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Beyond Explicit Group Assignments

Elina Mikkilä (2018)

A Language Biographical Typology of Non-Monolingual Literary Writing


[During the lecture, the highlighted – mostly contextually ambiguous, at times foreign – expressions are projected onto a screen in the form of a condensing collage]


Good morning everybody! First of all, let me dare to drop the formal German “Sie” and use “du” instead, the common Scandinavian address. It no longer comes that easy to me, because I have spent half of my lifetime world hopping abroad, mostly in German-speaking countries. Yet, as casual as my Nordic aside may sound, it is premeditated, because this way, you and I will be on the same level. Paratactic communication from the very beginning, so to speak.

Instead of underlining the dividing aspects of ‘Babylonian Wealth’, I will emphasize its connecting role. In hardly any other city, I am reminded of this more concretely than here. But how can the genealogical relations interlinking our subversive linguistic family of differently-speaking[1] authors be expressed, if we do not have a common tongue at our disposal?

Confusion over confusion. Looking at the various Germanists’ attempts of coining a proper term for the literature emerging from non-monolingual context.


Literature of foreign citizens, migrant or immigrant or emigrant literature,

               migrant or migration or minority literature,

               intercultural, multicultural or German guest literature,

               nomadic literature, foreign literature,

               German external literature, migration focused literature,

              not only German literature[2]


Even this impressive array of terms cannot hide its underlying weakness: Exegetic, socio-historical and philosophical concepts are intermixed.

The online magazine stadtsprachen offers a similarly composite variety, with its 167 Berlin authors writing in over thirty languages.[3] It pursues the intention of providing a platform for non-German-speaking Berlin authors. A few authors writing out of the ordinary, monocultural context are generously granted asylum, too. Like myself. Maybe this was not done on purpose, but the procedure proves to be coherent, particularly with regard to the myth of a tolerant metropolis.

Consequently, these symposiums cover contributions by authors that, strictly speaking, do not fall under its label. But it’s exactly those not fully fitting into the crowd that should be included. They belong to us. We belong to you. It is close to my heart to keep this family as open(minded) and welcoming as possible.

Through this open door I feel invited to try and organize these voice-convolutions a bit. But where shall I start?  Randomness seems to be the lowest common denominator between its heterogeneous originators. I am also fully conversant with the term ‘contingency’. Where everything seams possible we should rather look for the largest common base? Since any literature discourse that seals itself off would just be jingoistic – even in a cosmopolitan, trendy metropolis.

Well and long equipped against short-sighted fencing in, I would like to convey as comprehensively as possible. Likewise, being able to recognize Berlin in the variety of non-monolinguistic writing, as well as wanting to gain inspiration and impulses for thought, too, from the city’s polylingual literary scene. In the form of an unorthodox typology, in the sense that it starts out from reading experience as well as autobiographical-poetological factors; it is not merely an analytical inventory but rather a manifesto enlarged by a future vision which demonstrates (to those who write within fixed structures) how linguistic multi-coding functions.

Let me start with language. It is every author’s literary device as well the as a crutch for his literary identity materializing itself between his two fingers. This is particularly true for those having left their usual linguistic terrain.[4] Usually, a more sensitized language awareness and poetological reflection becomes a central signpost focus of their literary quest.[5]

The identity forming force is that which lends a label its meaning – when one feels different. ‘Movement’ is also an important characteristic shared by non-monolanguage writers. My typology, too, has a migratory element: It is certainly possible to settle into another bio-lingual group.[6] Commute between the groups. Broaden one’s language horizon. Practice on(the-fence)looking.

Differently-speaking serial cross border commuters break up dual affiliations. Bilingualism turns into polylingual literature, as is the case with the two Milenas writing in Berlin, Oda and Nikolova – who share the same name though they are of different origins. This increasing mobility carries the hybridity of connotations with it. Ambivalence, double meaning and polysemy fall into a random pattern. Based on my personal experience horizon, this no longer just concerns the multiple changes in geographical and lingual-cultural but also in discursive and intra- or interdisciplinary perspectives.

