Sunday, December 6, 2009

Generational Divide

New Yorkers are divided by class, race, and ethnicity. Teaching English Composition to a multiethnic and multiracial group of students, most of them foreign-born, I was struck by the sharp generational divide.
In class we examined ads for Amnesty International. One showed two African refugee girls, possibly child soldiers, holding machine guns. They were looking straight into the camera with solemn eyes. Below the photograph there was blue sky and the words “imagine” and “nothing to kill or die for.” I worried that my students might not know Amnesty International, John Lennon’s famous song or John Lennon. I wanted to play the song for them, but—technologically stuck in the last century— I owned the record, not the CD. I couldn’t figure out how to download the song to my computer or how to create an MP 3 file.
My students, 17 to 20 years old, knew nothing of Amnesty International and its mission, but they were touched by the photo and in favor of protecting the dignity and rights of all people. None of them had heard the John Lennon song before; three or four knew who John Lennon was. “That Beatle with the funny glasses,” one student said. “He lived near Central Park and was murdered by a deranged fan,” another said.
We discussed the role that images play in our lives. My students — mostly computer science and engineering majors — didn't mind being visually bombarded all the time. They didn’t think it was wrong that more Americans get their news from TV than from newspapers. They thought it was awesome that they could take a photo with their iPhone and instantly send it to their cousins in Ghana, the Philippines, or Korea. One boy made fun of his mother who still writes real letters to her sister in Colombia.
“Maybe your mother’s sister does not own a computer,” I said.
“My mother is forty-five,” José said. “Too old to figure out e-mail.”
I tried to defend his mother; I tried to make a case for handwriting. “A handwritten letter is so much more personal,” I said.
My students didn’t think so.
“Do you want to get a love letter or condolence letter by e-mail?” I asked. “Sure,” they said. “That’s the best way of sending anything.”
Declining book sales and folding newspapers worry me. “Will computer screens replace books as our dominant way of reading?” I asked.
“No one will read books any longer,” Pram said. “We’ll all have a Kindle or one of those devices.”
“It's better for the environment. Think of how many trees we save,” Nicola said.
“Books will become extinct like dinosaurs in no time,” Mamandou added.
I felt as if a soccer ball had hit my stomach. “How soon?” I asked.
“Ten years,” someone in the back of the room shouted.
“No way, I’ll give it six,” Mamandou said.
The class nodded in agreement. Ten years was too long of a time. It was so much more convenient to read on a computer screen. They didn't need libraries. They didn’t need books. They had the Internet! I was shocked and saddened. I love books. I love to touch them, smell them, turn their pages, and feel their weight in my hands. Opening a book for the first time is as exciting as falling for a new lover.
I left class and walked down the stairs of Shepard Hall with slumped shoulders. They are the future, I thought. Did that make me, at 55, a proud member of the international family of book lovers, an endangered species? I tried to picture the literary events and readings I attended recently. My students were wrong. People still loved literature! I thought about my favorite place in Manhattan, the Center for Fiction (formally the Mercantile Library) that holds the largest fiction collection in the entire United States. Every time I walk into the Midtown mansion, I am greeted by beautiful old wooden file cabinets. I love to pull out the handwritten index cards and hunt for a book. The place smells like a library.
I had met younger people, readers and writers there, didn't I?
I concentrated hard to re-create the last reading in my mind’s eye. A famous writer and not too many people in the audience. Half the chairs were empty. The average visitor, like me, was middle-aged and female.
What if my students are right?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Ordeal of Being German

For most of my life being German felt like an ordeal, a full-time job. We dealt with our parents’ and grandparents’ guilt, the heavy load we had inherited. On American TV, my compatriots were Nazis, deranged psychiatrist, or Bavarians in Lederhosen. They were either barking orders or slapping their legs doing the Schuhplatter dance. That certainly didn't help me to feel any better about being German.
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was a life-changing event for me and for Germans no matter where they lived. The image of Nazi Germans was suddenly replaced by joyous Germans infecting the world with their good will and spirit. For the first time, I felt great being German and proud to belong to my nation. Overcome, I sat glued to the television with tears of joy streaming down my face. The next day everyone at work hugged me and congratulated me as if I had been responsible for bringing down the wall. Strangers invited me for a drink to celebrate the end of the Cold War. The parents of a Korean child in the school where I worked as a counselor brought me a flower. “We are happy and sad,” the father said. “We hope we are next,” his wife added.
After enthusiasm and celebration reality set in. Two million East Germans left their homes to seek their fortune elsewhere. In many parts of the former GDR, unemployment is in the double digits. East Germans earn 20% less than West Germans. The catch-up might take another twenty years. Germans are no longer surrounded by a cement wall but twenty years later a mental wall still exists. Many West Germans complain that their lives were better before reunification. Some East Germans feel nostalgic about their life in the GDR. The 1.3 trillion euro investment in the former East Germany—more than the entire Marshall plan for former West Germany—has not yielded the desired results.
With the exception of hosting the 2006 World Soccer Cup, Germans have not displayed joy and enthusiasm in large numbers. But now, at the twenty year anniversary of the fall of the wall, we allow ourselves to feel good once again. Here in New York, many events —readings, films and a dance performance —celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Columbia University hosted a conference “Freedom without Walls.” “Words without Borders” organized a reading and panel discussion at Idlewood Bookstore on November 10th to launch their new anthology The Wall in My Head. The book includes writers who witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain and those who grew up in its wake. [Milan Kundera, Peter Schneider, Ryszard Kapuściński, Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, Péter Esterházy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Muharem Bazdulj, Maxim Trudolubov, Dorota Masłowska, Uwe Tellkamp, Dan Sociu, David Zábranský, Christhard Läpple.]
At Idlewood, Polish writer Dorota Maslowska, German writer Kathrin Aehnlich and Romanian writer Dan Sociu read excerpts and spoke about how they witnessed the events at age six, twelve, and thirty-two. Eliot Borenstein, Chair of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, moderated.
Dan Sociu, a younger poet of the so-called “2000 Generation,” a movement Romanian literary critic called “Miserabilism”, brought down the house with his deadpan humor. Dorota Maslowska (Snow White and Russian Red) spoke about the difference of her generation to older, more established writers. “They want to write pretty literature; we want to rape literature,” she said. Kathrin Aehnlich read a hilarious segment from her latest book Everyone Dies, Even the Paddlefish in which teacher Aunt Edeltraud rules the children in an East German kindergarten with the iron fist of a prison warden.
Kathrin Aehnlich, a Leipzig native, was the only one old enough to not only have witnessed the fall of the wall but also to have actively participated in the Monday night demonstration that she believes prepared the fall of the wall.
The room was jam-packed. The audience asked a lot of questions. Most people stayed and engaged in lively conversation after the event. They polished off the hors d’oeuvres and drank the last drop of wine. The mood was festive. When the bookstore closed many were not ready to go home. I joined a group of German and American journalists and writers, a Dutch restaurant owner and a Canadian real estate agent at the Old Town Bar. There we continued our discussion over greasy bar food and Paulaner Beer.
My advice: have a beer, some mozzarella sticks, or if you prefer a piece of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. Indulge in being German. Bask in the fact that the fall of the wall was one of the few positive developments in recent world history. Be shameless. Who knows when we'll find such a good reason to party again?

