Thursday, 3 September 2015

Does literature change anything? Of Kurds, Syrians and the crisis in the Mediterranean

A few weeks ago, I went rock climbing with some friends. One of the people in the group, a woman I hadn't met before, asked me what I did for a living, and I replied that I was a writer. I can usually answer the questions that follow in my sleep: Yes, two novels. No, you probably won't have heard of me...

I don't really like talking about my novels anyway; I guess writers as a whole tend to be introverts, preferring to observe and write about others rather than explaining ourselves. But for some reason, that afternoon I found myself talking about my first novel, 'The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages', which opens with a Kurdish boy's journey from Turkey to Germany via Italy.

I told her something that has been on my mind for a while, but that I haven't talked to anyone about, not even close friends. It's the fact that today's reality so closely mirrors certain scenes in the book, even though the book came out four years ago, and describes events that happened in the 1990s. In all those years, nothing has changed. If anything, things are worse.

In the opening scene of the Registrar, Selim, the Kurdish boy, is on a boat full of other refugees. The boat sinks, and he swims to safety. But Evin, a little girl who was also on the boat, doesn't make it. She drowns, and they bury her on the beach, digging a makeshift grave with her hands.

This week, there has been an outcry over shocking images of a drowned Syrian boy near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. One of the photos shows a Turkish police officer tenderly carrying the boy across the beach, with a terse, clenched expression on his face. He is not looking at the little boy in his arms, as if that's the only way he can hold himself together long enough to complete his task.

Judging from my Facebook feed, this news story has jolted many people into action - I've seen petitions, donations, calls for the UK to accept more refugees. But as terrible as the images are, the crisis is of course not new. The human tragedy in the Mediterranean is not new. Italy's rescue efforts improved the situation for a while, but even then, there were reports of drowned Kurdish, Syrian and other refugees, just not as many as now.

So when I was talking to the woman at the climbing centre, I was telling her that this is so incredibly difficult to accept, the fact that nothing has changed since I wrote the book. It's not as if I was naively expecting that writing about boat people was going to end all the world's wars, fix every rusty boat, give every refugee a home. That would be ridiculously stupid, vain and self-absorbed, even for a writer. But I do think that when someone writes about a terrible thing, and what they write is published, even to modest sales, and is reviewed and so on, they somehow think it will in some way make a tiny difference. Or maybe it's not even that. Maybe it's more abstract, a feeling that once you express something in a book, it is less likely to happen again in real life. There's an element of wishful, or perhaps magical, thinking. Like taking an umbrella with you to lessen the chance of rain.

The novelist David Grossman, for example, wrote 'To the End of the Land', a heartbreaking book about an Israeli woman whose son is in the military, while in real life, Grossman's own son was serving in the military. Grossman has said in interviews that facing up to the worst things that might happen, and then working those fears into a story, gave him the feeling that he was somehow protecting his son. But we all know magical thinking does not work. Tragically, in real life, Grossman's son was killed by an anti-tank missile fired by Hizbollah. The pen is not mightier than the sword. It's not very mighty at all.

I've always argued that the novelist's commitment is to art, to the story and to the reader, not to a cause. Novels written as a manifesto tend to be preachy, unconvincing and tone-deaf. But seeing just how utterly irrelevant my novel about Kurdish refugees was in the greater scheme of things, does make me question its value. Worse, it makes me wonder why we write and read ficton about real-life tragedies at all. For the thrill? As a safe way of sort-of empathising with the world's grief, while doing nothing about it? I haven't answered these questions for myself. Neither have I figured out whether there is some way to lift literature out of this sad insignificance.

For now, I'll do what all those other people on Facebook seem to be doing: sign a petition, make a donation, call for the UK to accept more refugees.


Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Summer Project: Walking from Germany to Poland

I'm walking from Germany to Poland this summer, retracing the route my mother and grandmother took as refugees when they escaped the Red Army in 1945. It's been an incredible experience so far; Poland is beautiful and people have been so helpful and friendly. You can follow my walk here.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Trauma & Fiction Event at Goldsmiths

Speaking about memory and loss in the divided Germany at Goldsmiths today, in the context of the publicly accessible (formerly top secret) Stasi files. How do historical documents come together to form a collective or private narrative? How much fiction is there in history, and how much history in fiction? Do novelists have a moral obligation to be historically accurate? Come and discuss!

Speaking of the Unspeakable:
Approaching War and Trauma through Fiction
2pm – 3.30pm
Thursday May 14th
144 Richard Hoggart Building, Goldsmiths
Chaired by Dr Rick Crownshaw
Sophie Hardach: The Stasi Files
~ Memory and loss in the divided Germany
Sonia Lambert: Tales of Internment
 ~ “Enemy Aliens” held by the British in 1940
Yoanna Pak: The Dragon King and the Emperor

~A short story set in the Pacific War

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Masterpieces for the blind at Museo del Prado


The Museo del Prado in Madrid has long been one of my favourites - beautiful paintings, and they explain the context and narrative of most paintings in depth instead of the usual 'this is Leda with the swan, oil on canvas.' Now they're going one step further and displaying 3-D (or rather, relief) copies of famous paintings for blind people to touch. One of the visitors said it was like getting back his eyesight - he can now touch the paintings he remembers seeing as a child, before he lost his sight.