In order to pursue this exploration together with you, I want to suggest an interactive typology. A sort of real-time field study, or bio-lingual speed-dating if you like. Careful! From now on my exemplary authors will not only come from Berlin but also from bilingual contexts. Whoever considers themselves multilingual, will certainly find it a cinch to substitute the adjective (which I have utilised for reasons of comprehension) ‘bilingual’ with the expression ‘bi- and multilingual’. I count on you!

First of all, I would like to know, whether there are people among us, who grew up in a German-bilingual environment from early childhood on, who are maybe second or third generation migrants?  (If this describes you, please, raise your hand – so that we know who we are talking about within the Berlin literary scene of non-German writers.) This is the most prominent group, according to the Who’s Who of so-called migrant literature. It looks back on a tradition of more than fifty years and by now, presents a sufficient number of authors standing in the limelight. As these literary up-and-comers – like Mathias Nawrat – were children at the time of migration or were even born here, German is their most logical means of expression. Even if they are alternatively referred to as ‘Non-German mother tongue authors’.

These, which I refer to as, 1) natural bilingual German-speaking authors hold a privileged position “at the interface of two languages and connecting with both along their respective cultural settings.”[7] The other side of the coin is a sense of rootlessness or of feeling socially or culturally out of place. Historically, most of these writers come from a Turkish or Eastern-European background and develop a “migrant self-denial” as an aggravating circumstance – as Emilia Smechowski and her writing compatriots state in their self-diagnosis –  due tothe low social acceptance of their native Polish language.[8]

In linguistics such discriminatory treatment towards the use of specific languages or the language itself is called linguicism, which often targets the language of marginalized minorities. What is the situation like here? Is there anybody amongst us who grew up bilingually in a German-speaking minority in a foreign-speaking country? If so – you are welcome to the extraordinarily exclusive circle under the leader-(penman)-ship of 2) natural bilingual authors of German-speaking minorities like Herta Müller. Using the hegemonial language for their own purposes, these seemingly disfranchised groups are able to develop a strong emancipatory power. Maxi Obexer, for instance, depicts a lesbian first-person narrator escaping from South Tyrol to twenty-first century Babylon Berlin, where LGBTQ prejudice seems much easier to overcome than the administrative obstacles of naturalization. If this is all too slow for you: Terezia Mora’s prose swimming exercises at the 1999 edition of the reading competition in question reached the lonely pinnacle of German-speaking literature, stroke by stroke. Her early act of self-determined liberation led the later Büchner Prize winner from an ultra-catholic village in the periphery of Hungary to Berlin. The direction coincides with the protagonist’s in her first novel ‘Alle Tage’. Simply by chance? Fleeing from unrequited homosexual love – but differently from Obexer, in this case out of loss of orientation – is followed by polyglot fantasies of omnipotence in the posttraumatic character of a language genius.

How about it: acquiring inhumane ten accent free languages, strictly under functional laboratory conditions? Back to reality: Are there people present here with a similar talent or enthusiasm for languages who have acquired quasi-bilingual language skills on their own initiative? Maybe during cosmopolitan careers or owing to comprehensive reading or personal relationships? Our situation is as paradoxical as the speaking name of Abel Nema, Mora’s promising protagonist. Although through this kind of language acquisition one usually appropriates the anti-authoritarian nuances of the ‘step-mother-tongue’[9] including its cultural peculiarities[10]. But writing in a learnt language impedes the usage of emotional connotations that are essential for the poetic function of language.

