We are a Berlin-based NGO called WIR MACHEN DAS (‘we are doing it’) and in 2017 we asked authors who had come to Germany from war and crisis zones what we could do for them. The answer we heard most often was ‘Weiter Schreiben’ – literally ‘to write on’: they wanted the opportunity to continue their writing, and by extension, the opportunity to continue to be read; because for authors, writing and being actively read are mutually dependent.
It’s also crucial for them that the process of actively writing is not fractured. Writing is not just an art form, it’s a way of life, a way of perceiving the world and making the experience of it relatable and therefore comprehensible. This is particularly important for authors from war and crisis zones. For them, not only have political circumstances disrupted their writing processes, but the very act of writing might even put their lives at risk. Often, too, those compelled to flee their home countries are cut off from their own language space, which is why there is such a great need for translation: it can provide a bridge to a new language base.
Weiter Schreiben does not just enable writers to continue writing, it also widens readers’ perspectives and extends writers’ geographical reach. The voices of those who have sought refuge in Europe are too often absent from public debate: mostly, we speak about these people rather than drawing them into our conversations. The authors who make up the Weiter Schreiben collective, on the other hand, speak out, and in so doing alter the mindscape that has been shaped by the discourse dominant in the media. Their works enrich cross-cultural dialogue, break through stereotypes and banish cosy reading habits.
Bridge-building works in both directions, of course. The Bosnian-German author (and 2019 German Book Prize winner) Saša Stanišić, a member of our collective, writes:
‘If we were to know more about what others know, and if we were able to make this knowledge available to others through collective storytelling, then – perhaps – this knowledge would spark empathy in some, that empathy would spark action, and that action would mean that knowledge would not go to waste.’
In response to our authors’ requests we have also set up a literary portal www.weiterschreiben.jetzt where up to four pieces appear each month in their original language and also in German. Each text is illustrated by the work of artists from a war or crisis zone and some of these drawings, collages and photographs have been specially created to appear alongside these writings.
Weiter Schreiben authors hail from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, and what they write about is up to them. Much of the work has been about war, forced migration and flight, and tells of a multiplicity of horrors. In others, the horror is consciously absent from the text, but the terror can still be sensed between the lines. We have also received a few erotic texts, such as the poem ‘Nasse Kreide’ (‘Wet Chalk’) by the Syrian poet Rasha Habbal, which appears in this publication.
The poems of the young Afghan poet and women’s rights activist Mariam Meetra are full of townscapes, streets and memories; the German version of her poem ‘Ich bin noch wach’ (‘I amstill awake’) was composed by the German author Sylvia Geist, using a rough translation as a bridging medium. And the Yemeni poet Osama Al-Dhari, who explores the theme of loneliness, is currently in residence at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Langenbroich, Germany.
To help these writers break into the German literary scene, we have paired them up with established German authors. These literary collaborations have sparked a wealth of artistic, political and personal encounters; many have now been active for more than two years and are still going strong, and through this scheme, some writers have succeeded in publishing their first books in German and have won grants and literary awards.
As to why so many German authors choose to participate in the project, author Martin Kordić commented that:
‘Languages, borders, identity documents. All these factors constrain, oppress and exclude. Holes need to be knocked through these walls and these holes used as a conduit to tell stories and for hands to reach through.’
And the poet Monika Rinck wrote:
‘I consider it vital that people who come to us are afforded the opportunity to express themselves, including creatively. This also serves to shift how they are perceived. Taking them out of the realm of the third person – speaking of them as though they were absent – and bringing them into the realm of the second and first person: you, the person directly addressed and, I, one who speaks.’
By Annika Reich
Translated by Amanda Oliver
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Annika Reich is an activist and author living in Berlin. She writes both novels and children’s books. In 2015, she co-founded the initiative WIR MACHEN DAS (we are doing it) where she is part of the leadership team alongside her role as commissioning editor of Weiter Schreiben.
Amanda Oliver is a freelance translator from German. She has worked in online and print journalism and has written and produced international broadcast news. Her translation work includes Channel 4 News and she is an author for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.