Friday, October 30, 2009

An Evening with Yuri Andrukhovych

I had other plans for the evening, but when I heard that Yuri Andrukhovych was in town I changed my mind immediately. I had read his literary essays “Disorientation and Locality” and “My Europe” (co-published with the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk) in the German translation and often found myself laughing out loud while reading. I had read his novel, Twelve Rings, which many consider his best work in the German translation. A few years ago Barbara Epler, editor-in-chief of New Directions, asked me to read the book, write a report and make a recommendation if his work might do well in the American market. Despite my enthusiasm and praise, New Directions decided against translation and publication. Yuri Andrukhovych’s work has been published in Poland, Germany, Canada, the United States, Hungary, Finland, Russia, Serbia, Italy, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Bulgaria. Unfortunately, he remains largely unknown to the American reader.
Cosponsored by the Ukrainian Studies Program at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University and the Kennan Institute this event was not advertised anywhere. Nevertheless the room on the top floor of the International Studies building with the spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline was packed mostly with native Ukrainian speakers.
Yuri Andrukhovych had forgotten his reading glasses. So he read little and told stories instead, thereby revealing his unique sense of humor and remarkable talent as a raconteur. He spoke about the origins of his poem “Werwolf Sutra.” In 1986 he had a grant to stay in an East German artist residency. In the surrounding forests of Wiepersdorf he found the ruins of a former Soviet army town with its barracks, firing ranges, and outhouses covered with graffiti.
He recounted the background story of his novels Recreations (CIUS Press, 1998), Perverzion (Northwestern University Press, 2005) and The Moscoviad (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2008) and read selected excerpts.
He touched on the problems of translation. “Werwolf Sutra,” for example, had not been translated into English from the Ukrainian original but from the Polish translation. Of the four prestigious international literary awards he won; three were awarded to him in Germany, the other in Poland. Asked why he was so well received in Germany, Yuri Andrukhovych pointed out that Germany stood out in Europe for its knowledge about Ukrainian literature. Highly professional translators are available to translate from Ukrainian into the German language. He noted that Germany historically had always looked East and to the Russians, idealizing a quality they thought they lacked. I thought about my love for Slavic literature and Slavic people (I married a Ukrainian!), my travels to Eastern Europe (my favorite destination) and the first friend I made in New York, Polina from Moscow. When she introduced me to her Russian friends I found them so much more passionate than the Germans. When the Russians were sad, they were desperate; when they were happy, they were ecstatic. In Germany wearing your heart on your sleeve was frowned upon.
At 9:00 PM the organizers of the event urged the audience to leave, but the majority remained. Most mingled, shared their reactions to the reading and lined up to have books signed, to take photos, and to question Yuri Andrukhovych. All the available books were sold immediately.
“It is more important to live than to write,” Andrukhovych stated at one point during the evening and the crowd seemed to take his word for it. It was a great event featuring an inspiring writer. It was a privilege to have met the author of this distinctive literature.
Before coming to New York Yuri Andrukhovych appeared at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. A video of that forum can be accessed at
He is scheduled to go to Cleveland next. If you get a chance to hear and see him in person, by all means take it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The European Book Club

