Emine Sevgi Özdamar

Biography

In 2009, the Turkish-born, German-language writer and actress Emine Sevgi Özdamar became only the fourth woman to win Berlin’s prestigious Fontane Prize for literature, placing her in the company of such giants of German literature as Günter Grass, Wolf Biermann and Alexander Kluge.

Özdamar’s novels and short stories are often semi-autobiographical. Female protagonists bearing a striking resemblance with the author inhabit a world clearly identifiable as late 20th-century Europe; they chronicle or reflect on the political and artistic developments of the time, whether in Turkey, Germany or the spaces around and in-between. In Özdamar’s narratives and plays, the cast of ‘guest-workers’ is supplemented by talking donkeys, opera singers, prostitutes, left-wing radicals, fairy-tale figures and the voices of the dead. The resulting sense of the absurd, grotesque or burlesque is part of the great attraction that Özdamar’s aesthetic project holds for readers and critics alike.

Özdamar’s work is written predominantly in German. However, the author was born in Turkey, in the city of Malataya, Eastern Anatolia, in 1946; as a child, she also lived in Istanbul, the country’s capital, and Bursa, a city just to the south of the capital. In the 1960s, both Turkey and Germany would be transformed by bilateral recruitment agreements between the two countries, which were designed to provide the growing German economy with temporary labourers or ‘guest-workers’. The demand in West Germany for female workers in the electronics industry provided an opportunity for Özdamar to move to Germany where, in 1965, she took up employment as a factory worker at Siemens in Berlin, before enrolling at the Goethe Institute to learn German. For Özdamar, as a child of the urban middle class, this experience presented a new encounter not only with German culture but also with the more rural working-class culture of many of her fellow guest-workers. As Özdamar herself explained in an interview with Andrea Dernbach und Katja Reimann (2011): ‘I travelled almost two thousand kilometres to get to know Turks’.

Özdamar’s prose, similar to the interview statement quoted above, often calls attention to the heterogeneity of Turkish culture and so represents an important intervention in the nationalist discourses of ‘Turkishness’ circulating in both Turkey and Germany. Her writing has also provided some of the most striking images in contemporary German literature of the contradictions of ‘guest-work’ or Gastarbeit. The following oft-quoted line is taken from the short-story collection Der Hof im Spiegel (The Courtyard in the Mirror, [2001]), for example: ‘Ich liebe das Wort Gastarbeiter, ich sehe immer zwei Personen vor mir. Einer ist Gast und sitzt da, der andere arbeitet’ (I love the word guest-worker, I always see two people in front of me. One is a guest and sits there; the other one works). Here, as many critics have highlighted, Özdamar’s characteristic ‘Sprachdadaismus’ or ‘linguistic Dadaism’ playfully and vividly highlights the distance between the language of labour migration and the reality of the power relations that such language hides.

In 1967, Özdamar returned to Istanbul, where she enrolled in a renowned acting school until 1970. Her interest in the theatre had begun prior to her initial period in Germany but was strengthened by her encounters in Berlin with a left-wing Turkish director (identified as Vasif Öngören by theatre scholar Erol Boran). Back in Turkey, she would also go on to star in Öngören’s Turkish productions of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and Bertolt Brecht’s Mann ist Mann, amongst others. During this time, she also became involved in the Turkish workers’ party; however, both her theatrical and political activities came to an abrupt end with the Turkish military putsch of 1971. Özdamar then lived for a while with the Turkish poet Ece Ayhan, who gifted her the first name ‘Emine’. Diaries and letters from this friendship form the basis of Özdamar’s most recently published book, Kendi Kendinim Terzisi Bir Kambur, Ece Ayhan'lı anılar, 1974 Zürih günlüğü, Ece Ayhan'ın makrupları (The Hunchback as his own Tailor, Memories of Ece Ayhan: The Zurich Diary of 1974 and Letters from Ece Ayhan [2007]), the first of her semi-autobiographical prose works to be written in Turkish.

