»Auch die Wörter werden zu Körpern«
Body, Sexuality and Carnavalesque Writing in Emine S. Özdamar’s Stories Mutterzunge and GroßvaterzungeAbstract
Based on the analysis of Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge, this article demonstrates that Özdamar’s mode of dealing with the body and sexuality corresponds to Bakhtin’s concept of the »grotesque body« and that body and language are strongly interwoven. It argues that Özdamar’s »embodied writing« is emancipatory and that it subverts not only patriarchal discourses, but also bourgeois concepts of body, sexuality, and literature. Writing is not only a mental but also a corporeal activity that goes through the body and gives voice to it.Title:
»Auch die Wörter werden zu Körpern.« Körper, Sexualität und karnevaleskes Schreiben in Emine S. Özdamars Erzählungen Mutterzunge und GroßvaterzungeKeywords:
Emine Segvi Özdamar; Mutterzunge; Großvaterzunge; body; sexuality; grotesque body; theatre and language; German migrant literature
1. Body and Sexuality in Özdamar’s Work
Although Emine Segvi Özdamar’s work has attracted considerable attention since the 1990s, the relevance of the body and sexuality in her texts has not yet been accorded sufficient critical attention. This is surprising considering that this issue has socio-political relevance, given that the role of Turkish and Muslim women has been a topic of intensive discussion in Germany, in particular since 9 / 11.1 Additionally, this subject has much to do with questions of gender and identity already addressed in the critical literature on Özdamar.2
Sheila Ghaussy’s article Das Vaterland verlassen: Nomadic Language and »Feminine Writing« in Emine Segvi Özdamars »Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei« (1999) constitutes an exception. Ghaussy rightly calls Özdamar’s language in Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei, hat zwei Türen, aus einer kam ich rein, aus der anderen ging ich raus an »embodied language«, that is, a language that emphasises »the sounds, rhythms, and pulses of words« and Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei as a whole an »embodied text, […] which acknowledges its own production through the body, as well as the concrete materiality of the words« (Ghaussy 1999: 5). While agreeing with Ghaussy’s denomination »embodied language«, I think that reading Özdamar’s language as »écriture feminine« (ibid.: 2) in the tradition of Hélène Cixous, Luce Iriguay or Julia Kristeva as Ghaussy does, runs the risk of confirming the patriarchal stereotype according to which men are rational and therefore logocentric, whereas women are body-oriented and therefore prone to emotionality and even irrationality. This paper will demonstrate instead that Özdamar’s »embodied writing« subverts not only patriarchal discourses, but also bourgeois concepts of body, sexuality, and literature.
To argue that body and sexuality as corporeal experience are central in Özdamar’s texts may at first sight seem to fulfill the Western3 stereotype of the sensual, irrational and thus backward Orient as opposed to Western rationality and progress. As Postcolonial Studies have demonstrated, one main strategies of imperial and colonial subordination of the Western powers over the so-called Orient was to attribute the latter characteristics closely related to body and sexuality whereas the Western world was associated with rationality.4 This modern paradigm of nature-culture, body-reason has come to be particularly negative for women, since their exclusion from central areas of labor and social life was justified on the grounds of their purported closeness to nature and body, as Genivive Lloyd and Colette Guillaumin have pointed out in their books The Man of Reason. »Male« and »Female« in Western Philosophy (1993) and Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology (1995). Although agreeing with this postcolonial analysis of repressive colonial discourses, I think it would fall short to associate literary affinity to body and sexuality in Özdamar’s work exclusively with »colonial« elements regardless of the context they turn up in. For this namely would imply the acceptance of that line of argumentation in a dialectic way and the classification of everything that is corporeal and sexual as backward or even »primitive«. That would also mean ignoring that the body and sexuality as corporeal response can also assume a subversive and emancipatory character, as the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) and many other writers, such as comedians, for instance, have clearly shown.
Based on the analysis of Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge, two well-known interlinked stories published in the anthology Mutterzunge in 1990, this paper will show in an exemplary way that Özdamar’s mode of dealing with the body and sexuality is strongly emancipatory, it corresponds rather to Bakhtin’s concept of the »grotesque body« (Bakhtin 1984) and that body and language are strongly interwoven.
It should be recalled in this context that the notion of the »grotesque body« originally appears related to Bakhtins’s considerations in his study Rabelais and its World on Carnival in medieval Europe. He describes it as a »democratic« rebellious festivity which, at least for its limited duration, challenged rules and the established order (ibid.: 285f.). The grotesque body is not docile and repressive, but rather subversive and creative. According to Bakhtin, Carnival exhibits the grotesque body in order to celebrate the cycle of life and freedom and to put the established social rules upside down, topsy-turvy for that short period of time. Grotesque bodies are »open bodies«; they have no boundaries, they are part of the world, not separated from it. Consequently, emphasis is placed on corporeal parts which establish contact to other bodies and are open to the world, such as the nose, mouth, genitals, breasts, and anus (ibid.: 26f.). However, from the Renaissance onwards, »the grotesque body« lost ground to the so-called »closed body« (ibid.: 321). According to Bakhtin, the body’s connection to the world began to shift, it became closed off to the world and increasingly assumed a private, individualistic dimension.
The presence of the grotesque body in Özdamar’s writing therefore demonstrates that the Turkish first-person female narrators are free, independent, and rebellious spirits, ready to subvert established norms. Thus, the strong somatic dimension is not an expression of a backwardness and repression, which Turkish women are often associated with in Germany, but rather of a free and emancipated mind.5
The way body and sexuality are presented in Özdamar’s stories even ironises Orientalism, i.e., the Western idea of »Oriental love«. It is true that Özdamar evokes sensual exotic stereotypes, such as the romanticised concept of Arabia, or of the submissive Oriental woman. However, Özdamar ends up playing with and subverting those clichés. At the same time, she undermines the Western »body-mind divide«, that is to say, the assumption that the body is merely an instrument of the »superior« mind. She rather presents the body as an entity with its own rights and »voice«. All central life experiences such as suffering, violence, death, and love are presented as corporeal experiences. Body and mind are not opposites, but rather constitute a unit. By subverting both the so-called Western and Oriental categories, Özdamar defies gendered and culturalistic arguments and modes of speaking in Germany about oppressed Turkish women.
