One of Three Awardees in 2020: British author Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan, born in 1948 in England, is one of the most important and most internationally respected contemporary authors.
His literary work is imbued with the essence of contradiction and with critical, deeply psychological reflection on phenomena that affect society as a whole, such as climate change, artificial intelligence and morality in science. Despite the harsh attacks he is often subjected to in his own country, he campaigns against narrow-minded nationalism and is a passionate pro-European.”
The Jury of the Goethe Medal 2020
Laudatory Speeches 2020
In her work and through her public commitment, Elvira Espejo Ayca addresses one of the central challenges of social life: living together in diverse and unequal societies. She shows us ways of dealing with knowledge asymmetries and introduces a perspective that allows us to grasp an increasingly interconnected, globalised world in a more decentralised and multipolar manner.
Elvira grew up in Anquechua and Aymara speaking indigenous community in Bolivia, the Ayllu Qaqachaka (Provincia Eduardo de Avaroa, Departamento de Oruro). She had to leave her rural place of origin, she had to break cultural norms, immerse herself in other cultural contexts, suffer unequal encounters, in order to be able to return to the Ayllu and reconnect with her people there. As she pointed out in our conversations, you can simultaneously belong and not belong to a world. Therefore, living together also involves negotiating the tensions between intimacy and distance. But conviviality also encourages us, in particular in unequal encounters, to recognise our own incompleteness and keep us away from claiming completeness, privileging in this way conversation over conversion (as Francis B. Nyamnjoh 2017 puts it). Conviviality challenges us to be open-minded and open-ended in our articulation of identities, giving life more a character of flux and interdependence than permanence.
On the basis of these experiences, Elvira has become a bridge builder, linking diverse Lebenswelten (life worlds) and creating innovative spaces for cultural exchange despite all differences and asymmetries. However, it is not only important what she does, but how. Elvira’s deep involvement with Andine textiles allows to elucidate her approach and way of proceeding. From the perspective of quechua and aymara - and other indigenous people -, textiles are never finished products. Rather, they are work in progress, in a constant process of becoming and transforming. Furthermore, woven goods are not detached from the concrete practices, specific techniques and social networks between humans and non-humans that allow them to be manufactured and brought to life. Amongst others, this includes the care and shearing of the llamas, the spinning, dyeing and weaving of their fibres, the design planning and the handling of the loom.
As the weavers of the Ayllu Qaqachaka say, inside the textile are their "spirit" and their "hearts". From the beginning of their manufacture, the fabrics are already part of their body and the body is part of the fabrics. The making of textiles is the weaving of life. Women in Qaqachaka are co-constructing their world through their textiles. The fabric - as well as many other objects with which they interact closely –constitutes a microcosm of social relations; it has its own social life.
Elvira Espejo Ayca emphasises the need to assume the point of view of the weavers and take their local, native categories into account in order to comprehensively capture Andean textiles. This approach allows not only to highlight the perfomative and processual character of cultures, but also to put into value indigenous epistemologies in their complexity and equivalence to Western knowledge. She subjects European based concepts and knowledge practices to a critical reflection and underlines the persistent knowledge asymmetries which become apparent in many convivial contexts.
Classical epistemological subject-object differentiations have recently been supplemented by an ontological perspective. In other words, scientific analysis and artistic reflections attempt not only to determine how other people think about the world, but also to include how we as scientists or artists must think in order to grasp how the world is understood by others. Only in this way will intercultural translations become possible that take into account different ways of constituting the world.
Following this multiperspective approach Elvira connects in her artistic work multilingual poetry, music, visual arts, waving art and perfomance. She wants to overcome historically grown borders and decouplings, emphasizing openness and incompleteness. In the same way as the weavers of the Ayllu Qaqachaka she does not focus herby only on the meaning of objects and artifacts but on their their effectiveness for the actions of the persons interacting with them. In this sense, she contributes with an extended concept of art, which allows to relate in more symmetrical ways so-called traditional indigenous art with contemporary art.
I congratulate you, Elvira, on being awarded the Goethe Medal, which honours your outstanding work and your artistic contributions, but also your great social engagement.
I want to close my brief laudatory speech with a poem sung by Elvira Ayca Espejo. I apologise for my bad language skills in Quechua, acknowledging my incompleteness.
mi árbol de río
mi agua de río
mi corazón de río
I thank you all for your attention.
it is a great honour for me that the Goethe-Institut has invited me to shower heaps of praise upon you, Mr. McEwan. Having been an avid reader of your books since the 1990’s I am truly delighted.
Moreover, I know you although you do not know me. Somesuch asymmetrical (non-synchronised) arrangement – always unfair towards the person in focus – relates to the old game "I can see you, but you cannot see me". Small children have to go through the motion of covering their eyes with their hands to achieve this goal; for others it suffices to hide amongst the crowd of an audience.