I am a voracious reader. I read everywhere: on the couch, in the bath tub, in bed, on park benches, airplanes, busses, and in the subway. Reading, I shut out the world and immerse myself in the world the author has created for me. Reading is my solitary pleasure. The bond is between the writer and me. I have never allowed anyone in to share my pleasure. It felt as if I’d be letting the world in to watch me making love.
For that reason, I have never participated in a book club. The last time I discussed literature in a large group was more than 30 years ago in high school, more specifically my German Gymnasium. Back then, only one interpretation of a work of fiction was allowed, that of the teacher’s. I sat in class knowing that the teacher was wrong, that there was more than one way of looking at the text, that all interpretations had value. Writers are open-minded; they present the lives and motivations of even the most despicable characters and often do so without judgment. So it was with great trepidation that I attended my first book club meeting.
Fifty percent of all the books in translation published worldwide are translated from English, but only six percent are translated into English. This amounts to 400 foreign fiction books (of which approximately seven are German) per year translated into American English. The European Book Club was launched one year ago by the librarians of the Austrian, Czech, French, German, Italian, and Spanish Cultural Institutes in New York City to expose more Americans to the wonderful literature of their homelands. From the beginning, it was a huge success. The Polish, Romanian, and Norwegian libraries have subsequently joined.
I was prepared. Reading Katherina Hacker’s The Have-Nots had not been a pleasurable solitary experience. In fact, I had to force myself to get through the story of well-to-do thirty-somethings, who like the rest of Germany, seemed to suffer from low-level chronic depression. I had a hard time following the multitude of characters and the simultaneous stories lines. I didn't care for the 9/11 reference, the wealthy protagonists, their pain, angst, and ambiguity. I wondered why Hacker had won the 2006 German Book Prize.
At the Goethe Institute’s new downtown location, twelve women and one man sat in a circle. Unsure how to act, I sat back to observe. Many participants found the novel difficult to read. Some had not finished the book. The group explored the motivation of the characters. The protagonists were one-dimensional and lacking in empathy. Had that been the writer's intention? We discussed the different prose style of American and German writers: great storytelling, entertaining literature as opposed to literature as Bildungsauftrag that made the reader work hard.
In no time I felt totally at ease and plunged into the discussion. We jumped around quite a bit, touched on the role of Holocaust in post World War II German consciousness, German guilt, and Herta Müller winning The Nobel Prize. Should we read her next? We discussed modernism in literature, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. Maybe Katherina Hacker tried to do something similar? We all agreed that she didn't have the skill of those writers. We shared personal experiences about 9/11, living in Berlin, Poland, in Ceausescu's Romania, and as a Jewish American in 70s Germany.
I was impressed how polite and inclusive the group was. No one cut each other off. We pointed to the weak portions of the book with kindness. I sat there thinking what if I was to discuss this book with my friends in Germany? Would we have trashed the book, used much stronger language? Would we have been so kind?
After the official end of the book club, most stayed and continued the conversation over wine and pâté crackers. A diverse group of people had been brought together by their love for European literature. I was glad I had been part of it. This had been an extremely enjoyable evening. “When is the next meeting?” I asked before walking out the door. “Count me in.”

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Offensive Headscarf

I am walking down a tree lined Berlin street on a hot August day with my friend Hannelore. A couple is coming toward us. The man is dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, his wife is wearing a headscarf and a black long sleeve dress over her pants. “Don’t you just hate this,” Hannelore says.
“Hate what?” I answer.
“This backwardness, this oppression of women.”
While I ponder her comment, she launches an all out attack against Muslim male chauvinists. “These men, they keep their women locked up at home. They won’t let them leave the house alone. They don’t allow them to work outside the home.”
“Are you sure all Muslim men are that way?” I ask
She doesn’t hear me; she’s worked herself into a rage. I learn that she’s for the ban of headscarves for teachers and all public employees, that she is convinced that women are second class citizens in Muslim society, and that men have no right to impose their “misogynist” patriarchal values on women. “Even Turkey, a secular Islamic nation, bans the headscarf,” she fumes.
I can’t get a word in. “Why is this such an issue for her?” I think. “Why are so many progressive left wing Germans like Hannelore so intolerant?” In the New York subways, I’m exposed to commuters of different religions every day, some wearing chains bearing a crucifix and others the Star of David. Observant Jewish men wear yarmulkes while Orthodox Jewish women don wigs. I see Muslim women in headscarves and Sikhs in their turbans. If Berliners experienced this diversity every day, would Hannelore be more open-minded?
I think of a former colleague, a mathematician from Yemen, who dressed modestly and always covered her head. She didn’t appear oppressed to me. I think of the many Muslim students in my classes at City College. I think of Mawara who came to class in a Persian Gulf niqab, with only a slit for the eyes; none of her classmates found it strange or objectionable. I think of Ziram and her latest essay assignment. She wrote about her parents, liberal Egyptian Muslims, who allowed her all the freedom of an American teenager. Ziram danced, she flirted and dated. She came to her high school prom in a sexy slinky gown. Then she had a religious awakening. She prayed more, dressed modestly, and began wearing a headscarf. Her parents failed to understand. “I prefer to dress like this now,” she wrote. “It protects me from guys and their lewd stares.”
“Isn’t it possible that some women choose to wear headscarves, that they decide for themselves how they want to present themselves in public?” I ask.
“No way,” Hannelore replies.
Another fifteen minutes of heated debate follow. Hannelore paints a gruesome picture of honor killings that have taken place in Germany. She reminds me of the Taliban’s moral police. They don’t allow little girls to attend school. “Not every Muslim forces his wife to stay home or to wear a burqa when she has to leave the house,” I say. “Most want their daughters to become educated.”
She doesn’t hear me. I can’t help feeling that Hannelore’s stance reflects an anti-Islamic sentiment. Progressive Germans would never think of forbidding a Sikh to wear a turban or a Jew a yarmulke. Maybe Hannelore’s attack on the backwardness of Islam is a sign of her own prejudice and intolerance. I recall an interview with Hayrünissa Gül, the wife of Turkey’s president, reported in the news. A journalist questioned her about her fight for the right of Turkish female students to wear headscarves at universities if they so choose. “Isn’t that going backwards?” he had asked, to which she replied:
“The headscarf covers my head, not my brain.”
Copyright © 2009 by Anna Steegmann

Monday, September 7, 2009

Politically Correct Language?

