Babel-upon-Amstel. International Symposium on Migration, Language and Literature in Europe, 23.-26.04.2008, Amsterdam (paper in translators' workshop)

Significance of language preference in Turkish-German migration literature
by Sabine Adatepe

Nejat, a professor of German philology at the University of Hamburg, gives his father Ali, who represents the first generation of migrant workers in Germany, a book as a present: "Demirci'nin Kizi" – The Blacksmith's Daughter. Expelled by the German authorities after having lived and worked in Germany for decades, Ali reads the last pages of the book in Turkey and is overwhelmed by emotions.
In these sequences of his film "The Edge of Heaven" Fatih Akin, film director and producer from Hamburg, calls attention to the latest novel by Selim Özdogan. Özdogan understands himself as a German writer. In Akin's originally multilingual film the originally German novel "The Blacksmith's Daughter" occurs in Turkish translation only.
Film director and writer stand for the arrival of the majority of the people with Turkish migration background in the middle of the German society, which actually is, against all croaking, a multilingual reality of multiple cultures.

National literatures, if this conception still maintains validity, are defined by languages. In a world of multiple cultures and multiple languages, with mobility, including migration, becoming more and more normalcy, becoming even an essential condition for living, monolingualism turns out to be an exception, a disadvantage in competition. So more and more writers are challenged to make a choice, to opt between two or even more languages, to use several languages at the same time, whether in one book or in several parts of their opus, or even to create a new thing, a kind of hybrid language.

The preferred language tells us a lot about the writer: Which culture did his socialisation take place in? Which culture does he gains his main impulses from? Which surroundings does he locate himself in? Which target group(s) does he write for? Where in his literary self-determination does fractions, changes and transitions occur? Discourses, the writer is participating in, can give clues on his themes.

Turkish preferred

The writers preferring Turkish show tendency towards one of three main groups of perspective: a) oriented by the discourse in Turkey, b) facing both, the discourses in Turkey and in Germany and c) mainly oriented by the discourse in Germany.

The first generation of Turkish migrant writers in Germany, as to time in parallel to the first generation of Turkish workers' migration, in the beginning preferred Turkish exclusively as the language of their educational socialisation. At first they wrote for Turkish readers only. There is a spacious early "Gastarbeiterliteratur" (1), also may be referred to as "Deutschlandliteratur" (2), with roots going back to the early 1960s, the beginning of the recruitment of workers from Turkey in 1961. Up from 1965, first books of migration literature were published in Istanbul in Turkish language (3).

Writers who stayed only short termed in Germany and focussed on Germany centred themes for Turkish readers naturally opted for Turkish. Writers with centre of life in Germany but mostly writing for their own community prefer Turkish, too. Writers who live in Germany but, because of their educational biographies, feel themselves at home in the Turkish language, try to get their manuscripts translated into German, sometimes even before having published them in Turkish (4). For them, reception in the target society is most important. Others focussed on readers in their country of origin, so they concentrated on Turkish only. Writers who stayed in Germany for a longer time only due to a journey or for studying purposes, are to be mentioned here, too (5). Although they are not migrant writers in a classical sense, they considerably contributed to the image of Turkish migrants in Germany. Between the writers of the first hour there were – despite a few exceptions like Fethi Savasçi – almost no "writing workers", but primarily intellectuals, who brought along with them some literary experiences from Turkey and installed themselves as mouthpieces of their working class compatriots. These writers got their topics less from Turkey, but increasingly from migration experiences, which can be shown at the example of Fakir Baykurt. In the course of his move to Duisburg in 1979 he stopped writing about the village life in Turkey and started writing exclusively and extensively about the life of migrant workers, aiming to build up an awareness to improve their situation. In contrast to his early Turkish novels, his novel-trilogy about workers' families in Duisburg has never been translated. Most of his translated stories on migration did not find large-scale reception.