Us, in this manner, “inlingualized”[11] I will call 3) culturally bilingual authors. ‘Us’? Who are ‘we’?  Please be patient, it takes us longer to arrive. Yet, the Bachmann prize winners Katja Petrowskaja and Sharon Dodua Otoo are the vivid examples that we are pulling up. Apart from a Generation Europe, rising with the mainstreamizing EU-mobility schemes, I can see a wave of Southern European ‘Guest-worker-literature 2.0‘ coming up: Like incarnate oxymora, these academically trained, young losers of global neoliberalism combine accumulated cultural and social capital with the  experience of being forced to leave their own country in order to secure a livelihood in the prospering German-speaking location. The myth of Berlin as a place with excellent creative working conditions, makes the howl of the city’s Genius Loci sound like the Siren songs for quite a few.[12]

However, these writers might just as well become an integrated part of Stadtsprachen’s core group of authors. The signs point to transience; now we are focusing on people who communicate in their own mother tongue in Berlin: I guess, there are quite a few of you in this room? As you can see, I have switched over to the rhetoric mode. For my questions to be answered, I would have to trump even Abel Nema’s language competence. But time is running short. So, let’s go on in English, which is probably your lingua franca anyway: Please put your hand up, if you mainly communicate in your mother tongue here in Berlin? Or in English? Thank you!

I would like to express my thankfulness especially for the pioneer work of Stadtsprachen for having made this neglected facet of the foreign writers’ discourse their subject and core competence. 4) Foreign-language authors amid a German-speaking majority share the experience of a cultural-linguistic schizophrenia: Looking back from a foreign culture helps them gain a deeper understanding of their own origins.[13] You may interpret this as you wish: It can mean to stay in contact, to work off one’s (long-lost) homeland, or to define your change of direction. Nonetheless, these authors must keep pace with the quickly changing developments of their mother-tongue, serving as their umbilical cord. There is no way around it. If one is at risk of losing touch, virtual communication creates new possibilities.

The pragmatic writing conditions differ widely depending on the size and range of the individual language. Predominant language groups command their own literary micro-infrastructure[14], whereas niche language authors are naturally part of the international community. Birds of a feather flock together. Which, however, can be both a blessing and a curse – since it is precisely writers profiting mostly from an isolated observer position. Owing to (fortunate) circumstances.

So, we should better continue differentiating regarding our lingual biographies as constituent parameters of foreign language writing: Authors attached to their home regions often master the national language of their chosen residence well but pen their texts in their mother tongue – probably because of the problems connected to creative writing in a foreign language mentioned above. Others may well feel like the Mexican author and DAAD fellow with Italian roots, Fabio Morábito: “My relationship with Berlin was at all times that of a foreign traveller that sees the city as someone who knows he will be leaving again.”[15] In how far Berlin really plays the role of the dream destination with creative spaces and interdisciplinary cooperations can only be answered individually. Displaced persons, for instance, are forced to migrate due to existential reasons. Per definitionem their experiences are marked by social exclusion, in (total) opposition to those made by the so-called expat writers, lesser known, (inter)national celebrities here, like Kevin Chen, Dag Solstad or Eppu Nuotio.[16]

The last two subgroups fall under Sandra Gugic’s concept of the “precariate jetset“.[17] The Austrian author, a space traveller with Serbian roots, commutes between Vienna and Berlin. Like Ann Cotton, she is a borderline case, as she belongs to the first-mentioned group but can also be counted among the 5) diglossic bilingual German-speaking authors. Thereto my last questions: Who among you moved here from another German-speaking country? From a part of Germany with strong regional accents? This might surely be irritating, after all German speakers differ from each other by a common language. However, it is not only in the interlingual sphere that “a one-way street leads from the big languages to the smaller ones”.[18] The norms of grammar structure and means of expression follow the majority usage. Authors enriching the German language with their idiomatic particularities can be sure of a paternalistic bonus for their exotic contributions.  But the ‘father tongue’s’ rigid standardization of monolingual language acquisition is probably the reason why proper High German only hesitantly accepts its own diversity. This is just as wide-ranging as the experience-based connotations formed by linguistic socialization, which should be expressed appropriately from the reader’s perspective.[19] ‘A sense of belonging’ is a (twofold) stretchable guiding concept, if variants absorbed with breast milk are replaced by unhomely ones to exist in a linguistic community in which the people who hold the numerical superiority, in this case the ignorant, hold the privilege of interpretive sovereignty.

