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Berlinasia – Fascination and Interdependence

Martin Jankowski (2019)

Keynote. FernostBerlin. Parataxe Symposium V. May 23, 2019.

1. Berlinasia?

What does Berlin have to do with Asia? Not much at first glance: Asia is too far away, too foreign, far too complex. Berlin’s reference points are Paris and Prague, Brussels and Rome, Amsterdam and London – and New York and Moscow are usually on the outermost horizon of the German capital’s inhabitants. And are in fact our cultures and mentalities (Asian and European) not much too different and in all respects (geographical, historical, religious, etc.) too far apart from each other for convergence to be conceivable? Undoubtedly! However, this panel aims to make us aware that Asia is not only the source of a large proportion of the raw materials (such as the unfortunate palm oil for our biofuels or rattan or tropical wood for our patio furniture) that make our lives richer, but that we also have a cultural history that has long been shared and interwoven, right down to its roots, and that there are currently numerous reciprocal influences: The cultural connections between Asia and Germany are deeper and go back further than many of us know and are aware of. Of course, ASIA is far too imprecise and crude a term for a cultural origin, which Asia one would have to ask immediately, Middle East, South Asia, or even South East Asia? And which of the thousands of cultural traditions and languages are meant? In our symposium we do not proceed geographically and certainly not geographically balanced, that would go beyond the scope of such a project and would not do justice to the matter: We ask differently, rather “In which Asian languages is literature currently being written in Berlin – and who are its authors?“ So first we will explore the two most influential Asian literary scenes in Berlin, the Chinese and Vietnamese, in exchange with their protagonists and connoisseurs. And then we will broaden our view to the most diverse languages and influences that shape Asian literature on contemporary literature in the German capital. And we will get to know some of the important literary figures and their positions, which, from Berlin, have a decisive influence on contemporary literature – and to be more precise, to a much greater extent than most Berliners might be aware of. You often first notice Asia in Berlin, and impressively so, is through itsfood. Countless Asian restaurants, bistros, streetfood stands, fruit, vegetable and flower shops, but also large markets have populated the city since the fall of the Berlin Wall, shaping Berlin’s everyday life as if they had been here since the first settlement was founded by the Slavic Havelen and Spreewanen 10,000 years ago…

In which languages does Berlin write today? The majority of the city’s migrants (2017) are foreigners: Poles make up the largest group with about 6,000 new Berliners, followed by Americans, Romanians, Bulgarians and Italians. China is the strongest Asian country with an influx of 2,330 and in sixth place. Berlin’s future is simply inconceivable without immigrants. Today, 44.7 percent of Berlin’s children and young people under the age of 18 have foreign roots. Among the 25 most frequent citizenships in Berlin (they also provide an image of the more than one hundred and twenty languages spoken in our city), Vietnam will be the leading country in tenth place in 2017, far ahead of the Chinese citizens living here. Berlin and especially the district of Lichtenberg are becoming more and more attractive for Vietnamese people. The number of Vietnamese inhabitants in the city has been growing rapidly for years. According to the Statistical State Office, 16,652 Vietnamese citizens plus 9,652 German citizens with a Vietnamese migrant background currently live in the city. This makes a total of more than 26,000 people with Vietnamese roots in the German capital (and this is just the official number). This means that by far the largest number of Vietnamese live in Berlin, compared to all other federal states. While Vietnamese were the largest non-European immigrant group for Berlin for many years, in recent years they have been overtaken by two other groups: Numerous refugees came to the city from Syria, so that Syrians today represent the largest immigrant group, with 30,999, who come from a continent other than Europe. Also, more US-Americans now live (at least officially) in Berlin than Vietnamese citizens (18,677).

By the way, by the summer of 2018 Berlin already had a growing “foreign population” of 725,458 people with a total of 3,723,914 inhabitants – which is about 19% of migrants. If one extends the perspective to people “with a migration background”, the figure for Berlin is 1,244,297 (33.4%), which means that almost one in three Berliners has its roots abroad in 2018 – according to the Berliner Zeitung, even one in two under 18s have roots abroad. This small statistical classification perhaps also makes it clear why our PARATAXE project is so vehemently dedicated to researching “non-German-language” contemporary literature (we say: Berlin contemporary literature in other languages) – its significance and influence are, also internationally, clearly greater than most Berliners and most Berlin cultural institutions have been aware of so far. When we speak of Berlin as a city of literature, we also speak of literature that is written to a significant extent in languages other than German!