Having returned from a two months stay in Europe, I recall warring letters to editors and heated debates in the Austrian press. An advertisement campaign by an ice cream company caused a ruckus. “I will mohr! “ (I want moor) the posters said referring to the desert “Mohr im Hemd" (moor in a shirt). Similar to the English Christmas pudding, this mix of chocolate, sugar, egg yolks, almonds, and red wine is cooked in hot water, and then covered with hot chocolate sauce. Cream (the shirt) is squeezed through a pastry bag around the Guglhupf-shaped desert (the moor). How could such a delicious innocent desert cause such a controversy?
The name for this desert, beloved by generations of Austrians, insults members of the Austrian black community. They perceive Mohr as a colonial racist term alluding to African nudity. Blacks in Austria have been fighting for more than a decade to eliminate discriminatory names of foods, streets, and other things. They have succeeded with the Negerbrot(Negro bread), a chocolate with peanuts. Very few Viennese pastry shops still sell it under its original name. They want the street names for Kleine und Grosse Mohrenstrasse (Little and Big Moor Streets) changed. One reader commented in his letter to Der Standard; why not rename the streets Cassius Clay and Barack Obama Street? Another reader suggested the Zigeunerschnitzel be renamed Sinti-und Romaschnitzel.
In Germany the pastry Negerkuss (Negro kiss) was replaced by Schokokuss ten years ago. The classic children’s book Zehn kleine Negerlein (Ten Little Negroes) now comes in a second, politically correct version Zehn kleine Kinderlein (Ten Little Children) although it does not sell as well as the original.
This discussion about inoffensive language took place in the US much earlier. Negroes are now African-Americans, while mongoloid children are children with Downs Syndrome. While this may satisfy some groups, I doubt that it eliminates real discrimination. Do we need to change our existing terminology?
In James Baldwin’s novels, African-Americans are called Negroes or colored people because that was the common name at the time. Shakespeare gave us “The Moor in Venice” and no one takes offence. What do we gain when we rename Negerbier black beer? Often language, literary style suffers. The original terms in the language hold more meaning. Rape is stronger than sexual assault. Negerbier makes a certain time and place come alive. Modern politically correct language is often lifeless and cumbersome. See the German StudentInnen to include females in the plural version of students. In the old usage, ninety-nine female students (Studentinnen) and one male student would have become Studenten (students); in the new, StudentInnen with the capital I in the middle, ninety-nine male students and one female all become female students.
Have we gained anything or is it a mere quibble? Why can’t a beloved desert keep its name? Maybe we should inject a little more humor into the debate and not take ourselves so seriously. The German band Tote Hosen is on to something when they said: Auch lesbische schwarze Behinderte koennen aetzzend sein. “Even disabled black Lesbians can be a pain.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Continental Divide

For the third time, I have exchanged the air-conditioned, often windowless classrooms of City College for those of the Palazzo Zenobio in Venice. This somewhat derelict but enchanting building dating back to the 16th Century was once an Armenian
college. My students in New York are 18 to 25 year old children of immigrants. They live in the Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens. My students in Venice, aged 13 to 75, were mostly natives of their countries and came from Melbourne, Oxford, Hong Kong, Vienna, Cologne and Zurich. They were accomplished professionals, teachers, lawyers, historians, economists and journalists. Both groups shared a passion for writing.

In New York, I teach writing in English; the past two years in Venice, I taught in German. An article in the Guardian about the Summer Academy Venice produced a spike in English speaking students and I found myself in the predicament having to teach creative writing in two languages.

I was worried. The Austrians, Swiss and Germans might be able to follow instruction in English, but they ‘d certainly write in their mother tongue. Would their English be good enough to understand the texts of the English speakers? It takes years to grasp the nuances, Zwischentöne, of a foreign language. Would the English speakers—unable to understand and comment on the German texts—be bored while listening to the Germans read?

I do not recommend a bilingual writing class to anyone unless they are fluent in both languages. Miraculously, the class worked. Most participants produced twenty pages of new material and one short text nearly ready for submission. Unable to understand the language, they listened to the musicality and rhythm of the words. English words found their way into German poems. A 75 year old Jewish man, forced to leave his native Holland in his youth, recalled his German. His wife, a native of Chile, who had lived in England for the past 50 years, suddenly began to write in Spanish again. The English speakers recalled the German words that had found their way into the English language: Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude, Wanderlust. Both groups living in Venice, immersed in the Italian language and culture, allowed Italian words to lighten up their stories. A Swiss-Iranian woman who attended kindergarten in the Italian speaking canton, produced a delightful story about her early childhood beautifully punctuated with Italian words.

As improbable as it may seem to teach writing in a multilingual setting, the results were stunning.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

BIlingual Writers Inspire Us

Once in a while a bilingual writer comes along who puts us all to shame. Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett and Joseph Conrad come to mind. They managed to write forcefully in their second language. Following in their footsteps is the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hermon, the child of a Ukrainian father and a Bosnian-Serbian mother. When war erupted in his homeland in 1992 shortly after he came to the US, he found himself stranded here. This 44 year old journalist from Sarajewo, did not speak English. Three years later he published his first story and his first book (The Question of Bruno) in 2000 in English. He wrote for the New Yorker, The Paris Review, published three more books and won the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant.”
Aleksandar Hermon gave himself five years to learn English, five years to write and publish his first story in English. He worked as a sandwich assembly-line worker, a bike messenger, as a bookstore clerk and as a door to door magazine subscriptions salesman. “He also read voraciously in English, storing words he didn’t know on note cards, and within three years had achieved his goal.” (Larry Rother: Twice-Told Tales, The New York Times, 5.15.09)
I cleaned the apartments of elderly Jewish ladies, sold nuts from a push cart, worked in the theater, as a Go-Go dancer and a school counselor. I too recorded the words that I didn’t understand, couldn’t remember or pronounce, into a notebook—schedule, issue, vicarious— but it took me more than 20 years to publish my first story in English. I did not become a voracious reader of English books like Aleksandar Hermon. Reading with a dictionary in hand was too much work and no pleasure at all. There was peace in my homeland; the wall had come down, and Germany won the Soccer World Cup. I was not in despair—a good writing motivator according to Hermon.
“I was cut off from my previous life, in despair … I had this horrible, pressing need to write because things were happening. I needed to do it the same way I needed to eat, but I just had no language to write in. I couldn’t do it, and so I thought I should enable myself to do it.” (ibid.)
I lacked the confidence to write in English. The belief that, aside from Beckett and Nabokov, no one could write in a second language, held me back. Then I discovered a new generation of writers: Turkish, Russian and Japanese writers who wrote in German, Dominican and Haitian writers who wrote in English. Some playfully integrated their first and second languages. Their example gave me the courage to try the same. Like Hermon and many other bilingual writers I found a new, welcoming home in the English language. Aleksandar Hermon recently discussed writing in a second language with Junot Díaz and had this to say (my translation):
“Everyone can declare the English language his home and no one can be banned from it…..Everyone can bring his experiences with a foreign language into American English without having to fear being expelled from it.” (Thomas David: Amerika auf dem Weg zur postnationalen Literatur?, Neue Züricher Zeitung, June 8, 2009.)
I am grateful to Aleksandar Hermon for being such a shining example and inspiration for bilingual writers everywhere.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Appalling Multiculturalism?