Around 1980, with a wave of political refugees a new "first generation" from Turkey with new themes arrived in Germany. There were a lot of intellectuals settled as writers in Turkey between the newcomers. Mostly they had to leave Turkey because of their journalistic and/or literary activities (6). Besides, there came a lot of young people with high commitment, who found their way to literature in exile only. In those years, the Turkish written literature in diaspora received a fresh impetus in general. Translations were strongly initiated and with the foundation of journals, magazines and publishing houses as publication platforms, the infra-structure of Turkish-German literary production improved considerably.

An interesting phenomenon is the emergence of young, highly educated, highly motivated authors, coming to Germany in different constellations, staying here temporarily or establishing one foot in both countries, writing Turkish, but compounding parts of both cultures in their literature to a new mosaic. Menekse Toprak and Esmahan Aykol, both residing in Berlin, are representing this new elite. Aykol was successful with her series about a female German crime bookseller in Istanbul especially in the German translation in the German-speaking countries.

"German literature in Turkish language", i.e. the preference of Turkish by writers living in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s was sometimes related to a linguistic-political consciousness corresponding with the conception of "cultural synthesis": The "literature of foreign culture in Germany" faces the German majority culture in the manner of a "counterpublic" (7). In this perspective, preferring Turkish was a political statement at the same time. Meanwhile this pretension faded, but there was a sort of revival with "Kanak Sprak", the language reality of young migrants, recorded by Feridun Zaimoglu, opposing the majority culture even though in a different manner. Well, a few weeks ago the Turkish prime minister Erdogan made an appeal to his compatriots in Germany, not to neglect the Turkish language and culture. After decades of more or less successful native language classes for children of Turkish origin, some secondary schools are teaching Turkish as a foreign language right now and some German-Turkish bilingual public schools besides some Turkish private schools are existing too. A literary competition (8) is asking "the Turks of Europe" these days for prose and poetry in Turkish language, aiming to promote written and verbal Turkish (9). Whether these efforts will lead to a revival of the Turkish language in Germany remains to be seen.

Change from Turkish to German

The young ones, the flexible ones between those staying longer termed in Germany tended towards using more and more German, some started to publish in German only. Others remained being deeply rooted in their original language being unable to disengage from it in literary esthetical respect, although they used German in other activities (like literary workshops, education etc.). Very few writers succeeded in getting established in both countries and both languages (10).

With the second generation themes and language preference changed sustainably. Born in Turkey or already in Germany, most young writers grew up Turkish speaking at home, listening to parents and grandparents talking about Turkey as well as about the problems of migration, political exile and the difficulties in gaining a foothold in the new environment, but because of going to school in Germany getting used to the German language as well, so that German became more and more familiar, in many cases even more familiar than Turkish.

Those writing mainly or exclusively in German seem to have different perspectives: Some apply their bicultural background consciously, some use their bilingualism as literary instrument playing with interferences. Whereas some – with Zafer Senocak as outstanding representative – act expressively as intercultural bridges, others refuse a role of cultural mediatorship.

A trend of considerable importance for the development of modern German literature is represented by those writers whose literary self-determination does not recur to their own or their parents' migration background, but instead feel as originally German writers like Akif Pirinççi or Selim Özdogan.

Hybrid language as a third way

Feridun Zaimoglu with his début "Kanak Sprak" and Emine Sevgi Özdamar, above all with her early strongly autobiographically books "Mutterzunge" and "Das Leben ist eine Karawanserai", are outstanding and in regard to publicity most successful examples for a hybridity of languages, who act in both language areas and applied a new method for their literature – as instrument and subject in the same way. They juggle with syntax and semantics of both languages. Zaimoglu, who gave up experiments of this kind in the meantime, took up a sort of pidgin-German, a slang, being used in certain circles of young migrants and meanwhile being partly settled as a language of Rap or Hiphop. Özdamar represents the tendency to aesthetically pretentious new creations in literary language by using interferences consciously. A characteristic of this third way, with regard to its public reception at the same time its biggest disadvantage, is the fact that this kind of language experiments can only fully be enjoyed by readers knowing both languages. Translation is almost impossible.

