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Lisa Schulze

Literature Combats Xenophobia? A Case for Contemporary Fiction in Central Europe

Simultaneously juggling numerous projects; chatting with our friends from London, Prague, Kiev, and Moscow via Skype, VKontakte or WhatsApp; interning in different cities and studying abroad more than once: this is our brave new world. Modern life is fast-paced, interconnected, and hyper-mobile.

As our private lives become increasingly complex, so do political and economic relations and structures. And since the rates of globalization and digitalization are not likely to decelerate any time soon, we as a society and as individuals must learn how to deal with these developments. Even though it might seem counterintuitive at first, literature written by authors with intercultural backgrounds can serve as a valuable instrument to cope with this modernization, empowering us to take ownership of it.

Characteristic features of modern society, such as mobility, especially influence the lives and identities of authors with migrant backgrounds. The unique conditions of living on the move are very likely to have shaped these authors’ worldviews and, therefore, their writing. This way of life also lends itself to the creation of “hybrid identities,” which set them apart from individuals with more static lifestyles and potentially more homogeneous concepts of identity. Therefore, migrant writers can be pioneers in developing strategies for adapting to changing environments without losing one’s own sense of identity. Nowadays, a great number of individuals are facing similar conditions where they must adapt to change or cope with uncertainty. Thanks to their experience, migrant writers are in an ideal position not only to articulate the essence of this contemporary reality, but also to help us to make sense of it.

Petrowskaja tells the unfinished story of her family that has lived in the metropolises of the East: Kiev, Warsaw, Odessa and Moscow. Her novel is not an epos, but she rather compiles fragmented narratives about her relatives, as for example her great-grandmother Esther in Kiev who was left behind when everybody fled the occupied city in 1941 or her great-uncle Judas Stern who assassinated the German embassy counselor in Moscow in 1932.

Petrowskaja tells the unfinished story of her family that has lived in the metropolises of the East: Kiev, Warsaw, Odessa and Moscow. Her novel is not an epos, but she rather compiles fragmented narratives about her relatives, as for example her great-grandmother Esther in Kiev who was left behind when everybody fled the occupied city in 1941 or her great-uncle Judas Stern who assassinated the German embassy counselor in Moscow in 1932.

Moreover, having first-hand experience with more than one culture, writers can build bridges between different countries and help promote international understanding and cooperation. This seems to be of exceptional importance in an age where we are witnessing a nationalist renaissance.
Two shining examples of intercultural writers are the novelists Katja Petrowskaja and Nellja Veremej. Both women grew up in the Soviet Union and moved to Germany during the nineties. Today, they do not write in their mother tongue, but in German. Since a dichotomy between “East” and “West” is currently being re-established in our society, we are in great need of experts who understand the nuances of multiple cultures. Both authors skillfully explore these subtleties by examining and exposing historic legacies that are often latent – and always powerful.

This begins with their personal stories. (Auto-)biographical elements of family history and memory in Petrowskaja’s novel “Esther, Maybe” (German title: “Vielleicht Esther” ) and Veremej’s “Berlin – that’s in the East” (German title: “Berlin liegt im Osten” ) reflect the entangled past of 20th-century Europe and its impact on individuals’ current lives. Suppressed trauma is articulated through unique, multinational perspectives. Motivated by the authors’ own intercultural backgrounds, these narratives strive for a multidirectional approach that enables communication and discussion. These authors’ origin in the Soviet Union, combined with their current lives in Germany, have allowed them to develop an understanding of both societies. In their novels, they synthesize these cultures’ particularities and differences to produce an effective and empathic point of view. Their works are a great contribution to international dialogue in the sphere of culture and beyond.

The protagonist, an intelligent and well-read woman from a small town in the Caucasus who has studied in Leningrad, finds herself in contemporary Berlin as a geriatric nurse. The reader does not only get to know the urban community of Russian migrant in Berlin, but also sees the life stories of the protagonist’s clients though her eyes. Connecting and comparing those biographies of different generations loneliness, melancholia and joy of living are always very close to each other in this novel.

The protagonist, an intelligent and well-read woman from a small town in the Caucasus who has studied in Leningrad, finds herself in contemporary Berlin as a geriatric nurse. The reader does not only get to know the urban community of Russian migrant in Berlin, but also sees the life stories of the protagonist’s clients though her eyes. Connecting and comparing those biographies of different generations loneliness, melancholia and joy of living are always very close to each other in this novel.

