Writer Ulla Lenze Are your female characters typical Germans?

Ulla Lenze
Ulla Lenze | Photo: © Julien Menand

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. 

To go on a book reading tour with a novel called The Endless City (Die endlose Stadt). To cities that could also be endless cities – unbridled megacities between Cairo, Delhi or Jakarta – as though the net of my Istanbul-Mumbai-Berlin novel were being cast out once more, this time in reality. And sometimes the novel is ensnared, sometimes I am.
The dual profession of the writer – between the loneliness of writing and the exposure of a public appearance – can be supplemented by a third one when abroad: I am also a cultural mediator here, indeed the embodiment of German cultural identity: “Are your female characters typically German?”(Jogjakarta); “After the assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, what do people in Germany now think of the North African man?”(Rabat); “What solutions does Germany have for environmental problems?” (Basra); “Do you not think that the leftist discourse in Germany, which defends the Arab man, is a stab in the back for our feminist movement?” (Cairo).
Abroad, the questions asked are also charged with the expectation of being able to sample something of Germany on me. And this is where things start to become interestingly ambivalent: my being German, to the extent that I am committed to it, is something I deny (I usually advocate a more universal perspective). Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely this act of distancing oneself that always feels very German. And, to boot, being German is often associated simply with western which takes us right to the heart of my novel The Endless City, a novel that tries to think beyond the old dichotomies of Orient and Occident when they block vivid, genuine perceptions. This criticism is often met with an approving sigh from the rows of seats, be it Casablanca, Alexandria or Bangkok. Because it’s almost as if the novel is extending into reality.

The sense behind our thoroughly economised reality

‘Endless’ – a question asked in each and every country – refers, by the way, not only to the actual excesses in today’s megacities (traffic chaos, slums, gated communities and shopping malls in the style of a globalised culture) but also to the possibilities, in the utopian sense, that exist behind the reality of a thoroughly commercialized world: the freedom of the individual to resist being drawn in. This is what my characters try to do.
In Delhi, however, my descriptions of the garbage-filled streets of Mumbai prompted accusations of following in the footsteps of Günter Grass who upset the educated Indian elite with his 1988 polemic on Calcutta (‘the pile of shit that God dropped and named Calcutta’). As I had lived in India as a 16-year-old for six months in 1990, I had, indeed, been witness to this rage, and no opportunity was lost to hold the neo-colonial arrogance of my fellow German against me.
At the time, India was still Third World. Today, it is the proud new star of the global economy. Yet there was no stopping the garbage that continued to pile up after the country liberalized its economy in 1991 and no stopping the new cars that belong to the well-heeled Indian middle class and that clog the roads today.
“The criticism is justified. But it hurts when it comes from visitors from the West.” This was finally conceded when I explained that the novel was also about the narrator casting a self-critical look at herself as somebody who passes judgment from the western perspective, and about the question of who a city belongs to, who owns moral categories or who owns anything at all in this world.
Yet the indignation stayed with me. Perhaps because the actual difference and distance between us was suddenly revealed: even if it felt bad for a while, to be sitting there, it somehow seemed like the right thing at the moment (“this is how we learn something about others, this is precisely where the dialogue begins!” I said). Yet even my support for the controversy seemed to be perceived as the rhetoric of western dominance, and perhaps that’s what it really was. Unpleasant situations, but sometimes a lot more may happen in these situations for both sides than in the quiet respect expressed in nodding and applauding.

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

The following evening, the same lines were warmly applauded in Pune. “It is important that outsiders hold a mirror up to us!” said a professor of German.  A week earlier in Chennai, a young man learning German had spoken up: my interpretation of the ubiquitous garbage as prestige, because a sign of progress, he had never thought of it that way, yet it was immediately clear to him. He belonged to a generation that had not been offended by the Nobel laureate and in me he saw something similar to what he saw in himself: a participant in a shared global cultural space to whom one sends a friend request on Facebook after the event.
However, the fear of reductionist images is present on both sides. In India, every kiss is cut out even from James Bond films. All of a sudden I became aware of the fact that the experiences of my female heroines that come marked as ‘adult content’ required my mediation. Shortly before the reading in Chennai, I informed the moderator that instead of ‘he got a hard-on the moment he heard her voice,’ I would rather say, ‘he got excited’. He nodded the Indian way (an amiable shake of the head) and followed it with a warning: “But don’t make it too easy for them!” I did not want to perpetuate the stereotype of the West in the East; the western woman as immoral and promiscuous. And I did not want to be mistaken for my character.
Communication with the local intellectuals, authors and artists is usually completely free of these diplomatic considerations, be it about political or cultural issues, or about literature, the craft of writing or the conditions under which one writes. When they publish only in their own country (usually the case), which forces them to do a bread-and-butter job on the side, the German cultural and literary scene sometimes seems like paradise to me. On the one hand, the poet – an almost mythical figure – is highly regarded in these countries; on the other hand, little is done for him and prison sentences await those who are too critical or too free in their writing (recently the case in Egypt yet again).

This is also a topic in discussions, this comparison of conditions under which literature is produced. In Rabat, a young Moroccan, who spoke German without an accent, asked what advice I could give him, he wrote stories and he wanted to publish. In our subsequent correspondence I learned that he had studied in Germany but once he had graduated, his residence permit was not renewed.
The best moments are those in which we can talk about literature and about the aesthetic experience; an experience that is so universal, we know we resemble each other and we know it connects us. Spaces that open up and then close again, and one was there briefly and is unable to say exactly what it was.

Writing to be saved from daily madness

In Iraq, writing meant everything to the women poets I met at a conference. It was an escape from the daily madness, they said, from the threat to life. People were very appreciative of the fact that I had dared to go to Basra, once a cosmopolitan city, today fundamentalist, with a flourishing kidnapping industry.  I felt a bit ashamed; precisely because we were so similar, so close, and yet the conditions we deal with are vastly different. Basra taught me to love and appreciate literature afresh and to be deeply grateful that one has the opportunity to be reassured of this in the company of others, across so many different borders[R1] .
The press is almost always present. As the reports appear in languages that I do not understand (Arabic, Indonesian, Thai), I usually do not know what is being written about me. But the Indian daily, The Hindu, recently carried a report with the title: 'Ulla’s love for India’. At the event in Chennai, I had talked about my time at school in India. And this was where I was also asked one of the loveliest questions: “Do you think you were an Indian in your last life?” I could only answer this question with a “yes”.