I was excited to attend "Macondo: Imaginary and Real" during the recent Pen World Voices Festival. Writers from Holland, Peru, Hungary, and Spain spoke about home and migration. They discussed Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional homeland Macondo and the Austrian refugee camp Macondo. Since 1956 it has provided a home to displaced people from around the globe.

Josep-Maria Terricabras, a Catalan writer and philosophy professor, had spent time at the University of Münster, Germany as had I, but this is where our similarities ended. He found many aspects of the multicultural society, the idea of multiple identities, appalling. He bemoaned the parallel societies of immigrants that have emerged in many European countries.

I wanted him to experience City College where I teach writing. The "Harvard of the Working Class" is a university for the children of the working poor and the children of immigrants. Most of my students were born in a foreign country or their parents were. There are more than one hundred languages spoken on campus. Last semester my students came from Latin America, the Caribbean, Siberia, Tajikistan, Kosovo, Egypt, China, Korea, Poland, Yemen, Nigeria, Senegal, and Mali. After the initial struggle of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture, most regain their balance and come to embrace the city in their own way. This is evident when they write about their New York experiences. They might live in what Europeans call a parallel society--a predominantly Russian or Mexican neighborhood--because their parents chose to be close to their country men and women, near their places of worship, and stores that sell familiar foods. Most likely they hoped to find out about job opportunities, the American school system and customs from people who could understand their language.

I cannot find any fault in this. I, certainly, do not find it appalling. My students are not going to riot and set cars ablaze as did some of the Muslim youth in the suburbs of Paris. They are too busy working, often at full-time jobs, and studying at the same time.

As long as there is upward mobility in our society, a real possibility to improve one's lot, these immigrants will not stay outsiders. We can love the land of our birth and can love our new homeland at the same time. We can juggle two languages, two ways of being in the world, two different traditions and approaches to life, as long as the dominant society allows us in.

For thousand years, most European countries have built walls to keep the Roma people out. The stranger was perceived as a threat. What if we allow these strangers to augment our experiences in the world by teaching us about their culture? Josep-Maria Terricabras delights in a homogenous society with people that speak his language and understand the history of his people. This appeals to me also. I enjoy my visits to Germany; I take pleasure in hearing the German language all around me. However, I find it sad that hardly any of my friends and relatives have made friends with the many foreigners, children of "Gastarbeiter," and recent transplants from war-torn countries who reside in Germany. While they enjoy mingling with the natives in the Dominican Republic or the Canary Islands on vacation, at home they keep their front doors locked. They envy me for my New York circle of friends. “Just like the United Nations,” they say with longing. Then they return home to shut out that sort of diversity.

This is sad, for nothing is worse than suffocating from an insular view of the world.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Looking at 55

In German double and triple digits are called a Schnapszahl (schnapps number). A Schnapszahl is a lucky number. Barack Obama is the 44th U.S. president. Turning 55 I’m hoping for a lucky year.
Yesterday I found four pennies and two dimes. I interpreted for a German writer at the Pen World Voices festival—something I had never done before. Tomorrow the filming of New York Memories starts. I wrote the script; Rosa von Praunheim will direct. After a hiatus of more than twenty years I will be acting again.
This morning as I sliced bread I almost cut off the top of my left ring finger. For two hours it bled profusely. I’m hoping for Glück im Unglück which is not the same as a blessing in disguise. The Yiddish Massel im Schlamassel comes closer.
I feel lucky that I can still write with my right hand, lucky to sit under a regal London Plane in Bryant Park. The park is a miracle of an urban oasis: Paris-style park chairs, promenades, woody shrubs, bright red triumph tulips surrounded by skyscrapers. A large green lawn where pigeons and sparrows strut with confidence. No need to fly fight over crumbs. The 11, 000 people who use the park on an average spring day leave plenty.
I’m in good company. Goethe’s bust is in front of me; the statue of Gertrude Stein and the Public Library, the most exquisite temple of books, are behind me. I listen to the unique New York soundtrack. The steady hum of car traffic blends harmoniously with birdsong. An occasional siren of an emergency car seems to belong to a futuristic sci-fi movie. The children on the carousel’s horses shriek with delight. I look over to the dark, masculine Bryant Park Hotel with its delicate golden figures and imagine a middle-aged couple from Hanover on the terrace of their room. I imagine how amazed they are by the New York spectacle.
Here in Bryant Park the 19th-century smashes into the 21st. As if Marcel Proust was writing for the Wall Street Journal. I’m opening my notebook. My left finger still throbs with pain, but I move my right hand and start writing. No need to create stories. I just have to find them.
How lucky I am to live in the greatest city in the world.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Coccinella Septempunctata

