage gefördert. Dabei hat insbesondere die Auseinandersetzung mit der Rolle des Verfassungsschutzes und der eingesetzten V-Männer, also Personen aus der rechten Szene, die dem Verfassungsschutz Informationen liefern sollten, eine breite gesellschaftliche „Sprach- und Fassungslosigkeit“ hervorgerufen. Dieses Spektrum von vielen Stimmen und somit anscheinender Informationsgewinnung, die aber eben nicht zur Aufklärung beitrugen, nähern sich mehrere Hörspiele künstlerisch.

Kathrin Rögglas Hörspiel „Verfahren. Der NSU-Prozess als gespenstische Groteske“ (2020) ist als „audiophone Gerichtsbeschwörung“ (01:36f.) konzipiert. Es spielt mit der Vorstellung von in der Mikrofonanlage des Gerichts verbliebener Stimmen der Prozessbeteiligten, wie z.B. RichterInnen, NebenklägerInnen, Anwälte und Anwältinnen, die aus dieser nicht mehr entkommen können (vgl. 05:33ff.). Hier werden die besonderen Möglichkeiten von Hörspielen genutzt, indem Stimmen sich überlagern und akustisch verzerrt werden. In Figuren, die dem Prozess als GerichtsbeobachterInnen und somit als Teile der Öffentlichkeit beigewohnt haben, „fließen“ (07:33) diese „Geisterstimmen“ (07:17f.) hinein. Sie sind somit gezwungen, die ihnen jeweils zugeordnete Perspektive, z.B. die des Richters, wiederzugeben. Teilweise sperren sich die Figuren dagegen und kommentieren dies entsprechend. Es entsteht somit eine unmittelbare polyphone Struktur, die die Aufmerksamkeit für die einzelnen Perspektiven und die gesellschaftlichen Diskurse stärkt.

Das frühe „Rashomon Hilti“ von Edgar Lipki (2014) ist experimentell und schreckt durch die Überlagerung der vielen Stimmen und der überspitzten, verdichteten Collage von Szenen des Zusammenlebens von Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Bönhardt und Uwe Mundlos auf dem Campingplatz und der Morde und Überfälle am meisten auf. Phrasen wie „Baller sie weg“ (00:29ff.) oder „Volkskörper“ (00:41ff.) werden wiederholt und überlagert. Im starken Kontrast dazu werden die gesellschaftlichen Diskurse (z.B. „Man hat im Berufsleben nur einmal die Chance an so etwas teilzunehmen.“ (03:41ff.); „Stell dir Mal vor, dein Kind wird Nazi“ (03:58ff.) und die unbefriedigenden Zeugenaussagen von Polizei und Verfassungsschutz im Kontext des Prozesses teilweise als Stimmengewirr inszeniert. Dies verdeutlicht den „Rashomon-Effekt“. Dieser beschreibt die Spannungen, die erzeugt werden, wenn ein Ereignis von verschiedenen AkteurInnen vollkommen verschieden aufgenommen werden.

Das vierteilige Hörspiel „Das schweigende Mädchen“ (2015) ist eine Bearbeitung des gleichnamigen Theaterstückes von Elfriede Jelinek. Genutzt werden ebenfalls Prozessprotokolle und Medienberichte. Anleihen an der Bibel werden genutzt, um das Schweigen der Angeklagten und die wenig aufklärende Stimmenvielfalt der Zeugenaussagen und Medienberichte hervorzuheben. 

Hörspiele, Texte und Materialien

Jelinek, Elfriede: Das schweigende Mädchen. Bayerischer Rundfunk 2015.

Jelinek, Elfriede: Das schweigende Mädchen. Ulrike Maria Stuart. Zwei Theaterstücke. Reinbek bei Hamburg 2015.

Lipki, Edgar: Rashomon Hilti. Westdeutscher Rundfunk 2014. Abrufbar unter:

Röggla, Kathrin: Verfahren. Der NSU Prozess als gespenstische Groteske. Westdeutscher Rundfunk/ Bayerischer Rundfunk 2020. Abrufbar unter:—der-nsu-prozess-als-gespenstische-groteske-100.html

SchauspielDo Archiv Voges: Trailer Das schweigende Mädchen Schauspiel Dortmund. 19.01.2016. Abrufbar unter:

Zur Regie der Produktion “Das schweigende Mädchen” von Elfriede Jelinek – Mit Leonhard Koppelmann. Bayerischer Rundfunk 2015. Abrufbar unter:

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The NSU Trial in Radio Plays: Part II – Cacophony in the Courtroom and the Media

In this second installment of the three-part series on the NSU trial, guest columnist Monika Preuß analyzes the polyphonic structure of several radio plays and the resulting “Rashomon” effect created by the layering of diverse perspectives of the trial participants and the general public. 

You can read this post in the original German here. The first installment in this series is available in English and German.

The investigations at the NSU trial brought various voices and perspectives to the fore. In particular, discussions on the role of the Offices for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz) and their right-wing confidential informants (V-Männer) caused widespread speechlessness and consternation among the general public. The court proceedings demonstrated that the local and federal BfV institutions did not work to contain the influences of right-wing extremists, but rather used and supported their claims. The following radio plays address public reactions to these scandalous events.

Kathrin Rögglas’s radio play “Proceedings: The NSU Trial as the Ghostly Grotesque” (“Verfahren. Der NSU-Prozess als gespenstische Groteske,” 2020) is conceived as an “audiophonic court evocation” (audiophone Gerichtsbeschwörung, 01:36f.). It explores how the ghostly voices (Geisterstimmen, 07:17f.) of judges, defendants, and lawyers were trapped in the microphone long after they had left the courtroom. Special characteristics of radio plays are used to superimpose and distort the lingering voices. These spectral voices sometimes mingled with (hineinfließen, 07:17f.) those of the observing public. Such a form of expression allows the audience of the trial to comment on the individual perspectives of the trial participants, e.g., that of the judge, and even to cast doubt on some of the statements presented in court. This style of representation creates a polyphonic structure that fosters attention to individual points of view.