Finally, this paper will argue that writing is not only a mental but also a corporeal activity for Özdamar that goes through the body and gives voice to it. Accordingly, she created an original, and powerful, language and style which is »permeated by the body«, i.e., a language and style that integrates body and sexuality, and at the same time denounces oppressive social discourses. This is done mainly by drawing on corporeal images and expressions, and by making use of the principle of carnivalisation, a subversive emancipative literary mode that Bakhtin traces back to Carnival and which connects all areas of life,6 lowering the ideal and abstract to the level of materiality. It is a non-bourgeois and »theatrical« means of expression that puts language »on stage«. Whereas critical literature has so far concentrated mainly on the hybrid, transcultural aspect of Özdamar’s language, this paper will highlight its somatic, carnavalesque character as well as the impact that Özdamar’s theatre experiences had on her writing.7
2. Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge: The Centrality of Body and Sexuality in these Stories
Body and sexuality are so central in the stories Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge, two graphically presented but interdependent stories, that they determine the main character’s world view, her decisions and consequently, the action and plot.
Mutterzunge starts with the Turkish female narrator sitting in a bar in Berlin, assaulted by the feeling that she has »lost« her mother tongue: »In meiner Sprache heißt Zunge: Sprache … Wenn ich nur wüßte, wann ich meine Zunge verloren habe.« (Özdamar 1998b: 9). A stream of associative and scenic flash-backs about her past traumatic experiences of violence, prison, torture and death during the political turmoil in Turkey in the 1970s follow, which offer the explanation of the female protagonist’s feeling of alienation towards Turkey and Turkish, her mother language.8 In order to overcome her feeling of loss and be closer to her childhood and her family, she decides to learn Arabic, the language in which she feels close to her grandfather and mother: »Sehen, Lebensunfälle erleben, Arbeiter, ich wollte zurück zum Großvater, daß ich den Weg zu meiner Mutter und Mutterzunge finden könnte. Ich habe mich in meinen Großvater verliebt. Die Wörter, die ich die Liebe zu fassen gesucht habe, hatten alle ihre Kindheit« (ibid.: 46). Arabic is for her part of the Turkish language and identity which Atatürk’s reforms had banned abruptly in his efforts to create a national Turkish state. This was felt as an act of violence that detached her from part of her identity and childhood.
In order to gain this world back, she begins taking lessons from Ibni Abdullah, a language teacher who lives in West Berlin. Quickly, the relationship between them assumes a strong physical, sexual dimension. In fact, it gets so strong that Ibni Abdullah perceives his body as »verrückt«, as mad, as »out of place«. The German word »verrückt« can mean both, to be mad or to be moved »out of place«, »out of order«, which clearly transmits the departure from normality. Abdullah is unable to fulfil his duties and to lead a normal life: »Mein Körper ist verrückt geworden, wenn du weiter in mich kommst, spätestens in einem Monat verliere ich meine Arbeit, ich bin ein armer Mann.« (Ibid.: 42) Their love and sexual encounters are so intense that she describes them in religious terms9 and as a moment of religious epiphany. The expression »Ibni Abdullah, der in meinem Körper ist« is used so frequently that it even becomes a leitmotif in the stories.
Ich hatte Schmerzen in meinem Körper, ein Fieber kam und trennte mich von anderen Lebenden, ich legte mich hin, sah, wie der Schmerz meine Haut aufmachte und sich in meinem Körper überall einnähte, ich wußte, daß ich in diesem Moment Ibni Abdullah in meinen Körper reingekommen war, dann war Ruhe, Schmerz und Fieber gingen weg, ich stand auf. Ich lief einen Monat lang mit Ibni Abdullah in meinem Körper in beiden Berlin. (Ibid.: 20f.)
However, the physical intensity that unites them turns out to be precisely the same force that eventually divides them. Whereas Ibni Abdullah insists on a patient and platonic relationship – the so-called »holy love« – she cannot imagine a relationship that excludes the body and reduces it to a silent existence, as the following dialogue between them illustrates:
»Gut, Merhamet, erbarme. Du bist sehr schön, ich will die heilige Liebe, reine Liebe. Wenn ich mit dir weiterschlafe, mein Körper wird sich ändern, ich werde meine Arbeit verlieren. Du weißt nicht, es gibt eine Orientalistin, sie fragt mich sehr genau nach Akkusativ, Dativ. Mein Körper ist verrückt geworden, wenn du weiter in mich kommst, spätestens in einem Monat verliere ich meine Arbeit, ich bin ein armer Mann […]« »[…] können wir uns nicht heilig lieben, geht es dann nicht?« »Wenn die Körper sich vergessen, vergessen die Seelen sich nicht?« »Ich vergesse nicht.« »Wie soll ich mit einem schweigenden Körper laufen?« (Ibid.: 42f)
Since the protagonist does not share Ibni Abdullah’s religious fervor and cannot repress the »voice of her body« as she is expected to,10 she ends up leaving him and tossing away the Koran scripts that they used for Arabic lessons on a motorway. This constitutes a symbolic act of blasphemy, rebellion, and emancipation, considering that the scripts stand for Abdullah’s world, that is for religiosity, female patience and individual sacrifice and the motorway of »modernity«. After this episode, the protagonist seeks refuge in the harsh conditions of the Travelers’ Aid Office at the train station in order to »expurgate« Ibni Abdullah from her body.
