"Chamisso literature" is a term used to refer to writing in German produced by authors with a background of migration, a genre that has evolved out of migrant literature and now has specialist editors working on it at all the major German publishing houses. The growing significance of this kind of writing has been confirmed recently by a number of important new publications, and there is much more to Chamisso literature than bestsellers like Rafik Schami's Die dunkle Seite der Liebe (The Dark Side of Love) published in 2004.
One outstanding example is Ilija Trojanow's opulent, voluminous novel Der Weltensammler (The Collector of Worlds), which whisks the reader away to follow the British travelling scholar Sir Richard F. Burton (1821-1890) on his adventurous journeys through Africa and the Middle East, enabling them to encounter these foreign worlds without laying them bare. Trojanow does not transfigure the fairy tale elements in his story, but preserves and at the same time transforms them. The author quite rightly received this year's Leipzig Book Fair Prize in the Fiction category for this novel.
The poet among the German novelists, the language inventor Feridun Zaimoglu provides us with a new example of his masterful prose in Leyla, which one would not be doing justice to if one were to read it superficially and one-dimensionally as just another attempt to analyse the living conditions of Turkish women (and men) as they negotiate the conflicts between traditional patterns of life and the temptations and perspectives of a free, modern, self-determined existence.
This year's Adelbert von Chamisso Prize recognised the work of three remarkable women authors: Zsuzsanna Gahse, Sudabeh Mohafez and Eleonora Hummel. Over the last few years, this writing, in which movements between cultures and languages are of crucial significance, has made major contributions to literature in Germany and, indeed, German literature. In her book Instabile Texte (Unstable Texts), Zsuzsanna Gahse, a translator and author, goes beyond translation problems as such to locate the question of trans-lating in a context of words, images, landscapes and spaces that are explored and reflected in the fine fabric of an at times poetic prose. Gahse asks how something for which there is probably no fitting word can appear in language. The German-Iranian author Subadeh Mohafez announced her arrival with her fiction debut Wüstenhimmel Sternenland (Desert Sky, Land of Stars), in which she presents texts of oppressive, but persuasive, urgency that circle in various ways round the problem of violence, particularly violence against children. And Eleonora Hummel switches confidently between narrative levels as she tells the story of three generations of an ethnic German family from Russia in Die Fische von Berlin (The Fish of Berlin).
The literary genre that provides the classic expression of the much cited idea of hybridity is surely "Chamisso literature" – if we disregard for the moment more recent developments on the club scene, where certain literary styles and directions such as slam poetry appear to have adopted hybridity as a programmatic principle in their combination of textual and musical elements (e.g. electronic music). But this too represents a response to the fragmentation and diversification of cultural life, especially in the big cities, which are influenced and pervaded by the most varied traditions and influences these days.
It is undoubtedly true to say that contemporary German literature owes some of its most important and impressive achievements to migrants.
is head of the Literature and Translation Support Section at the Goethe-Institut
Translation: Martin Pearce
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion
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