Loving differently is not a defect
Mina's way of loving is different from that of most people. Leona Stahlmann’s debut novel, explores supposedly “deviant” conceptions of sexuality, home and identity, and delves deep into the nature of being human.
By Jana Schrader
Mina grows up in a village in the Black Forest in which everyone knows their place. Everyone there adapts to fit in. But Mina is different. The first signs of that difference come to the fore early on. Instead of taking an interest in the herbs that might end up in her mother's salad, she zeroes in on the nettles that sting her hands. And the pain only makes her reach out for more.
At the age of 16 she gets involved with 18-year-old Vetko, the “outsider” at school. That summer, when he makes her strip down to her underwear, kneel down in a field and rub her knees against the sharp stubble of the shorn stalks, when he pulls her by the hairs on the back of her neck while kissing her, or drips a caustic liquid on her tongue, she feels desire and a craving for more.
The quest for a home and identityLeona Stahlmann’s debut novel Der Defekt (“The Defect”) is about human nature, about what lies deep down inside us and make us who we are. Mina is an ordinary girl whose appetite for pain is an integral part of her nature. Her relationship with Vetko is not based on mutual attraction. On the contrary, Mina is continually struck by the things about him that she finds repellent, whereas he is looking for those very things in her. But each gives the other what they want. Mina wants to submit, she wants a clear-cut course to follow in life. Submission and obedience are key terms in her vocabulary.
In Stahlmann lyrical prose and powerful images, Mina's “defect” is associated with nature, the wild unexplored forest, in contrast to the village with its plans to chop down the Douglas firs, to remove this invasive foreign species from the German woods. Through plot details like this, Stahlmann succeeds in weaving contemporary political issues into her story. The problems her characters grapple with are quite common for their generation: they are trying to find themselves, they long for solidity, stability, something to hold on to. Some of them break down under peer pressure and the social pressure to conform.
And yet the first part of the novel is set in a timeless world in which the clocks seem to tick more slowly, an isolated microcosm deep in the Black Forest. The theme of isolation, or shutting oneself in and shutting others out, goes beyond sexuality to encompass issues like home, identity and deracination. The people in the village are always the same; aside from Vetko's brother, Miro, nobody ever leaves.
But all that changes in the second part of the book: Mina and her classmates leave the village to discover the big wide world. And the novel’s perspective opens up here as well, shifting from Mina's point of view to the other characters’. Only Vetko stays behind. To him, home means never having to leave. Unfortunately, however, this second section is less persuasive than the first. Stahlmann is at her best when seeking with Mina the reasons for her differentness, making her alternately fight it and wallow in it.
Finding freedom by submitting to one’s own rulesMina's way of loving is known as BDSM – an acronym combining bondage and discipline (B & D), dominance and submission (D & S) and sadism and masochism (S & M). Most people are averse to these practices. And they’re seldom found in serious literature: we tend to associate them instead with bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey that portray this form of sexuality as something abnormal. In Stahlmann’s novel, however, BDSM comes across as something quite natural that can be defined and experienced in very different ways: Vetko and Mina’s relationship is just one example. Mina is put off by leather masks and whips. Instead, she finds something that gives her stability and liberates her: by voluntarily submitting to her own rules, she can escape from the norms and values imposed by society.
It would be wrong to reduce this unusual debut novel to BDSM because it’s about so much more: home, love, belonging and, above all, identity, finding out who we are deep down inside and how we want the world to see us.
Leona Stahlmann – Der Defekt
Zürich: Kein & Aber, 2020. 272 S.