An earlier experimental radio play “Rashomon Hilti” by Edgar Lipki (released in 2014, only one year after the start of the NSU Trial) produces a startling effect by superimposing a diverse array of exaggerated, condensed voices from the murders, robberies, and collective life of Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Bönhardt, and Uwe Mundlos, as well as from subsequent debates on these events in the media. Phrases such as “pop them” (“Baller sie weg”, hip-hop slang for killing, 00:29ff.) and “national body” (Volkskörper, Nazi terminology, 00:41ff.) are repeated and overlap with other sounds. The contrast between conflicting witness statements, the voices of the media and society, and the replayed scenes creates an intense atmosphere and a Rashomon effect, as one event gets experienced and retold in completely different ways.

The four-part radio play “The Silent Girl” (“Das schweigende Mädchen,” 2015) is an adaptation of a play of the same name by Elfriede Jelinek. The radio play also makes use of transcripts from the trial and media reports, while making references to the Bible to reveal the conflicting witness statements and the general sense of shock in society, after the actions of the BfV and affiliated police departments came to light.


Jelinek, Elfriede: Das schweigende Mädchen. Bayerischer Rundfunk 2015.

Jelinek, Elfriede: Das schweigende Mädchen. Ulrike Maria Stuart. Zwei Theaterstücke. Reinbek bei Hamburg 2015.

Lipki, Edgar: Rashomon Hilti. Westdeutscher Rundfunk 2014. Available at:

Röggla, Kathrin: Verfahren. Der NSU Prozess als gespenstische Groteske. Westdeutscher Rundfunk/ Bayerischer Rundfunk 2020. Available at:—der-nsu-prozess-als-gespenstische-groteske-100.html

SchauspielDo Archiv Voges: Trailer Das schweigende Mädchen Schauspiel Dortmund. 19.01.2016. Available at:

Zur Regie der Produktion “Das schweigende Mädchen” von Elfriede Jelinek – Mit Leonhard Koppelmann. Bayerischer Rundfunk 2015. Available at:

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Against Categorization: On Inanimate Objects as Narrators in Sharon Dodua Otoo’s “Adas Raum”

A village woman who just lost her newborn in 1459 pre-colonial Ghana, a British countess who pioneered the invention of the computer with her exceptional mathematical talents in 1848, a Polish inmate forced into prostitution in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, and a pregnant black woman searching for an apartment in Berlin in 2019 – renowned author Sharon Dodua Otoo’s much anticipated new novel Adas Raum (Ada’s Realm) weaves together the lives of these four women, all named Ada, through gripping images of suffering, loss, friendship, and love. Like Otoo’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize-winning short story “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin,” the majority of Adas Raum is told through the perspectives of inanimate objects–a broom, a doorknob, a room in a makeshift brothel, and a passport function as the main narrators for each of the four plotlines. At the same time, the text gestures towards a proliferation of objects with anthropomorphic features. Eyeglasses, the breeze, a glass of milk, and the contemporary Ada’s unborn baby, among others, all comment on the unfolding of events in their respective worlds at unexpected turns.

Constantly urging the readers to plunge into a different story while they are still attempting to register the rich blend of shocking events and intense emotions expressed in the current setting, the novel does not allow its audience to dwell on a single heroine’s life. Instead, the time travel structure of the narrative draws attention to the inextricable links between the recurring loops of physical, sexual, and ideological violence committed against the female protagonists across centuries and continents, sometimes with a dizzying effect that forestalls an immediate interpretation of the characters’ cultural milieu. The novel’s unconventional settings also uproot the author from her own places of memory. The fact that Otoo is a second-generation Ghanaian immigrant born and raised in Britain and has lived in Germany for over fifteen years allows her personal connections to each of the stories portrayed. At the same time, however, the novel’s historical settings necessitate a certain degree of distancing from the very countries and cultures with which she is familiar.

Readers of the novel have already made various attempts at deciphering the novel’s enigmatic structure. German critics have highlighted the novel’s use of Afrofuturism (see book reviews in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Der Standard) and animism (see book reviews in Der Tagesspiegel and Deutschlandfunk), its mixing of generic conventions of historical documentation and science fiction, as well as its affinity to postcolonial literature written by Anglophone Black women writers. The plurality of analytical discourses invoked attests to the difficulty of precisely situating Adas Raum within existing frameworks of reference. Nevertheless, Otoo herself has spoken against such interpretive gestures. During a recent book talk with translator Jon Cho-Polizzi and Deniz Göktürk (see a report of this event by Elizabeth Sun and Ardo Ali), Otoo says, “My understanding of the world isn’t so neatly categorized. My own biography cannot be neatly categorized. And I think, actually, nobody’s can, but yet we keep trying to make these very clear, neat categories to fit in. I wanted to write something that would bring the reader through an experience of directly feeling, on their own bodies, that things cannot be neatly categorized, so if anybody’s reading this novel and feeling confused, that’s the point.”

Indeed, the novel’s ingenious use of inanimate objects as narrative beings precisely echoes Otoo’s statement against classification and conventional interpretation. In her landmark essay “‘Where Have All the Natives Gone?’,” Rey Chow outlines problematic ways of interpreting the native other and proposes alternative solutions through which indigenous subjectivity might retain its integrity during an encounter with Western eyes. She argues that many scholars of postcolonialism define the native as someone from whom something has been stolen; therefore, the anti-imperialist project of subjectivizing the other almost invariably involves restoring that which has been lost, including giving back the native her voice that has been consistently silenced by the colonizer (327). However, such a definition necessarily posits the native as a desirous subject persistently envying that which she does not or no longer possess(es), thus relegating her to the lower end of the hierarchy, beneath the Western subject who is always understood as a unified whole. Resembling an Oedipal complex, this approach attempts revenge by returning the act of violence that the enemy once inflicted on the native, but in so doing, it reinstates the very ideological discourse that it aims to dismantle (Chow 334).

