Fatma Aydemir, winner of the Franz Hessel Prize for her compelling debut Ellbogen, discusses her novel and themes, mainly identity issues in an exclusive interview for K24
Fatma Aydemir’s first and controversial novel Ellbogen won the Franz Hessel Prize in her native Germany. In an interview for K24, she discussed the identity issues which the book raises.
Aydemir was born in 1986 in Karlsruhe. Her undergraduate degree at Frankfurt was in German and American Studies. She now lives in Berlin, working for TAZ newspaper.
Ellbogen tells the coming-of-age of Hazal, a second-generation Turkish-German girl growing up in Wedding district of Berlin. Süddeutsche Zeitung praised her debut as delivering “two fists in the abdomen, one to misogynistic Turkish society and to the ‘oh so liberal’ Germany.” On the cusp of adulthood, Hazal, gets involved in a violent incident that forces her to come to terms with a difficult world.
You have recently received the Franz Hessel Prize for your first novel, Ellbogen (congratulations by the way) but you are also a journalist. Which one of these identities weighs more heavily for you? How did journalism shape your novel, if it did so at all? How do you think reality engages with fiction? Does journalistic training influence the fiction writer in any way, or are these two separate realms in your opinion?
For me it was very hard in the beginning to approach fiction writing, coming from journalism. I took some time off from work in order to work on my first novel. It was good to separate these two. As a journalist, over the years I was trained to write as explicit as possible, to not leave any questions unanswered for the reader, but if you write fiction like that, it will probably be the worst novel in the world, since fiction is also a lot about gaps to be filled by every reader individually. For me fiction is much more about moods than information. At the moment though I am trying to do both, journalism and fiction in parallel, since I will not always have the luxury to quit either one for some time. Let’s see how that will work out.
I have attended one of your talks at the Leipzig Book Fair last year, when Ellbogen was just published and I was blown away by the crowds’ interest and enthusiasm for the book. Are you happy with the reactions you are getting from your readers and the reception of your book? How has your life changed, if it did of course, after you have published Ellbogen?
I was very excited about all the attention Ellbogen got in Germany, since I really didn’t expect it at all. Not all responses were positive, but that’s just natural, since I wrote this novel to make people uncomfortable by raising questions about violence and growing up in a hostile world. My life has changed so much as I have gained a little bit more confidence in writing. I was very insecure about the book until the day it came out. And once it was out, I felt relieved and instantly knew I wanted to do this again.
How do you situate yourself towards your protagonist? As a woman who has grown up in Germany, how do you relate to her fictional experience? In other words, are there any aspects of the novel that are personal for you or stem from your personal experience?
The protagonist Hazal is completely made up, she’s not me. But she’s made up by me, so, of course, in a lot of ways, our perspective on the world is similar. Still it was easier and more interesting to me to not put myself in the center but to find a different voice, a different biography in which I can look at some of my experiences. Like Hazal, I grew up as a child of Turkish-Kurdish immigrants in Germany. Maybe in a different city and in a different time than Hazal, but I know what it means to be discriminated, belonging to a minority AND being a woman. I know how it is to always feel like a stranger and not belonging to Germany and Turkey either.
Ellbogen is a coming of age novel that features a female protagonist, dealing with issues regarding identity and belonging –until a climactic and shocking event pushes her away from Germany, and forces her to go to the homeland she has never lived in before... Here, she has a moment where she realizes that “people everywhere are fighting the same battles, without realizing that they are not alone, that they are all connected.” (p 251) Do you support this sentiment? Are we -despite our different identities, our backgrounds or life histories etc.- fighting similar battles?
I think that really depends on the perspective. If you are actively looking for people fighting similar battles, you will find them eventually. I mean, isn't this the whole point of solidarity? To acknowledge that other people suffer, too, and they might actually be suffering from the same structural problems? Especially when we talk about things like poverty, sexism and racism –these problems are not restricted to a certain place. They are prominent everywhere. Sometimes it really helps to be confronted with that. In another context people may have found other strategies to fight these battles.
I started with “Ellbogen” the year after the Gezi protests took place, and that was still a hopeful time for a lot of people in the city. Especially for environmentalists, feminists and LGBTIQ- groups I feel great sympathy for. This mood shifted completely to the opposite within the course of two summers. There was something threatening in the air, and I wanted to reflect that atmosphere in the novel.
