Where do you really come from?

November 9 is a good date to mark German Literature Month; the day the monarchy ended, the day Hitler’s putsch failed, the night of the pogroms he instigated, the day the Berlin Wall came down…

It wasn’t as easy as I expected to find poems written in German about that last one.

Till I found this in the New York Times:


So who is the German poet who wrote it? He was born in Turkey. Zafer Şenocak studied German literature in Munich, won the Adelbert von Chamisso Award for “foreigners” writing in German, and now writes for the taz newspaper (here’s his latest).

He is insightful on what being German means, and what the “host” country needs to do for integration. These extracts from his Zungenentfernung/Tongue Removal (2001) were translated by Jessica Nicholl and Martina Schwalm.

No one says, “My fatherland is Germany” anymore, rather they say, “I come from Germany,” as one might say, “I just came from the kitchen.” Fatherland, so it seems to me, is not a geographical or political concept anymore, rather it is a cultural one, which one thinks about in small, quiet chambers rather than speaking aloud…

 “Where do you come from?” When someone asks me that question in Berlin, the city in which I have lived for ten years, I answer: “I am from Munich.” The answer to the question does not seem to satisfy the inquirer, because he asks again: “No, where do you really come from?”

In Germany the question of Heimat seems to be directly linked to the question of origin. But can a person’s place of birth, or even that of his parents and ancestors be the sole definition of where he comes from?

I was born in Ankara, but for quite a long a time I lived in Istanbul, Munich, and Berlin. The memories of all the places I have lived in so far have long since been somewhere else.

The city in which I lived the longest and which has the greatest effect on me was Munich. My Ankara, my Istanbul, and my Munich are now in Berlin…

 Berlin is, from my point of view, the only metropolis in Germany. … Like every other metropolis, Berlin will only be a Heimat for those people who are ready to detach their memories from the rigid pictures of their origin. He who wants to go on living in Berlin like he did in Bonn or Anatolia does not become a Berliner. He remains a foreigner.

In Germany many of the natives remain distant from, if not distrustful of, the foreigners. This mistrust is a manifestation of the fact that they are not ready to grapple with the biographies of the others. Because of this lack of readiness, integration collapses … Instead a set of expectations prevails, which might come from times when one paid homage to an ethnic or culturally homogeneous state. 

But integration in our times is a highly contradictory, complicated process. It creates people with multiple identities, people with fractures in their biographies that can no longer be categorized through a fixation on some unambiguous idea.

Grappling with each others’ biographies is hard work; for several years at ASF, I worked with Germans trying to do it. The Wall is down, but plenty of other walls are still standing, or being built.

The photo is from the Guardian. Osman Kain, who was also born in Turkey and moved to Berlin, did something very Kreuzberg when he built this treehouse. “Germany’s first guerrilla gardener” planted fruit and vegetables in the no-mans-land by the Berlin Wall. His sunflowers grew right over the top.


If you like Şenocak, try his bilingual “folktales from the future”, Door Languages, also translated by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright. In German, try his essay collection Deutschsein/Being German, discussed in English with the Goethe Institut.

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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