Olga Grjasnowa Unbiased Diagnosis of our Times

Olga Grjasnowa
Olga Grjasnowa | © Peter-Andreas Hassiepen

Olga Grjasnowa interweaves unusual plots and complex political issues in her novels, fascinating both readers and critics with her analytical eye and refreshingly distinctive style.

“When I get worked up about something, then I write,” says Olga Grjasnowa in a voice that is friendly, quiet, but assertive, while she looks her interlocutor directly in the eye. That being the case, this author, born 1984 in Azerbaijan, has ample reasons to write. In her first novel published in 2012, All Russians love Beech Trees, for example, she addresses the themes of mental lethargy, dissociation mania and everyday racism – phenomena which the alert narrator Mascha dissects en passant, as it were. Her unadorned, slightly ironic diagnoses run parallel, as if along a divided screen, to the plot, which takes the reader from Berlin to Azerbaijan and on to Israel.

Headstrong hybrid-cultural protagonists

The author has been lauded for her incisive analytical eye and her wonderfully distinctive style – and presented with various awards. In 2012 she received, among others, the Anna Seghers Prize and was nominated for the German Book Prize. In her first novel Olga Grjasnowa paints a portrait of a young woman, autonomous, focussed but also driven. Her second novel, The Legal Haziness of a Marriage published in 2014, thrives thanks to equally autonomous protagonists who are constantly reinventing themselves. What they have in common is that they don’t think much of restrictive, yet identity-giving categories like homeland, culture or religion. This also involves their moving on when something could become too serious, intense or confrontational.

In All Russians love Birch Trees Mascha switches with consummate ease between languages and cultures. A child-refugee in Germany, she quickly learned that “language means power” and so she purposefully acquired that power. Having studied to be an interpreter, she aims her sights very high, at the United Nations, and she is well aware of just how self-optimisation works. She pushes aside the past deliberately and strictly; neither the traumatic experiences back then in Azerbaijan, nor the discrimination suffered during her school years are going to influence the Here and Now that she has conquered. However, the fatal tendency to think in ethnic, national categories repeatedly catches up with her, sometimes in the form of absurdly comical everyday experiences, sometimes as a total nightmare.

The scenarios of her first novel – her place of birth Baku, her youth in Hesse after her family immigrated as Jewish “quota refugees” – partly coincide with the author’s life, yet All Russians love Birch Trees is in no way autobiographical. A conscientious observer, Olga Grjasnowa wants to get to know precisely what she is writing about. Consequently, what most excited her during her studies at the Deutsche Literaturinstitut in Leipzig, which she completed in 2010, were mainly the research workshops. The theory that Olga Grjasnowa was missing in Leipzig she acquired during study terms at the Maxim Gorki Literary Institute in Moscow and from a “Scenic Writing” course at the Universität der Künste in Berlin. She undertook intense research at local level for the flash-backs to the time of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan about the Caucasus region Nagorno-Karabakh, talking to witnesses of the events. Her aim was to persuasively communicate “how ethnically-motivated violence works, how pogroms can be arranged within a few weeks – and not just there,” Olga Grjasnowa says.

Road movie through the Caucasus

Olga Grjasnowa integrated her research in the Caucasus into the novel The Legal Haziness of a Marriage, for which she received the 2015 Adelbert von Chamisso Prize. What mainly interested her was the “crass difference between the oblivious, world-forgotten party scene in Berlin and post-Soviet life in Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia and Russia today, where violence towards homosexuals is part of the reason of state.” Her main protagonists, ballet professional Leyla and the psychiatrist Altay, enter into a so-called lavender or feigned marriage – and thus veil their homosexual orientation – in order to be able to live an unmolested life in Moscow. At the same time, they also develop a tenderness towards one another which requires no definition. The novel follows them to Berlin and – after several crises, entanglements and a triangular relationship – on to Baku, thereby becoming a keenly observed, swiftly moving and directly narrated road movie through the Caucasus. Again and again ideas of freedom and a mentality of entitlement clash, and, at the latest, when everything could turn out fine on a small scale, society reports back with its pressures to conform and its friendly-brutal referral to those power relations.

Abundant new material for writing

One speciality of Olga Grjasnowa is the incidental frontal attack on habitual thinking patterns. This also includes her interventions in the literature blog of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit called Freitext, or the Conflict Food project at the Gorki Theatre in Berlin: while cooking together with the audience, the actor Ayham Majid Agha and a chef specialising in French, Indian or Persian cuisine, gender-stereotypes and cultural and political attributions are filleted.

Olga Grjasnowa reads from The Legal Haziness of a Marriage