2. The Berlin Vietnameses

When I began in 2002 to take an interest in the Asian literatures and their presence in Berlin as a literary author and organizer, I became aware how easily the Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese or Korean restaurants or services could be seen in the cityscape, whereas on the other hand, how hard you had to try to discover their cultural offerings – you really had to search for them: Culturally, Asian Berliners like to stay among themselves and rarely seek the attention of German and international Berliners for their cultural events. My first literary work on this topic, following the cliché, was a story (called “Fu”) – about a person who dropped out of the Vietnamese cigarette mafia in Berlin… In the following years, our literary association held numerous international readings in Berlin, including Manjushree Thapa from Nepal, Rattawut Lapcharoensap from Thailand and Arundhati Roy from India for instance. And every time these authors asked me about the Asian scene in our city, I had to shrug my shoulders. I particularly noticed that everyone in Berlin knew the names of the writers of the largest immigrant group in West Berlin, the Turkish citizens, but what was about the largest immigrant group in East Berlin, the Vietnamese? Everyone could clearly see their presence in the city – their bistros and shops were and are extremely popular meeting places in our neighbourhoods. But where were the Vietnamese writers? It actually took years before I found my first traces of Vietnamese literature in Berlin – thanks to the poet The Dung and his friends, who run the small but influential bilingual publishing house edition vipen in Berlin Lichtenberg. It wasn’t until 2014 that I was able to invite two Vietnamese writers from Berlin to our world literary salon for the first time. (By the way, the PARATAXE project, which has since developed into a citywide and internationally acclaimed project, has evolved from this project.) Two years ago, the Berlin photographer Than Long called his Berlin exhibition about the Vietnamese migrants permanently living in Germany “The Invisible Ones”: Today I understand a little better why Vietnamese authors are so hard for us German readers to find: Many of them are here to write away from the public in peace and quiet and to express literarily something that can sometimes only be written openly with difficulty in Vietnamese society. Only with the so-called second generation of immigrants, i.e. German Vietnamese like Than Long or the ZEIT authors Vanessa Vu or Khue Pham, does this change: “We New Germans”, for example, Khue Pham called her book about the “postmigrant self-image” of this generation, which she published in 2012 together with a German-Polish and a German-Turkish colleague. For the young gifted German-Vietnamese poet Thien Tran (born 1979), however, this discourse came too late and he took his own life in Paris in 2010. Today we know, also thanks to the panel realized here and now, that there are also many important Vietnamese writers of the first generation in Berlin (for instance the influential novelist, translator and blogger Mrs. Pham Thi Hoai). We learned that there is a Vietnamese literary publisher here and also regular literary festivals of the Berlin Vietnamese – of which we know so little because we hardly appreciate Vietnamese… Above all thanks to Dr Dang-Lanh Hoang and his invaluable work as a translator (in both the literary and the human sense!) between Vietnamese and German literature and scene, we have now for the first time been able to facilitate a more intensive exchange with Berlin’s Vietnamese literary scene with PARATAXE – and we hope that this open door will not close again but will make possible further steps of exchange and cooperation.


3. Indonesia in Berlin

The Asian country whose literature I have studied most intensively since 2002 is Indonesia, with its 260 million inhabitants the third largest democracy in the world (after the US and India). There are a number of influential Indonesian contemporary authors who have close connections to Berlin and who have also written literary works here or about our city. In addition to the great poet and theatre man Rendra, who died in 2009, there are also the writer Ayu Utami, the poet and playwright Agus R. Sarjono, the poet and publisher Goenawan Mohamad and, most recently, the novelist Laksmi Pamuntjak, whose latest successful novel “Herbstkind” is partly based in Berlin (she wanted to be here today and sends her greetings). They have all lived in Berlin for a while but have not become permanent residents. The only Indonesian writer I know who lives in Berlin is Husen Chiawi, a shrewd contemporary who became famous in the 1990s for his experimental literary salons in Charlottenburg’s private apartments together with Thomas Kapielski – his most important publication at the time had the eloquent title “Leck mich am Text” (Eng.: suck my text) – unfortunately Chiawi gave up writing after 2000 and now lives a restless Berlin artist’s life as a tango dancer and bar owner. When we first realised a big JAKARTA BERLIN ARTS FESTIVAL in Berlin in summer 2011 on behalf of the Governing Mayor (Wowereit), we also invited 10 poets and writers from the Indonesian capital to Berlin and brought them into literary contact with Berlin poets – a combination that continues to lead to new collaborations up to this day. Since there are currently no Indonesian writers living permanently in Berlin, we are cooperating on this topic – as we have done for many years – with the Berlin publisher Eva Streifeneder, who with her regiospectra publishing house has the most profound range of literature on the German-Indonesian theme to offer both literarily and professionally. For two years Berlin now also owns an Indonesien house of culture rumah budaya which is run by the Indonesien embassy and has its own literary reading series Temu Sastra (literature meeting).


