SZ Interview with Saša Stanišić
“There are some things I’d rather forget.”
The evening prior to our interview, Saša Stanišić reads from his latest book “Origin” at the Literaturhaus München. His readings are packed with punch lines and routinely make audiences laugh. This time, however, he chokes back tears on one occasion as his voice catches. “This is what happens when you work with memories,” he says, “at some point, they catch up with you.”
SZ: Mr. Stanisic, on stage last night, you had to briefly compose yourself. You said your memories had “caught up with you”. How can you protect yourself against the past catching up with you again and again while writing?
Saša Stanišić: "Origin" is full of memories, but the text itself nonetheless keeps a healthy distance. Last night at the reading, it was a different story: An old friend from Heidelberg was in the audience, and as I was about to read a section about the time we spent there together – not even a particularly moving section –, I looked at him and he looked back at me. I was reading, but the text was suddenly more than just a text, the memories were with us in that room, and the images of that time came flooding back. So I had to take a quick break to quiet them. You were born in the Bosnian town of Višegrad and fled to Heidelberg, Germany in 1992, before the war. Your father joined you later. What was more difficult to write about, the place of origin or the arrival?
My family’s story was easier for me to write about because it has less to do with me directly. Our arrival in Germany, however, very much affected me: You don’t want to write about suffering for its own sake and wear it as a badge, but you nonetheless want to convey the experience of suffering to readers who have never experienced anything like it. So you somehow experience it all over again: researching, remembering, finding the right words.
In Max Frischs “I’m not Stiller”, he says: “You can put anything into words, except your own life.” Is that true?
It really was easier to write those scenes where I was just a spectator and not an actor. I was more at ease writing the scenes in my great-grandparents’s village of Oskorusa, which I visited with my grandmother, than the ones in that small bungalow in Heidelberg-Emmertsgrund. There were also things I was ashamed of.
What type of things?
The worst thing for me was that my parents had second-hand furniture. I hated that and let them feel that I hated it. I didn’t want anyone to come over and see how we were living.
You had conversations with your family for the book. Was there conflict about what you were writing about and what your parents might have wanted to keep to themselves?
I initially had the wrong notion about the topics that were important to my parents after our flight. I asked my mother whether, being a migrant, she had been treated badly at the laundromat where she worked, whether she had been confronted with sexism and marginalization. But she preferred to talk about other things: the hard physical work, the hours spent in the heat of the laundry shop. So I talked about that and not the things I had initially planned to write about.
So your concern was authenticity?
At first, I wanted to discover everything that hadn’t come to the surface. The scar on my father’s thigh that was the size of a gunshot wound, for instance, that I had never asked about. The guiding question for me was: Which stories from Heidelberg in the 1990s are still topical, are worth being told? And of course I wanted to report that in an authentic manner. There’s a deal you make with the reader as soon as you say the word “I” as the author and mean yourself. After all, my book is not labelled a “novel”.
This is different than in your debut novel “How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone”: In it, a first-person narrator named Aleksandar recounts the disintegration of Yugoslavia and his flight to Germany. The novel was autobiographical, but far removed from Sasa, the narrator in “Origin”.
When I wrote the “Soldier”, I was not ready for a true book about myself. The novel contains numerous protective shields that separate me from the protagonist, so that I am almost, but not quite, telling my story: It’s not set in Heidelberg, it’s set in Essen, Germany. Aleksandar is more creative and autonomous when it comes to his memories. How his father is burdened by his work is bracketed out. The only thing that remained was the mother at the laundry shop. Instead of writing about how people helped me arrive here, I had Aleksandar write letters to Višegrad. All displacement activities to avoid having to truly talk about myself. In "Origin" I was able to say "I" and – for the most part –mean myself. This makes it come full circle, it feels like I completed something.
Autobiographical writing can also be something of a trap. How important is it for you as an author to emancipate yourself from your memories, but also from your place of origin?
Changing things up is a good idea: After the “Soldier”, I wrote “Before the Feast”, which contained no autobiographical material, and then novellas, a mixed bag. And now, again, something about myself. In the end I realized that there were still stories I wanted to tell. The next project is now taking me far away from myself: It’s all imagination, a game, there’s zero “me”.
Writer Maxim Biller sneered that in “Before the Feast”, a “new German” writes about “quintessential Germans”. Is this type of criticism hurtful?
I wasn’t hurt, but I was surprised. Maxim Biller really ought to know better. He ought to know that a place of origin is not an aesthetic feature and that you don’t have to write exclusively about a place or in a certain manner just because you were born there. Denying writers the right to focus on other topics than those that provide their identity is a bit lame.
You are usually introduced as a “Bosnian-German writer”. Is that how you view yourself?
According to my passport and my language, it should be “German writer”. “German” would then already contain the various places of origin.
Do these attributions bother you?
Only when the place of my birth is used as an argument for something. For instance: His style is so expansive because he’s from the Balkans. Or: He plays with language because he didn’t learn German until he was 14. It’s like saying books written by bald men are really always about hair. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the work but only about who wrote it. This devalues the work – the research, the thought that goes into form and language.
