German Exile As on a Boat

Event within the event series „Sprache-Heimat-Exil“ of the International Artists House, Villa Waldberta in Munich with Maynat Kurbanova, Adam Guzuev, Dirk Sager, Marie Bäumer (f.l.t.r.); photo: Volker Derlath
Event within the event series „Sprache-Heimat-Exil“ of the International Artists House, Villa Waldberta in Munich with Maynat Kurbanova, Adam Guzuev, Dirk Sager, Marie Bäumer (f.l.t.r.) | Photo (detail): Volker Derlath

When threatened journalists and writers save themselves by going into exile, they often do not know whether they can secure a livelihood. In cooperation with the German government, the writers-in-exile program of the PEN Center of Germany provides with help.

“Human rights are respected here. I felt welcome from the start. People are so open and tolerant; even the officials were all helpful. None of my prejudices about the reserved Germans proved true”, marvels the Cuban wrier Amir Valle.

When after a reading tour in Spain he learned at the Madrid airport that he would not be allowed to return to Havana, the eloquent author was speechless. It occurred to Valle that his German publisher might be able to help him. From the check-in desk, he rang Cologne; shortly thereafter the German government allowed the writer and his wife to enter the country. During the flight to Germany, Valle realized that he would not be able to see the rest of his family for a long time. And for an indefinite period of time he would not be surrounded by his working tool, the Spanish language.

A small number of writers find an audience

Authors who are threatened in their homeland can save their lives by going into exile. But whether journalists and writers can secure a livelihood in exile is not clear when they take flight. The writers-in-exile program of the PEN Center of Germany, in cooperation with the German government, enables a small number of writers to continue working in their profession. The exiles are helped to live from one to three years in Berlin, Cologne, Darmstadt or Munich, receive a grant and are helped, as far possible, in making contacts with publishers and media.

Without the bridge of translation, the writers cannot convey their concerns. Here too the program comes to their assistance by providing the authors with a podium. An event series in Munich initiated by the Artists House Villa Waldberta has provided some of the authors mentioned here with a podium, and in cooperation with various cultural institutions, including the Goethe-Institut and the Tolstoy Library, has made possible meetings where the general public and can hear discussions of seldom illuminated issues and countries.

Recognition clears the way into exile

The Chechen writer Maynat Kurbanowa also found her way into freedom thanks to the aid of the program. Following several death threats, she, together with her child, was forced to flee Grozny. Despite misfortunes, Kurbanova was lucky. She was already in demand as a journalist with supra-regional German newspapers such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the subjects of Chechnya, Russia and civil society. She says quite clearly: “I don’t have the intention of forgetting the terrible images”. Kurbanowa, like her compatriot Adam Gouzoev, sees it as her duty to tell the stories of her fellow Chechens so that they receive at least something like justice.

What themes?

“Who is interested in my themes here?” The activist Mansoureh Shojaee also struggles with this uncertainty. For four years, she was not allowed to leave Iran. Without a warrant, she was detained. The regime took her son for a time as a hostage in order to force her into silence, even in prison. The name Mansoureh Shojaee stands in Iran for equal rights, and for the campaign One Million Signatures for the improvement of social and legal position of women.

The Sinhalese writer Bashana Abeywarnade focuses in his work on ethical and religious themes. Thanks to his reporting, the Tamil minority in northern Sri Lanka has not been forgotten, even after the end of the military confrontation. The officially ended conflict continues in the island nation; human rights and freedom of the press are still curtailed. Abeywarnade has constantly pointed a finger at these abuses. Following massive threats, he was forced to emigrate. Now he writes freely about the complex foundations of peaceful co-existence in Sri Lanka. His poem, Window of Exile, indicates his current situation: “Who would even ask / how the room looks in which / someone in his exile sleeps? / It is a kingdom / eternal twilight …”.

Personal freedom with victims

Eventually the guests come to Germany with a visitor visa. For this they are indebted to political delegations which, using lists of names, stand up for dissidents to the governments of illegitimate states. Only a few candidates consider applying for asylum. Asylum means for them putting the axe to their roots in their country. Yet despite the loss of homeland, those who emigrate feel themselves privileged. They have great concern for those who cannot leave the country.

For the goods of personal freedom and freedom of speech, these writers sacrifice their own language in the next generation. Their children grow up in a free world, but they lose their mother tongue. Not infrequently the writers are afraid of being attacked, even in exile. The secret services of dictators also threaten writers abroad. Many authors request personal protection when they give a reading.

Despite the adverse conditions and many cruel experiences, the exile writers fight with words for justice in their states. Personally, they impress one with their deeply human side, to which every aggressive gesture is alien. They are not looking for retribution. They are calm, collected, inwardly torn, but not despondent. For they have their literary mission even outside their homelands: to build democracy and freedom of speech.