An alternative approach combats the construction of the native as the direct “other” of the colonizer by “add[ing] to this ‘image’ of the native the ability to look” and a gaze that “witnessed the native’s oppression prior to her becoming image,” or victim (Chow 342). “The agency of the native cannot simply be imagined in terms of a resistance against the image [of victimization] – that is, after the image has been formed…. It needs to be rethought as that which bears witness to its own demolition – in a form that is at once image and gaze, but a gaze that exceeds the moment of colonization” (Chow 342, emphasis in the original). In Otoo’s novel, this interstitial, liminal gaze stems precisely from the inanimate objects that frequently mediate between the aggressor and the victim. As a third actor observing the scene of the crime with a more or less detached attitude, the various narrating objects of the novel do not allow the perpetrator to domesticate Ada with the belittling gaze of a conqueror, while simultaneously forestalling a sentimentalization of suffering that a first-person narration by Ada herself might incur. Thus, the diverse array of inanimate objects evoked in the novel plays against the tension inherent in a binary opposition of the oppressor and the oppressed, thereby granting the female protagonists a level of subjectivity rarely seen in postcolonial novels.

Work Cited: Chow, Rey. “‘Where Have All the Natives Gone?’.” Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Reina Lewis and Sara Mills, Routledge, 2003, pp. 324-349.

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Animating Untold Stories: Sharon Dodua Otoo

MGP editor Elizabeth Sun and Ardo Ali, both participants in our new series of Zoom workshops with authors, reflect on the opening event with Berlin-based writer and activist Sharon Dodua Otoo.

The first installment (March 5) of the Zoom workshop series “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News” met an audience of over 130 participants and featured Sharon Dodua Otoo, who read aloud excerpts from her newly published novel Adas Raum and engaged in conversations on multilingualism, the political function of fiction, and the black female’s position in German society.

Organized by Deniz Göktürk (UC Berkeley, Department of German, Multicultural Germany Project and Transit Journal) and Elisabeth Krimmer (UC Davis, German Department, Migration and Aesthetics Project), and co-sponsored by the German Consulate General San Francisco, the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington, and UC Berkeley’s Institute for European Studies, the series includes upcoming conversations with Zafer Senocak (April 2) and Yoko Tawada (April 16) and will continue to showcase the diversity of the German literary scene. “Archives of Migration” seeks to foreground issues with increasing relevance in recent times, such as the rise of anti-migrant and racist sentiments, and the conflation of fake news with truth in an increasingly digitized environment. Repositioning the fiction that is set in opposition to truth, to its literary association, the series of conversations with contemporary writers foregrounds the power of fiction to reanimate and activate.

After publishing her first two Berlin-based novellas in English, Sharon Dodua Otoo went on to win the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016 with her genre-bending short story “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin [Herr Gröttrup Sits Down].” Otoo’s participation in the kickoff event for “Archives of Migration” brought in the momentum of her very first novel, Adas Raum, published by S. Fischer Verlag and premiered at the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus just a week earlier (February 23). With introductory remarks by Jon Cho-Polizzi (PhD UC Berkeley, Translator), who is currently working with Otoo on the novel’s English translation, the event balanced both the excitement of Otoo’s book launch and the importance of addressing current conversations on migration, multiculturalism, and minority groups, particularly female-presenting POC’s. As an author and activist with the Initiative for Black People in Germany, Otoo’s political and writerly engagements exemplify the nexus of fiction and social change.

Through both German and English excerpt readings and mediated discussions between Prof. Göktürk, Cho-Polizzi, and Otoo, some central questions guided the workshop:

What does it mean to be German today? What is the role of fiction within political activism? How can a writer conceptualize herself across multilingual spheres?

The conversation surrounding these questions flowed naturally given the scope of Otoo’s debut novel, and the author’s own movement across linguistic and national borders. When asked why she wrote her award-winning short story, “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin,” and the novel Adas Raum in her adopted language of German, Otoo explains that these were stories that principally addressed “critical whiteness” for a German audience, and thus organically grew from the German language. Otoo additionally stressed the importance of multilingualism and how embracing different accents and colloquialisms allows for new levels of intercultural understanding. The title of Adas Raum itself reveals the intricacies and productivity of intercultural translation. Cho-Polizzi’s English translation of the title as Ada’s Realm captures the German word’s meaning as space and realm, but looses the homophonic resemblance to “room” (and the possible allusion to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own). 

Following the lives of four women across 500+ years and the geographical spaces of England, Germany, and Ghana, Adas Raum traces the subjugated individual’s search for recognition and retribution. Despite attempts to categorize the novel as historical fiction, Otoo explains that this is not her intent; rather, Adas Raum is a novel of emotions. It is a novel about the reactivation of violent historical pasts, and the unrelenting ways in which trauma reappears in objects, persons, and interactions. It is a narrative of resistance and rebirth—resistance to dominant narratives written in the colonial voice, and the rebirth, or ascension of the subaltern, post-colonial voice that does not actively reclaim, but waits patiently for retribution and redemption.

Otoo is intentionally using her position as a rising German-language writer to shed light on the sluggish repatriation of African art by European states and private holders. Within Adas Raum, the different female characters are tied together through their association with an ornate, pearl bracelet, which finally reappears as an object listed in the catalogue of a Berlin exhibition. During the workshop, Otoo expressed the hope that her fictional writings might spark political activism. In light of the recent opening of the Humboldt Forum on Berlin’s Museum Island, Otoo remarked that the better allocation of effort and resources would be toward restitution, rather than the continued musealization of artifacts that were stolen during colonial times. Importantly then, Otoo’s contribution to the German literary canon is her determination to reanimate voices that have been systematically excluded within a white-dominated society. It is to give multivalency to the trials of black motherhood and the experiences of navigating the world as a racialized, feminized other. Finally, it is to create new spaces—and rooms—for the historically subdued to finally enter and become heard.

This article is co-written by Elizabeth Sun and UCBerkeley undergraduate student Ardo Ali.

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Hörspiele zum NSU-Prozess: Teil I – “Saal 101”

Saal 101: ARD-Dokumentarhörspiel über den NSU-Prozess | - Kultur -  Hörspiele

The 2021 election year in Germany is destined to be a year of heated political debates on the country’s past and future. While right-wing extremism is still on the rise in some parts of Germany, politicians and legal practitioners are more determined to combat xenophobia and violence than ever. In a new three-part series for the MGP blog, Monika Preuß, research collaborator at the Technical University of Dortmund, directs our attention at a radio documentation of Germany’s largest trial of right-wing terrorism to this date.