During your first months in Heidelberg, your German teacher distributed newspaper articles about the xenophobix riots in Rostock-Lichtenhagen. In “Origin”, the narrator assembles a list of words: “process”, “riot”, “explosive device”, “choke"…
I talk about this experience because it affected me emotionally. And of course we need to talk about language acquisition and its meaning in this mobile society. For newcomers, language is first and foremost a pragmatic key to being accepted in Germany. And to accepting Germany.
Speaking of acceptance: While apartment-hunting, “Sasa” would sometimes become “Sascha”. It took the award at the Leipzig book fair to overcome this – suddenly, neither your name nor your profession were a problem for landlords. How important was acceptance in order to achieve arrival?
The literary prize was less about the award than about book sales. It suddenly looked like I would make some serious money. But I used to crave approval and connection, especially as a teenager. I had three circles of friends: The German students I studied with, a few nerds I played RPGs with …
… and the Aral gas station.
That was where we foreigners met almost daily and told each other about our adventures. I was a bit of a crossover and soon had a unique role: While the other boys were grilling meat, I was sitting on a log at a distance reading my little yellow Reclam book of literary classics. At the time, I somehow thought that was cool.
At the gas station, your friends would try to outdo each other with their stories. “Aral Literature" is what it’s called in the book. On the other hand, there’s your fascination with Eichendorff’s romantic poetry. That’s quite a unique combination.
Aral Literature is when I get carried away by my imagination. I’ve had that since I was a child and I can see in my young son that he also takes tremendous pleasure in inventing things. I found out about Eichendorff at university: A bone-dry civil servant, but his poems contain so much melancholy and affection for things. The close confines of his office stood in stark contrast to the vastness of his stories. He longed for a place he belonged to. That was very much me in my early twenties. While I was writing “Origin”, I remembered Eichendorff and spent a week reading his works.
As you so often do, you kept a running commentary while reading on Twitter. You’ve authored 24.000 tweets to date.
Sometimes, I develop large swaths of text on Twitter. This is where I comment on what I am working on and try new things. But I would never attempt to imitate Twitter in my writing.
The punchline density would be too high.
Exactly, Twitter is made for having fun and finding out about things.
In social media, you very much expose yourself to the judgment of others, even more than when you publish a new book. To what extent does that affect you?
These days, I let people create their own idea of my life, in “Origin” more than ever before. I had to get over myself to do that, but also had to get over my own prejudice: I used to think all Germans came from a pretty much ideal world and could therefore never understand how I felt. That’s why I used to not let certain people into my life.
You wrote your master’s thesis about Wolf Haas. In 2006, you were both longlisted for the German Book Award, Haas with “The Weather 15 Years Ago” and you with the “Soldier”. Only you made the shortlist.
And he paid me a beautiful compliment: “Now the student had surpassed the master.” I am a huge fan of Wolf Haas and his humor. Once, he was in the audience when I was reading from “Before the Feast” in Vienna. I told the audience: “You might not know it, but the person who invented the humor you are hearing right now is sitting among you.”
Readers often say your books are “beautiful”, critics sometimes say they lack bite.
A good friend once told me my writing was too toothless for him because there was nothing evil in it. In “Before the Feast”, the Nazis are sleeping, the rape scene in the “Soldier” happens behind a closed door. I trust readers to fill in the gaps. It is enough to show the moment before and after for them to fill in what happens in between. I don’t want my writing to be voyeuristic. But I also understand what my friend meant. I am more interested in compassion and kindness than in their opposites.
This conciliatory note is particularly evident in one figure in “Origin” where you describe the progressive dementia of your grandmother in Višegrad waiting in vain for her late husband to walk through the door.
My grandmother passed away last year, just before I completed the book. Before she died, she gradually lost her memory. She would become angry and aggressive if she couldn’t remember something or could no longer find her way around. The only thing that would help was to help her out by talking about the past. When I didn’t know what she had just forgotten, I started to make things up.
While your grandmother is losing her memory, her grandson is spinning stories.
My book is written into my grandmother’s disease, filling the gaps in her memory with my fiction. There are gaps in every origin story. For instance whether my great-grandfather, who was a raftsman on the river Drina, truly didn’t know how to swim. Nobody alive today can tell me whether that is the truth. I used that gap to imagine how my great-grandparents met. Because that was the only time my great-grandfather jumped into the river and swam to my great-grandmother.
So forgetting can also be an opportunity.
Forgetting was always my enemy, because I derive a lot of material from memory. Thankfully, I kept my old vocabulary notebooks and diaries. I would not have been able to write many little stories set in Heidelberg without those notes. But there are things I truly would prefer to forget. For instance, during the war, I witnessed a horse being slain. It was awful. But ever since I put this scene into the “Soldier”, the invented scene has covered up the memory: I still remember that this horse was killed, but no longer carry the image of it with me, only the images I imagined in the book. They cover up that painful memory. Sometimes, fiction can make reality more bearable.
As opposed to other stories of flight, in “Origin”, you link fragments to each other and only hinted at horrors. Is fiction a type of medicine?
All my life, writing and inventing stories has helped me see what was happening around me in a clearer light. This time, the experience was even more powerful, the relationship with my family has gotten easier. It’s as though it hadn’t helped just me, but also them, to tell those stories.