At the end of the story, the reader »sees« the female protagonist leaving the Travelers’ Aid with the decision in mind to approach the first person who has a »Lebensunfall«, a trauma, inscribed in her or his physiognomy. This person turns out to be a sad-looking German girl who is eating carrot salad in the park and whose boyfriend had committed suicide. The story ends with the German girl asking the main character what she is doing in Germany. »Ich bin Wörtersammlerin,« (ibid.: 48), she answers.
As we see, the stories evolve around a love affair and language learning with a strong corporeal dimension.
Although they consist of scenes written in a surrealistic free-association style, three main phases in them can be identified which undergird this. The first is dominated by the protagonist’s experience of loss and alienation, more precisely, the protagonist’s traumatic experiences and loss of her mother language. The second coincides with the protagonist’s regressive phase, that is, her attempt to gain back something lost: It sets off with the decision to learn Arabic, the language that she associates with her childhood, her grandparents, and non-violent, tolerant Turkish past and identity: »Vielleicht erst zu Großvater zurück, dann kann ich den Weg zu meiner Mutter und Mutterzunge finden« (ibid.: 14). Although this plan is announced at the very end of Mutterzunge, it is put into practice in the second story Großvaterzunge and reaches its peak in the love and sexual affair with Ibni Abdullah. The insight into the impossibility of finding comfort in her origins and the necessity of abandoning Ibni Abdullah marks the beginning of the third phase: the protagonist decides to seek the proximity of people instead, who seem to have gone through so-called »Lebensunfälle« (ibid.: 48) as she did. However, they do not have to be from the imagined space »Arabia« but can also be German.
In the three narrative stages of the stories, body and sexuality play a strikingly central role. In fact, all the protagonists’ experiences have their corporeal expression. For instance, in the first stage, the protagonist’s hair loss hints at her alienation from her Turkish origins in Germany: »Du hast die Hälfte deiner Haare in Alemania gelassen.« (Ibid.: 9) The flash-backs about the violent upheavals in Turkey bring back painful memories of blood, tortured, maltreated and dead bodies that reveal the political violence in Turkey in its physicality. In the second phase, her love affair with Ibni Abdullah becomes so corporeal that it threatens to overshadow all other daily experiences. The third phase of the story also finds its corporeal expression, as for instance in the protagonist’s necessity to expurgate Ibni Abdullah from her body and in her search for people with a traumatic signature inscribed on their faces. The person she addresses is the German girl whose boyfriend has hung himself and whose traumatic experience had also been extremely physical. Significantly, the description of his dead hanging body takes up considerable space in the text.
The use of the neologism »Lebensunfall« in the stories – which I think is central and has been ignored so far – substantiates this reading because of its strong somatic dimension: This neologism appears in the first section, when the traumatic experiences in Turkey in the 1970s came to the protagonist’s mind for the first time,11 and in the third and last section12 of the stories. The fact that the first and the last »Lebensunfall« to be mentioned are hanged bodies corroborates this reading and stresses even more the circularity of Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge. Significantly, the first »Lebensunfall« alluded to is Deniz Gezmiş’s hanging in 197213 – Deniz Gezmiş was a leftist student leader, a member of the Turkish 1968 movement and a founder and leader of the People’s Liberation Army. The last »Lebensunfall« that is mentioned is the suicide of the German girl’s boyfriend. At the very end of the stories, the German girl tells the narrator how she found Thomas’s hanging body after returning home from a Goya exhibition. Although this episode is short and has been neglected, it is relevant for the understanding of the story. Two aspects of it suggest that Thomas was an unemployed, depressed grandson of a GDR parliamentarian, namely, the fact that this episode probably had occurred the same year when the political process that led to German Reunification and to the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic began and that the story is told in 1989. Second, the information that his grandfather was a »Kammerdiener« (ibid.: 48), which probably is an ironic illusion to a member of the GDR Volkskammer or parliament. The hanged body as the exponent of »Lebensunfälle« thus serves as a link between the protagonist’s and German girl’s biographies, Turkish and German history, the first and the third stations of the story – and consequently, between the end of Großvaterzunge and the beginning of Mutterzunge.
In the light of what has been said, Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge can be read as narratives about regression and its overcoming in which the body plays a central role. For these experiences take place in the body, get inscribed in it and are expressed through it. Regression is knowingly a defense mechanism which occurs when somebody is unable to handle reality and therefore reverses to an earlier stage of development rather than facing and solving it. Accordingly, the protagonist in Mutterzunge und Großvaterzunge tries at first to overcome her feeling of pain, loss and alienation by fleeing into her childhood, her past, and »origins« in a dream of a uniting Arabic Oriental identity. This is an attitude that can be read as a reaction not only to the violent experiences in Turkey14 but also to »the burden of representation« and »ethnicism« particularly in Germany, where there is a strong fixation on cultural roots and »Herkunft« or one’s origin,15 which leads to a process of ethnicising migrants.16 Consequently, this reaction also can be interpreted as a takeover of the other’s projection of oneself: she is doing what she is expected to do, namely to behave like an Oriental girl, as she is perceived in the eyes of her German environment.17
Yet, the protagonist realizes that the escape from the Turkish and German reality into an Oriental love dream and a so-called »Arabic identity« is an illusion, because the differences about love and sexuality between the two lovers are insurmountable. Instead she comes to the conclusion that comfort can only be found in communication and empathy with other human beings, mainly with those who have been through similar traumatic and violent experiences regardless of their culture and nationality.18 Significantly, the story finishes with the image of both the protagonist and the German girl smoking together and looking for similarities between the German and Turkish languages. The protagonist is now doing the same language games with the German girl – looking for similarities between two languages – that she used to play with Ibni Abdullah. In this way, she shows that is not the nationality of the language that matters, but rather that this language gives voice to their experiences and »Lebensunfälle«. In the light of this, the following sentence in Mutterzunge turns out to be a key one: when the narrator once asked a Turkish communist friend what is important in order to be able to write with depth, he answered significantly: »Kaza gecirmek, Lebensunfälle erleben« (ibid.: 12).