You can read an English translation of this text here.

Diese kurze Serie aus drei Blogbeiträgen nimmt Hörspiele in den Blick, die sich mit den Verbrechen des NSU (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund), aber insbesondere auch mit den Versäumnissen in der Aufklärung und dem Gerichtsverfahren auseinandersetzen. Insgesamt wurden bereits acht Hörspiele produziert. Dies zeigt, dass neben Filmen und Fernsehdokumentationen (siehe dazu die Postings von Kumars Salehi vom 20.1 und 21.1) Hörspiele ein wesentliches Element der künstlerischen Auseinandersetzung mit den NSU-Verbrechen und dem NSU-Prozess sind. Das Spektrum der Hörspiele reicht von einem groß angelegten „dokumentarischen“ Hörspielprojekt (Blog Teil I) über Hörspiele, die sich im besonderen Maße mit akustischen Dimensionen des Prozesses bzw. der Vielstimmigkeit und gleichzeitigen Sprachlosigkeit des gesellschaftlichen Diskurses beschäftigen (Blog Teil II) zu Hörspielen, die sich mit einzelnen Morden und Verbrechen auseinandersetzen und die die Perspektive der Opfer in den Vordergrund stellen (Blog Teil III).

Der rechte Terror des Nationalsozialistischen Untergrundes ist viele Jahre unentdeckt geblieben. Von 2000 bis 2006 wurden neun Personen mit türkischem und griechischem Hintergrund und eine Polizistin ermordet. Zunächst ermittelten Behörden in Richtung Drogen- oder organisierte Kriminalität und vernachlässigten Hinweise auf einen rassistischen Hintergrund. Erst als sich Uwe Mundlos und Uwe Böhnhardt nach einem erfolglosen Überfall erschossen und Beate Zschäpe sich der Polizei stellte, nachdem sie die gemeinsame Wohnung angezündet hatte, kamen die Zusammenhänge ans Licht. Dementsprechend war der NSU Prozess vom 6. Mai 2013 bis 11. Juli 2018 mit über einhundert Beteiligten der größte Prozess gegen Rechtsterrorismus in der Bundesrepublik und wurde von der Öffentlichkeit und den Medien intensiv verfolgt. Insbesondere auch die Rolle des Verfassungsschutzes wurde hinterfragt. Nicht alle Aspekte konnten aufgeklärt werden und der Prozess zog sich auch durch viele Verfahrensanträge und Konflikten zwischen der Hauptangeklagten, Beate Zschäpe und ihren Anwälten in die Länge. Beate Zschäpe wurde wegen Brandstiftung, Mitgliedschaft in einer Terrororganisation und der Mittäterschaft bei zehn Morden sowie bei Banküberfällen und zwei Sprengstoffanschlägen zu lebenslanger Haft verurteilt, die Mitangeklagten zu Gefängnisstrafen zwischen zweieinhalb und zehn Jahren.

Das neueste Hörspiel „Saal 101 – Dokumentarhörspiel zum NSU-Prozess”, das von zehn Rundfunkanstalten unter der Leitung des Bayerischen Rundfunks produziert wurde, basiert auf den Mitschriften und Kommentaren der Gerichtsreporter der ARD und des Deutschlandfunks. Sowohl SchauspielerInnen als auch teilweise die GerichtsreporterInnen selbst sprechen die Mitschriften. Ergänzt wird dies durch kurze Interviewsequenzen mit der Chefdramaturgin des Hörspiels und den GerichtsreporterInnen ergänzt. Es ist nach dem „Saal A 101“ im Oberlandesgericht München benannt. In diesem fand der Prozess statt. Das Hörspiel ist in 24 Abschnitte aufgeteilt. Jeder Teil ist um die 30 Minuten lang. Mit einer Gesamtlänge von zehn Stunden und 23 Minuten ist es das längste Hörspiel über den NSU Prozess. Das Hörspiel ist nicht chronologisch organisiert. Vielmehr sind die einzelnen Teile unter thematischen Gesichtspunkten zusammengestellt. So fokussieren manche auf die angeklagten Personen, manche auf die Morde und Sprengstoffanschläge. Andere beleuchten Lebensabschnitte von Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Bönhardt und Uwe Mundlos und ihr Leben im Untergrund. Auch auf die Rolle der verschiedenen Verfassungsschutzbehörden wird in zwei Teilen eingegangen. 

Im ersten Teil “Die Mitschriften” wird der Prozess der Hörspielentstehung thematisiert. Dieser übernimmt somit auch eine poetologische Funktion. Sowohl direkt, als auch indirekt durch die Gestaltung des Hörspiels wird der narrative Prozess offenbart, der sich in der Zusammenstellung der Abschnitte auf Basis von über 6000 Seiten Mitschriften vollzieht. So werden die narrativen Strukturen, die hinter jeder Dokumentation stehen selbst thematisiert (vgl. z.B. 1/24, 01:56ff.). Die Gerichtsprozessen eigene Zeitlichkeit, die sich durch 438 Verhandlungstage, Anträge und Verhandlungspausen und -unterbrechungen auszeichnet, ist dabei ein wiederkehrendes Thema auf verschiedenen Ebenen. So gestalten kleine akustische Zwischenspiele, die an den unregelmäßigen Schlag einer Pendeluhr erinnern, die Übergänge zwischen den einzelnen Abschnitten. 

Auch die medialen Umformungen „Von der Mündlichkeit zur Schriftlichkeit und wieder zur Mündlichkeit“ (1/24, 10:03ff.), die sich dadurch ergeben, dass im deutschen Justizsystem keine elektronischen Aufzeichnungen von Bild oder Ton der eigentlichen Gerichtsverhandlung erlaubt sind, wird im Hörspiel selbst thematisiert.

