two cultures for one feather

Emine Sevgi Özdamar has a bit of a cold. Installed on a small stage, in a library in south-west Berlin, in front of a hundred people, this 76-year-old German-Turkish writer coughs a few times then starts reading her new novel (1). Not yet translated into French, this book earned him this year the Georg-Büchner Prize, Germany’s highest literary distinction.

Concentrated, this woman with long black hair, in jeans and sneakers, replaces her glasses on the top of her nose and reads several passages, with a slight accent. Suddenly, the one that seemed distant transforms the atmosphere. The actress in her wakes up. The reading becomes a quasi-theatrical interpretation of this novel full of humor and nostalgia, where houses and animals talk.

Atypical course

Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s career is one of the most atypical for a Büchner Prize winner. Born in the south-east of Turkey, she grew up in the Istanbul region, fell in love with the theater very early on and left in 1965 for Germany, at the age of 18, as a “guest worker” (gastarbeiterin, in German). The young girl is part of this first generation of Turks who came to participate in the economic miracle of the new FRG.

“I didn’t speak a word of German and I lived in a women’s shelter. I was both a worker and a guest,” she smiled. Germany at the time was still divided into two countries and Berlin was cut off by a wall. “I never managed to reunite the two cities. I often ask my friends who still live on the other side what the weather is like there, as if we were very far away”, she said laughing.

Worker experience does not last long. After a few months, the young woman returned to Istanbul to live her theatrical passion with, in her suitcase, discs of songs and poems written by Bertolt Brecht. “I listened to them every day in Turkey, she remembers. Turkish intellectuals adored Brecht. He gave us a lot of strength. »

With the coup of 1971, the period becomes difficult in Turkey. Emine Sevgi Özdamar dreams of Berlin “to play Brecht there”. Tenacious, she obtained a visa in 1976 for West Berlin and then received a scholarship to work at the famous Schaubühne theater in East Berlin. Her career was launched as an actress and director.

Writing came late

The writing will come later and without having really decided. “I never thought of becoming a writer”, she admits, remembering an evening with friends at her house. The words came to her and she put them down on paper. “I didn’t know what it was” she admits. This became his first play, written in 1982.

Since then, she has written a dozen plays and novels, only two of which have been translated into French (2). All evoke moments of her life, between Turkey where she grew up, Germany where she has lived for forty-five years and France, where she played in the theater.

“I advance unconsciously, step by step, towards autobiography”, she acknowledges. Apart from one book, all his writings are in German. “I am happy with this language. Words have body she confides, referring to her learning of the language through theatre.

Face of plural Germany

In Germany, few of the first generation “guest workers” have experienced such a rise and achieved such public recognition. Does it see itself as one of the faces of this new plural Germany which claims to be such? ” Maybe, she replies tersely. In any case, I very quickly understood that my generation would never play a big role. It was to come with the following generations who grew up there. It is normal for this to take time. »

If Emine Sevgi Özdamar remains modest, others emphasize his contribution to the German language. “Even if you do not see yourself in this role, you have inspired and encouraged many writers from our country whose mother tongue is not German and whose works today enrich our literature”, assured him the President of the Federal Republic Frank-Walter Steinmeier, during the presentation of the Schiller prize in November. That evening, in any case, during this public reading, the enthusiasm of the readers was perceptible. An audience where German and Turkish intermingled.


His inspiration: “The dead, who remain in our memory”

“There are so many inspiring people that I love like the writer Albert Camus,
directors Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jean-Marie Straub, and musician Alexander Blume. They are exciting personalities. The poems also inspire me, just like living experiences and that they imprint the body. There are also the dead. They remain in our memory and we can find them, bring them back to life, live with them for a few more years. »


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