Özdamar’s Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge show in this way that »Lebensunfälle« –suffering and trauma with a very corporeal dimension – are transnational human realities either in the female narrator’s Turkey of the 1970s, in Ibni Abdullah’s home country or in Germany, where both protagonists and the German girl live.19 By alluding to Deniz Gezmiş’s and Mahir Çayan’s political fate in Turkey, the political division of Berlin and the suicide of a GDR parliamentarian’s grandson in 1989, the narrator makes German and Turkish history »touch« or interconnect.20 The left Marxist and proletarian movements in Europe of the 1970s are projected as an uniting force of German and Turkish history. Consequently, Özdamar’s female protagonist does not suffer because of the unbridgeable differences between German and Turkish cultures, but because she sees the continent after World War II as »united« in suffering, which is also a corporeal suffering.21
To that extent, these stories are not primarily about cultural »difference« but about the commonality of pain due to political traumas. The body plays a central role as it takes place in it and it gives expression to it. Since the suffering and the violence the protagonists have experienced were primarily caused by conflicts in Turkey, Israel, and Germany, the stories denounce political conflicts, violence and nationalism. As far as Turkey and »Arabia« are concerned, they are not presented as a romantic space such as the »Western world« often imagined it, but a space where the political tumult of the 20th century also took place in a very violent (corporeal) way.
3. Female Emancipation or Subverting the Oriental Stereotype
The Turkish protagonist thus proves to be an emancipated woman. She shows an independent spirit and agency by seducing Ibni Abdullah and taking the sexual initiative (ibid.: 39). It is the protagonist’s emancipated attitude towards body and sexuality that causes her to leave Ibni Abdullah, that is to say, she rebels against the orthodox and traditional expectations of »holy love« and against the virtues that Ibni Abullah and his story about Zeliha and the prophet Yusuf (ibid.: 35f.) expect from Muslim women: patience, self-denial and abstinence.22 She is political aware and resists repressive ideas of political order and partnership.
Further passages in the text underline the protagonist’s rebellious spirit, such as the episode about her communist past and her interest and involvement in the political developments in Turkey: When asked by a policeman in Turkey who searched the communist commune where she had lived if her male housemates would abuse her, she answered defiantly: »Ja, sie alle laufen über mich, aber laufen vorsichtig« (ibid.: 13). Shocked, the policeman answered: »Hast du kein Herz für deinen Vater, ich habe auch eine Tochter in deinem Alter, Allah soll euch alle verfluchen Inschallah.« (Ibid.: 13)
The narrator goes even further and subverts the stereotype of Oriental love and the Oriental female by means of irony. A close look at the above-mentioned threefold stages or phases of the story shows namely that they correspond to the movement of irony: ideas that are conjured up (in the second phase) are subverted or even negated in the third. At first, a series of elements in Großvaterzunge suggest an Oriental atmosphere which makes the reader believe that the Oriental stereotype is being reactivated in an affirmative way. The most striking Oriental elements emerge in the description of Abdulla’s flat as an Oriental mosque-like space, with Oriental decor such as cushions and wall rugs (ibid.: 15). Additionally, the protagonist’s submissive and almost slave-like behavior – she spends 40 days locked up in his flat – reminds the reader of the Persian tradition of »purdah« (veil, curtain) of keeping women away from the public and men from outside.23 Moreover, the narrator’s depiction of their love affair and their poetic dialogues is greatly inspired by so-called Oriental poems, songs and religious texts.24 The protagonists even describe themselves as »Orientals«. When they meet for the first time, he comments: »Es ist eine Gemeinheit, mit einer Orientalin in Deutsch zu reden, aber momentan haben wir nur diese Sprache« (ibid.). Although they come from different countries – she is from Turkey and he apparently from Palestine – they feel that they share the same origins, a common space which they call Arabia. Both protagonists behave in a kind of mimicry in this part of the story, as both absorb the suppressive ideas of origins and the Oriental stereotype. However, their love crashes against reality, because it collides with her open views on sexuality in the third section of the story, as already shown.
This ironic subversion of that dream of Arabia is even more powerful as it is corroborated by an ironic juxtaposing in opposition that is contained in the third phase. That is to say, Özdamar juxtaposes the exotic sensuality of the Oriental body in the second phase to the brutal reality of tortured and dead bodies in the third (and first) phases. She does it subtly and artistically by alluding to Goya’s depictions of violence in the third phase of the text. Significantly, the German girl found her boyfriend’s dead body precisely when arriving home from a Goya exhibition. And it is certainly no coincidence that the sight of his hanging body at home is described in detail, alluding to Goya’s brutal depictions of violence and war. Goya’s famous prints »Los desastres de la guerra« (The disasters of war), especially the hanging bodies25, come to the reader’s mind. By juxtaposing the hanging body (third phase) to the Oriental body (second stage), and thus closing the circle (as the first phase of the story began precisely with an allusion to a hanging body), Özdamar attaches an importance to the maltreated body that denunciates the naivety of the Oriental counterpart.
