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The writer Anke Stelling It’s a huge problem. Period.

The writer Anke Stelling on the compatibility of literature and family
The writer Anke Stelling on the compatibility of literature and family | Photo (detail): © Nane Diehl

In Bodentiefe Fenster (Floor-to-Ceiling Window), Anke Stelling memorialized the mothers of Prenzelauer Berg so bitingly that many found her book to be only “malicious”. Under the pretty title Fürsorge (Care), she told of the incestuous love between a dancer and her son, and thereby drew connections to the abysses of quite unspectacularly “normal” motherhood. In our interview she talks about the sinister sides of motherhood and care work – and her vision of successful co-existence.

We spoke about her writing and life – where else? – in Berlin Prenzelauer Berg, where she lives with her family. Our meeting place is in her office in the flat of a friend. A narrow guestroom furnished with a mini-writing desk, Spartan and quiet. The family is far away. Much of our talk is about care work, a sphere of life devoted to being there for, caring for, looking after and rearing others, in both the entire practical and psychological dimensions, in which today still predominantly women are active, almost always unpaid.

Mrs. Stelling, “Bodentiefe Fenster” is about mothers and their failure. The first-person narrator ends in a burnout, all the mothers let themselves be exploited by their partners and children, none has a serious job. How do you manage to write successful novels with three children?

… successful novels?

Yes, that’s what they are. But then let’s say just “novels” – it doesn’t matter.

No, it does matter, especially when you start talking about failure. Whether one succeeds or fails – that has to do with the outside. And I myself find ... strange how I manage to write novels. [Laughs] How do I manage it practically? I don’t really know myself, not so exactly. There are catchwords for it ... the compatibility lie. There I really ran aground. This idea that you can have everything. Even though I had a mother who tried to reconcile family and career and I saw how she failed. Now I see myself failing, and the women around me.

You see yourself failing? I’d have to disagree.

That it somehow works has a lot to do with my living in Berlin. Here I could bring my kids to a daycare centre after they were a year old. Besides, my husband is an artist. I’ve never been in danger of stopping work to live on his salary.

“Better no children anymore?”  

In your novels you tell of how caring for children harbours abysses. In “Fürsorge” this becomes radicalized into incest.

Fürsorge was a commissioned work; the relationship between the two figures was predefined. I had to ask myself: Why is this relationship interesting? What has it to do with me? This was the way that care, caring, “taking care of oneself”, came into the story. I’m glad I got the commission because otherwise I don’t know whether I would have succeeded in crossing this boundary of taboo, whether I would have realized myself what a very illuminating constellation this is for the questions that drive me: not only the strenuous but also the sinister sides of motherhood and care work – assaults, abuse, violence.
In writing I try somehow to grasp such phenomena. At the same time I don’t really see myself as called to find any social answers. What do we do with this now? Better no children anymore? A kibbutz? Should children raise themselves? Put everything into the hands of the state? Finally privatize everything?

Have you no vision of successful co-existence?

The setting of Bodentiefe Fenster is actually already a possible answer: not a nuclear family but larger connections, a residential project. The novel tells of such a communal utopia. I myself live in a cross-generational residential project. I think it’s good, but am also disillusioned.

“I don’t think the nuclear family is a good system”  

Is that really so terrible?

No, much worse! [Laughs] But that’s exactly what I mean – I have no answer, I describe. I don’t think the nuclear family is a good system, but rather the source of a lot of suffering. But then I think: a residential project is the solution, only then not to depend on it. It doesn’t work that way. And every one really knows this: the prescribed absence of criticism to protect the idea leads directly in the opposite direction. To the ossification and destruction of the originally good idea.

So no residential projects?

No. But not an expectation of salvation. I remember an event with Sarah Diehl on her book Die Uhr, die nicht tickt (The Clock That Doesn’t Tick). She said the assertion that only physical motherhood gives a woman a maternal role is nonsense. And that forms of life in which children’s education is shared among several adults is the future, and then she rather sang the praises of residential projects. I couldn’t stop myself from saying: Beware of untested proposals! By which I didn’t mean residential projects don’t have their good sides. My children certainly have more choice of adult persons of reference. And we adults too, in contrast to life in a nuclear family. The residential project has given us a good deal of freedom; we could share the care work better; we no longer had to pay a baby-sitter.

“who does the care work in a large family?”  

Sound good!

Yes. But this privatization of care work with which it’s bound up also makes me suspicious again. It’s so like the day care centres: first the parents pass around for snacks, then the cook gets fired, then the parents take turns cleaning the centre ... I’ve witnessed how an East German daycare centre was converted to the Western standard, with only one cleaner, no cook, no washerwoman and seamstress. They all used to be there before. At some point you have to wash the daycare centre bedclothes yourself, and then I was asked whether I couldn’t sew thirty new bibs. In a state-run centre, mind you, not one run by a parents initiative...

It therefore makes me a bit nervous when alternative residential projects more or less imitate a large family. Because who does the care work in a large family? The women, unpaid. The ersatz grandpa in the house may play chess with the kids – if he likes. But can I ask him when I really need someone to take the children? Nope, I’d rather ask my woman neighbour who is in exactly the same situation as I am, namely at the end of her tether. This doesn’t solve the problems in the way I’d like to see them solved.

And the fathers?

I think the awareness is there, even the desire, to do care work, to take care of the children, to be together with them. But it also means a sacrifice, and for sacrificing gainful employment to care work fathers lack role models. Just as mothers lack role models for going ahead with their gainful employment at the cost of those who are dependent on them.

What is success in literature?

What sort of support is there in the literary scene?

There are successful writers, but who are they again? What sort of biographies do they have? Do they have children? Where does the money come from? How do they write? What do they write about? What is success in literature? Commercial success? Artistic success? I had to look a long time for a publisher for Bodentiefe Fenster; I was out of it, was just about to go into retraining, so to say. Then I made a kind of comeback as a mother. But it could just as well have been different and no one would have got the book to read. I have trouble seeing myself as an example... I don’t want to be the proof for there being no problem about writing successful novels with three kids to take care of. It’s a huge problem. Period.
Anke Stelling, born in 1971 in Ulm, grew up in Stuttgart and from 1997 to 2001 attended the Literaturinstitut in Leipzig. She writes novels, screenplays, plays and short stories, has three children and lives with her family in Berlin.