The violent period of the Turkish military putsch is presented as extremely traumatic in Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn (The Bridge of the Golden Horn [1998]) and the short-story collection Mutterzunge (Mother Tongues [1990]). It is often used to at least partially account for the turn to the German language in Özdamar’s writing and for the author’s return to Germany in 1976, where she would eventually settle. Back in Berlin, Özdamar secured a position as director’s assistant to Swiss director Benno Besson at the renowned Volksbühne theatre, in the eastern half of the city. There she worked closely with the East German heirs to Brecht’s theatrical practice including Matthias Langhoff, Manfred Karge and Heiner Müller, before moving briefly to France to continue working with Besson and study for a PhD in theatre. Özdamar’s connection to the German theatrical establishment would continue throughout the 1980s, with a period spent as director’s assistant and actress at Claus Peymann’s Bochumer Ensemble in West Germany. Trained both in the East German post-Brechtian ensemble system and in the German-influenced Turkish acting schools of the 1960s and 1970s, Özdamar has actively explored and created intersections between these diverse performance traditions in her writing for the theatre. She has also starred in numerous films depicting Turkish-Germany, earning herself the title of ‘Mutter aller Filmtürken’ (‘Mother of all Turks on film’: see Daniel Bax, ‘Deutschland, ein Wörtermärchen’, TAZ [20.11.2004]) in the process.

In 1991, Özdamar began to gain recognition as a novelist when an extract from her first novel, Das Leben ist eine Karawanserai hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein aus der anderen ging ich raus (Life is a Carawanserai Has Two Doors I Went in One I Came out the Other [1992]), was awarded the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for Literature. Özdamar was the first author of Turkish origin to be awarded the prize; as Karen Jankowksy (1997) has outlined, this led to a large-scale debate over the definition of German literature. More than 20 years later, Özdamar’s status as a leading light of what is often called Turkish-German literature is now well established within the academy. In 2014, she was guest lecturer both in New York and Hamburg, for example, and her work has played a central role in the work of scholars such as Leslie A. Adelson and Tom Cheesman on this emerging strand of German literature. The restrictive nature of the label of Turkish-German author has been critiqued by Özdamar herself, however, who prefers to be seen simply as a writer in her own right. Early critical engagements with her work did often focus on reading Özdamar’s work somewhat sociologically through the lens of language, identity and life writing; a major theme was the potential of her work for furthering intercultural understanding. Into the 2000s, however, more critical modes of reading were developed which brought Özdamar’s work into contact with postcolonial theory and highlighted her concerns with memory, translation and intertextuality. While interculturality remains a frequently employed framework for understanding her work, later engagements with her writing have also focused on aesthetics and more philosophical readings, bringing Özdamar’s writing into dialogue with thinkers and artists ranging from Deleuze and Guattari to the early Surrealists.

Awards

1991 Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis
1992 Stipendium des Deutschen Literaturfonds
1993 Walter-Hasenclever-Preis der Stadt Aachen
1994 International Book of the Year (Times Literary Supplement)
1995 New-York Scholarship des Literaturfonds Darmstadt
1999 Adalbert-von-Chamisso-Literaturpreis
2001 Künstlerinnenpreis des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen im Bereich Literatur / Prosa
2003 Stadtschreiberin von Bergen-Enkheim
2004 Kleist-Preis
2007 Aufnahme in die Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung
2009 Fontane-Preis (Kunstpreis Berlin 2009 des Landes Berlin)
2010 Carl-Zuckmayer-Medaille
2012 Alice Salomon Poetik Preis


Compiled by Lizzie Stewart (Edinburgh)

Bibliography

Prose

Mutterzunge (Hamburg: Rotbuch, 1990)

Das Leben ist eine Karawanserai hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein aus der anderen ging ich raus (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1992)

Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1998)

Der Hof im Spiegel  (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2001)

Seltsame Sterne Starren Zur Erde (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2003)

Die Sonne auf halbem Weg. Die Istanbul-Berlin-Trilogie (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2006)

Kendi Kendinim Terzisi Bir Kambur, Ece Ayhan'lı anılar, 1974 Zürih günlüğü, Ece Ayhan'ın makrupları [Ein buckliger Mann, Schneider seiner selbst, Erinnerungen an Ece Ayhan, Das Züricher Tagebuch 1974, Briefe von Ece Ayhan; written in Turkish, yet to be published in German] (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları, 2007)