4. Subversion of Western Ideas about Body and Sexuality
Özdamar’s subversion of the Oriental love dream in Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge does not mean, however, that she embraces the dominant Western conception of the body and sexuality. In the so-called Western modern world, mainly power institutions have long seen the body as the origin of evil that has to be subjugated to the power of the mind. Although the religious dimension has nearly vanished in the course of secularization and modernity, the division between mind and body, as well as the subaltern character of the body as an instrument of the mind, has prevailed up to now. Foucault has pointed out in Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality that modernity with its forms of domination and knowledge (psychiatry, medicine, criminology, punishment practises) has created submissive bodies, disciplined by institutions and discourses into efficient and productive ›materials‹ that the economy and the bio-political state needs.26 In the contemporary functionally differentiated society, the healthy young body in particular is presented as desirable, whereas its older or ill counterpart is repressed, because it does not correspond to the productive or aesthetic ideals of society. Sexuality is largely relegated to certain areas in Western societies, although it can easily be acquired and the media suggest its ubiquity by using it as an eye-catcher. The feminist scholar Sandra Bartky has shown in Femininity and Domination. Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (1990) that Western bodily and erotic ideals have a strong normalizing power that subjugates the female body to highly disciplinary practices.
Özdamar’s bodies do not correspond to the that highly disciplined body. Instead they remind the reader of the powerful, vital, invigorating, rebellious, and all-unifying »carnavalesque«, Bakhtinean »grotesque body«27 that Stephen Greenblatt paraphrased so well:
[T]he grotesque body is the ever unfinished, ever creating, ever exceeding its limits in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, dying, eating, drinking, and defecating. The grotesque body – open to the world in all its orifices, unbounded, abusive, devouring, and nurturing – receives its fullest visual representation in the art of Bosch and Breughel, its most masterful literary expression in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (Greenblatt 1990: 84f.).
This explains the female protagonist’s fascination for prostitutes, as they stand for a kind of sexuality that does not correspond to the bourgeois norms and to the expectations of »holy love«. Özdamar creates ubiquitous bodies that possess the force of life and unite all areas of life; they are in constant movement and contain the openness, vitality and fluidity of Bakhtin’s carnavalesque body. They reflect a cyclical, all-uniting worldview not the progressive and teleological one. Besides, they present themselves in their ugliness and materiality, meaning that they are bodies that urinate, flatuate, have sexual demands, and can go mad.
Özdamar’s writing style is thus strongly driven by a rebellious force and a lust of presenting the physicality of the body in a coarse manner. Whereas bourgeois language tends to cultivate a vocabulary and expressions that euphemise the ugliness and mortality of the body, Özdamar goes the other way round: she is like Brecht, blatant and direct. Even where it would not be necessary, she uses corporeal vocabulary, images and expressions. As already mentioned, the narrator in Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge shows the brutality of the political situation in Turkey through images of violence inflicted on bodies. The Turkish mother, who is mentioned at the beginning of Mutterzunge, feels that her head has sprung out of its place (»mein Kopf ist aus seinem Platz gesprungen«) (Özdamar 1998b: 10) when she learns that her son will be hanged. The brutal consequences of workers’ demonstrations against the regime becomes apparent in images that show the brutality of the workers’ blood spurting and acts of self-mutilation (ibid.: 11). The corporeal image of breastfeeding, closely connected with the human physical process of procreation and nurturing, is used to summon up the tragic destiny of young dissidents like Mohar and his brother in Turkey: »Es ist siebzehn Jahre her, man hat ihnen die Milch, die sie aus ihren Müttern getrunken haben, aus ihrer Nase rausgeholt.« (Ibid.: 14)
Despite the narrator’s vulgarity and ugliness in depicting the body and sexuality, they are not presented as evil, but as part and expression of the circle of life. They constitute a unifying principle that brings together separated areas of social life and categories of thought.
Because life and death are not opposites in Özdamar’s texts, but complementary, sexuality is very close to death, for they are two sides of the same phenomenon. The sensuous, procreative body is close to its maltreated and dead counterpart. Sexuality does not only mean conception but also the celebration of life and the acknowledgement of human mortality. It is thus not surprising that death is present from the first dialogue onwards between the two lovers28 and even at the highest peak of sexual intensity.
One can even say that the protagonists’ (sexual) relationship in Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge is also the result of shared traumatic experiences involving death: She had been confronted with the experience of death during the political upheavals in Turkey and he in the course of the Palestinian and Israel conflict.
Therefore, sexuality can also be read as a vital, resilient response to the experience of violence and death. Generally speaking, the female protagonists see sexuality as spiritual moments of unity, with the loved person and an experience celebrating life. However, this does not eliminate the presence of death; rather, it incorporates death as part of life.
5. Carnavalesque Writing Principle and Somatic Language
As the titles Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge indicate, language constitutes one of the central topics of these stories. Although the scholarly literature has rightly highlighted the centrality of language in Özdamar’s work, primarily its hybrid character,29 the somatic aspect of her language has been neglected. Not only does the narrator describe herself as a »Wörtersammlerin« (ibid.: 48) but the story also develops from her wish to gain back her »mother tongue«. It becomes clear that language is more than a communication medium; it is also part of her identity, it carries the memories of her family, the warmth of her childhood, as well as the traumas of the past.
Consequently, it not surprising that body and language acquisition are strongly intermingled in these stories. Whenever the protagonist and Abdullah meet in Abullah’s flat, language plays a central role. The process of learning Arabic goes hand in hand with their love and sexual relation and turns out to be a sensual experience for the protagonist: for instance, when, both lovers were together, they looked for similarities, for »bridges« between Turkish and Arabic (ibid.: 41).