David Mayonga, Musiker und Buchautor, der sich selbst als „Afro-Bajuware“ (1/24, 00:20) bezeichnet, kontextualisiert das Hörspiel als einen Beitrag dazu, sich jenseits der Kritik, dass der Prozess zu lang gewesen sei, mit diesem und den Strukturen von rechten Netzwerken und den Gefahren, die von ihnen ausgehen, auseinanderzusetzen. Er führt in die jeweiligen Teile thematisch ein und verweist manchmal auch auf andere Episoden. Er spricht die Hörer direkt an und nimmt diese durch die „Wir“-Anrede mit auf einen Gang durch die einzelnen Teile des Hörspiels und der Auseinandersetzung mit den sich aufdrängenden Fragen, z.B. wie die Zusammenhänge der Mordserie so lange unentdeckt bleiben konnte.

Der Ansatz fokussiert auf den Gerichtsprozess und die behördliche sowie gesellschaftliche Auseinandersetzung mit diesem. Es rückt weniger einzelne Verbrechen in den Vordergrund, sondern bemüht sich um ein Bild des Ganzen. So entstand ein Hörspiel, dass viele Elemente der medialen Berichtserstattung wiederaufleben lässt, durch die Ansprache des Hörers und die themenorientierte Zusammenstellung aber auch neue Eindrücke und Einsichten ermöglicht.

Das Hörspiel wurde zuerst am 19.02 und 20.02.2021 gesendet. Bis zum 19.02.2022 ist es möglich, das Hörspiel anzuhören und herunterzuladen: Es ist auch auf CD veröffentlicht.

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The NSU Trial in Radio Plays: Part I – “Saal 101”

Saal 101: ARD-Dokumentarhörspiel über den NSU-Prozess | - Kultur -  Hörspiele

The 2021 election year in Germany is destined to be a year of heated political debates on the country’s past and future. While right-wing extremism is still on the rise in some parts of Germany, politicians and legal practitioners are more determined to combat xenophobia and violence than ever. In a new three-part series for the MGP blog, Monika Preuß, research collaborator at the Technical University of Dortmund, directs our attention at a radio documentation of Germany’s largest trial of right-wing terrorism to this date.

You can read this post in the original German here.

This short three-part blog series takes a look at radio plays on the crimes of the National Socialist Underground (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund, NSU) and the failure and problems during the investigations and the court proceedings. Until now eight radio plays have been produced. This shows that radio plays are, next to films and television documentations (see the posts from Kumars Salehi from 1/20 and 1/21), an essential part of the artistic media’s engagement with these topics. The scope of the radio play is big. It is a “documentary” radio play project with 24 episodes (Part I) that specifically investigate the acoustic aspects of the trial, as well as the diversity of voices and the simultaneous loss of voices in social discourse (Part II), while shedding light on the individual murders and crimes committed and the effects they had on the victims (Part III).

The right-wing terror of the NSU remained undiscovered for a long time. Between 2000 and 2006 NSU members murdered nine persons with turkish and greek background and one police officer. At first the police investigated in the direction of drug crimes and organized criminality and neglected evidence that points to the organization’s racist ideology. The connections were not drawn until Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt had committed suicide after an unsuccessful bank robbery, and after Beate Zschäpe had turned herself to the police after burning the house she shared with Mundlos and Böhnhardt. The subsequent NSU Trial from May 6, 2013 to July 11, 2018 was, with over one hundred persons involved, the largest trial of right-wing terrorism in Germany. The public and media worldwide observed the court proceedings and closely traced the role of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, BfV). It was widely discussed why the authorities were not able to prevent or at least reveal those crimes. Not all aspects could be clarified, and the trial became a lengthy proceeding due to procedural measures and conflicts between the main defendant, Beate Zschäpe, and her lawyers.  Beate Zschäpe was sentenced to life imprisonment for arson, membership in a terrorist organization, complicity in ten murders, robberies, and two bomb attacks. The co-defendants were sentenced to imprisonments between two and a half and ten years. 

The very recent production of “Saal 101 – Dokumentarhörspiel zum NSU-Prozess” by ten radio stations led by Bavarian Broadcasting is based on the notes and comments of court reporters from ARD and Deutschlandfunk. The transcripts of the court proceedings were dubbed by actors and sometimes also by the reporters themselves. Some short interview parts with the scenario editor of the radio play and the court reporters complement the texts. The radio play is named after the “Saal A 101,” in which the court proceedings took place. “Saal 101” consists of 24 parts. With each episode lasting about thirty minutes, it is the longest radio play on the NSU. The radio play is not organized chronologically, but thematically. Some focus on single defendants, some on the murders and the bomb attacks. Others reveal different stages of Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Böhnhardt, and Uwe Mundlos’s life in the underground. The role of the BfV is also featured in two episodes.

The first episode – “Die Mitschriften” – thematizes the process of producing the radio play. The narrative process takes place through a thematic compilation of 6,000 pages of audio transcripts into different sections. One of the actors also directly names the process of turning the spoken testimonies into notes and then back into spoken words (cf. 1/24, 10:03ff.). This is necessary because filming and audio recordings are not allowed during German court proceedings.

David Mayonga, a self-proclaimed “Afro-Bajuvare”  (1/24, 00:20; Bajuvare here refers to being from Bavaria), introduces every episode, sums up the main issues discussed, and sometimes also draws connections to other episodes. He speaks directly to the listener and also uses the pronoun “we” throughout the episodes while raising questions such as why it took so much time for the authorities to discover the right-wing extremist nature of the crimes.

The radio play does not focus on single crimes in depth, but tries to paint a broad picture using the court proceedings as the central point. It reiterates many elements from existing media reports, but also facilitates new impressions and insights through a direct address to the audience and its thematically oriented format.

 “Saal 101” was first aired on February 19 and 20, 2021. It was also published in CD format and is available for download at until February 19, 2022.

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Jule Thiemann: Digitale Fluchtnarrative und Postmigrantische Perspektiven

Copyright Bild: Adnan Samman; Website: Weiter Schreiben – Ein Portal für Literatur aus Kriegs- und Krisengebieten; einsehbar unter

The latest installment in our Mission Possible series of reflections on the future of German Studies comes courtesy of Dr. Jule Thiemann of the University of Hamburg’s Institut für Germanistik, who argues that the field must turn towards expanding the field of canonical literature to include postmigrant engagement with small forms, digital modes of writing ranging from social media posts to the online curation of poetry and prose by refugees. She writes that centering cultural production from marginalized and precarious voices requires challenging predominant categories of transnational and refugee literature currently delimited by institutions of publication, distribution, and criticism.