There are more than a few references throughout the book to Gegen die Wand, the Fatih Akın film that takes place partly in Hamburg and partly in Istanbul. Gegen die Wand and Ellbogen are also similar in the way in which a single, disruptive, unplanned, violent incident determines the fates of their protagonists –Hazal, the protagonist of Ellbogen is a youngster living in this era, whereas Sibel, the protagonist of Gegen die Wand is at least a decade older than her… Still, these women are facing similar pressures, and to a certain extent, a similar yearning towards a life of freedom based on their individual choices. What do you think has changed for women of Turkish descent in Germany in the last decade, and what do you think remains pretty much the same, in this light?
I make a reference to Gegen die Wand, because this movie was very important for a whole generation of girls. For the first time a product of German popular culture portrayed a Turkish-German woman in a more complex way than the usual stereotype –which is usually that of the passive, oppressed, calm, very flat, boring girl. And I think these images in popular culture really have a great impact in how we see ourselves. So, I guess in the last decade there has been a few more role models in the media, also in politics and academia. But still, immigrant women, especially those from Muslim countries and black women, are underrepresented in Germany when it comes to visibility and power. When you never see people, who look like you in powerful positions, you start believing that your career options are limited. And in fact, they are: racism and sexism are not just personal vulnerabilities, they are institutionalized facts.
Would you say that this is a feminist novel, given that most of Hazal’s problems stem from discriminatory cultural norms regarding women?
I would definitely say it is a feminist novel, just given the fact that I am a feminist and that I wrote it. But I didn't really have a straight-forward political agenda while writing this book. I just wanted to tell a story about growing up as a woman in this society. Unfortunately, discrimination makes up a big part of this experience.
Ellbogen captures life during the summer of 2016 in Berlin and İstanbul. I read that you were in İstanbul during the writing process as well -could you tell us a little bit about how that was like for you? How has the atmosphere of the period affected you personally and the course your novel took? Have the political events of that summer -the attempted military takeover, to be precise, and the violent and chaotic atmosphere that followed steered your writing process at all in any way?
I spent three summers in İstanbul writing, that was between 2014-2016. And I could sense how the atmosphere in the city was changing year to year. I started with “Ellbogen” the year after the Gezi protests took place, and that was still a hopeful time for a lot of people in the city. Especially for environmentalists, feminists and LGBTIQ- groups I feel great sympathy for. This mood shifted completely to the opposite within the course of two summers. There was something threatening in the air, and I wanted to reflect that atmosphere in the novel. I wouldn't necessarily say, the political events themselves steered my writing in a direction, but it was more the impact that political events had on the city, on the people living there, this is what interested me. I mean the word coup attempt sounds very abstract, but what it does to people is a very emotional thing. It is a total loss of security. You go to sleep and you wonder what kind of country you will wake up the next morning.
I would say the whole story is more about symbolic violence than about physical violence. Symbolic violence is a part of our every day lives: it is violent how we speak of minorities; it is violent how women, trans or nonbinary persons are treated in society; it is violent how poor people don’t have access to so many spaces in cultural and social life.
Ellbogen, the title of the novel means elbow in English. Hazal talks about life being full of elbows, which belong to people who are “stronger.” With its connotations of violence -given that it is a pretty strong body part to hurt someone else with- the title fits the sense of anger in the novel perfectly. How do you evaluate Hazal’s position here –do you share her hopeless sentiments, or do you think there is a chance she might elbow her way in to wherever she wants to go? Could she ever have other ways of fitting in or is it always about pushing and pulling, survival of the fittest and strongest?
I think both is right –there are elbows in Hazal’s way, and also, she uses her own elbow to make way. I play with the word in the title, because in German there is term called “Ellbogengesellschaft,” which means “elbow society.” The term describes a survival of the fittest kind of society, in which every member is looking for her or his own profit and advantages. It’s basically capitalism. I like the term so much because it focuses on the physical dimension of a profit-oriented society. Of course, the book is about a violent act in which Hazal is the active person, pushing someone away with her elbow. But does that really change anything within the system she is part of? Does it have any influence on the power relations within society? The structural problems? The plurality of elbows? I don’t think so.
