It can be striking how differently English- and German-speaking writers talk about Berlin. To Germans, this is the mainstream culture capital, the literary centre of gravity. For Anglos, Berlin is a home for radicals and déracinés, with intellectual freedom and breathing space that can’t be found among the literati parties of London or NYC.
Many Anglo Berliners have managed to bridge these worlds, successfully crossing over into the German literary landscape as commentators, translators or authors. Translators are the most literal of wall-jumpers, and Berlin is home to a thriving German-to-English community. Isabel Fargo Cole, the US-born co-founder of No Man’s Land magazine for literary translations, has made the impressive leap of writing two original novels in German: Die Grüne Grenze (The Green Border), which takes place in GDR-era Harz, and Das Gift der Biene (The Poison of the Bees), set in 1990s East Berlin.
Switching literary language has a long heritage, from Nabokov and Conrad in English to Beckett and Kundera in French. British author Jhumpa Lahiri has insightfully reflected on writing in her second language, Italian: “I think I am escaping both my failures with regards to English and my success… I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself.”
Perhaps you don’t need to write in German to become a “German author” – you just need to find your audience.
A local addition to the border-crossing tradition is UK-born Sharon Dodua Otoo, whose first German novel Adas Raum (Ada’s Room) came out this February to serious acclaim, even earning a spot on the Spiegel bestseller list. This ambitious work weaves a powerful, multifaceted narrative from the stuff of history: it is a fine project for an author who embodies the wise, big-hearted, multilingual Germany she advocates.
Most intriguing is the phenomenon of authors who write exclusively in English but have published books available only in German translation. This includes British Berliner Paul Scraton’s Am Rand (Berlin Outskirts), a literary chronicle of walking the city’s border, and London-born Priya Basil’s personal meditation on feminism, Im Wir Und Jetzt (In Us and Now).
While part of Scraton’s appeal to German readers lies in his local expertise, the latter’s literary crossover has to do with her impressive command of global progressive causes. Indeed, Basil has become well known to German audiences through her magazine writing, festival involvements and political activism. Perhaps you don’t need to write in German to become a “German author” – you just need to find your audience.