Multilingualism and the arts

Navid Kermani: “I experience multi-lingualism as a great resource”

The writer and journalist talks with Klaus Hübner about his linguistic homeland, multi-lingualism and ‘literary patchwork identity’.

Mr Kermani, what is your mother tongue?

Kermani: My mother spoke Persian, and that is the language that I first heard and spoke. But by the age of four or five I spoke German better than Persian.

What does ‘mother tongue’ really mean. Should it be understood quite literally as the ‘language of the mother’?

From my first answer you can see that the expression can’t really be taken so literally.

Is there also for modern writers something like a ‘linguistic homeland’, or is that an antiquated romantic idea?

For me there is such a homeland and it is, quite clearly, the German language, German literature. Whether I am a member of the German nation, on the other hand, cannot be answered so clearly – and for me is also not so important. Politically, Europe is for me a much more important category. I’m quite happy not to be able connect so much with the idea of the nation.

With progressive globalisation, communication in several languages appears to be becoming increasingly natural. But what does ‘multi-lingual’ mean? That one can speak several languages perfectly? Or many only a little? That one can slip into another language at any time? That one can sometimes, perhaps quite involuntarily, make productive comparisons of language or words?

I experience multi-lingualism as a great resource. German and Persian for me cover quite various areas of experience. The familiarity with the one invariably generates a moment of alienness with the other language, but I experience that as extremely productive because one gets the opportunity to look at one’s own language from outside, the peculiar linguistic mechanisms, the idiosyncrasies of German.

If one has decided for a certain language for literary purposes, to what extent is multi-lingualism then still helpful? What advantage does an author who speaks several languages have over one that has always remained within his mother tongue?

I didn’t decide to write in German. Since I grew up in Germany and with German literature, there was hardly another possibility. I breathe only German, it is only German that I can shape. It is different with Persian. I am familiar with Persian; I am perhaps even emotionally closer to it; but for me it is less tractable. I don’t command it sufficiently well in order to make my own language out of it. But it occasionally helps me here and there, so it seems to me, to extend, to shape the German language. That may have especially been so with my books Vierzig Leben (i.e. 'Forty Lives') and Du sollst (i.e. 'You shall'). What may have seemed strange there in style and cadence was perhaps the Persian – in addition to many other and above all German points of reference.

Navid Kermani: ‚Kurzmitteilung'. Copyright: Ammann publishing house An important German prize for literature, the famous Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, is awarded to ‘authors whose native language is not German’ who have made ‘an significant contribution to literature in German’. What is your view of these guidelines?

Such a prize should be offered, why not? Just as there are prizes for certain forms of literature or regionally defined prizes, especially since the Chamisso Prize no longer has the bonus of being a promotion prize for ‘guest worker literature’. Naturally there are aspects that connect me to other writers of non-German origin, just as there are aspects that connect me to other writers in Cologne, or other, purely literary aspects that connect me to I don’t who. That a prize should be deliberately meant for this or that group is normal. That one belongs at the same time to other groups is also normal.

In view of how relatively naturally authors like you or, to name four quite different examples, Ilija Trojanow, Terézia Mora, Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Feridun Zaimoglu enrich and at times even dominate contemporary German literature, isn’t the cultural debate about ‘literary patchwork-identity’, ‘post-colonial writing’ and ‘hybridity’ a little artificial and at bottom already nearly obsolete?

To be honest, I don’t follow this debate so closely. But still it is striking that when German universities, literature houses or editorial staffs organise discussions on Goethe or Hölderlin, there are only Müllers and Meiers to be seen on the podium. It is similar in the academies. Our membership in German literature doesn’t seem to be so natural for others as it is for us. But that will change, don’t worry.

Navid Kermani, born 1967, lives as an Islamic scholar, journalist and writer in Cologne.
Dr. Klaus Hübner
is a journalist and editor of the journal Fachdienst Germanistik in Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
June 2007

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