The protagonist is so language-sensitive that language often becomes something vivid, animistic to her – language can gain a »body« as it were. Especially the highlighted sentences in the following text section show how the letters from the Koran, the book she uses in her Arabic lessons, take on a life of their own. They become her companions and touch her body:
Ich konnte aus diesem Schriftzimmer nicht mehr raus. Ibni Abdullah ging nach seinen Schriftunterrichten abends weg, ich zog den Vorhang zur Seite, saß mit Schriften in dieser Moschee, die Schriften lagen auf dem Teppich, ich legte mich neben sie, die Schriften sprachen miteinander ohne Pause mit verschiedenen Stimmen, weckten die eingeschlafenen Tiere in meinem Körper, ich schließe die Augen, die Stimme der Liebe wird mich blind machen, sie sprechen weiter, mein Körper geht auf wie ein in der Mitte aufgeschnittener Granatapfel, in Blut und Schmutz kam ein Tier raus. Ich schaute auf meinen offenen Körper, leckt meine Wunden mit seiner Spucke, ich hatte Steine unter meinen Füßen, ein Meer soll sich mal zurückgezogen haben, eine unendliche Landschaft blieb nur mit Steinen, ihr Glanz hatte sie verlassen, die Steine schrien: »Wasser, Wasser«. [...] Ich drehte mich um meine rechte Seite, da lagen auf dem Teppich die Schriften, die Rosenkränze auf den Wänden schauten mit ungeheurere Ruhe auf mich. Das Feuer, das aus meinem »Ach« rauskam, kann nur Ibni Abdullah Feuer auslöschen. (Ibid.: 27)
The description of the protagonist entering the study room and being overwhelmed by the feeling that the Arabic letters were waiting for her also reveals an animistic perception of language. She fancies them as lively beings, with bodies, faces, eyes, and hearts:
Ich trat ins Schriftzimmer ein. Über den Tüchern warten die Buchstaben auf mich. Heute manche haben würdevolle Gesichter, die hören das Rauschen ihres Herzens, manche ihrer Augen sind ganz, manchmal halb verschlossen. Manche sind dünne Waisen mit bleichen Gesichtern, manche Allahs Vogel, sie wandern Hand in Hand. (Ibid.: 18f.)
The animistic attitude towards language comes up again further on, when Turkish words of Arabic origin are mentioned as if they were lively instances, able to migrate from one place to the other: »Bis diese Wörter aus seinem Land aufgestanden und zu meinem Land gelaufen sind, haben sie sich unterwegs etwas geändert.« (Ibid.: 29)
Given the importance of language to the protagonist, it becomes understandable why she sees language as a refuge and as a means of overcoming her feeling of alienation (»Wenn ich nur wüßte, wann ich meine Zunge verloren habe.«, ibid.: 9). This reveals her dilemma: On the one hand, she wants to be closer to her childhood and connect to a tolerant Ottoman tradition, but knows that she cannot achieve this through the German language, because »[i]n der Fremdsprache haben Wörter keine Kindheit« (ibid.: 44). On the other, she does not want to seek consolation in the Turkish language, for she associates it with the violent political situation in Turkey. Thus, she ends up learning Arabic, her grandfather’s language: »Vielleicht erst zu Großvater zurück, dann kann ich den Weg zu meiner Mutter und Mutterzunge finden.« (Ibid.: 14)
As I have already pointed out, the protagonist’s plan to find refuge and consolation in the Arabic language fails because her Arabic teacher and lover has a religious world view that she was not able to accept. In this sense the narrator’s very personal language can be read a response to her needs, that is, as an attempt to find a means of expression of her world view, feelings and »Lebensunfälle.« This language turns out to be German, yet, not the official German, but rather an individualised German that seeks connection to a revolutionary tradition of German history. It is also a German interspersed with Turkish ways of thinking and feeling.
The titles of the stories: Mutterzunge and Großvaterzunge illustrates this quite well. By creating these words – they deserve even more attention as they are neologisms – Özdamar establishes a connection between language and body in the German language that exist in many languages, including in Turkish. Like the Romance languages, Turkish has one word to represent both »language« (a linguistic system) and »tongue« (the physical organ that produces language): Turkish »dil«, Spanish »lingua«, Portuguese »língua«, and French »langue«. This kind of direct link between language and body does not exist in the German language, because it differentiates between »Sprache«, language as a set of rules, and »Zunge«, the bodily part used to articulate speech. Besides, »Sprache« is grammatically an »abstractum« of the verb »sprechen«.30 By creating the neologism »Mutterzunge« as a substitute of the German »Muttersprache«, Özdamar translates the Turkish word literarily into German, a technique she often uses. She also confers the corporeal contents of the word to the German language; both are interrelated, because »Zunge« the very physical organ with which we eat and transmit energy in our bodies, is the same organ we use to communicate. Özdamar thus emphasises that language is an abstract set of rules and something corporeal. By doing this, the author brings language and body together from a literary point of view.
As mentioned, Bakhtin has shown that the subversive movement of carnival opens the space for the repressive, new and creative energies. It is a festive event during which the world is turned »upside down«. Hierarchical structures and rules which determine the course of everyday life are suspended; everything which generally is separated finds a nexus: high and low, old and new. Bakhtin’s concept of carnival mingles categories and areas of live which are usually separated, disjunct. In its conjunction, time and space are contingent and fluid. Different forms of life – animal, plant, human – are portrayed as incomplete and as passing into one another.
Body and sexuality in Özdamar’s texts are not only employed as vital, subversive forces, but they are also the main ingredients and at the very centre of a writing process that resembles Bakhtin’s carnavalesque principle. Özdamar brings powerful, sublime, religious, and abstract areas of life down to the physical level, whereas strategies of power avoid corporeality due to its transitive and fragile character. Her surrealistic, free association writing style brings areas of life together, everything can be intermingled, everything is in transition, space and time are plastic and fluid categories. In this way, body and sexuality find expression in Özdamar’s »embodied language«, that is to say, a language that enables the body to speak as a whole and not as the opposite of the mind.