As a literature geek interested in 20th-century history, particularly that of Central and Eastern Europe, it was almost natural for me to discover the authors Petrowskaja and Veremej. Reading their novels helped bring me psychologically closer to their society of origin and better comprehend the motivation behind modern-day discourses. In particular, I have gained a better understanding of predominant narratives in Russia and Ukraine regarding their history and their relationship to my home country, Germany. As I find it difficult to fully grasp the catastrophes of the 20th century on an intellectual level, this connection fostered more of an emotional and empathic understanding.
Empathy, dialogue, and collaboration can indeed be considered key elements for coming to terms with our modern, crisis-ridden societies and rendering them more sustainable. Literature can be a tool for promoting these practices in everyday life, as it resonates on both the intellectual and emotional levels. Literature has the potential to change our perspectives. By analyzing the different layers that constitute the fabric of the human psyche and by eloquently verbalizing these findings, literature provides insight into what others think and feel. Subsequently, this strengthens our understanding of others’ viewpoints. In a complex society, reading helps us develop the much needed compassion that is otherwise lost in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.

Both globalization and digitalization are praised as mainstays of economic development and societal progress, especially in industrialized societies. At the same time, they also increase the pace and complexity of life, thus making us more vulnerable to crisis. Perceiving this as chaos, some individuals subsequently become disoriented and reclusive. Withdrawal into private life and disengagement from public participation can be the result of a desperate attempt to (re-)create simplicity and meaning.

Another response to alienation and crisis is the creation of a perceived scapegoat, the ultimate “other.” And, unfortunately, populists operating on exclusive notions of nation or religion, shunning the imaginary “other” to provide simple explanations, are gaining ground not only in Europe, but globally. However, since the solutions to contemporary societal problems that these groups propose are often vastly oversimplified, they are ultimately untenable. Instead, even more confusion and frustration are funneled into passive outlets, like disengagement, or aggressive outlets, like xenophobia.

However, radicalization and national isolation will not serve as a means to shape forward-looking societies. Instead, progressive politics require analysis and contemplation. As such, the political elite’s ability to act and engage citizens hinges on the usage of media, science, and culture to comment and reflect on reality. Due to certain features of their trade, intellectual (fiction) writers play a particularly vital role in this framework.

The writer’s métier—telling stories about people—can help us comprehend and cope with the complexity of reality. Narration is a way to organize and condense information. Through narration, literature creates meaning and reflects on the Position of the individual in the world. Moreover, literature’s ability to take a radically subjective stance allows for insights into the human psyche. It also promotes the exchange of profound observations that extend beyond merely egocentric self-examination. In that way, literature provides universally understandable references to the human experience and human emotion. It is capable of helping us answer questions that we as individuals confront due to societal circumstances. Therefore, literature caters to the basic human need to understand oneself and the world through active intellectual engagement.

Moreover, literature is privileged because of its fictionality. The hypothetical, “what-if” nature of literature allows us to imagine alternative realities and combine discourses that are seemingly incompatible in real life. Literature can not only make sense of current realities, but can also offer models for improvement and fictional test scenarios for their implementation.

Consequently, the written word can close the gap between individual experience and abstract societal structures. Literature can help us not only to process facts intellectually, but also provides us with means to deal with our emotional and psychological reactions to societal developments. Reading helps us understand our existence in the world and reflect on our current position. It also invites us to think and act in alternative ways. This can be the first step in empowering ourselves to actively participate in shaping the society we want to live in.

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Summary

In the near future, we’d like to explore some pan-European but also local transformative initiatives in more detail. We will examine the movements’ models for societal alternatives, as well as their methods for achieving them. Our goal is to identify and share sources of inspiration for regional and global change.

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Main photo: Library at Nederlands Architectuur instituut in Rotterdam. Author: pieter musterd, source: Flickr

Holds a degree in Eastern European Studies. During her studies she focused on the interdependence of culture and politics especially in the fields of identity and memory. Throughout her studies she has been active in civil society promoting student exchange as a means to educate an intellectually and socially open mind. Now, she shares her fascination for the triad Theory - Culture – Activism, their interplay and cross-fertilization here at Eastbook as author and editor.

Contact: l.schulze@eastbook.eu

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