The event I am referring to took place in 2013 or 2014 (I am not quite sure about the exact date) at a literary festival near Lewes in East Sussex. Being a very English event, in line with what we consider to be characteristically English, the festival was staged in the countryside: in the middle of lush pastures, or say yellowing meadows, there bloomed a rainproof construction that housed readings and discussions of spectacular variety. The eminent historian Asa Briggs, who lived in Lewes, was among the guests of honour. During the Second World War, Asa Briggs, who by now has left this world, was employed at the "Intelligence Corps Bletchley Park" – that is: in one way or the other he was involved in deciphering the code of the famous German Enigma machine. The delicate question posed was whom to invite for a tête-à-tête with this illustrious personality? The choice was easy: It was Ian McEwan. He had studied at Sussex University (where, by the way, I too studied, although several years later). And he had a reputation for being knowledgeable about espionage, McEwan has written more than one novel plumbing the depths of that subject. Ian McEwan was therefore, of course, the perfect person to invite to converse with Asa Briggs.
Now, one should know that Ian McEwan prefers being on his own while working on his next book. While writing a book he eschews public appearances and public utterances. And as he seems constantly to be working on his next book, it would have been natural for him to have gone out of his way to avoid coming to Lewes to chat with Asa Briggs. But, quite the contrary.
McEwan’s reputation which began to flourish in the 1970’s was in full bloom by the 1980’s. His novels were dubbed as being sarcastic, cynical, full of black humour. Well, I can tell you that this proponent of darkness was tremendously charming in his conversation with Asa Briggs: he was honestly interested in what the old historian had to say and was genuinely warm, curious and reverentual during the entire dialogue. So much for being a harbinger of darkness.
The jury of the Goethe-Institut thought Ian McEwan worthy of the Goethe Medal not least because he has oddly close ties to Germany. Hailing from Scotland, his father was an officer in the British army, stationed in Germany, dispatched from one town to the other. McEwan, according to the custom in those days, shortly after the Second World War, was sent to a boarding school. He saw his father only on holidays in Germany. During those holidays he got to know villages with funny sounding names such as Fallingbostel and Paderborn. In hindsight he said: those places were rather dreary. Luckily, British soldiers knew how to get their kicks wherever they were stationed. It was in Germany, for example, that Ian McEwan learned how to play Snooker.
He came to see the East-Western Wall in Berlin before it fell. It struck him that there were next to no German authors trying to climb the Wall in their novels. This applies, by the way, to a chunk of German history: hardly any German at that time seemed to be interested in particular aspects of German history. OK, British historians thought, we are struggling with our former Empire, we can take care of matters German too. With something like this in mind, Ian McEwan set out and wrote the spy novel „The Innocent“, located in Berlin, that was published in 1990. While Orson Welles in the 1940s had discovered Vienna as a venue for a fine movie, "The Third Man", Ian McEwan found the Wall between East- and West-Germany intriguing, he called it "weird". He considered it as a phenomenon – this was how the former West-German chancellor Kurt Kiesinger labelled the Eastern German Democratic Republic. He called it a "phenomenon" because in the 1960’s the country was not officially recognized as a state. It was a "thing" in limbo. The same was true for the Wall, at least in McEwans eyes. It was something too weird to last.
The novels of Ian McEwan turn around questions of personal freedom and personal choice. They usually start off in a peaceful surrounding, say: a little trip on a beautiful summer’s day in a captive balloon. Then something goes wrong, and the protagonists find themselves dangling, left to their own moral devices. Most of them are not quite able to live up to their own standards. Confronted with the task of acting in line with their own moral compasses, they tend to fail. This gap between how someone wants to be and how the person actually acts in reality leaves plenty of space for Ian McEwan’s humour.
McEwan’s novels offer his readers a look into the abyss of the human mind. He delves into what others consider to be pathological. Provided you can stand it, his books are tremendously funny, in a philosophical manner. Once he told a journalist: As a writer you cannot avoid coming in contact with real life.
In real life Ian McEwan is a convinced European, with knobs on. He abhors the Brexit. He abhors racism of any kind. Neoliberal capitalism is not his governmental system of choice. Climate change stands at the centre of his novel "Solar", that was inspired in part by his visit to the Potsdam Institut für Klimafolgenforschung, the name stands for research into what will happen to the world when it gets hotter.
The then director of the Potsdam Institute had invited McEwan to come along, just for a get-together and an informed chat. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, this is his name, is worried about the climate change because there will come a tipping point from which humanity will not be able to prevent – by any means whatever – the climate from changing large parts of the earth becoming uninhabitable for humans. He says: "In order to prevent the median temperature on earth rising more than two degrees celsius, we have no more than thirty years timeleft." This is no joke, it is real.