4. Chinese Berlin

As far as the influential and growing group of Chinese-speaking Berlin authors is concerned, we have been relying on the expertise of the German-Chinese author and book designer Yimeng Wu and the poet and translator Lea Schneider for several years now, whose current panel with its guests provided us with everything worth knowing about this topic. Btw: Lea Schneider’s exploration of Berlin’s Asian literary scenes on brings you closer to 16 places in Berlin that you should get to know if you are interested in this topic. The presence of world-renowned poets such as Liao Yiwu, Yang Lian and Ai Weiwei in Berlin often conceals the fact that a whole series of other highly interesting authors*are writing in Chinese in this city; in today’s first panel we presented some of them. One real discovery of our 2016 STADTSPRACHEN FESTIVAL, for example, was the Taiwanese writer (and actor) Kevin Chen – while he has a steadily growing crowd of enthusiastic readers in Taiwan, we were able to present one of the few German translations of his prose at the time – and we are very pleased that he is now also being perceived as an author in Berlin and, in particular, that tonight he will present another taste of his literature in German for the first time here in his working home Berlin.


5. The Japanese Literature of Berlin

Yoko Tawada, a writer from Japan, is an almost unique phenomenon in Berlin’s Asian literary scene. Her German-Japanese literary intersections have attracted worldwide attention both linguistically and culturally. Her work deserves a whole chapter, in itself. She writes both Japanese and German, poetry and prose – but her inimitable, idiosyncratic style and her unusual books now also occupy entire international seminars of literary scholars. Because we have the honor to have her among us today, I don’t want to talk here about her remarkable work (which would need its own symposium), but about which Japanese authors still live in our city: I would like to take this opportunity to send you the greetings of Tomomi Adachi (born 1972), an experimental sound poet and music performer who is excellently connected to the scenes of Berlin, who would have liked to enrich our program with a performance today if he hadn’t been already booked for a festival in Münster.

In conversation with Ms. Tokiko Kiyota, Deputy Secretary General of the Japanese-German Center Berlin, which also regularly offers public literary events (unfortunately, today they have their own concert event planned, but are very happy about our symposium and are open to cooperation), I learned who currently writes in language in Berlin: Mr. Masato Nakamura writes as a freelance author/journalist mainly in Japanese for Japanese people living in Germany. The Japanese journalist Mrs. Ichika Rokuso/Rossow has been living in Berlin with her German husband for over 30 years, explains the Germans to the Japanese with magazine articles and runs a blog for Japanese people about Berlin and its surroundings and has, for instance, written a novel about the Japanese doctor Dr. Nobutsugu Koyenuma, who from September 1945 until his death in 1946 headed the hospital of the Brandenburg city of Wriezen im Oderbruch. She has also written (in Japanese) two books about the long-standing secret of the German friend of the author Mori Ogai (1862-1922), who was the role model for the protagonist in “Maihime” (“The Dancing Girl”). In her two books – 2011 and 2013 – Rokuso has compiled her insights into Ogai’s real friend Elise Marie Caroline Wiegert in Germany.

And this brings us to the most important (and only) Japanese literary memorial to be found in Berlin: The Mori Ogai memorial in the Luisenstraße in Mitte, which is supervised by the HU, commemorates the doctor and poet Mori Ogai, with an exhibition and regular events, who came to Berlin in 1887 as a pupil of Robert Koch and processed his German experiences with his stories and novels. He was very popular in Japan at the end of the 19th century. With his translations of German literary classics from E.T.A. Hoffmann to Goethe (e.g. “Faust”) he also brought German influences into the Japanese literature of his time. He is regarded as one of the founding fathers of literary modernism in Japan and was president of the Japanese Academy of Arts until the end of his life (in the early 1920s). The Japanese writers of this city also include the translator and blogger Ms. Ito Ogawa, as well as Ms. Leiko Ikemura – the internationally famous painter is primarily an art professor at the UdK, but she also writes poems that are also exhibited between the works of art in the exhibitions. There is also an artist’s book with her paintings and poems. Japanese Berliner Sakae Nasuda, a staff member at the Cultural Department of the Japanese-German Center Berlin, is also an active literary figure: under the stage name Sakae Kimoto, she translated German children’s and youth books into Japanese, such as “Tschick”, “Mimus” and many more.