Hostile ladybugs
in flashy red and black armor
soldiers in an army
of seven-hundred-twenty thousand
dive-bomb Stuyvesant Town

Impervious to obstacles
potential predators
antennae on alert
they flex their wings
climb up sharp thorns
attack and devour
the hapless aphids

A deserter abandons the troops
grabs a female from behind
rides on top of her
holds her tight

Four to seven weeks to live
five- thousand aphids to kill
they refute the war
ponder their true nature
and copulate for two hours

Coccinella Septempunctata

Feindselige Marienkäfer
in schwarz-roter Rüstung
Antennen alarmbereit

Soldaten in einem Bataillon
von siebenhunderttausend
den Hauptfriedhof im Sturzflug

Erklimmen scharfe Dornen
attackieren und verschlingen
den Feind

Des Kampfes müde
verlässt ein Deserteur die Truppe
besteigt ein Weibchen
krallt sich an ihr fest

Ein kurzes Leben
vier bis sieben Wochen
ein harter Kampf gegen
unglückselige Blattläuse

Der Ausreißer trotzt dem Krieg
kopuliert ungestüm
erwägt seine wahre Natur
Paaren statt morden?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Crime Against Spring

Each neighborhood has its perpetrators

The Butcher of Bay Ridge
The Elmhurst Executioner
The Gansevoort Girdler
The Mastermind of the Moshulu Massacre

The victims
Twenty-three hydrangea bushes
Twelve Chinese dogwoods
Seven roses of Sharon

Four sassafras
Three butterfly bushes
Two sycamore maple trees
My favorite magnolia

We sit next to the Ghandi statue
And bemoan the destruction
Of our sanctuary

(The first poem written after a 25 year hiatus; published in

Monday, March 2, 2009

Phantom Pains

It was New Year’s Eve 1964. Our living room, decorated with paper streamers, was buzzing with anticipation. Mother had lit votive candles on the windowsill as a tribute to our brothers and sisters in the Ostzone. Separated from us by a wall, barbed wire, and mine fields, the East Germans were not as free or as fortunate as we West Germans were. We were never to forget their plight. The aroma of Berliner Ballen, special New Year’s Eve doughnuts, permeated the house. Perfectly round, filled with marmalade, fried in fat, and sprinkled with powdered sugar, they were my favorite pastry. On New Year’s Eve, each Berliner had a small object inside. A pig predicted a lucky year; a ring, a wedding; a coin, wealth. If you got the one filled with mustard, your year ahead would be full of bad luck.

Mother removed the pink rollers from her hair, sealed the curls with hairspray, and admired her helmet head in the mirror. She changed into her Sunday dress. Father stayed in his stretched-out blue track suit, the empty pant leg rolled up and fastened to his trousers with a safety pin. His wooden leg leaned in the corner of the living room. We gathered around our kidney-shaped coffee table. I looked at the pickled herring, liverwurst, and Gouda cheese canapés decorated with gherkins and pretzel sticks, but decided to wait for the Berliner Ballen. The more I stared at the minute hand on the grandfather clock, the slower it moved. My brother and I were bouncing on the sofa. We couldn’t wait for midnight to run outside into the freezing cold and watch the sky ablaze with fireworks.

I was hoping that our family would experience Freude, joy, a feeling I mostly knew from books and songs like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which we had learned in music class. Tickling sensations in my toes made me want to jump up and do my version of a rain dance. But I froze when I caught a glimpse of my father’s contorted face. His bushy eyebrows were furrowed together, creating a deep canyon on his forehead. He let out a piercing scream. The stump of his amputated leg was acting up. I knew what was coming. I had experienced it all too often. Once unleashed, the pain might last for several hours, perhaps the entire night, and turn Father, a huge, strong man, respected and feared by his wife and children, into a sobbing, tortured mass. The phantom pains, without fail, always arrived in time to ruin all our holiday celebrations.

Mother ushered us upstairs to the bedroom; Father grabbed his cane and hobbled to the kitchen. He locked himself inside the kitchen every time the phantom pains attacked. No one was allowed to enter. Sitting alone in the dark, he sang for several hours with a loud, mournful voice that resonated throughout the entire house and prevented us from sleeping. I knew all of Father’s moods, all the songs that mirrored them. I knew his favorite Wanderlieder, his favorite Volkslieder, and his favorite Soldatenlieder. I knew the words to all the melodies.

Heinrich and I sat down on my bed and stared at each other. We were both trembling despite the heavy sweaters we wore to save money on the heating bill. It was only half past ten. Heinrich was pessimistic. “We’re gonna miss all the fireworks.” Not ready to give up hope, I thought of the loving father dwelling above the starry canopy and hummed Ode to Joy. I would hum it over and over until joy would visit our home.

Father was sad over losing the war, sad over losing his leg. I listened to the intensity, the ebb and flow in his wailing. I listened for a possible change in his mood. He started to sing In einem Polenstädtchen, one of my favorites. In the song, German soldiers march into a small Polish town and encounter a captivating maiden who refuses to kiss any of them. Many nights, unable to fall asleep, I had mouthed along with the refrain Aber nein, aber nein sprach sie. Ich küsse nie. I had imagined myself as the irresistible maiden among all the lonely men. Like her, I would not allow anyone to kiss me.

The longing and homesickness in his voice were heartbreaking. I pictured Father among a group of soldiers with their knapsacks, marching and singing in the open air. I pictured the long Russian winter, the battle of Stalingrad, being hit by a grenade. I pulled the heavy down comforter up to my neck to ward off the harsh and biting wind he must have felt. I tried to understand his phantom pains, the agonizing torture he felt. But why did his pains, undoubtedly real, have to return today on New Year’s Eve? Did he want to make us suffer, make us feel as bitter and depressed as he was?