‘Ein unzeitgemäßer Üsküdarer: Über den Dichter Ece Ayhan’ [Extract from Kendi Kendinim Terzisi Bir Kambur, Ece Ayhan'lı anılar, 1974 Zürih günlüğü, Ece Ayhan'ın makrupları, translated into German by Dilek Dizdar] (Akzente 5.5, 2008, pp. 436-445)

‘Bitteres Wasser’, in Odessa Transfer: Nachrichten vom Schwarzen Meer, ed. by Katharina Raabe and Monika Sznajdermann (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2009, pp. 40-49)

N.B. Özdamar is also the author of numerous short pieces printed occasionally in newspapers and magazines. In 2008 she also had a regular column in Theater der Zeit.

Drama

Karagöz in Alamania (Frankfurt/M.: Verlag der Autoren, 1982)

Keloglan in Alamania oder die Versöhnung von Schwein und Lamm (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 1991); reprinted in Spielplatz 18: Sechs Theaterstücke über Außenseiter und Fremde, ed. by Marion Victor (Frankfurt/M.: Verlag der Autoren, 2005)

Noahi (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 2001); reprinted in Spielplatz 15: Mythen im Theater. Sechs Theaterstücke für Kinder und Jugendliche, ed. by Marion Victor (Frankfurt/M.: Verlag der Autoren, 2002)

‘Perikızı’ in Theater Theater: Odyssee Europa, aktuelle Stuecke 20/10, ed. by RUHR.2010 et. al. (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 2010, pp. 271-333). A performance of this play directed by Michael Ronen can be viewed online at http://vimeo.com/34247529

Sterben in der Fremde (Frankfurt/M.: Verlag der Autoren, 2011)

English Translations of Özdamar's Work

Mother Tongue [Translation of Mutterzunge by Craig Thomas] (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994)

‘“Black Eye and his Donkey”: A Multicultural Experience’ [Translation of the short-story ‘Schwarzauge und sein Esel’ from Der Hof im Spiegel (pp. 47–53), with commentary, by David Horrocks and Frank Krause], in Turkish Culture in German Society Today, ed. by David Horrocks and Eva Kolinsky (Oxford: Berghahn, 1996, pp. 55-70)

Life is a Caravanserai has Two Doors I Came In One Went Out The Other [Translation of Das Leben ist eine Karawanserai hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein aus der anderen ging ich raus by Luise von Flotow] (London: Middlesex University Press, 2000)

‘The Courtyard in the Mirror’ [Translation of the short-story ‘Der Hof im Spiegel’ from Der Hof im Spiegel (pp. 11-46) by Leslie A. Adelson], Transit 2.1 (2006), available online at http://transit.berkeley.edu/2006/adelson/

The Bridge of the Golden Horn [Translation of Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn by Martin Chalmers, with an introduction by John Berger] (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2007)

‘Guest Faces’ [Translation by Erik Born of a short piece by Özdamar from Das Neue Deutschland: Von Migration und Vielfalt (2014)], Transit 9.1 (2014) available online at http://transit.berkeley.edu/2014/born-3/

Compiled by Lizzie Stewart (Edinburgh)

 

Criticism

Adelson, Leslie A.: The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical Grammar of Migration (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

Bird, Stephanie: Women Writers and National Identity: Bachmann, Duden, Özdamar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Boa, Elizabeth: ‘Özdamar’s Autobiographical Fictions: Trans-national Identity and Literary Form’ (German Life and Letters, 59.4, 2006, pp. 526-539)

Bradley, Laura: ‘Recovering the Past and Capturing the Present: Özdamar’s Seltsame Sterne starren zur Erde’ in New German Literature: Life-Writing and Dialogues with the Arts, ed. by Julian Preece, Frank Finlay and Ruth J. Owen (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007, pp. 283-295)

Brandt, Bettina: ‘Schnitt durchs Auge: Surrealistische Bilder bei Yoko Tawada, Emine Sevgi Özdamar und Herta Müller’ in Literatur und Migration, ed. by Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Text + Kritik, IX/06 [special issue], 2006, pp. 74-83)