Digitale Fluchtnarrative und Postmigrantische Perspektiven: 

Marginalisierte Stimmen – Marginalisierte Formen?

Literarisches Schreiben von nach Deutschland geflüchteten Autor*innen erfährt zwar seit der sogenannten ›Flüchtlingskrise‹ im Jahr 2015 seitens der deutschen Mehrheitsgesellschaft und des Literaturbetriebs verstärkt Interesse und wird von Kulturinstitutionen und staatlichen Initiativen gefördert, verbleibt jedoch noch allzu häufig jenseits der Grenze des Sichtbaren: Die Texte, teilweise in autofiktivem Schreibgestus verfasst, um Themen wie Flucht und Vertreibung, Ankunft und Neubeginn changierend, erscheinen oftmals als kurze Prosastücke – z.B. Essays, Briefe, Blogbeiträge, Feuilletons, Graphic Novels, Comics (vgl. z.B. die Comic-Reportagen Alphabet des Ankommens, unter: – auf digitalen Plattformen, deren Agenda es ist, der Literatur Geflüchteter eine Bühne zu geben (vgl. z.B. das Projekt Weiter Schreiben zur Förderung von Autor*innen mit Fluchterfahrung unter:,  oder aber in den sozialen Medien, z.B. auf twitter oder facebook

Der Sprung in einen etablierten Verlag gelingt jedoch (bisher) nur wenigen Autor*innen: Etablierte Autoren sind u.a. Abbas Khider, Saša Stanišić und Senthuran Varatharajah. Jüngst ausgezeichnet wurde außerdem das lyrische Werk der aus Syrien geflüchteten Dichterin Lina Atfah. Ist dieser ›Sprung‹ erst einmal geschafft, so verändert die Sichtbarkeit, die ein Buchvertrag mit sich bringt, nicht nur die Position der Schreibenden, sondern auch deren Texte: Bis zur Publikation durchlaufen diese mehrere Lektorat- und Korrekturschleifen, teilweise werden sie aus der Erstsprache der Autor*innen ins Deutsche übersetzt. Nach der Übersetzung, dem Lektorat und Korrektorat, erscheinen dann die mit Labels wie ›Transnationale Literatur‹; ›Interkulturelle Literatur‹ oder ›Fluchtliteratur‹ versehenen Texte als auf dem deutschen Buchmarkt sichtbare Prosa. Mit der Aufnahme in ein Verlagsprogramm greift ein Mechanismus der Etablierung und vor allem der Aufwertung von Texten durch eine Autorität.

Digital veröffentlichte Fluchtnarrative (Tweets, Blogposts, Briefe etc.) hingegen lassen sich oftmals formal einem etablierten literarischen Genre zuordnen: der ›Kleinen Form‹. Die literaturwissenschaftliche und literaturtheoretische Verhandlung Kleiner Formen hat derzeit Konjunktur (vgl. z.B. das DFG-Graduiertenkolleg Literatur- und Wissensgeschichte kleiner Formen, unter: und kann als theoretische Rahmung für die Untersuchung dieser digitalen Kurztexte verstanden werden. In diesem Sinne soll gefragt werden, ob sich mit den Fluchtnarrativen in Kleinform nicht gar neue Schreibverfahren sowie Praktiken der (Selbst-)Veröffentlichung etablieren, die eine postmigrantische, flüchtige Realität abbilden. 

So muss sich die Germanistik auch der Frage stellen, ob das Fach es derzeit nicht versäumt, digital publizierte Kurztexte als neue Formen postmigrantischen Schreibens zu untersuchen: Denn sind online publizierte, nicht-lektorierte Texte, denen (wenn überhaupt!) noch ein langer Weg bis zur Rezeption durch ein größeres Publikum oder gar ein Platz in den Bestsellerlisten bevorsteht, nicht eben aufgrund der Unmittelbarkeit ihrer Publikationswege ein wichtiges literarisches Zeugnis der Gegenwart, dem wissenschaftliche Betrachtung gebührt? Welche Reichweite haben diese digitalen Prosastücke, und können sie nicht gerade ob ihrer Positionierung im Internet eine viel größere Sichtbarkeit erreichen, aufgrund ihrer digitalen, uneingeschränkten Distribution? Und was passiert mit solchen Texten, die anfangs ausschließlich digital publiziert werden, bald jedoch im Feuilleton gedruckt oder in Anthologien veröffentlicht werden? Diese Fragen werden Forschende der Germanistik in den nächsten Jahrzehnten beschäftigen. 

Dabei könnte beispielsweise ein Fokus der zukünftigen literatur- und kulturwissenschaftlichen Analysen auf der Auseinandersetzung mit dem Selbstverständnis der Schreibenden als geflüchtete Autor*innen (autofiktive und metapoetologische Kommentierungen, Ablehnung und Reclaiming von Fremdzuschreibungen und Labels als produktive Verfahren, etc.) liegen. Die Texte können als Versuchsanordnungen und künstlerische Selbstbefragungen gelesen werden, im Rahmen derer die Autor*innen in einem neuen Land, einer neuen Stadt und nicht zuletzt in einer neuen Literaturlandschaft Fuß fassen.  

Why German Studies today? Weil wir als Germanist*innen eine Verantwortung dafür tragen, neue literarische Formen und Verfahren der Gegenwart, auch abseits etablierter Publikationswege, zu erforschen. Nur wenn sich die germanistische Forschung für postmigrantische und digitale Schreibweisen öffnet, kann sie den neuartigen künstlerischen Dynamiken und der Schnelllebigkeit von Literatur zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts gerecht werden.


