The Austrian Riveter: Where Writing Emerges by Kaśka Bryla

I am sitting on a tram which no longer exists. When I was a child and later a teenager this tram, the ‘Ringbahn’, used to circle around the inner district of my Vienna, my birthplace, without either a first or a last stop. In 1993, at the age of fifteen, this allows me to remain on the hard wooden bench, knees pressed against the front row, until I finish the book that I flipped open at the beginning of my ride. Entire school days are passed in this way. From time to time I head to Café Prückel. The staff know me well and nobody ever asks why I am at a coffee shop and not in school. I sit there writing. Filling the pages with words, sentences, paragraphs from the books that I have read. In between I scribble down my own thoughts, shy and awkward, miserable replicas.

I spend the summers of my primary school years from 1984– 1988 back in Poland, my parents’ home country. One of these summers my father sends me to a nun, who teaches me how to read and write in Polish and at the end offers me a book. It is the first book that I read on my own in any language. In it, a young woman jumps into a lake, hits the bottom of the lake with her head and is left paralysed. The life she had imagined for herself vanishes but her faith in God remains strong. At some point a young man falls in love with her and stays by her side until the end. The story moves me deeply, especially the man’s sacrifice. I would like to become this kind of person. My faith is strong. But after that summer I always check the depth of the water before I jump in. I don’t remember my first book in German. My parents’ ambitious attempts to excite me with Polish Literature fail, so that they find themselves forced to switch to films. I only know the writers Władysław Reymont, Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Jerzy Andrzejewski through the interpretations of directors Andrzej Wajda or Jerzy Hoffman. I read the Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska in Polish thanks to a gift from my mum: a bilingual Polish-German edition.

At the age of fourteen I begin writing. Before this time whenever I was reading, I was searching for education or for myself; now I’m seeking out role models – writers I want to emulate with their language and literary form. But who to turn to in your own writing and your own language when the role models you are being presented with have little or nothing in common with your reality or your background?

My primary school teacher was a conservative woman in the sense that she let children stand in a corner of the classroom until they wet themselves. To me she says: ‘You are born here thus you are Austrian.’ To my father she says: ‘Her spelling is poor. It is best not to send her to a grammar school. Migrant children are rarely fit for higher education.’ My father nods politely and sends me to a grammar school, but my spelling struggle remains. Nobody ever explains to me why the name of my half-sister, who lives in Poland, is spelled in Polish with a ‘z’, in German with an ‘s’ but pronounced the same. Izabella, Isabella. When my father dies at the age of eighty-three and I am thirty-one, I still do not believe that a child of Polish immigrants can become an Austrian writer. After I have buried my father, I feel that I have nothing more to lose.

In 2019, I write the preface for a collection named Postmigrantische Störung (‘Post-migrant Disturbance’). I write: ‘Migration is a process which is significantly reshaping (Austrian) society, largely involving those who haven’t migrated themselves but are introducing  and claiming the perspectives and experiences of their parents as a personal memory and collective knowledge. A knowledge which is often, if not always, loaded with feelings of shame, guilt and rage. Shame over the helplessness of their parents because of their lack of language skills and hence their humiliation; guilt ensuing from the lack of strength one had as a child to protect them from this humiliation, or even contributing to it by distancing oneself. And finally, rage resulting from this shame and guilt, finding its outlet in the acquired German language skills and thus allowing a regaining of lost solidarity with the parents.’

‘No, I really do not remember this’, says my godmother in the summer of 2022, sitting on the terrace of my parent’s house in Vienna. I notice that her eyes look warmer than they used to. ‘But you did. You gave me Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin for my fifteenth birthday.’ – ‘That’s a good book.’ – ‘A gay black author and a gay storyline.’ – ‘Yes. That’s a good book.’ For her there seems to be nothing to discuss, so I close the topic without telling her that it was the first book I read which had something to do with me.

I know early that I am a lesbian. At the age of twelve. I also comprehend that it is not something to brag about as a migrant kid. Only at the age of seventeen do I come out. I don’t write about it, but since Giovanni’s Room I am aware of the possibility. You could write a gay story, real literature, even when you are black. I realise what it means to hold one’s ground as a black writer during my exchange year in the US in 1993–4. My thick English Literature textbook has but four pages titled ‘Black Literature’, and when we arrive at these four pages in class my teacher in Wisconsin states: ‘We can skip this chapter. There is no good literature to be found here.’

Bachmann, Bernhard and Böll. After my return from the US, I sense that my German has got worse. I find it harder to juggle my words and my vocabulary has narrowed. Like a cuckoo’s egg the English language has settled in my thoughts and dreams. It has to leave! Full of panic I begin analysing German grammar, reading German books. Bernhard for his plays, Bachmann for her poetry and Böll for his content. Laborious, but at the same time I love it. Meanwhile Giovanni’s Room and the desires it had awakened in me are fading into the background. There is not enough space for both. As once before with Polish I again choose German, worrying that otherwise I might not pass. But at the end of 1996 I stumble into queer and feminist circles and there is no more school restricting my education. The waters I’m looking at are transparent so that I can see all the way to the bottom.

Valerie Solanas, Mary Daly, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Leslie Feinberg and later, at the age of twenty, Jeanette Winterson – a revolution. Writing as a demonstration of what is possible. This I’m learning from her. What could have been and what could be. If what could have been, would have been, what would then be the now? Suddenly in my twenties there is tons of literature I can relate to, telling me things about myself on so many levels. Still, I do not dare to offer any of my poetry or prose to a magazine or a publisher. It will take me another twelve years and an economics degree before I finally jump into the water.

Autumn 2022. My second novel Die Eistaucher (‘The Ice Divers’) has been published. I’m taking part in a literary event ‘Dyke Dogs’ at the Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin. The author Franziska Gänsler (Ewig Sommer, ‘Always Summer’) and I discuss our careers as writers, and she asks me what I was doing in my twenties, if I was writing. There is a moment of hesitation before I answer: ‘Hip-hop. I had a hip-hop band. Probably like most migrant kids.’

By Kaśka Bryla

Read The Austrian Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

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