Mother, balancing a plate of Berliner Ballen on her palm, entered our bedroom. “It’s a quarter to twelve. Have a Berliner,” she said and sat down between us. “You have to understand your father. He’s afraid of New Year’s Eve. The fireworks sound like an artillery attack to him.”

I pictured Father among a group of soldiers with their knapsacks, marching and singing in the open air. I pictured the long Russian winter, the battle of Stalingrad, being hit by a grenade.

Life was unfair. I was tired of having to understand Father. I was ten years old. It was New Year’s Eve and I wanted to join the jubilation. Not steal away alone in tears, but follow the rose-strewn path.i The War had ended almost twenty years ago. Heinrich and I had never fought in a war, nor lost a war, but we were being punished as if we had. Ignoring the pastries, we went over to the window and pressed our noses against the glass.

The street was full of people. “Holy cow, did you see that Kometenhagel? Amazing,” Heinrich said. Like a silver serpent, it shot up and opened into a cascade of tiny stars. There were mini explosions everywhere.

“Two more minutes,” Heinrich whispered. The people outside started to shout “Zehn, neun, acht, sieben…” yelling louder and louder as the numbers decreased. A thunderous, deafening blast erupted when everyone set off their fireworks at the same time. There were Roman candles, pinwheels, single rockets, cherry bombs, and my favorite, Chinaböller. Brilliant silver, green, red, and gold flashed in the sky.

Half an hour later, the detonations petered out. Once in a while, a Bengali cylinder flame or Bombette shot up. It had been a great show. Heinrich wiped a tear from his eye. I put my arm around him. Our own New Year’s Eve Family Fun Pack sat unused at the foot of the stairs. We had not fired our shells and mortars.

Outside, our neighbors were locking arms, clinking glasses, and downing shots of liquor. Father’s voice soared above the sporadic flare-ups of fireworks. He sounded strong and confident. “Breslau, Danzig, Königsberg. We’ll take you back!” he shouted. Those towns once belonged to Germany. In school, we had learned that the price for losing the war was surrendering parts of our country to Poland and the Soviet Union. My history teacher didn’t think we would ever get these territories back. Father demanded them back. He launched into a combat song:

Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen

SA marschiert mit ruhig-festem Schritt…

Mother, looking like a frightened little girl, began to tremble. That song always upset her. I liked the melody, so forceful, buoyant, and optimistic. Mother stood up and closed the curtains as if she didn’t want our neighbors to hear Father’s singing. Heinrich sank his teeth into a Berliner while Father sang himself into a rage.

In school, we had learned that the price for losing the war was surrendering parts of our country to Poland and the Soviet Union. My history teacher didn’t think we would ever get these territories back. Father demanded them back.

Free the streets for the brown battalions
Free the streets for the Storm Troopers

The swastika, the hope of millions…ii

Mother sighed: “Why does he have to sing that song all the time?”

“Why are you worried, Mama?” I asked.

“That’s the Horst-Wessel-Lied. It’s illegal to sing that song. Your father could get into trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?” I asked.

“Like ending up in jail,” she said.

Heinrich was beaming. “Look, look, I got the pig, the lucky pig!” he shouted, displaying the rosy plastic piglet. Hoping for a delicious plum marmalade filling and a lucky charm, I took a big bite of my Berliner. The strange taste made my mouth pucker up. It couldn’t be true. I had gotten the one Berliner filled with mustard. Disgusted, I spit the pieces of dough and mustard into my hand. They looked like baby vomit. Life was unfair. There was no loving father dwelling above the starry canopy. Only my own father who was like my Berliner Ballen—good on the outside, but filled with the bitterness of war on the inside.

i Ode to Joy (An die Freude), lyrics by Friedrich von Schiller

ii Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Nazi Party’s anthem, was part of Germany’s national anthem from 1933 to 1945. A regulation required the right arm to be raised in a “Hitler salute”
when singing the first and fourth verse. In 1945, the Horst-Wessel-Lied was banned. Both the lyrics and the tune remain illegal in Germany to this day.

Text first published in the anthology "Families. The Frontline of Pluralism",Wising Up Press, Heather Tosteson and Charles D. Brockett, Editors, reprinted by

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Small discount shops line Vienna’s busiest streets, the word NOVELS is written in large bold letters above their entrance doors. To their customers, literature is a provision, just like TOBACCO and LIQUOR in the stores to the left and right of the dime-novel shops. It hardly matters that no great literature is offered here. The novel survives because it is life’s companion. This has not been true for plays for example for a long time. The theater summons people still convinced it has something important to say. We no longer believe this gesture’s self-importance. In contrast the novel does not draw attention to itself. It sits on the shelf, together with five hundred others and consents to be undiscovered, unread. For that reason, we always seek it out. (translated from WILHELM GENAZINO, published in, Voume2, Number 2)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