6. Language and Theatre
To try to find out the underlying reasons for the centrality of body and sexuality in Özdamar’s writing must remain highly hypothetical. Yet I would contend that the reasons for the strong somatic dimension in Özdamar’s work might not be primarily cultural, i.e. because Özdamar’s origins are Turkish or rather Kurdish, but rather social and artistic motifs. In Istanbul, where she attended a drama school, Özdamar was immersed in the leftwing, communist, non-bourgeois, and liberal artistic environment. In Germany, where she had spent half of her life before she wrote the stories, she came in touch with the 1968 generation of protest. Özdamar sympathized with Marxist and leftwing ideals of solidarity with the working class and of sexual liberation against an uptight and restrictive bourgeois moral code, as her novel Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn reveals. The impact of these ideas on her writing have not been sufficiently examined. The influence of Sufism, the Islam mystic tradition that seeks the intensity and unity of the subject with the world, might have also have played a role in her writing. This may lie at the root of the experience of sexuality as a very intense and almost mystical, nearly religious experience.
Furthermore, Özdamar felt attracted to non-bourgeois writing in the communist tradition by Bertolt Brecht, Nazim Hikmet and Can Yücel. She has repeatedly stated that her grandparent’s oral stories, Brecht’s songs and her work for the theatre had strongly inspired her. Interestingly, these artistic expressions reveal a strong performative character and a powerful link between body and language.
However, what seems to have been decisive are in the main Özdamar’s artistic inclinations, her love for performative and corporeal art such as theatre, Özdamar had worked for more than 20 years in the theatre, both as an actress and a theatre director and assistant, before she began writing.31 It therefore seems natural that this experience gave her a very clear understanding of the physicality and power of language. In her acceptance speech when awarded the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize in 1999, Özdamar herself stated that her work in the theatre has shown her that language and literature are not black letters on white paper, but a means of expression that emerges from the body and is very much modulated by it, most specifically by the voice, volume, intonation and gestures.
Meine deutschen Wörter haben keine Kindheit, aber meine Erfahrungen mit deutschen Wörtern ist ganz körperlich. Die deutschen Wörter haben Körper für mich. Ich bin ihnen im wunderbaren deutschen Theater begegnet. Das Theater ist ein Dialog zwischen Körpern, nicht zwischen Köpfen, auch die Wörter werden zu Körpern. (Özdamar 2001: 131)
1 | One of the most controversially discussed issues in the German media is the role of Turkish Muslim women in the German society, as debates on the headscarf, forced marriage, and honour killings demonstrate.
2 | Cf. following articles, listed in chronological order: Seyhan 1996; Wierschke 1996; 1997; Seyhan 1997; Boa 1997; Breger 2000; Littler 2002; Bird 2003; Adelson 2005; Boa 2006; Göttsche 2006; Sagdeo 2011.
3 | I use the term »Western« in a non-essentialistic, geo-political sense. In today’s political discourse, it primarily encompasses Europe and many countries of European colonial origin in the Americas and Oceania, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. It is largely employed as a contrastive frame in relation to other geographical areas such as Africa, Asia, Middle and Far East.
4 | Cf. Said 1995.
5 | In her article Multikulturelle Zungenbrecher, Deniz Göktürk has rightly remarked that Özdamar’s feminine figures subvert the German stereotypes of Turkish women carnavalesquely (Göktürk 1994). Norbert Mecklenburg also refers to Bakhtin’s carnavalesque principle in order to characterise the comic elements and their subversive function in Özdamar’s writing (Mecklenburg 2008). Although Göktürk has not developed that idea more specifically (Göktürk 1994: 86) and Norbert Mecklenburg focuses on Interkulturalität und Komik bei Emine Segvi Özdamar and only touches on the somatic dimension very briefly, they share the opinion that Özdamar’s writing reveals Bakthin’s carnavalesque principle.
6 | This all-uniting characteristic of Özdamar’s writing makes a reading that focuses principally on cultural difference even more problematic. Yasemin Yildiz has criticised that it is »assumed as a pre-given fact is that negotiation of cultural difference is the most important reference point for understanding Özdamar’s writing« (Yildiz 2008: 251). Liesbeth Minnaard even speaks of a »strong ethnicisation« of Özdamar’s work, a concept she also develops (Minnaard 2008: 69).
7 | Otherwise one will be making a mistake similar to what the field of Germanic Studies fell prey to in the 1970s and 1980s in regard to so-called »Gastarbeiterliteratur« reading it mainly from a social and political perspective as ›Betroffenheitsliteratur‹ while failing to take its literary quality seriously enough.
8 | The commentary in the opening pages of Seltsame Sterne starren zur Erde (2003) confirms this interpretation: »Man sagt, in fremden Ländern verliert man die Muttersprache. Kann man nicht auch in seinem Land die Muttersprache verlieren?« (Özdamar 2003b: 23). Yildiz has rightly pointed out that scholarship had neglected the political turmoil in Turkey in the 1970s as the cause of the narrator’s trauma (Yildiz 2008). However, this reading does not automatically mean that some experiences in Germany might not also have been negative, yes even traumatizing for the protagonist as well. Several passages justify this reading, such as the pain that the sight of the cathedral in Cologne provokes in her, the narrator’s remark about the central importance of money in Germany and its impact on democracy; the political and spatial division of Germany that the female narrator is confronted with almost on a daily basis; the feeling that a grocery owner in East Berlin gave her that she was stealing something from the country; or her question to a passerby whether a monkey was playing on her face because she had the feeling that a German couple was making fun of her (Özdamar 1998b: 21).
9 | Boris Blahak has demonstrated that Özdamar uses literary Orientalisms for depicting areas related to sexuality, love, eroticism. He interprets the protagonist’s adoration of Abdullah as sacrilege towards Allah (Blahak 2006: 461).
10 | Her grandfather also expected this from a Muslim woman. After leaving the Traveler’s Aid Office at the train station, she remembers him once having said: »Wer Geliebte will, muß das Leiden dulden. / Wenn die Liebende ihre Liebe zeigt, / wird zuerst von ihrem Geliebten geprüft. / Wenn er sieht, daß sie dem Leiden gegenüber Geduld hat, / da läßt er seine Folter der Liebe weniger werden. / Wenn er aber bei ihr Geduld dem Leiden gegenüber nicht sah / läßt er sie unter seinem Liebesbaum alleine schlafen« (Özdamar 1998b: 45).
