Refugee authors
Writing – or not – in exile

Aboud Saeed
Aboud Saeed | Foto (Ausschnitt): @ mikrotext

How persecuted and displaced writers in Germany fight for a new life in literature – and how much strength and luck this requires.

Maynat Kurbanova would never have thought that she would one day become a religious studies teacher for young Muslims. In Chechnya she had been a successful author and journalist, working in the North Caucasus as a correspondent for the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta. After receiving threats, Kurbanova left Russia in 2004 and came to Germany. A PEN Center scholarship covered her living costs at first, but then she had to decide what to do next. Maynat Kurbanova needed to reinvent herself, so she took a degree in Islamic studies and trained as a teacher in Vienna.

Liu Dejun has also begun a new life. A Chinese blogger and human rights activist, he is a harsh critic of the Beijing regime who was arrested and mistreated on a number of occasions. He left his homeland in 2013. Today he is studying law in Nuremberg – after an intensive period spent learning German, he passed the university’s entrance exam.

Many live under precarious conditions

Maynat Kurbanova and Liu Dejun are both authors who have “made it” after fleeing their homelands. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Very few of the refugee writers who come to Germany get off to a good start, and many live under precarious conditions. Their situation also depends on which language they speak: authors with a good command of European languages are more likely to be able to write and publish in Germany. Even so, they will also find it difficult to earn a living from their writing.

Those who are forced to leave their homelands at a young age may well enjoy comparatively good prospects: as a teenager, Saša Stanišić for example fled with his family to Germany to escape the war in Bosnia. He was lucky enough to meet understanding people who also helped him advance professionally. Today he is a recognized and much-read author who was honoured with the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2014. Abbas Khider is also an established writer. After a long and difficult journey fleeing from Iraq, he arrived in Bavaria at the age of 27, without any knowledge of German whatsoever. Since then he has written several novels in German that have won numerous literary awards. In 2017, Khider will be writer-in-residence of the city of Mainz.

The psychological burden of escape and torture

That said, the fate of every refugee is individual. It makes a big difference whether somebody has to leave their family behind, whether they find a community of fellow countrymen or whether the arm of their persecutors – the intelligence services, for instance – proves long enough to reach all the way to their host country. The degree to which they are psychologically burdened by the trauma of escape, persecution, imprisonment and torture also plays an important role when it comes to their future literary work.

Furthermore, authors need contacts – they need to know publishers, translators and editors. Refugee writers in particular have to give readings and appear at discussions so that they can present their work, which for the most part will be entirely unknown in Germany, to the reading public. In many cases, however, publishers are not interested because they already have one or two authors, perhaps from the Arab world, in their programmes. Then the only option is small independent publishers; they may have fewer advertising resources but in many cases they are more willing to take a risk.

Literary artworks on Facebook

Take the Berlin-based publisher mikrotext, for example – although it actually specializes in e-books, it has landed a major success with texts by Aboud Saeed. Saeed’s collected status updates on social network Facebook were read by so many people that a print version was published: The Smartest Guy on Facebook (2013). The German version has already been reprinted for the third time. In 2015, Saeed followed this up with Lebensgroßer Newsticker (i.e. Life-Size News Ticker), and these days also writes for the magazine VICE Germany and for the daily newspaper taz. His short texts full of black humour allow him to reach out to a young readership.

A different approach is followed by the Syrian writer Rosa Yassin Hassan, who has lived in Hamburg since 2012. She is committed first and foremost to women’s rights. She has already written one novel and one short story in German: Wächter der Lüfte (i.e. Guardians of the Air) and Ebenholz (i.e. Ebony) were both published by Cologne-based Alawi-Verlag. In her writing, Hassan addresses taboos which dictate life in her homeland: politics, religion, sexuality, suppression and violence, especially against women.

As Rosa Yassin Hassan explains, she lives from and through the stories that she has brought with her from Syria. Germany will always remain a place of exile for her, but she hopes – as do many authors from the Arab world – to be able to return to her homeland one day. Until then, she wishes to achieve one goal in particular with her books: to shed light on the fates of the individuals behind the facts and figures about migration. And how could this be done more impressively than through literature?