Ann Cotten
Lucid, breezy, artful

Ann Cotten; © Suhrkamp Verlag
Ann Cotten | Photo (detail): © Suhrkamp Verlag

Ann Cotten was born in the US and grew up in Vienna, where she completed her studies of German literature with a thesis on concrete poetry. In her own writings she mixes her two languages, English and German. Cotten is to be awarded the Chamisso Prize in 2014 for her lyric poetry and prose.

The Allerheiligen-Hofkirche (i.e. Court Church of All Saints) in the Munich Residenz (royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs) is to be the venue for the ceremony once again in 2014: the awarding of the Adalbert von Chamisso Prize to authors of non-German origin who write in German. The main prize, awarded by the Robert Bosch Foundation, will go to Ann Cotten, thereby opening up the field to dual-language authors. While prizewinners at the outset were often migrant workers from Southern or Southeast Europe or from Turkey, more and more writers from Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet states have been called up to the podium in recent years. Seldom have so many public declarations of love for the German language been made as in these circles. Native-born authors first have to break away from the automatic reflexes of German literature, the German literary scene and life in Germany in order to find their own idiom. Authors who are not writing in their mother tongue, on the other hand, always invariably cast a fresh look on this adopted language as well as draw on the imagery and metaphorical resources of their native language. But there are disadvantages to writing in a second language too, as many an experienced writer has to agonize her whole life long over niggling details like the articles “der”, “die” and “das” – and their declension.

More pulled than pushed

Ann Cotten, born in 1982 in Iowa, has now put the accent on American English, interspersing her German texts with short sentences and terms in her native language. As scholars and translators know all too well, every language has expressions that describe something so perfectly as to defy adequate translation. Cotten says she feels “more pulled than pushed” by English, and compares the translator’s job to that of a musician who comes up with a fully realized stand-alone rendition of a pre-existing composition.

Cotten began writing in Vienna, where she grew up. It was the Austrian poet Oswald Egger who passed her writings on to the venerable Suhrkamp-Verlag for publication. Before her first books got published, however, Cotten did the rounds of Vienna’s public reading venues and literary cafés. She had already put poetry slams, which in Germany smack too much of stand-up comedy, behind her. Whether at the Forum der 13 or Lauter Niemand, these literary venues ultimately proved stepping stones on her way to literary recognition. Now that Cotten has put out a book of short stories, those who assume she’ll be moving on to the “supreme discipline”, viz. the novel, are very much mistaken: “They seem to be jumping to conclusions based on what I consider an absurd scale of literary values,” Cotton says bewildered.

Dream and reality

Cotten first made a stir with her critically acclaimed debut book of poetry, Fremdwörterbuchsonette (i.e. “Sonnets from Dictionaries of Borrowed Words”, 2007, Suhrkamp), followed by Florida-Räume (i.e. “Florida-Rooms”, 2010, likewise Suhrkamp), a blend of lyric poetry and prose, which also garnered good reviews. However, critics invariably point out the difficulty of her writing, which is often described as hermetic and puzzling, “worlds away from everyday vocabulary”, as critic Ina Hartwig puts it. But comments like these also go to show how deeply the mainstream of pleasant, realistic storytelling has become entrenched in the minds of critics and the reading public alike. Cotten, on the other hand, harks back to a surrealist trend that was widespread in German avant-garde literature in the first decades after the war, fusing dream levels and an awareness of everyday reality into an Überwirklichkeit or surreálité.

Her latest book, Der schaudernde Fächer (“The Quivering Fan”, 2013, Suhrkamp), comprises 17 short stories interspersed with shorter poems. The shift towards prose reflects an effort, as she admits in an interview, to make herself “more comprehensible”. And she succeeds quite well in the new book, which contains far less in the way of enigmatic and pretentious writing. The stories are set in Eastern Europe, Japan and of course Berlin, where she now resides.

Cotten has been to Japan twice, and will be going again on a grant from the Goethe-Institut in January 2014. Some of the stories are reworkings of situations and encounters she has had with people in the Land of the Rising Sun. They’re all basically love stories, for the most part about fading or failing love. Cotton’s prose continually revolves around the want of reciprocity in couples, in relations between the sexes, in desire and in discursive dialogue, expressed in a highly original, trenchant language that presupposes uncompromising introspection. What is taken for granted in the rational, purpose-driven outside world is questioned and undermined at every turn as the author masterfully swings back and forth between day-to-day phenomena and subjects of fundamental significance. And the writing is intelligent, unusual and not without audacity. So we can look forward to more from this young author.

Ann Cotten will be staying as artist in residence for 3 months at the Villa Kamogawa in Kyoto in January 2014 on a grant from the Goethe-Institut.