11 | Cf. the following text passage: »Ich sagte: ›Was muß man machen, Tiefe zu erzählen?‹ Er sagte: ›Kaza gecirmek, Lebensunfälle erleben.‹« (Ibid.: 12; spacing C.E.)
12 | »Ich sagte mir, wenn Du einen Menschen siehst, der wie ein Lebensunfall-erlebt aussieht, sprich zu ihm. Das war ein Mädchen, sie saß auf einer Parkbank, sie hatte in der Hand Möhrensalat mit Senf, sie weinte.« (Ibid.: 47; spacing C.E.)
13 | The narrator alludes to it by mentioning a Turkish mother who is utterly shattered because her son and was arrested and sentenced to death (ibid.: 10; cf. Yildiz 2011: 157).
14 | Both leftist and rightist groups have criticised Atatürk’s language reforms for negating the legacy of the Islamic Ottoman culture and thus making it extremely hard for Turks after him to find their own identity. Cf. Seyhan 1997: 245.
15 | One of the questions that are most often posed to foreigners or ›foreign-looking or / and foreign-speaking Germans‹ in Germany is: »Where do you come from?« (Woher kommst Du?).
16 | Cf. for instance the following articles by sociologists with a migrant background: Gutiérrez Rodríguez 1999 and Gümen 1996. Deniz Göktürk also calls attention to this phenomenon in literature and the academic scene (Göktürk 1994: 88).
17 | Claudia Breger (2000) presents a similar interpretation. According to her, Özdamar re-inscribes in some situations the stereotype of the naive Oriental woman by means of parodic mimicry.
18 | In her article Auf den Schnittstellen kultureller Grenzen tanzend: Aysel Özakin und Emine Segvi Özdamar, Wierschke interprets this episode as »die Ganzheit eines in sich ruhenden Selbst als einer heilen Integrität« (Wierschke 1997: 180). Isolde Neubert argues that both women find out that they share the same experiences and find a common language (Neubert 1997: 162). Margaret Littler states that this conciliatory reading is not supported by the text itself, although she does not exclude that the author might have intended it (Littler 2002: 233f.).
19 | While agreeing with Yasemin Yildiz that the protagonists’ traumatic experiences due to the political situation in Turkey in the 1970s are important for the understanding of the stories, I think that the importance of trauma cannot be reduced to these Turkish experiences, as already stated above. I would argue that ›trauma‹ should be read in a transnational sense, since the »Lebensunfälle«, a key word in Özdamar’s discourse, significantly refers to different figures in the stories regardless of their nationalities. Also in respect to the aspect of trauma, it is thus important to assume an analytical perspective that goes beyond nation-based concepts. In fact, the narrator’s transnational experiences, very particularly the fact that she sympathized with the leftwing student scene in both countries, even invite us to read this figure from a transnational perspective, for instance, namely as an European citizen who experienced the impact of Cold War and the confrontation between left and opposition forces in two quite different European countries.
20 | Cf. Leslie A. Adelson’s criticism of the interpretation of German and Turkish experiences in »Migrant Literature« as opposites. Adelson encourages the reader to look likewise at the similarities and the points of contact (Adelson 1994; 2000).
21 | Özdamar’s sympathy for the leftist Marxist proletarian movement and the movement of 1968 both in Turkey and Germany constitutes a part of her biography and work that should deserve more attention in the critical literature.
22 | Although the narrator (and Özdamar) subverts the expectations directed to Muslim women, she cannot be seen as a radical Islam critic. There are aspects of Ottoman history such as tolerance towards other cultures and languages that are depicted positively. The grandmother in Özdamar’s texts, who can be seen as a preserver of this tradition, is principally presented as a kind and wise figure.
23 | In Blahak’s view, this is a Persian tradition that was taken over by Islam after the conquest of Persia (Blahak 2006: 459).
24 | Cf. ibid..
25 | Cf. Goya’s famous prints Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War), painted 1810-1814, which depict war and protest against its inhumanity. Interestingly, the title of Goya’s prints in the original and in English include the word »Unfall«, a key word in Mutterzunge und Großvaterzunge. One of the most well-known prints, »Aquí Tampoco«, print 36, depicts a French official contemplating a man’s body hanged in a tree without any signs of empathy.
26 | In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes how the effects of power and law shifted from the surface of the body (torture, execution, and scaffold) to the internal forces of bodies made docile by institutions and disciplinary practices (Foucault 1977). In History of Sexuality, vol. 1, he demonstrates how sexuality is formed by the discipline of the bodies and how the biopolitical management of population forms sexuality (Foucault 1978).
27 | Cf. Bakhtin 1984: 26.
28 | Cf. ibid.: 15f.
29 | In the main, Littler and Boa have concentrated on Özdamar’s hybrid language and identity from a postcolonial perspective (Littler 2002; Boa 1997).
30 | Grammatically speaking, an abstractum is a noun that denominates something abstract, immaterial, non-tangible. Cf. Kluge 1999: 82.
31 | In her article »Theater ist mein Leben« Inszenierungen wiederholter Migration in Emine Segvi Özdamars »Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn«, Ortrud Gutjahr points out that this book reveals a strong theatrical character mainly through the re-enactment the migration experience in the book (Gutjahr 2013: 309). During Özdamar’s stay at the University of Hamburg in the course of her visiting professorship for »Intercultural Poetics« (April / May 2014) and lectureships, it became once more evident that Özdamar’s theatre experiences were central for her artistic formation and writing. She stressed once again the importance of her experience of language on the stage as something corporeal and that she has transported this very bodily experience into her writing.
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