Breger, Claudia: ‘“Meine Herren, spielt in meinem Gesicht ein Affe?" Strategien der Mimikry in Texten von Emine Sevgi Özdamar und Yoko Tawada’ in AufBrüche: Kulturelle Produktionen von Migrantinnen, Schwarzen und jüdischen Frauen in Deutschland, ed. by Cathy S. Gelbin, Kader Konuk and Peggy Piesche (Königstein im Taunus: Helmer, 1999, pp. 30-59)

Cheesman, Tom: Novels of Turkish German Settlement: Cosmopolite Fictions (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2007)

Craith, Máiréad Nic: ‘“Migrant” Writing and the Re-Imagined Community: Discourses of Inclusion/Exclusion’ (German Politics & Society 33.1-2, 2015, pp. 84-99)

Dayioglu-Yücel, Yasemin: ‘Die Plagiatsdebatte um Zaimoglus Leyla und Özdamars Karawanserei - kulturelles Kapital oder geistiges Eigentum?’ (Alman Dili ve Edebiyatı Dergisi/Studien zur deutschen Sprache und Literatur 20, 2008, pp. 113-128)

Durzak, Manfred and Kuruyazıcı, Nilüfer [eds.]: Die andere deutsche Literatur: Istanbuler Vorträge (Wurzburg: Köngigshausen & Neumann, 2004)

Gezen, Ela: ‘Staging Berlin: Emine Sevgi Özdamar's Seltsame Sterne starren zur Erde’ (German Studies Review 38.1, 2015, pp. 83-96)

Göttsche, Dirk: ‘Emine Sevgi Özdamars Erzählung Der Hof Im Spiegel: Spielräume einer postkolonialen Lektüre deutsch-türkischer Literatur’ (German Life and Letters, 59.4, 2006, pp. 515-525)

Gramling, David, ‘The Caravanserai Turns Twenty: Or New German Literature – in Turkish?’ (Alman Dili ve Edebiyatı Dergisi/Studien zur deutschen Sprache und Literatur 24, 2010, pp. 55-83)

Horrocks, David and Kolinsky, Eva [eds.]: Turkish Culture in German Society Today (Oxford: Berghahn, 1996)

Howard, Mary [ed.]: Interkulturelle Konfigurationen: Zur deutschsprachigen Erzählliteratur von Autoren nichtdeutscher Herkunft (Munich: Iudicum, 1997)

Jankowsky, Karen: ‘“German” Literature Contested: The 1991 Ingeborg-Bachmann-Prize Debate, “Cultural Diversity” and Emine Sevgi Özdamar’ (The German Quarterly, 70.3, 1997, pp. 261-276)

Konuk, Kader: ‘Taking on German and Turkish History: Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Seltsame Sterne’ (Gegenwartsliteratur: Ein germanistisches Jahrbuch, 6, 2007, pp. 232-256)

Kraft, Helga: ‘Staging Xenophobia in the 1990s: The Political Plays of Bettina Fless, Anna Langhoff, and Emine Sevgi Özdamar’ in Writing Against Boundaries: Nationality, Ethnicity and Gender in the German-Speaking Context, ed. by Barbara Kosta and Helga Kraft (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003, pp.113-130)

Littler, Margaret: ‘Intimacies Both Sacred and Profane: Islam in the Work of Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Feridun Zaimoglu’ in Encounters with Islam in German Literature and Culture, ed. by James Hodkinson and Jeffrey Morrison (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009, pp. 221-235)

Maguire, Nora: ‘Reading and Writing the Child’s Voice in Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Das Leben ist eine Karawanserei hat zwei Türen aus einer kam ich rein aus der anderen ging ich raus (1992)’ in Writing Childhood in Post-War Women’s Literature, ed. by Gill Rye (Forum for Modern Languaages, 49.2, April 2013 [Special Issue], pp. 213-220)

Mani, B. Venkat: ‘The Good Woman of Istanbul: Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn’ (Gegenwartsliteratur: A German Studies Yearbook, 2, 2003, pp. 29-58)

Mecklenburg, Norbert: ‘Leben und Erzählen als Migration: Intertextuelle Komik in Mutterzunge von Emine Sevgi Özdamar’ in Literatur und Migration, ed. by Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Text + Kritik, IX/06 [special issue], 2006, pp. 84-96)