It, of course, won’t be enough to leave the solving of this threat to humanity just to the "Fridays for Future"-movement, plus a few responsibly thinking economists and politcians, as well as to authors like Ian McEwan, while the rest of society carries on as usual, making money and short-time decisions.
But if the world were to listen to the messages which writers like Ian McEwan imbed in their novels, the world might stand a slightly better chance for survival.
It is with pride that I say: Dear Mr. McEwan: congratulations. The Goethe Medal is a fine prize. You have deserved it hands down. May you flourish in all you are doing now and in the future.
Zukiswa Wanner embodies this chord in her work. Using WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram, she gathers Africa’s most important voices, despite and because of the coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions, to organise the virtual Afrolit Sans Frontières festival that she launched several times since March. There, stories are told from different countries and cultures, in different languages, stories that have already been written and stories that arise from conversations about them. In this way, she counters a virus that knows no boundaries with forms of communication that can overcome boundaries: borders, language barriers, cultural differences. The solution emerges in collaborative effort, in the willingness to be open and to listen, but also in access to the Internet and the needed technology.
The way that Zukiswa Wanner wrote her first novel is a good example of how vital this access is to things that, to most of us, seem routine. She wrote "The Madams" at work because it was the only place where she had access to a computer. She went to the office a few hours early so that she could work on her manuscript without interruption. She always had two windows open on her desktop, one with her actual work, one with her manuscript, so she could discreetly move back and forth between them. Only writers from a certain income bracket use the two-window trick, she says in an interview, and those writers are invariably Black. They have to work, often more than just one job, to support themselves and their families. They can’t take a few weeks off to write, they often can’t even afford a computer. For them, writing is a luxury. Or an immense effort. ZukiswaWanner has the strength to exert this effort. The Madams was published in 2006, and she has had her own computer ever since.
Her early novels already demonstrate the subject matters that are important to her: the role that origin plays, origin and skin colour, every nuance of skin colour. The influence that the politics of a country has on the present and future of every family. How expected roles burden women, but also men. What homosexuality and queerness mean, how they can be lived. Why the colonisation of Africa by European powers is by no means a closed chapter, and why its discussion must not be allowed to end. She is skilled in the art of keeping her tone of voice seemingly light and humorous for all its political relevance. Western influences are an enduring part of reality and they will remain so because today, thanks to social media, the world has become smaller, more accessible and, as a result, perhaps larger in its opportunities. But increasingly, Black voices have a stage. They are conquering – and reconquering – thematic spaces. Their former colonial rulers can no longer silence them.
ZukiswaWanner helps ensure that stories from an entire continent are heard. She carries them into the world, across borders. She contributes to the literary canon of Western schools and universities no longer being predominantly white and male. And she strengthens our awareness that language is also a privilege. Over a thousand languages on the continent have too little literary significance. Stories aren’t heard if they’re not translated, both from and into these languages. She therefore founded her own publishing house, Paivapo, and started translating children’s stories from English into their native languages.
Her retelling of Grimm’s fairy tale "Rapunzel", for example, is wonderful. In Zukiswa Wanner’s version, the protagonist is named Refilwe, she is Black and was born in Lesotho. These are cultural translations that make world-famous stories – or stories that are relevant in Western culture – accessible. But they also demonstrate how essentially universal many stories are and that there is no reason to tell them only "in white".
ZukiswaWanner works as a writer, publisher, journalist and curator, and what she does is outstanding. There is no time to commend all that is commendable about her here today. She has already received numerous awards for her work, and yet she’s right when she says that someone like her would have to work four times as hard to receive even a quarter of the recognition they deserve. People first see her as a Black African woman before they call her a writer, and she quickly comes to represent these many categories instead of being perceived as an artist. In a 2011 blog post, we read, "Zukiswa is a writer, a mother, an African, and a woman – in that order", and I think that order is revealing and extremely important. I am all the more pleased that today this special writer is receiving another award, the Goethe Medal, in recognition of her outstanding work. Congratulations, Zukiswa!
The Goethe Medal was established by the Executive Committee of the Goethe-Institut in 1954 and acknowledged as an official decoration by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1975. Since 2009, the award ceremony has taken place in Weimar on 28 August, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's birthday. Thus, the ceremony fits seamlessly into the Weimar Kultursommer and one of its highlights, the Kunstfest Weimar. Together with the Kunstfest, the Goethe-Institut organises a fringe programme that rounds off the festivities for the conferment of the Goethe Medal and offers further opportunities to meet the awardees.
Since it was first awarded in 1955, a total of 348 people from 65 countries have been honoured. The awardees have included Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Bourdieu, David Cornwell AKA John le Carré, Sir Ernst Gombrich, Lars Gustafsson, Ágnes Heller, Petros Markaris, Sir Karl Raimund Popper, Jorge Semprún, Robert Wilson, Neil MacGregor, Helen Wolff and Irina Shcherbakova.