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Author Jenny Erpenbeck Explores Europe’s 2015 Migrant Crisis Through Fiction

Apr 6, 2018

Roughly one million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa. Germany accepted the great majority of asylum seekers— 890,000 according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.

In the midst of political backlash that followed, German author Jenny Erpenbeck sought to humanize the crisis in her 2017 novel, “Go, Went, Gone.” In it, she tells the story of a retired German academic who befriends a group of North African migrants in Berlin.

 

 

Prior to writing the book, Erpenbeck spent time with migrants, including a Nigerian man named Bashir who became the inspiration for one of her main characters.

“He was a bit like the president of the group, but of course, he was no president and the group was made of different people from different countries in Africa,” Erpenbeck said. “And he really fought for his people.”

 

Bashir, like many migrants, lost loved ones on the treacherous journey from Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean.

“The boat capsized, and two of his ... two children, they drowned,” Erpenbeck said.

Bashir’s story, along with others, reminded Erpenbeck of stories of Jews during the Holocaust.

“I realized that the refugees are telling very, very similar stories about death and surviving,” she said. “But just because they are black, or they are speaking other languages nobody understands, just because of this, people are not paying attention on it, and that's not okay.”

Germany’s history was what guided its unique response to the migrant crisis. The right to asylum was written into the German constitution in 1948 as a direct response to the Holocaust. Broadly defined, it was meant to make Germany a safe haven for those fleeing persecution or death.

Despite the weight of German history, Erpenbeck says German citizens have exhibited prejudice against the migrants.

“In Germany there are many people saying, Ah, they always have the newest mobile phones, and where do they get it from? And they are stealing it,” Erpenbeck explained.

Such sentiments played out in German politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel struggled to assemble a governing coalition after the 2017 parliamentary elections. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which saw the biggest gains in 2017, will now be the country's largest opposition party.

 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Erpenbeck on how German reunification influenced her:

I think this is a very deep cut in our lives. You know we... We grew up in a completely different country. Even when speaking the same language, it was completely different. And, to have made this experience of the break down of a complete system, of a state, I think is one thing that really makes you a writer. Because you're still dealing with it, even 20 years later. And it gives you... I think it gives you the privilege of having a distance to all those systems and a good portion of distrust.

Erpenbeck on why she decided to write “Go, Went, Gone”:

I thought it's time to connect these two so-to-say parallel worlds that are already existing in our cities, but nobody is paying much attention, or nobody used to pay much attention to this until in 2015, you know, the really big crisis started... You know, there were many people saying, yeah it's a pity that there are so many refugees. Or, they are very... they don't have much luck or so, but nobody knew anyone at this time, when I started to read the book.

Erpenbeck on the real-life migrant who inspired the character Rashid in “Go, Went, Gone”:

When we started speaking, I learned that his father had been killed in Nigeria in 2000... I think 2? And then he left the country, went to Libya, got married, they got two children. And then when the revolution, the so-called revolution, broke out they were forced, because of racist aggression, they were forced to leave the country and to enter a boat. And then they tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and the boat capsized and two of his children, the two children, they drowned. So, then he landed in Lampedusa. So this was his way, how he came to Europe. And then, after having fought for so many years, he died one year ago.

 

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

 

Rebecca Cruise: Jenny Erpenbeck, welcome to World Views.

 

Jenny Erpenbeck: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

 

Cruise: Thank you so much for joining us. Now, you are a quite renowned author, and you always seem to write about, to some regard your experiences and perhaps one could say human experiences, experiences that took place in in Germany.

One of your works, that I think just sounds so fascinating, is a book about a young girl, "The End of Days," that you wrote and published in 2014, about a young girl born at the beginning of the 20th century and essentially dies four times till the end of the 20th century. And I'm curious where this idea came from, and kind of what your inspiration was there.

 

Erpenbeck: I actually wanted to write a book about death. And what interested me was to look at a person that is in one time of her life she is a a young girl and she's in love. And she dies because of this love. And the love is the most important thing in her life and in her dying too. And a bit later we find her again, and she's politically engaged, and she emigrates to the Soviet Union and so on. And she, she is dying, yeah, I would call that political death in a camp.

 

Cruise: Mm hmm.

 

Erpenbeck: If you knew her in this time you would only know about her political engagement. You wouldn't remember her as a loving girl in the age of 18 or 19.