In my hometown, one area of the botanical gardens was designed for blind people, with fragrant roses and herbs, a guiding rail and explanations in braille. Apparently Kew Gardens offers walking tours for the blind, but something more permanent and structural would be nice. And perhaps the National Gallery could copy the Prado's idea? I grew up in a town with a high percentage of blind people, and one of my teachers was blind, so I'm always happy to see something that makes the world a better place for them.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

How to parent like a German

"The Jugendweihe: A Pledge to the Great and Noble Cause of Socialism"

A friend pointed out this article in TIME magazine: How to parent like a German. It's by an American mother living in Berlin and reads like a typical global hipster piece. There are plenty of fun observations on free-range parenting and cute German traditions like Zuckertüte (or Schultüte), the giant cardboard cone filled with sweets and stationary that we are given to celebrate our first day at school.
But then there was this passage on the "Jugendweihe", a coming-of-age ritual:

"Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a ... ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood."

The author doesn't seem to realise that "Jugendweihe", the ceremony she so warmly recommends to Americans, was popularised by the East German regime as an alternative to more traditional religious rites of passage. It was part of the totalitarian effort at what we call Gleichschaltung, bringing everyone into line, making sure there was no allegiance to entities other than the East German regime. It was also part of the broader discrimination against religious folk. Refusing the Jugendweihe could mean hurting your entire family's job prospects and certainly attracted the attention of the secret service, the Stasi. Joachim Gauck, the German president and former pastor who oversaw the opening of the Stasi archive, wrote quite forcefully about this in his memoir. 

It's fine if people feel the ritual is meaningful to them anyway. There's nothing wrong with an American embracing an atheist alternative to communion, confirmation or bar/bat mitzvah. What made me cross was the complete unawareness of the historical context. Sure, there's an argument to be made that some traditions of the Real-Socialist Republic are worth preserving. The concept of Jugendweihe dates back to the 19th century, and while it was used as a political instrument by the East German regime, there must be ways to reinvent it. It's still popular with many East Germans, indeed more popular than the Christian equivalent, confirmation, according to official data. But this author didn't make an argument, she just went for a bright and innocent: 'Jugendweihe! Awesome!'. She refused to engage with the past, either out of ignorance or because it would have spoiled the fluffy optimism of the piece.

I know, I'm probably overreacting. It was a light-hearted and friendly take on some of the more positive aspects of my culture. Yet I do sometimes wonder if Berlin's global hipsters are even aware my country was divided once. Or if they just think the GDR was like one big retro shop with cool vintage fonts and cute orange furniture. 

Sorry, rant over. Next: ironic Stalin moustaches.

Monday, 16 February 2015

A visit to the Buttes Chaumont

I was in Paris this weekend, vising my old neighbourhood, the 19th arrondissement. At its heart lies the Buttes Chaumont park, which I've always seen as a heart-warming symbol of successful multi-culturalism. My first novel was set there, and I've spent many hours sitting on the grass and enjoying the urban soap operas around me. On any given weekend, you'll see hip young Parisians with trilby hats, big Muslim and orthodox Jewish families, little boys with kippas and girls with headscarves, maybe a gay wedding or two, runners, picnickers and Chinese pensioners practicing tai chi. Plus the guy with the Shetland ponies.

When I heard that the Charlie Hebdo attackers had been part of a gang of jihadis known as the "Buttes-Chaumont gang", who met and exercised in the park, I felt a strange sense of territorial outrage. It's irrational - out of all the things the attackers did, where and how they exercised is really the least important aspect. But I couldn't help it, I felt so angry that a small number of violent men hijacked *our* park as their extremist club house. I don't want them to be known as the Buttes-Chaumont group, because it's not their damned park. It's one of the most beautiful green spaces in Paris, a real gem in a very mixed neighbourhood, and 99% of people go there for the tulips and the trees. They're the real Buttes-Chaumont group!

As for Paris, it was as beautiful as always, but I did notice a lot of tension and nervousness that hadn't been there before. Big armed guys in camouflage were guarding all the Jewish schools and cultural centres. It's reassuring that there's extra protection, but also heart-breaking that this should be necessary. The only island of calm was the guy at my local kosher supermarket, right next to the park. When I asked him why he wasn't taking extra security measures, he just smiled and said "God protects us." 

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

"We were simply joyful unbelievers"

Amazing new Charlie Hebdo cover. The headline says, "All is forgiven." I'm not a fan of most of the prophet-cartoons out there - that Danish one with the bomb as a turban, for example, is just nasty. But this one really follows the best tradition of graphic art. It's witty and moving.

And what a powerful message:

“We feel that we have to forgive what happened," said Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo, on BBC Radio 4 today. "I think those who have been killed, if they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to ask them why have they done this … We feel at the Charlie Hebdo team that we need to forgive."

Luz, the cartoonist who drew the cover, only survived the massacre at Charlie Hebdo because he was running late. There was a fascinating interview with him in Les Inrocks shortly after the attack. He said he wasn't even sure how he could continue drawing. One of the things that weighed on him was the enormous responsibility placed on the team's shoulders after the first cartoon controversy in 2007. He questioned the sudden scrutiny of their cartoons for a deeper symbolism and political meaning, "when on a worldwide scale, we are merely a damn teenage fanzine".

"We were simply joyful unbelievers," he said. "All of those that died were joyful unbelievers. And now, they’re nowhere. Just like everyone else."

It must be unsettling for an irreverent, anti-establishment artist to suddenly find himself turned into a national symbol, a warrior saving the Republic. Luz said his dead friends would have scorned the singing of the national anthem at the rally in their honour. Charlie is not about symbols, he said, but about specific cartoons lampooning specific people and situations. And in that vein, he was going to force himself to publish the next edition, not for some wider cause but for his friends:

"I’m going to think about my dead friends, knowing they didn’t fall for France! Today, it seems that Charlie fell for the freedom of speech. The simple fact is that our friends died. The friends we loved and whose talent we admired so very much."