New York/New York

I had booked the Hotel Earle because Bob Dylan once slept in room 331. From the moment I first stepped out and into Washington Square Park, I was smitten with New York. It was a Saturday afternoon in late September, a sultry, sun-drenched day so rare in Germany even in midsummer. The sun was hotter and the sky bluer, more radiant than back home. At a time when all German cities turned into graveyards, Washington Square Park was full of manic activity. Blasting radios battled each other for dominance, senior citizens played speed chess with youthful contenders; dope peddlers, fire eaters, and aspiring folk singers all competed for the public’s attention. People of all races and ages danced to Parlament Funkadelic.
In Berlin every thinking person around me was depressed. As I watched the children on the swings shrieking with delight and hyperactive dogs engaged in rough and tumble play, my earnest, sullen self faded away and a new upbeat person emerged. I would never have to feel miserable again, not if I could experience Washington Square Park’s anarchistic exuberance any time I wanted to.
I discovered a bounce in my step and skipped the next ten blocks uptown. I walked upright, no longer with slumped shoulders. I made eye contact. I grinned when someone smiled or complimented me. Life in New York, as in a Mediterranean city, happened in the street. The street mirrored my mood. Since I was in high spirits I encountered only smiling faces. “Hey Babe, wanna come along for the ride to Florida,” a truck driver said. “Another hour unloading and I’m ready for takeoff.” “Great hair cut,” a hip black woman shouted. “Ola Mami,” a Latin-American teenager said smacking his lips.
14th Street was the Mecca of the less well-heeled New Yorkers. People were looking for bargains in the many 99 Cents and discount stores. Men sitting up high on ladders were watching out for thieves and enticing the shoppers to come inside. “Ladies and gentlemen, our prices are the best. Come on inside and see for yourself.” Many people lost their money in games of dice. The children’s clothing stores with their frilly dresses, the smell of Comida Criolla and Cuchifritos, the sounds of Salsa, the mix of English and Spanish, the entire human razzmatazz of 14th Street made me feel intoxicated with life.
At home I had been chided for my hyperactive Zappelphilipp ways. My parents always said: “Don’t walk so fast, don’t talk so fast, don’t wave your arms so much. In New York, everyone walked and talked fast. In New York, I was normal.
It was love at first sight—irrational and fatal. Could one fall head over heels –unsterblich—in love with a city just as much as with a person? Mubarez from Pakistan worked at the reception of the Hotel Earle. On my fourth day in New York he said: “You can become a New Yorker and still be yourself. You belong here. Stay.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Gift That Fails-- On the Lack of Literary Success

Translated from Wilhelm Genanzino The Extended Glance (Der gedehnte Blick), München Wien 2004. Find the entire text in DIMENSION2,08

During the early 1950’s William Faulkner recommended a second occupation to all his fellow authors. Faulkner said in an interview that the shoemaker, carpenter, and baker trades were best suited to them, that manual labor was a wise counterpart to the more intellectual writing profession. He was concerned with the economic crisis in the lives of writers. With a stable secondary occupation, they could avoid the risk of not having enough money for food and shelter. In 1932, twenty years before this interview, Faulkner’s European colleague, Robert Musil, was in serious economic trouble, so much so that he felt compelled to go public and ask for help. In I Can’t Go On, he intended to tell the literary world: “I am writing about myself for the first time since I became a writer. The title tells all. It is the bitter truth (…). I believe that apart from the suicidal, few live such precarious lives and I will not be able to evade their hardly enticing company. This is my one and only attempt to resist such a fate.”
Musil did not have to publish his appeal. The Musil Society, an aid organization willing to support him with continuous donations, was established in Berlin. Musil was a widely admired author at the time. The first published volume of Man without Qualities brought him abundant fame and respect, but not enough money. The Rowolth Publishing House pushed for a sequel. Musil gave in and wrote thirty-eight chapters for a second volume published in March of 1933. A few months later, Musil left Germany and returned to Vienna. Another recently formed Musil Society there helped him out regularly although it was never enough. Musil was not able to shake off his dependency. Six years later, when he emigrated to Switzerland he became dependent on the help of strangers there as well. The Geneva priest Lejeune and the Swiss Aid Society for German Scholars contributed to the Musil household for years. It’s an interesting fact that Musil considered his failure to support himself unethical, but failed to take any action. In an interview, he stated: “Not to be famous is natural. Not to have enough readers to survive is shameful.”
The quote is revealing. Musil did not say: “Not to have enough readers is shameful.” He said instead: “Not to have enough readers to survive is shameful.” The social dimension, being able to live from one’s writing, was not Musil’s main theme. He did not consider the social aspect of literary life important enough to deserve its own failure. The best writer’s confidence is disturbed by the fact that writing should even exist as a social problem. These authors’ self-esteem is noble on the inside, but to the outside world it is uncompromising and unmoved. The stronger the inner noble feeling the more adamant is the denial of the external reality. Only raw, ethically irreconcilable isolation survives.
We can find these constructs of literary life today. The German writer Undine Gruenter, recently deceased in Paris who was unsuccessful and uncompromising all her life, made this journal entry on April 28, 1989: “To be sure, if I am badly off, because I have no money, from a social point of view it’s my fault. But I will not change my life because of this. I would rather continue to produce my 150 pages a year. Hopefully I will get better at it all the time.”
To live a common double life is out of the question for these authors. No need to consult Faulkner. Examples of double lives can also be found in German literature. I need only mention the two old prototypes, Joseph von Eichendorf and E.T.A. Hoffmann, lawyers by day and practicing romanticists in their spare time. Let me also cite Kafka, Döblin, and Benn. We cannot imagine them without their civic professions. Musil could have easily followed Faulkner’s suggestion. He had a second profession. Highly qualified and holding a degree in engineering from the Technical University in Brünn, he could have worked as an engineer anytime. But for Musil, writing was an absolute, internal, and all-demanding occupation. His work had to express his integrity and his aesthetic honor.
Honor expresses the desire for originality and purity. Purity is an inconceivable and pathologically malleable notion. Purity always demands a higher absolute purity and so becomes infinite like fame, which knows no boundary either. Because Musil’s contemporaries did not share his notion of honor, they were second-rate pretenders in his eyes. He belittled Joseph Roth, Leon Feuchtwanger and Franz Werfel in public. He ridiculed Thomas Mann as the writer whose pants had the most immaculate crease. No other author set himself apart more and no one paid a higher price for doing so. We might say Musil’s undeserved lack of success stems partly from his mockery and arrogance.