Our increasingly pluralistic society is currently in a time of threshold characterised by opaqueness. It is ripe for emerging meanings that will offer alternatives to the dominant ones, to challenge them and thus to raise cultural awareness for the reality of our surroundings.[20] Their (linguistic) freedom of movement grants multicentred authors the potential to profoundly shatter the currently still (fixed) nationality-oriented varieties of literature.[21]

Despite our individual linguistic biographies, we non-native speakers share a similar pool of experiences. This seemingly homogeneous appearance often leads the non-affected to inadequate though marketable labelling. However, individuals are difficult to categorize. Many an author who stands up for linguistic and intellectual flexibility feels boxed in wrongly. But where and whenever we are limited, we all have the empowering potential to further develop our own narratives and thus pervade and deconstruct incorporative attitudes. (This process, however, presupposes continuous self-reflection!)

Building up a multiple identity may be arduous, but it increases the awareness of oneself: The more the literary w(a/o)nderer  recognizes his uniqueness, the more consolidated his identity becomes.[22] In the long run, every writer strives to gain his own distinctive voice. Word by word that unmistakable language emerges from the tangled polyphony of voices, an individual idiolect which can express the wealth of experience any general language fails to represent.  You and me – we all have our say in this!


* * *

Illustration of the condensing collage at the end of my shortened lecture given at the 4th Parataxe-Symposium ‘Berlin Polylingual’ (23.11.2018, LCB):



Elina Mikkilä for © PARATAXE 2018

[1]  This neologism (anderssprachigen in the German original) originates from the invitation to this symposium, in reference to Berlin’s foreign-language literary magazines. Jankowski, Martin invitation: BERLIN POLYLINGUAL = 23rd of November! Email 13.11.2018

[2] Drossou, Olga – Sibel Kara Preface In: Migration Literature. A New German Literature? Dossier 03/2009, p. 4

The term ‘Gastarbeiterliteratur’ is missing from this list – one of the first terms for ‘migration literature’ that refers to the ‘authors’ of this genre. The appearance of the term in similar text contexts in the follow-up to Immacolata Amodeo suggests that this omission – coupled with the double mention of the euphemism ‘guest literature’ – is a typo. Since a term I suggested later in this lecture alludes to the missing term, I have corrected the alleged error.

[3] Author not named. Welcome! In: stadtsprachen magazin 16.11.2018 <>. It is noteworthy that the gender distribution is balanced with 84 female and 83 male authors, in contrast to current debates on the lack of gender equality in the literary world.

[4] It is not for nothing that Dimitré Dinev describes the word as his home. Dinev, Dimitré In der Fremde schreiben In: Arnold, Heinz Ludwig (ed.) Literatur und Migration. Text + Critique. Special volume Munich: text+kritik 2006, p. 209f.

[5] See for example the Dresden Chamisso-poetic-reading!

[6]  Apart from early bilingual socialization, the permeability of bio-lingual groups seems entirely possible to me. However, the absolute special status of early bilingualism on which this assumption is based can be called into question in times of increasing linguistic-cultural mobility.

[7] Norman, Marjatta Kaksikielisyys – ulkosuomaisten uusi ulottuvuus In: Hahmo, Sirkka-Liisa – Osmo Nikkilä (ed.) Vieraan ymmärtäminen. Kirjoituksia kielestä ja kulttuurista Helsinki: SKS 1996, p. 174. From the Finnish by E.M.

[8]  In a joint panel discussion, Polish authors share their (partly overcome) feelings of shame towards their own mother tongue. Cf. Danielewicz, Dorota – Brygida Helbig – Ewa Maria Slaska – Emilia Smechowski Panel II: Noch ist Kreuzberg nicht verloren. Literarische Grenzüberschreitungen. In: Ostpol Berlin. PARATAXE Symposium. Literary Colloquium Berlin 23.11.2018 <>

[9]   See Rajčić, Dragica Of mother tongues and stepmother tongues In: Die Wochenzeitung 10.12.2015 <>

[10]   Okkonen, Noora Kirjoitan, jag skriver, pisze. Kirjailija vieraassa kieliympäristössä Master’s thesis. Jyväskylä University 2005, p. 29f.

