Vera Stegmann studies writers exiled from, and in, their homelands. One expatriate, communist author Anna Seghers, left Nazi Germany for Mexico, where she published The Seventh Cross, a novel about an escape from a concentration camp.
Another, Thomas Bernhard, despised his native Austria so much that he prohibited productions of his plays there after his death, which he called a “posthumous literary emigration.”
Lately, Stegmann, associate professor of German in the department of modern languages and literature, has recently turned her attention to Turkish-Germans who write about integration and disintegration in Germany.
Supported by a New Directions Fellowship for mid-career scholars from the College of Arts and Sciences, Stegmann is researching a book about authors who address racism, Holocaust guilt, the role of Islam in Western society, and assimilation in a bilingual hip-hop culture.
These forces have been percolating since 1961, when thousands of Turkish “guest workers” entered West Germany after East Germans were cut off by the new Berlin Wall.
An inherited interest
Exile is in Stegmann’s heritage. Her maternal grandfather left Germany in 1933 for Prague and later Paris to avoid persecution for membership in the Social Democratic Party, which was banned by the Nazis. His death in 1940 forced his family to return to Germany. Repatriation left his daughter, Stegmann’s mother, with conflicted feelings about her homeland—what Stegmann terms “a love, and a questioning.”
Her mother’s exile helped guide Stegmann to study literary expatriates. One subject is Emine Sevgi Özdamar, a renowned Turkish-German novelist, actor and director. In 1965 Özdamar moved from Turkey to West Berlin hoping to act with a theater company founded by Bertolt Brecht. She earned money by cleaning a factory and learned German by reading newspaper captions.
Özdamar became a leading performer in Brecht’s plays. For three decades she’s been writing about Turkish-German problems and solutions. In Strange Stars Turn to Earth (2003), she recalled crossing the border in the 1970s to work in East German theater. A Muslim, Özdamar is sensitive to Germany’s Jewish history. As Stegmann points out, she took the title of her novel from Else Lasker-Schüler, a Jewish poet who left Germany in the 1930s.
Stegmann admires Özdamar’s literary mosaics and wildly inventive language, a hybrid of Westernized Turkish and Orientalized German. As one critic has put it, Özdamar juggles German the way a circus performer juggles knives.
An uneasy relationship
Feridun Zaimoglu, another Stegmann subject, is the black-sheep of Turkish-German writers. In novels like Kanak Sprak (1995) his young, lower-class characters debate racism, paternalism and the Holocaust with bilingual gang slang.
Zaimoglu portrays the uneasy relationship between Turks and Germans since the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the Forum for Intercultural Dialogue has promoted tolerance, some Germans have criticized Turks for not assimilating into German society, forgetting that Turks helped rebuild German cities ruined in World War II.
In 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the nation’s attempts to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed.”
“She was saying,” says Stegmann, “that we have to try harder.”
Germany’s open society has produced “a cosmopolitan identity along with chronic anxieties,” says Stegmann. “It’s not just about integrating people’s cultures—that’s a sociologist’s question. My project deals with artistic reflections of these processes; it’s more about respecting, understanding and having a deeper insight into these cultures.”
Stegmann also plans to study works by authors living in Turkey. One, Orhan Pamuk, won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. His novel Snow chronicles a poet who leaves Germany for his native Turkey to find a lost lover and to investigate suicides by young women forbidden to wear head-scarves.
She is also doing field research in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, epicenter of Turkish culture in Germany. Her destinations include mosques, literary readings, Turkish markets, a Turkish music conservatory and Europe’s only gallery for avant-garde Turkish art.