Milz, Sabine: ‘Comparative Cultural Studies and Ethnic Minority Writing Today: The Hybridities of Marlene Nourbese Philip and Emine Sevgi Özdamar’ (CLCWeb 2.2, 2000, pp. 1-14)

Minnaard, Liesbeth: New Germans, New Dutch: Literary Interventions (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2008)

Reisoglu, Mert Bahadır: ‘From Poetry to Prose: Özdamar and the İkinci Yeni Poetry Movement’ (Turkish-German Studies: Past, Present and Future, 2016, pp. 97-114)

Roy, Kate: ‘Re-membering Heterogeneous Histories: How the writing of Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Leïla Sebbar reinscribes the Other in a “European” Past’ in The Poetics of the Margins: Mapping Europe from the Interstices, ed. by Rossella M. Riccobono (Berne: Peter Lang, 2011, pp. 101-118)

Schonfield, Ernest: ‘1968 and Transnational History in Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Die Brücke vom goldenen Horn’ (German Life and Letters 68.1, 2015, pp. 66-87)

Shafi, Monika: ‘Joint Ventures: Identity Politics and Travel in Novels by Emine Sevgi Özdamar and Zafer Şenocak’ (Comparative Literature Studies, 40.2, 2003, pp. 193-214)

Stewart, Lizzie: ‘Countermemory and the (Turkish-)German Theatrical Archive: Reading the Documentary Remains of Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Karagöz in Alamania (1986)’ (Transit 8.2, 2013), available online at http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/0fq2m874

Von Saalfeld, Lerke: Ich habe eine fremde Sprache gewählt: Ausländische Schriftsteller schreiben deutsch (Gerlinger: Bleicher, 1998)

Wagner-Egelhaaf, Martina: ‘Autofiktion & Gespenster’ (Kultur & Gespenster, 7 [Special Issue on Autofiktioni], 2008, pp. 135-149)

Weber, Beverly M: ‘Work, Sex, and Socialism: Reading Beyond Cultural Hybridity in Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Die Brücke vom Goldenen Horn’ (German Life and Letters, 63.1, 2010, pp. 37-53)

Wierschke, Annette: Schreiben als Selbstbehauptung: Kulturkonflikt und Identität in den Werken von Aysel Özakin, Alev Tekinay und Emine Sevgi Özdamar (Frankfurt/M.: IKO, 1996)

Yildiz, Yasemin: Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012)

Compiled by Lizzie Stewart (Edinburgh)

 

Interviews

‘Heimat und Fremde’ (Anna Lindh Foundation, October 2010 [Özdamar reading from her work in German]), available online at http://youtu.be/SaLsdf5TR90

‘Interview with Emine Sevgi Özdamar’ (‘Migrants moving History’ [A selection of video interviews with English subtitles]), available online at http://www.migrants-moving-history.org/a_oezdamar_3.htm

‘Life is a Caravanserai’ (Round table discussion about Life is a Caravanserai at the Centre for Contemporary Women’s Writing, 2013), available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUW4ppph0FU

‘Manche denken, Türken können nicht schreiben’ (Berliner Literaturkritik, 4 December 2009), available online at http://www.berlinerliteraturkritik.de/detailseite/artikel/oezdamar-im-interview.html

‘Mein 9. November’ (Deutschlandradio Kultur, 5 November 2009), available online at http://www.deutschlandradiokultur.de/mein-9-november-emine-sevgi-ozdamar.1364.de.html?dram:article_id=197539

‘Wegbeschreibungen’ (Potsdam International Network for TransArea Studies, Winter 2012), available online at http://vimeo.com/60297410

Dernbach, Andrea and Reimann, Katja, ‘Gute Arbeit, zwei Freunde, dann kannst du überall leben’ (Der Tagesspiegel, 30 October 2011), available online at http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/emine-sevgi-oezdamar-ueber-50-deutsch-tuerkische-jahre-gute-arbeit-zwei-freunde-dann-kannst-du-ueberall-leben/5769496.html

Horrocks, David and Kolinsky, Eva, ‘Living and Writing in Germany: Emine Sevgi Özdamar in conversation’ in Turkish Culture in German Society Today, ed. by David Horrocks and Eva Kolinsky (Oxford: Berghahn 1996, pp. 45-54)

Compiled by Lizzie Stewart (Edinburgh)