Reading tours Ulla Lenze Are your female characters typical Germans?

Ulla Lenze
Ulla Lenze | © private

Every year, many authors go on reading tours with the Goethe-Institut and thereby carry a contemporary image of Germany out into the world. The writer Ulla Lenze took her new novel to places such as Iraq, Egypt and, most recently, India. The tour made her reconsider her own “being German.” She wrote down her impressions for us. You can find this and other articles in our Jahrbuch 2015/2016. For download see goethe.de/publikationen.

To go on a reading tour with a novel called “Die endlose Stadt” to cities that may also be endless cities – rampantly growing mega-cities between Cairo, Delhi and Jakarta – is as if the net of my Istanbul-Mumbai-Berlin novel had been thrown out yet again, but this time in reality. Sometimes it is caught, I am caught, in its net.

The double vocation of a writer with the isolation of writing and the exposure of public appearances is given a third vocation abroad: here, I am also a cultural mediator, indeed the embodiment of the German cultural identity. I am asked, “Are your female characters typical Germans?” (Yogyakarta), “What do people in Germany think about North African men after the New Year’s Eve mob in Cologne?” (Rabat), “What solutions do you have in Germany for environmental problems?” (Basra), “Isn’t the left-wing discourse in Germany that defends Arab men a stab in the back for our feminist movement?” (Cairo)

Hence, abroad the questions are also charged with expectations that the askers can randomly learn something from me about Germany. This is where the interesting ambivalences begin: I tend to evade my being German when it is evoked (usually touting a more universal perspective) but, paradoxically, every time I do, this very distancing of myself seems very German to me. Into the bargain, being German is often simply associated with being Western, which takes us to the middle of my novel “Die endlose Stadt”, which attempts to think beyond the old dichotomies of orient and occident inasmuch as they impede vibrant, genuine perceptions. This criticism, by the way, often elicits a consenting sigh through the rows of seats, whether in Casablanca, Alexandria or Bangkok. It is as if the novel would stretch itself into reality.

Writer Ulla Lenze at a conference of Iraqi poets in Basra Writer Ulla Lenze at a conference of Iraqi poets in Basra | © private The sense behind our thoroughly economised reality
“Endless” – to answer a question asked in every country – refers, for one, to the factual excesses of modern mega-cities (chaotic traffic, slums, gated communities and shopping malls of a globalised culture) as well as to the opportunities existing in the utopian sense behind our thoroughly economised reality: the freedom of the individual to resist these entanglements. That is what my characters attempt to do.

However, in Delhi the audience accused me – with my descriptions of the rubbish-filled streets of Mumbai – of walking in the footsteps of Günter Grass, who upset India’s educated elite in 1988 with his Kolkata polemics (“a pile of shit that God dropped and named Calcutta”). Since I lived in India for six months as a 16-year-old in 1990, I was a witness to this wrath as, at every opportunity, I was reproached for the neo-colonial arrogance of my fellow countryman.

Back then, India was still the Third World. Today it is the proud new star of the global economy. Nonetheless, the rubbish proliferated after the market liberalisation of 1991 just as inexorably as the new cars of the prosperous Indian middle class that clog the streets today.

“The criticism is justified. But it hurts when visitors from the West make it,” someone finally admitted when I explained that the novel was also about the self-criticism of the narrator as a Western, judging observer and about the question of to whom a city belongs, to whom moral categories or to whom anything at all belongs in this world.

Yet, the indignation stuck with me, perhaps because it suddenly revealed the actual differences and distances between us. At that moment, even the fact that it briefly did not feel right to be sitting there somehow seemed alright (“This is how we learn something about one another; this is exactly where dialogue begins!” I said). Yet even my endorsement of the controversy seemed to be taken as Western rhetoric of dominance, and perhaps it was. These are not pleasant situations but, in them, more occurs for both sides than would in the reticent respect of approval and applause.

“I did not want to service the Eastern stereotype of western women as immoral and promiscuous”

The next evening in Pune, the same passage received great acclaim. “It’s important that we see ourselves in a mirror from the outside,” a professor of German exclaimed. A week before, a young German student in Chennai had piped up to say that my interpretation of the ever-present rubbish as a sign of prestige, of progress, was something that had never occurred to him, but that it made sense. He is a member of a generation that had not been insulted by the Nobel laureate and who saw in me someone similar: a participant in a common, global cultural sphere to whom one would send a Facebook friend request following the reading.

However, the fear of reductionist images exists on both sides. In India, every kiss is edited even from James Bond films. I suddenly felt aware that the experiences of my heroines, labelled as “adult content,” may require explanation. Shortly before the reading in Chennai, I informed the moderator that rather than reading “he got a hard-on the moment he heard her voice,” I would prefer to read aloud “he got excited.” He nodded, first in the Indian manner (a benevolent head wobble), but then admonished me, “Now, don’t make it too easy for them!” I did not want to service the Eastern stereotype of western women as immoral and promiscuous. I also did not want to be mistaken for my character.

Communication with the local intellectuals, authors and artists is usually completely free of these dip- lomatic considerations, whether we are speaking about political and cultural issues or about litera- ture, the mechanics and contexts of writing. They (mostly) publish only in their own country, which forces them to take a day job, making the German cultural and literary sector at times seem like the land of milk and honey to me. On the one hand, the poet enjoys great esteem as an almost mythical figure in these countries, on the other, little is done for them and those who write too critically or per- missively risk prison sentences (as recently seen again in Egypt).

This is also a topic of the discussions, this comparison between the circumstances of literary production. In Rabat, a young Moroccan asked in accent-free German what advice I could give him; he writes short stories and would like to be published. Later, our correspondence revealed that he had studied in Germany but his resident permit had not been extended once he had obtained his degree.

The most pleasant moments are those in which a dialogue can take place about literature and about aesthetic experience as an experience so universal that it makes us similar and makes us feel connected. Spaces open and then close again and you were in them for a brief time and cannot exactly say what that was.

Writing to be saved from daily madness

In Iraq, for example, to the poets that I met at a conference, writing meant everything. It saved them from daily madness, from mortal danger. They thought very highly of me for daring to come to Basra at all, a once cosmopolitan and today fundamentalist city with a flourishing kidnapping industry. I was a little ashamed, in particular because we are so similar, so close, and yet have such different conditions to deal with. Basra taught me to feel love and appreciation of literature anew as well as a deep gratitude for the opportunity to assure oneself of it with others across so many borders.

The press is almost always on site. Since their articles are printed in languages that I cannot understand (Arabic, Indonesian, Thai), I usually do not know what they are writing about me. But in India, a report appeared recently in the newspaper The Hindu entitled “Ulla’s love for India.” At the reading in Chennai, I had spoken about my time in India as a schoolgirl. That was where I was asked one of the best questions from the audience: “Do you believe that you were Indian in a past life?” My only possible response to the question was, “Yes!”


Ulla Lenze’s latest novel is “Die endlose Stadt” (The Endless City) (2015). She has received a number of awards and grants, most recently the 2016 Kulturkreis Literature Award. She lives in Berlin.