Development of themes and genres in parallel to language preference

Writing out of own migration experience was basis especially for the first generation of Turkish-German writers. Primarily they wrote short prose or poetry, being published in papers or magazines of their own community or in some anthologies. The workers concerned expressed themselves or, at least, the texts emerged in direct dialogue with them on themes like homesickness, coldness, misunderstanding and being misunderstood, conflicts of identities and cultures as well as lack of solidarity by the German working class (11). Grown-up migrants' first manuscripts deal mostly with themes from Turkey. The essence of a novel or a story was handled like a jewel, being polished and brought to its final form only in diaspora. These manuscripts are published exclusively in Turkey, sometimes in German translation later on in Germany too. As time went by, most writers got more and more adapted to the new environment and picked up themes of migration or varied between Turkey-focussed and migration-focussed topics. Only some exceptional writers tended to non-Turkey, non-Turkish or even non-migration themes. Even many of them return from time to time to the common themes (12).

Especially in case of younger migrants of Turkish origin a surplus of poetry can be observed. A lot of young poets do not yet have an independent publication in German language, but one or even several poetry books, primarily printed in Turkey. This may be explained by the fact that poetry reaches higher ratings in Turkish culture than in Germany.

Parallel to the second wave of migration in the 1980s the range of themes spread (13). Playful elements, irony and satire entered the Turkish-German literature. End of the 1990s the tendency towards novels increased. With topical and formal change from "facing a foreign world" towards "facing onceself in the foreign world" (14), the migration literature arrived amidst contemporary German literature. Limitation to migrational themes were dropped. Moments of strangeness became aesthetic elements. "The uncramped and natural treatment of German-Turkish themes as a self-confident contribution to contemporary German literature" turns out to be one of the "signs of the newest German literature" (15).

The contemporary migration literature is by no way to be seen as a total; biographies, themes, genres and language preferences differ extremely. Nevertheless, the majority of the writers even preferring German are still rooted in their well-known world using total- or semi-biographical motivated complexes, or recur – maybe because of a good market for exotics (16) – to their country and culture of origin, even if their own socialisation is no longer connected with it. Here, some literary doubtful products are to be mentioned too: detective stories with local colour from "home" or from the community as well as women's literature like reality soaps on "the oppressed woman" but also "the emancipated exceptional girl", "the Turkish macho" etc.


The reception of Turkish-German migration literature still opposites the self-determination and self-perception of its writers: A Turkish sounding name seems to guarantee Turkish literature, which most readers only have a vague imagination of. Almost all German writers of Turkish origin can tell a thing or two about being asked again and again, pretendedly friendly, why they are not writing about their migration experiences (17). Feridun Zaimoglu pointed out: "die besonderen umstände meiner herkunft fielen mir nur ein wenn ich darauf angesprochen wurde" (18). Like Zaimoglu the majority of the German writing Turkish-German writers see themselves as a "logical part of the mosaic" (19) of the contemporary German literature. Attributions to any kind of migration literature they regard as affront, stigmatization or in the best case as misunderstanding (20). According to many of them migration literature does no longer exist (21).