Our research on Korean literary people of Berlin has so far been relatively fruitless, but we have only begun it in the run-up to the symposium. We discovered two young, polyglot Koreans who both write multilingual, but predominantly in English – the poet Dasom Yang, who trained in creative writing in Dublin, is a member of the editorial staff by our befriended Berlin literary magazine SAND for English writing authors. At the end of this panel you will be able to experience Dasom as our featured poet in person. The second is Aly Cha, who grew up with a Japanese father and a Korean mother and lived in Japan, Korea, America, Canada and Switzerland before settling in Berlin. You will also be able to get to know herself – she reads from her novel “Snow in April” in our final evening reading program.


6. What’s missing?

What remains is the other largest cultural nation in Asia, the Indian subcontinent. Among the few authors permanently resident in the German capital, the “most Indian Berliner” – or, as you like, “the most Berlin Indian” – is a kind of a native of the local literary scene, the author, activist and successful dubbing artist – Rajvinder Singh. He writes in several languages (Panjabi, English, German), is both Berlin and Indian, activist and Sikh, and knows the Berlin scene better than almost anyone else for decades. He is additionally an active cultural mediator between India and Berlin – as you can see in our panel, where Raj, as his friends may call him, will speak in a little while, so I will leave all further explanations to him. The regular salons that the Indian designer Mini Kapur organizes in her Schöneberg gallery Under the Mangotree are also remarkable in this context. Remarkable, among other things, because this Indian design artist has a pronounced preference for classical German poetry, for example by Heinrich Heine and others, and cultivates it with correspondingly demanding reading evenings. In recent years, the Berliner Literarische Aktion has also repeatedly cultivated multilingual literary encounters with Indian authors, for example with Kiran Nagakar (Bombay) in 2008 or, as already mentioned, Arundhati Roy (2009), Altaf Tyrewala (Mumbai) in 2011, Chandrahas Choudhury (Bombay) and Santosh Kumar Brahma (Calcutta) in 2012, and many more. However, nothing has come to our attention about Indian-language writers in Berlin in all these years (so we are always grateful for hints).

What about Berlin writers from Thailand? Myanmar? Cambodia? The Philippines? East Asia and Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Near East (sometimes also called West Asia), North Asia, Central Asia… the immense variety of languages, states and cultures that we hide behind the term Asia is virtually immeasurable, so the word is a very rough wedge – and at the same time also an expression of our – now I mean above all us German and Central European “Westerners” – ignorance. One Berliner who is confronted with this ignorance on a daily basis because of his origins is the Sri Lankan-born writer Senthuran Varatharajah from Berlin. He grew up in Germany, studied classical European philosophy and Protestant theology, among other things, and is nevertheless repeatedly classified as an “Asian author”. In this respect I am particularly pleased that this sophisticated German author will lead our subsequent panel discussion, in which he will hopefully also contribute some of his own experiences and positions.

The indifferent geographical and cultural term Asia is perhaps also an expression of our comfort in having to deal more closely with the otherness (other values, other mentalities – do we want that at all?) and complexity of the most populous part of the world, in which however linguistically and culturally the origins and sources of our own cultures lie. The massive dynamics inherent in Asian cultures which are currently in the process of perceptibly changing the world (even to Berlin) may remain incomprehensible, unimportant or even suspect to some Europeans who actually consider themselves open to the world. In this respect, it probably helps our comfortable ignorance a lot if we look at the literature of the Asian-speaking Berliners – our friendly city neighbours! – in order to gain an entry into a thematic and cultural force that is neither threatening nor unimportant for our present and future. The opposite is the case: The Asian authors of Berlin are currently emerging from the literary shadow and beginning to shape the contemporary literature of our city more openly and more clearly with their texts – no matter in which language they write.

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