A provocative rant by Kemal Kurt (translated by Marilya Veteto) on the subject of the validity and reception of writing by immigrants, with particular attention to Germany:
The assertion that literature is only possible in one’s mother tongue loses its validity more and more in this era of mobility and migrations. Immigrants from North Africa, India, Pakistan, from the Caribbean and various African countries write in the language of their country of choice rather than in their mother tongue. They are increasingly becoming accepted as fully-fledged authors and are not infrequently honored with national prizes. On my copy of Adah’s Story by the Nigerian woman writer Buchi Emecheta it says “Best of Young British Novelists 1983.” The Algerian author Tahar Ben Jelloun received the most prestigious literary prize in France, the Prix Goncourt in 1988. This prize was [also] won by Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese writer who has lived in Paris since 1976 and who writes in French and speaks it with a heavy accent. In Great Britain a Nigerian, Ben Okri, received the Booker Prize in 1991, which was awarded in 1992 to Michael Ondaatje from Sri Lanka; in 1981 it was Salman Rushdie. Mahdi Sharifi and Hanif Kureishi have established themselves as authors in France and England. When the Turkish woman writer Emine Sevgi Özdamar won the city of Klagenfurt’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1992, it was a surprise for everyone and all but a scandal. The competence of the jury came under question.
While the United States boasts of William Saroyan, Derek Walcott and Amy Tan, Great Britain of Jean Rhys, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie, and France of Samuel Beckett, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Julien Green, Germany has only the prime example of Adelbert von Chamisso. Born and raised the son of a French family of nobility, the young Chamisso fled revolutionary France with his parents for Berlin. Though he spoke German with an accent his whole life, Chamisso is numbered among the most well-known German poets. His fanciful novel The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl—in which the hero sells his shadow and from then on is a societal pariah—is on every school’s reading list. The high symbolic value of the shadow gave rise to various interpretations. In light of the life story of Chamisso, who as an artist and as a French emigrant felt he was pressed into the role of the outsider, it is likely that the loss of a shadow emblematizes the loss of his fatherland and his mother tongue.
The acceptance and reception of “authors of other mother tongues” is much different in Germany than in France and England. Here there is no tradition of this, for historically there is only one, already cited, example. The list of foreign authors living in Germany and writing in German who have found a broad readership begins with Chamisso, and it ends with Chamisso. In between: nothing. In the past ten years many newly-arrived authors have written their books in German. There is a hands-off approach to them, categories are invented for them such as Guest-Worker Literature, Migrant Literature, Literature of Victims, Literature of Commitment; those who are quite proper use the rather cumbersome “Literature of German-language Authors of non-German Mother Tongues” for it. Separate anthologies, separate publishing houses, separate prizes and separate journals are the result. Critics do not acknowledge these authors—whatever you want to call them, after all, you are a part of it. The number of readers is small.
It ends up with an unconvincing and banal screed about not writing “obscurely,” but what the hell, I don’t ask writers to be right all the time, just to say things that catch my attention and make me think. (Via wood s lot, which also links to Passport: The Arkansas Review of Literary Translation, which not only “publishes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in English translation,” including the Kurt piece, but has its own blog.)