Alphabet des Ankommens, Webauftritt, online abrufbar unter: (zuletzt eingesehen am 21.02.2021)

DFG-Graduiertenkolleg Literatur- und Wissensgeschichte kleiner Formen, Webauftritt, online abrufbar unter: (zuletzt eingesehen am 21.02.2021)

Weiter Schreiben, Webauftritt, online abrufbar unter: (zuletzt eingesehen am 21.02.2021)

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Jule Thiemann: Postmigrant Perspectives and Digital Narratives of Flight

Copyright Image: Adnan Samman; Website: Weiter Schreiben – Ein Portal für Literatur aus Kriegs- und Krisengebieten; accessible at

The latest installment in our Mission Possible series of reflections on the future of German Studies comes courtesy of Dr. Jule Thiemann of the University of Hamburg’s Institut für Germanistik, who argues that the field must turn towards expanding the field of canonical literature to include postmigrant engagement with small forms, digital modes of writing ranging from social media posts to the online curation of poetry and prose by refugees. She writes that centering cultural production from marginalized and precarious voices requires challenging predominant categories of transnational and refugee literature currently delimited by institutions of publication, distribution, and criticism.

You can read this post in the original German here.

Digital Narratives of Flight and Postmigrant Perspectives: 

Marginalized Voices – Marginalized Forms?

Literary writing by authors who have fled to Germany since the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015 has received increased interest from German society and the literary establishment, and has been promoted by cultural institutions and state initiatives – but all too often remains beyond the boundaries of the visible: The texts, some of which are written in an autofictional style, oscillating around themes such as flight and expulsion, arrival and new beginnings, often appear as short prose pieces, e.g. essays, letters, blog posts, feuilletons, graphic novels, comics (e.g. Alphabet des Ankommens at: on digital platforms whose agenda is to present the literature of refugees (e.g. the project Weiter Schreiben at: or in social media, e.g. on Twitter or Facebook. 

However, only a few authors have (so far) managed to take the leap into an established publishing house: Established authors include Abbas Khider, Saša Stanišić, and Senthuran Varatharajah. The lyrical work of Lina Atfah, a poet who fled Syria, was also recently recognized. Once this “leap” has been taken, the visibility that a book contract brings changes not only the position of the writers, but also their texts: Before they are published, they go through several rounds of editing and proofreading, and are often translated from the author’s first language into German. After translation, editing and proofreading, the texts appear on the German book market with labels such as “transnational literature,” “intercultural literature” or “refugee literature.” Through their inclusion in a publishing program, a mechanism of establishing and, above all, valorizing texts by an authority takes hold.

Digitally published escape narratives (Tweets, blog posts, letters, etc.), on the other hand, can often be formally assigned to an established literary genre: the “small form.” The negotiation of small forms in literary studies and literary theory is currently experiencing a renaissance (e.g. the DFG Research Training Group Kleine Formen at: and can be understood as a theoretical framing for the investigation of these digital short texts. In this sense, it should be asked whether those narratives do not only establish new modes of writing, but also new approaches to (self-)publication, and with that depict a postmigrant, ephemeral reality. 

Thus, German studies must also face the question of whether their curriculum is currently failing to examine digitally published short texts as new forms of postmigrant writing: For are online-published, non-edited texts, which (if at all) still have a long way to go before they are received by a larger audience (and only a few will make it onto the bestseller lists), not an important literary testimony OF the present that deserves scholarly consideration? What is the reach of these digital prose pieces, and can they not achieve much greater visibility precisely because of their positioning on the Internet, due to their digital, unrestricted distribution? And what happens to such texts that are initially published exclusively digitally, but are soon printed in the feuilleton or published in anthologies? These questions will occupy researchers in German Studies in the coming decades. 

In this context, a focus of future literary and cultural studies analyses could be the examination of the self-image of the writers referred to as ‘refugee authors’ by publishers and the feuilleton, e.g. autofictive and metapoetological commentaries, rejection and reclaiming of attributions and labels as productive procedures, etc. The texts can be read as experimental arrangements and artistic self-questioning, in the context of which the authors establish themselves in a new country, a new city, and not least in a new literary landscape.  

Why German Studies today? Because we as scholars have a responsibility to explore new literary forms and processes of the present, even beyond established publication channels. Only if German Studies opens up to postmigrant, digital modes of writing can it do justice to the new artistic dynamics and the fast pace of literature at the beginning of the 21st century.


Alphabet des Ankommens (21.02.2021)

DFG-Graduiertenkolleg Literatur- und Wissensgeschichte kleiner Formen (21.02.2021)

Weiter Schreiben (21.02.2021)

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Frau Kutzer und andere Bewohner der Naunystraße (Frau Kutzer and Other Residents of Naunyn Street)

With Tunçel Kurtiz, Güner Yüreklik, Krikor Melikyan and Aras Ören.

Aras Ören’s book-length poem Was will Niyazi in der Naunynstraße? finds its visual complement in this 1973 adaptation by director Friedrich W. Zimmermann, which features the war-widow Frau Kutzer, the philosopher-guest worker Niyazi, as well as other characters passing through the street. The street itself bears silent witness to the deferred good life of the laborer. If Germany is “a little America,” as the narrator tells us, could there have been a “German Dream” for the migrant worker? Or is Berlin-Kreuzberg rather the site of an ongoing nightmare filled with the specters of Germany’s past?

Genre(s): Documentary, Experimental


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Tödlicher Hass: Der Mordfall Walter Lübcke

The German broadcaster ARD’s documentary about the 2019 murder of Walter Lübcke, a local politician with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who actively promoted Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy in the state of Hesse, was released amid a flurry of media attention to the trial of his neo-Nazi killers in the summer of 2020. The film deftly interweaves its reconstruction of the primary defendant Stephan Ernst’s history of far-right violence and the order of events leading up to the assassination with a number of contextualizing narratives, including the role of his accomplice Markus H., the neo-Nazi movement and other right-wing spaces in the city of Kassel, the rise of ethnic nationalism nationally in the agenda of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), well as the failure of the authorities to monitor a convicted violent vigilante and investigate other threads like possible connections to the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

Genre(s): Documentary, True Crime

Links: IMDB, ARD Mediathek, YouTube

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The Murder of Halit Yozgat

Commissioned by the People’s Tribunal ‘Unraveling the NSU Complex’, this documentary report by the research agency Forensic Architecture casts severe doubt on the official narrative around the neo-Nazi murder of Halit Yozgat, who was shot to death at his parents’ Kassel internet cafe apparently in the presence of Andreas Temme, an agent of the Verfassungsschutz secret service.

