Interview with Ulla Lenze “To me, Syria was a revelation“

Ulla Lenze
Ulla Lenze | © Julien Menand

What do we really mean when we use the term ‘home‘? Are we referring to a specific place, our homeland, a language or even a feeling? Millions of people are currently fleeing their home country, living in exile and often experience the feeling of being ‘homeless’.

When the Goethe-Institut in Damascus was closed due to security concerns in 2012, many employees, artists, students and people engaged in the cultural sector did not only lose a place for cultural encounters, but also lost a ‘home’. As part of the event series “Goethe-Institut Damascus | In Exile“, the Goethe-Institut brings together German and Syrian artists to create a space for transnational cultural exchange.

More than ten years ago German author Ulla Lenze spent almost two months in Damascus to live and write. In our interview, she speaks about her memories of Damascus before the war, what ‘home’ means to her and why literature can open new spaces.

For the event series “Goethe-Institut Damascus | In Exile“, you’ll be travelling to Australia. What are your expectations?
It’s my first trip to Australia which is already exciting in itself, even the 24-hour flight. That this journey is also dedicated to a country, and especially a city, Damascus, that has experienced significant devastation, physically as well as in people’s psyche, touches me deeply. But the city that it once was exists in our memory and I believe that we, as artists, might be able to make it current through our works and conversations. That is sad and comforting at the same time.

“I miss this city“

Thirteen years ago, you were a writer-in-residence in Damascus. What emotions describe your memories of your time in Syria?
To me, Syria was a revelation. Unexpectedly, I found myself in a magical world that was biblically old with its Souq, its Christian churches, the Umayyad-Mosque and the tight alleyways of the old town. At the same time it offered all the comforts and charm of a modern metropolis. Also, everyone was so attentive towards me, I was treated like a close relative, even by strangers – hospitality, geniality and warmth reigned. I miss this city. Of course, there were also lots of problems back then which I was told about in secret; the outer stability had its cost. I knew that, but like many others I wouldn’t have thought that the fight for democracy would trigger a long lasting war.

View of Damascus in 2004 View of Damascus in 2004 | © Ulla Lenze During your book tours you get to meet people and places from all over the world. Where do you feel ‘at home‘? What does the concept of ‘home‘ mean to you?
A home is something one creates for oneself. For a few years now I have found my home in Berlin. Home, even though the term is loaded by the German history, is in my birth town of Mönchengladbach in North-Rhine Westphalia - which also triggers intense feelings, many early childhood memories. Regardless of these feelings being positive or negative, one cannot escape them. That is ‘home’.

“I’m not a Diplomat“

Abroad you once wrote – you are a “cultural agent” and a “representation of German cultural identity”. Can you elaborate on this?

I’m not using these terms in an affirmative way, but to describe the expectations of me in my role as an author in a foreign country. Many believe that they can learn something about Germany from me, which isn’t entirely incorrect. But I’m a writer and can only speak for myself and my work. I’m not a politician or diplomat.

Essentially, my dual role begins with the moment of stepping out of the simple internal space of the writing process and sending a book into the world while commenting on it from that point forward. It isn’t an issue – just a curiosity - which occasionally leads to funny moments as one often learns something about the perception of Germany in other places based on the questions that are being asked.

The ancient city of Palmyra in 2004. The ancient city of Palmyra in 2004. | © Ulla Lenze Berlin, Damascus, Istanbul, Mumbai: What influence do your travels have on your writing?

In the case of Istanbul and Mumbai, two fantastic and gigantic cities in which I was able to spend a lot of time, the result was the novel Die endlose Stadt. It reflects, among other things, on the experience of endless space and the elusiveness of a megacity – similarly infinite and alive as a person that never quite lives up to the image of it.

My time in Damascus in 2004 has resulted in an online-diary. That wasn’t entirely voluntary, but agreed upon in the contract and resulted in quite some stress for me. I simply wasn’t used to making my experiences publicly available so quickly. Today I’m glad theses texts exist, irrespective of how they were conceived. They contain much of my daily life and still, back then there was strict censorship in the country and I didn’t want to endanger myself or my conversation-partners. 

Literature opens spaces

In your novels you often introduce people who maneuver transnationally and have the ability to orientate themselves in different cultures. What do you think: In what way, can literature influence the attitudes and conceptions of readers in regard to subjects like culture, migration and the current refugee situation?

I don’t view literature as a tool for political enlightenment or any form of exertion of influence. But sometimes literature opens up a space in which the reader can actually reach the questions without having to necessarily find the answers right after. That’s already a lot. Literature, as any art form, deals with a terminology-transcending experience, not information.

In most cases those who one would like to educate politically aren’t part of your readership anyway. If political or social topics come up in my books nonetheless, as for example in Die endlose Stadt, then they have some relevance in the current world and they can be read through the characters and scenes. This never happens with an instructive purpose, but with an aesthetical one, following the flow of the text and the characters. I try to stay out of it.

Thank you for this conversation.