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An Interview with Juli Zeh: “A Huge Question Mark Hovering Over My Head”

David FinckCopyright: David Finck
Chaos in the streets of Hanoi: “A totally public life” (Photo: David Finck)

8 November 2010

Take a writer and send her to a foreign country. The result will be observations of a special kind, especially if it’s a sharp-tongued author like Juli Zeh. She spent four weeks in Vietnam. We discuss emancipation, misconceptions and chasing after the punch line.

You just spent four weeks as a guest of the Goethe-Institut in Vietnam. If you could only use three adjectives to describe the country, what would they be?

Oh dear, this is going to be one of those personality tests. You should have warned me ahead of time and I would have had something ready. Well, okay. I’ll say chaotic, peaceful and contradictory.

”Peaceful” sounds very congenial.

For me chaos and contradiction are also very positive terms.

How did you approach the country? Were you already familiar with Vietnam?

Not at all. I also deliberately did not investigate it in any books. I like to enter a country as ignorantly as possible and allow for all the misunderstandings and misconceptions.

What was your biggest misconception?

I really can’t say, there were so many. One of them, for example, was that I thought Vietnam was a place where they were very backward when it came to gender equality. Instead, women there are far ahead of German women. There are many more women in management positions and in political office. On the other hand, this equality goes so far that you always see women doing very hard manual labour. All of the refuse collectors are female and there are also a lot of female workers at construction sites. You first just stand there and think to yourself, wow, that’s heavy.

In your blog you sometimes put the country in a rather sceptical, sardonic light. Although there is always a dose of self-mockery in that, one gets the impression you were not entirely sold on it.

That’s true, but I’m never entirely sold on anything. And then, of course, there are things here and there that have to be seen critically. The country is so corrupt it’s beyond compare. Nothing here works without bribery. The political system is rotten to the core. Or look at the way they deal with nature: nature in itself and animals are worth nothing. Even individual people seem to hold a lesser status than here.

Copyright: David Finck
The writer Juli Zeh: “You seek out what’s special” (Photo: David Finck)
In one case, though, you describe a few lovely villages that you passed through on your way from Hanoi to Saigon. You wrote, “I could live here.” Really?

No, that wasn’t really very serious. But, I do that often while travelling: I imagine what it would be like to live in a place and put it on a balance. Would it work out, theoretically? And in Vietnam I guess I would prefer living in the country over living in the city. Simply because in the cities there is not a hint of privacy. It’s a totally public life.

Your journey began almost exactly 20 years to the day after German reunification and took you to a country that also has a history of division. Is it still noticeable today?

There is something here that reminds me of Germany – but not in the way you might think. In Vietnam the north-south divide plays an important role. And this is where the country was actually divided between North and South. That’s why you get the feeling that the former division is still reflected in that. But, I suspect that these differences are far older. The country is simply divided in the middle by a mountain range and different tribes settled to the north and south of it.

So the situation is not comparable to Germany?

Yes, I think it is. In Germany, the border was between the east and the west, but nonetheless I have the feeling, too, in Germany that the differences in mentalities and the cultural differences are greater in the north and south. We’re always talking about the east-west conflict and like to claim that there is still a wall in our minds, but to me that seems superficial compared to the differences in the mentalities of the people living in Hamburg and Munich.

Is there such a thing as coming to terms with the past in Vietnam?

There is no such thing here at all. They do not reappraise history. They do not even speak about many things. It’s taboo. On the other hand, though, there is none of this deep resentment like Europeans always have. We Europeans are capable of being archenemies over centuries for some historic occurrence. It’s like a national vendetta. Here, no one in the entire country has problems with the United States. On the contrary, the Vietnamese think America is great. At least that’s how it seems.

You documented your travel experiences in lengthy blog entries. If you are expected to write down what you go through, do you experience a country differently, more consciously, than you would otherwise?

Definitely and that has its advantages and disadvantages. When you know that you have to write, you look very closely and always seek out what’s special. On one hand, that’s nice, but on the other hand your view becomes a little unnatural. You’re constantly chasing after the punch line.

You’re a writer who is not bound to any one genre, but let the genre result from your respective content. What kind of book would you write about Vietnam?

If I were an author who wrote entertaining books for a large readership, I would write a business crime novel. It’s simply too insane the way that capitalism and communism meet here. And the sole link between the two is corruption. That offers a lot of exciting material for a story. But, I don’t plan to write a book about Vietnam. I can imagine that Vietnam might turn up some time as a locale in a novel. I like making use of places that I am familiar with in my stories.

In one of your books you described the world from a dog’s eyes. How would a Vietnamese dog describe its country?

Similar to the way a pig would describe Germany.

In the blog you relate a horrific scene: a dog that a moment ago was a pampered pet of a family is picked up for slaughtering. Was that a true story?

Yes, of course. But, it was nothing special; I just happened to be there. Animals are treated like objects and sometimes even worse. There are dog slaughterhouses; they beat the dogs for half an hour before killing them because they want to release the adrenalin. I had to learn to stay calm, look away, keep walking and tell myself: that’s the way it is, it’s a different culture, it’s none of your business. But, it’s hard to take.

What will you, personally, take with you from this journey?

This feeling that there are things you will never understand. How people can justify some things to themselves. I will never understand how someone can tell me that Communism is rubbish and in the same breath praise the Vietcong as a marvellous army of warriors. I will never understand how a person who constantly accepts bribes and lines their own pockets can turn around and condemn a manager – who they just bribed – to death for corruption. I always think to myself, one of us is crazy here. This feeling really ingrained itself in me in Vietnam – this huge question mark that’s always hovering over my head. You can ask and ask, but it never goes away. At some point you shrug your shoulders and say, okay, so they really exist, these differences between cultures. I think I’m going to be thinking a lot about it.


Juli Zeh was born in Bonn in 1974. She studied law in Passau and Leipzig alongside a course at the German Creative Writing Program Leipzig (Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig). Her studies were followed by stays in the USA, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many of her novels reflect her various overseas experiences and her major in international law.
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