© Sabine Adatepe 2008

(1) (Foreign worker's literature.) A short discussion of the terms "Deutsche Literatur von Autoren nichtdeutscher Muttersprache", "Ausländerliteratur", "Literatur der Betroffenheit", "Migranten-/Migrationsliteratur", "interkulturelle Literatur" give Klaus Schenk, Almut Totorow, Milan Turdík (Ed.): Migrationsliteratur. Schreibweisen einer interkulturellen Moderne. Tübingen and Basel 2004. Kuruyazici (Manfred Durzak, Nilüfer Kuruyazici (Ed.): Die andere Deutsche Literatur. Istanbuler Vorträge, Würzburg 2004, p. 7) uses "deutschsprachige Literatur fremdkultureller Schriftsteller", Esselborn (pp. 11) and Mecklenburg (pp. 23) in the same book prefer "Minderheitenliteratur", Jim Jordan (p. 118) "Diasporaliteratur" and Irmgard Ackermann (p. 47) "Autoren mit anderskulturellem Hintergrund". Grünefeld gives reasons for "Migrationsliteratur" (Hans-Dieter Grünefeld: "Literatur und Arbeitsmigration. Probleme literaturwissenschaftlicher Gegenstands- und Begriffsbestimmung." In: Evangelische Akademie Iserlohn, Tagungsprotokolle, Nr. 26 (1985)), which the author of this papers agrees to.
(2) In parallel to the usage of "Almanya edebiati" by Turkish writers for literature written by Turks on subjects in and about Germany, the German Turkologist and translator Wolfgang Riemann coined this term in his basic study Das Deutschlandbild der modernen türkischen Literatur (Wiesbaden 1983), pp. 40.
(3) Nevzat Üstün, Bekir Yildiz and Yüksel Pazarkaya were the first great names. Sölçün sets the beginning of "literary expression on the subject of Turkish migration in Germany" on Yüksel Pazarkaya's 1960-68 dispersedly published poems (Sargut Sölçün: "Literatur der türkischen Minderheit". In: Carmine Chiellino (Ed.): Interkulturelle Literatur in Deutschland. Ein Handbuch. Stuttgart, Weimar 2000, p. 137).
(4) E.g. Aras Ören, Sakir Bilgin, Güney Dal, Haydar Isik.
(5) E.g. Haldun Taner, Sevgi Soysal, Füruzan Selçuk. Most famous examples of earlier times are Ahmet Hasim and Sabahattin Ali.
(6) E.g. Nihat Behram, Dursun Akçam, Aydin Engin.
(7) Tanzer (Harald Tanzer: "Deutsche Literatur türkischer Autoren" in Schenk op.cit.), p. 301.
(8) Promoted by the Turkish Teachers Association ATÖF, the daily newspaper Hürriyet and the TV-channel Türkshow.
(9) Promotion of "written and verbal Turkish", development of awareness and sympathy for Turkish language (paragraphs 1-5), "building up and enriching a migration literature" (paragraph 6) as well as "enriching the Turkish and German literature, encourging intercultural interaction, ensuring social harmony by getting known to each other better" (paragraph 7).
(10) E.g. Yüksel Pazarkaya and Gültekin Emre.
(11) Tanzer op.cit., p. 305.
(12) Zaimoglu's thesis, the field of migration literature is "grazed" and finished (Feridun Zaimoglu, Julia Abel: "Migrationsliteratur ist ein toter Kadaver. Ein Gespräch." In: Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Ed.): Literatur und Migration. TEXT+KRITIK – Zeitschrift für Literatur. Sonderband. München 2006, p. 165), does not at all count for all Turkish-German writers.
(13) Sölçün sees topical priorities on "loss of identity, homelessness, inner strife and hesitancy" and observes first signs of a change in writing about workers and labour towards personal reflection, which settled definitely in the 1990s. (Sölçün op.cit., p. 140).
(14) Sölçün op.cit., p. 142.
(15) Tanzer op.cit., p. 315.
(16) Zafer Senocak got excited as early as 1990 on great publishing houses permantly asking for the market, he named as criterions for the realization of an agreement "confirmation of the predominating images about the foreigner and his culture" as well as simpleness (Zafer Senocak: "Wann ist der Fremde zu Hause? Betrachtungen zur Kunst und Kultur von Minderheiten in Deutschland", in Senocak: Atlas des tropischen Deutschland, Berlin 1992, p. 64-75).
(17) For many others reports Zafer Senocak (Gefährliche Verwandtschaft, Berlin 1998), p. 207.
(18) "The special circumstances of my origin only got into my mind when I was asked for them." Feridun Zaimoglu in Jamal Tuschick (Ed.): MorgenLand. Neueste deutsche Literatur. Frankfurt a. Main 2000, p. 10.
(19) Tanzer op.cit., p. 309.
(20) Selim Özdogan is said to having hesitated several days before accepting the Adelbert-von-Chamisso-Förderpreis (Yüksel Pazarkaya: "Generationswechsel – Themenwandel", in Durzak/Kuruyazici op.cit., p. 151). In this connection has to be asked if promotions like the Adelbert-von-Chamisso-prize for migrants' literature in German language may regarded as a sort of "positive discrimination".
(21) "The migration literature does not play a role since a long time" said Zaimoglu representing many others (Zaimoglu/Abel op.cit., p. 162).


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