[11] (Eingesprachten in the German original) Quote from Ilija Trojanow in the title of: Bürger-Koftis, Michaela Die „Eingesprachten“ (Trojanow) ergreifen das Wort. Schreibenden der transkulturellen deutschsprachigen Literatur In: Ders. – Hannes Schweiger – Sandra Vlasta (Hg.) Polyphonie. Mehrsprachigkeit und literarische Kreativität Wien: Praesens 2010, p. 251-252

[12] The autobiographical narratives of Eastern European female author-panelists show that the move to Berlin was not least motivated by hardly predictable, personal motives. Franczak, Radka – Dora Kaprálová – Kinga Tóth – Marijana Verhoef and others. Berlin is in the East? New Literature from Berlin In: Ostpol Berlin. PARATAXE Symposium. Literary Colloquium Berlin 23.11.2018 <http://www.>. The discussion in question is dedicated to the feeling of freedom attributed to Berlin. I reply to this widespread myth: By assigning freedom to a certain place, it already loses some of its essence. The freeest place for thoughts is therefore our brain. See also footnote 4!

[13]  See Okkonen, Noora Kirjoitan, jag skriver, pisze. Kirjailija vieraassa kieliympäristössä Master’s thesis. Jyväskylä University 2005, p. 21

[14]    In Berlin, for example, larger language and cultural groups now have their own literature festivals (e.g. Latinale, Afrikanisches Literaturfestival and Osteuropa-Tage) and publication opportunities (such as the journals for Latin American, Russian and English literature: alba, берлин.берега and SAND) in addition to literature promotion programmes by established institutions. The selection of languages in which the Berlin Senate makes its information sheets available for non-German-language literary scholarships provides an indication of the most important groups of authors in the city: English, Arabic, French, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Turkish.

[15] Kraft, Tobias Literatur in Zeiten transnationaler Lebensläufe. Identitätsentwürfe und Großstadtbewegungen bei Terézia Mora und Fabio Morábito Master’s thesis. University of Potsdam. 2006/2007, p. 124

[16] The concepts ‘vagabonds’ and ‘tourists’ of the Polish-British sociologist/philosopher Zygmunt Bauman served as inspiration for the sub-groups ‘displaced persons’ and ‘expat writers’. As if by chance, author Kinga Tóth proposes during a panel discussion with her Eastern European colleagues (see footnote 12!) to replace the term ‘migrants’ with the word ‘tourists’. Decisive for the selection of my terms was on the one hand the associative power between the phrase ‘driven out’ (German: vertrieben) and ‘driven’ (German: getrieben); on the other hand the connotation ‘superficial’ of the colloquial expression expat, which is also borrowed from the mostly solely useful lingua franca English.

[17] Hausenblas, Michael Das beste Stück … nachgefragt bei Sandra Gugic In: Der Standard 13.04.2015 <>

[18] Velikič, Dragan Europa B In: Keller, Ursula – IIma Rakusa (Ed.) Europa schreibt. Was ist das Europäische an den Literaturen Europas? Essays aus 33 europäischen Ländern Hamburg: edition Koerber-Stiftung 2003, p. 351-356, here p. 353

[19] See Lehtonen, Mikko Merkitysten maailma. Kulttuurisen tekstintutkimuksen lähtökohtia Tampere: Vastapaino 1996, p. 53, 116

[20] See Lehtonen, Mikko Merkitysten maailma. Kulttuurisen tekstintutkimuksen lähtökohtia Tampere: Vastapaino 1996, p. 24-25

[21] Kraft, Tobias Literatur in Zeiten transnationaler Lebensläufe. Identitätsentwürfe und Großstadtbewegungen bei Terézia Mora und Fabio Morábito Master’s thesis. University of Potsdam WS 2006/2007, p. 18

[22] Okkonen, Noora Kirjoitan, jag skriver, pisze. Kirjailija vieraassa kieliympäristössä Master’s thesis. Jyväskylä University 2005, p. 21


From the German by Heddi Feilhauer

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