The members of the German Academy for Language and Poetry in Darmstadt, who are responsible for choosing the Georg Büchner Prize, must have wrestled with themselves for a long time, even arguing intensely.
In recent years, the decision has often been postponed until July, but this year it took a few weeks longer to announce the Berlin writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar, who was born in 1946 in Malatya in southeastern Turkey, as the Büchner Prize winner.
In fact, the choice is a somewhat surprising one. For Özdamar, although he has received many awards, has not produced an excessively large literary work with just four published novels. In addition, she only returned to the literary stage last year after a break in publication of a good fifteen years with her opus magnum “A Room Surrounded by Shadows”.
But with a certain grandiosity: This novel, which is well over eight hundred pages long, is not only a brilliant biography, but also a great, polyphonic, standard-setting literary work of art, a book full of myths, fairy tales, stories and politics.
On the other hand, the Darmstadt Academy obviously wanted to make a timely decision. The jury’s statement also states that the German language and literature owes Özdamar “new horizons, themes and a highly poetic sound”, “an intellectual as well as poetic dialogue between different languages, cultures and worldviews”.
Özdamar was the first representative of a literature that at some point operated under labels such as “migration literature” or “transcultural literature”. Nowadays, such designations are actually no longer necessary. The stories told by Dilek Güngör or Deniz Ohde, Sharon Dodua Otoo or Abbas Khider, Ronya Othmann or Yade Yasemin Önder are almost part of everyday literary life. But most of these authors are at the beginning of their careers. This is of course different with Özdamar.
However, she began her artistic work at the theater, as an actress. First in Istanbul, where she played roles in Peter Weiss’ play “Marat-Sade” and in Brecht’s “Mann ist Mann”, then, from the mid-1970s, in Germany.
That was a kind of return for Özdamar, since she had already lived in West Berlin in the 1960s, incidentally in a dormitory opposite the Hebbel Theater, and made her way as a factory worker.
How does she now write about her second time in Berlin in “A Space Delimited by Shadows”: “I started working at the Volksbühne in East Berlin with the Brecht student Benno Besson. When I was in East Berlin during the day during theater rehearsals with Benno Besson, Matthias Langhoff, Heiner Müller and Christoph Hein, or in the evenings at the theater performances, I forgot Berlin and its feelings of guilt.” She also went to Paris and Avignon with Besson, and to the In the eighties she was a member of the ensemble at the Schauspielhaus in Bochum under Claus Peymann for a long time.
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Before she played other roles in the theater – she also appeared in films such as Hark Bohm’s “Yasemin” and Doris Dörrie’s “Happy Birthday, Türke” – Emine Sevgi Özdamar finally began to write herself, and she was inspired by the notes of someone she didn’t know guest worker.
The man had left these in a suitcase, they ended up in Özdamar’s hands and served as a model for her first piece, “Karagöz in Alemania”. First written for Peymann, she finally staged it herself in 1986 at the Schauspielhaus in Frankfurt.
“Karagöz in Alemania” tells the story of a Turkish farmer who comes to Germany, first with his donkey and later with his wife, only to return to his home country at some point in disillusionment and without having achieved anything.
It took almost another decade before Özdamar published a first volume of stories with “Mother’s Tongue” and her debut novel “Life is a caravanserai, has two doors, I came in from one, I went out from the other”. She also won the Ingeborg Bachmann Reading in Klagenfurt in 1991 with an excerpt from it.
Özdamar’s debut has become a classic. It tells of the author’s Turkish life between her home town of Bursa, Ankara and Istanbul, of her childhood and youth marked by poverty, up to the day when she came to Germany at the age of 17.
The “caravanserai” ends with a train full of Turkish women who have passed their examination in front of the placement office of the German embassy in Istanbul and are now reading to themselves on the journey from a book previously distributed to them, the “Handbook for the workers who live in the strangers go to work”.
The successor to this novel, “The Bridge of the Golden Horn”, published in 1998, starts there. It is about a young woman who installs radio lamps at Telefunken in West Berlin and witnesses the student revolution and the early 1970s in amazement, but who is also constantly kept up to date on what is happening in Turkey.
Özdamar’s novels, which are not only autobiographically primed but firmly brushed out, including her third, “Strange Stars Staring at the Earth”, are works of language art of a very special kind: naive and precise, fairytale-like, free and full of pirouettes, full of colourful, unusual sentence and word games. There “now all the women sat together with the stars that had rained down from the bathing cupola glasses,” says their debut about a nocturnal visit to the women’s bath. Or it is stated: “The tongue of love is very old.” Or asked: “Does a person have more than his sweet tongue?”
Özdamar always counters these games with language and, last but not least, form, with political material. Basically, her books tell the history of Turkey particularly from the 1950s to the 1990s, including the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century, as in A Space Bounded by Shadows.
In general, this novel: It seems like a huge tableau with its talking crows and mosquitoes, with its talking walls and talking dead, with its many surreal and grotesque scenes that alternate with sober, almost documentary descriptions of the stations.
At its core, the novel, like the other three, tells of a Turkish woman’s search for identity between cultures, primarily with the help of art; by a woman who was later celebrated as a “bridge builder” and yet remained homeless: “In a foreign country, people are thrown back on themselves because they are constantly reminded that they are strangers.”
Did Özdamar think of the plagiarism dispute that she had to fight with her colleague Feridun Zaimoglu in 2006 and that she also addresses in her latest novel when writing these lines? Zaimoglu was suspected of copying from her, the motifs in his novel “Leyla” were too strikingly similar to those of Özdamar’s debut novel published 14 years earlier.
Özdamar tackled the argument hard, without wanting to attribute the long period of her literary silence to it. With “A room bordered by shadows” she has found her way back to language and has returned in an impressive and almost triumphant way. The Georg Büchner Prize is the completion of this triumph.