According to Temme’s reenactment, he was not a witness to the murder, and he was the only person to report no strange noises to the police during the time during which the shooting took place. Forensic Architecture onstructed a digital model of the internet cafe which they then built and used to investigate, in sober, painstaking detail, and independently verify the plausibility of Temme’s claims and the veracity of his testimony. Finding Temme’s version of events not just unlikely but impossible, the results of these coordinated experiments and comparative analysis of timelines point damningly in the direction of Temme’s collusion with the murderer. The evidence was presented to the parliamentary inquiry into the NSU in Hessen despite the efforts of the governing Christian Democrats.

Genre(s): Documentary, True Crime

Links: Forensic Architecture

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Spuren – Die Opfer des NSU (Traces – The NSU Victims)

Aysun Bademsoy’s documentary focuses on the families of the victims of the serial murders of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) between 2000 and 2007, which German police and media originally ascribed to “foreign” criminal enterprises with explicitly racist imagery like the neologism Dönermorde, coined to mock the killings before the culprits were identified in 2011. The film captures not only the grief and alienation of these families, but also their second violation by German society in the relatively light sentencing of and minimal investigation into the broader context and institutional enablers of the neo-Nazi terrorists responsible.

Genre(s): Documentary, True Crime

Links: IMDB, Vimeo (Trailer)

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Christine Korte: The Volksbühne as Archive

As a new year brings a new presidential administration to the helm of government in the political tinderbox of the United States, the Multicultural Germany Project is delighted to feature the latest entry in our Mission Possible commentary series on the purpose of German Studies from Christine Korte, one of our international collaborators at York University in Toronto, Canada. Korte writes that the tenure of Berliner Volksbühne director Frank Castorf, known in Germany as something of a contrarian iconoclast, offers a sterling example of the potential of creative spaces like the theater to instigate productive, culturally oppositional tensions that give voice to the contradictions of our present moment on both sides of the Atlantic.

My answer to the question “Why German Studies today?” revolves around German theatre, which has long held the status as Germany’s foremost cultural institution for Kritik. By virtue of its history, the German theatre is uniquely equipped to investigate our current social and political impasses resulting from the return of nationalism and illiberalism.

In the late 18th century, the German national theatre was conceived as an Ersatz for the democratic revolution underway in France. For Lessing and Schiller, the theatre was to become the designated public space for fueling democratic ideals and for an “aesthetic education” in bourgeois morality. This historic role underwrites today’s amply funded German Staatstheater. It provides rebellious artistic spirits with an institutional tradition to both invoke and challenge, as well as a state-funded space for exploring dissenting politics and ideas. As with German historiography, it is surely possible to talk about a Sonderweg in German theatre.

The Berliner Volksbühne is an example of the German theatre’s critical social function. Located at Rosa Luxemburg-Platz in the former East, the neoclassical building stands imposingly over its vicinity close to the Alexanderplatz. The Volksbühne (People’s Stage) originated as part of the socialist-leaning historic workers’ theatre movement of the late 19th century, granting Berlin’s industrial workers access to affordable high-quality theatre. The historic Volksbühne had its most shining period in the mid-1920s under the left-wing avant-garde director Erwin Piscator. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and under artistic director Frank Castorf (1992-2017), the Volksbühne was an example of the way the German theatre played a unique and unparalleled role in post-Wende society.

In the early 1990s, Castorf repurposed the theatre institution to fuel a cynical response to German unification: to the West’s ideological and economic “colonization” of the former East and to the euphoric proclamations of liberal capitalism’s victory over socialism. While most theatres in the former GDR used the bourgeois canon to promote the official unification narrative, the Volksbühne constituted a radical exception by refusing the “end of history”. The theatre established a counter-public around its OST identity and scathingly critiqued a smug West German society impervious to its own contradictions.

Castorf saw it as his duty as artistic director of a state-funded theatre to address the discontents wrought by the Wende: the rise of the far right in the former East, unemployment, and disenfranchisement. He provoked journalists and audiences alike with gestures that foregrounded the contradictory impulses at play in postsocialist society: a large Stalin picture hanging in his office; the Volksbühne’s Russian orientation and flagrant anti-Americanism; hosting lectures by Žižek and Badiou, as well as the “Idea of Communism” conference; and Castorf’s transgressive exploration of far-right intellectuals including Jünger and Schmitt.

Photo: Burkhard Lange, Neues Deutschland. A young Gregor Gysi and other hunger strikers with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in the lobby of the Volksbühne on Dec. 2, 1994.

At various points during Castorf’s tenure, the Volksbühne housed a hunger strike for the far-left PDS political party, a homeless theatre troupe, and had skinheads in the audience. During his tenure, Castorf also provided a space for other provocateurs such as the late director Christoph Schlingensief, whose approach to social issues such as the refugee and migrant crises is sorely missing today. 

As a striking example of the return of history, the Querdenker Bewegung—a cross-section of anti-liberal stances towards the German government’s COVID containment measures—used the Volksbühne’s front lawn to stage its protests. The image recalls Castorf’s reception of the historic Volksbühne as archive and his frequent mining of its site-specific history towards the end of the Weimar Republic when all manner of illiberal extremes tried to utilize the theatre’s environs for their purposes. With consciousness of this history, Castorf felt compelled to make the tensions between liberal democracy and illiberalism visible.

Adorno once asserted that liberal democracy was the only political system in which the avant-garde could flourish. By extension, it is the only system in which a figure such as Castorf can exist. Moreover, Castorf’s uncompromising approach to the German stage was, ultimately, a defence of the spirit of liberal democracy. Because of its own Sonderweg, German Studies should draw on the example of the Castorf-era Volksbühne and fully assert its own critical, diagnostic, and prognosticating power at this crucial moment in history.

While we wait for theatres to reopen, Germanists can use their online teaching forums to ignite the archive, invigorate historical consciousness, and draw inspiration from the enduring and reliably complex and even problematic Berlin avant-gardes in these pandemic times. 

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