Ellbogen is a novel that features violence -a type of violence that is random and routine, coming from a seemingly unlimited source; a type of violence that may alter the course of someone’s life. (“Perhaps it is not parents. Perhaps it is life that makes us furious.”) The violent incident at the U-bahn station at the center of the novel is reminiscent of one too many real-life incidents we read about in newspapers –except that -at least as far as I know- it is young women who are engaging in the act in the novel… Is this act of anger -as destructive as it can be- also a way out for those who are disempowered, otherwise discredited, unseen? Or do you see it as an ailment of the times, the age we live in, a byproduct of alienation in the urban atmosphere?
I do believe that anger can be a very productive and empowering feeling and that we must let it out at times. Generally, it is something that’s mainly associated with men, maybe even only allowed to men. Although especially for women there are tons of reasons to be angry every day. But angry women don’t necessarily mean a threat in the public perception, they are often depicted as frustrated, ridiculous, hysterical. But not dangerous. Also, the guy who Hazal and her friends encounter that night doesn’t feel threatened by them –which becomes a big problem for him. Because he keeps provoking them and as a result he gets attacked. But in the end, I would say the whole story is more about symbolic violence than about physical violence. Symbolic violence is a part of our every day lives: it is violent how we speak of minorities; it is violent how women, trans or nonbinary persons are treated in society; it is violent how poor people don’t have access to so many spaces in cultural and social life.
Hazal is a very strong character who also has her share of conflicts –on the one hand, she talks about İstanbul being an unfriendly city where women get raped all the time as far as she has seen in films, on the other hand she says that this is the most beautiful city in the world. How do you assess her relationship to the country she comes from? Is this a love and hate type of situation that most people have with the places they come from or something else?
As a child of immigrants, you always tend to idealize the “homeland.” Because it is far away, and because all narratives you hear about it are positive. When it comes to İstanbul especially... I would say Hazal’s love-hate-relationship is completely parallel to my personal experience. I guess a lot of people share this... I have never seen a more beautiful city in the world, and at the same time it is an unbearable place, with so much confrontation of poverty with wealth. The infrastructure of the city is by far not enough for so many people, but somehow, I am in love with this chaos. Sometimes I hate it.
I do believe that anger can be a very productive and empowering feeling and that we must let it out at times. Generally, it is something that’s mainly associated with men, maybe even only allowed to men. Although especially for women there are tons of reasons to be angry every day. But angry women don’t necessarily mean a threat in the public perception...
Despite her being very conscious about her minority identity in Germany, Hazal seems ambiguous in İstanbul when mentioning that she “may be” Kurdish due to her family’s background… I found this, this vagueness regarding her roots very European for instance, very much in line with the whole multi-kulti, pluralist attitude that we often associate with the formal EU outlook. I am curious as to how you situate the character in terms of her identity; how would you comment on this ambiguity for instance?
It is interesting that you find it so European, because I personally find it very Turkish, too. There are lots of people in Turkey who don’t know much about their roots, because their parents or grandparents didn’t want to talk about it, for instance Alawi families who converted at some point, or even Kurdish families who try to erase their Kurdish background. At the end it might be a global phenomenon that minorities become invisible to protect themselves. The reason that I put those words in Hazal’s mouth, this insecurity about her family’s background, maybe is indeed more European: I wanted to question the idea that we all have one single identity and that’s it. I think things are way more complex, more fluid than most of us want to believe.
Having talked so much on identity; the German literary scene is at times criticized for creating a certain nook for its minority authors… Would you agree with this outlook? How do you assess the German scene in these terms?
Well, the German scene is… very German. And it’s true that every book by an author with a non-German name is labeled as “immigrant literature” –whatever that means. But I have to say, there are quite a lot of interesting young writers coming up, who have migrant backgrounds and different stories and perspectives on the world than the typical male white 50-year old German writer, and I do appreciate that a lot. I think German literature could really use some more diversity at this point.
Do you have plans for a Turkish translation of Ellbogen? Are you working on anything else and if you are, what is your next book about?
Actually, there was a Turkish translation planned, but in the end, it didn’t work out unfortunately. That’s very sad because it was very important for me that the novel is published in Turkish. I hope there will be another chance soon. Currently I am working on second novel, but it’s still too chaotic to say anything about it.