And then, a bit later, she is a very old woman and almost no one is attending the funeral, you know? And all this is in one life. Or, to put it differently, there are so many persons and one person, and there are so many changes and so many transitions. And I tell these transitions by telling her death again, again and again. But, basically it's in each of us a variety of characters and of things that make us.

 

Cruise: And, as you said, in the book she's in the east, the Soviet Union, and that, again, was your upbringing in Eastern Germany. And it's interesting to note that there have been a lot of authors coming out of East Germany that have had those experiences. Do you think there something about that, that period of time that has led to, kind of a prolification, of books either about that time or by authors from that East?

 

Erpenbeck: I think this is a very deep cut in our lives. You know we... We grew up in a completely different country. Even when speaking the same language, it was completely different. And, to have made this experience of of the break down of a complete system, of a state, I think is one thing that really makes you a writer. Because you're still dealing with it, even, even 20 years later. And it gives you... I think it gives you the privilege of having a distance to all those systems and a good portion of distrust.

 

Cruise: Still distrust... 20, 25 years later you find yourself skeptical?

 

Erpenbeck: Yeah. I...You know, for instance, if I, if I… often the word freedom is mentioned in whatever sense. I will always say, What is it? What does it mean? Whose freedom is it? You know it's not just the emotion of calling the word freedom. You know? It's not only about the emotional quality which is quite big with this word, but, you know, the freedom means that, uh, something is going on underneath. It kind of has to do with a lot of manipulation.You know, I would never say, I believe in democracy, or in things like that. You know, these words, I don't like. The big words, I distrust.

 

Cruise: Because there is history behind that for you personally and for...

 

Erpenbeck: Yeah, and you always have to ask whose...

 

Cruise: At what cost... Yeah.

 

Erpenbeck: Yeah. I think this is good to kind of distrust I learned in the socialist system because we all... we wanted to keep... Some of us wanted to keep the society or the way of... yeah... the way of thinking, which was lost.

 

Cruise: ...and very very quickly, at least, the government structure.

 

Erpenbeck: It was lost a bit too quickly during the reunification, but yeah we, we learned a lot, and this is good about it. And we we kept some ideas, and perhaps the ideas will be back one day when the, yeah, the capitalist way of organising things doesn't succeed 100 percent anymore.

 

Cruise: It's always important, and I think particularly for us in the United States, to remember that, even though this was a long time ago, those effects are still in place, still in place in Germany and are tangible in many different ways.

 

Cruise: Your most recent book, a highly acclaimed book, "Go, Went, Gone," in which you're again looking at an issue of temporal relevance, something that's going on in your country and really in other places throughout Europe and elsewhere, and that's the refugee situation...

 

I think we're familiar with the fact that there has been a massive influx of people into Europe and particularly into Germany from Syria, Iraq, as well as from Africa. So you've tackled this from the perspective of a retiree and how he gets involved with a group of refugees or migrants. What you're thinking here? What were you wanting to get across to the reader?

 

Erpenbeck:  Yeah, I thought it's time to connect these two so-to-say parallel worlds that are already existing in our cities, but nobody is paying much attention, or nobody used to pay much attention to this until in 2015, you know, the really big crisis started. And I thought, it’s... It interested me that there are people already living in our worlds, but nevertheless living in a completely other world and looking at us looking at us from their perspective. You know, there well many people saying, yeah it's a pity that there are so many refugees. Or, they are very... they don't have much luck or so, but nobody knew anyone at this time, when I started to read the book.

 

Cruise: And you went and talked to a number of people that were displaced... And got again some research on the ground communicating with them

 

Cruise: Yeah. I was just interested, and I wanted to know who they were, and why they came, and where they came from. And I wanted to do some research on my own prejudices, you know? You know... It's... All people... I don't know how it is here, but in Germany there are many people saying, Ah, they always have the newest mobile phones, and where do they get it from? And they are stealing it,  and, you know. And even those questions are put in the book.

And I think it's, uh, it was high time to remind people that the basic human experiences of being forced to found a new identity, of loss, of how to spend one's lifetime and what chances you get to make something out of it... These are very basic human questions, and they connect all people in the world. And, I thought, It's time to to speak about it in a novel, and to make people read about it, and to put all these questions I had into the book, and to remind people that, you know, we grew up in Germany and I think also in the U.S. with all the stories of surviving Jews. The guilt, the German guilt, of having killed so many people... And there were so many stories about suffering and about someone being saved just by chance. And these stories are a part of my thinking, and I realized that the refugees are telling very very similar stories about death surviving. But just because they are black, or they are speaking other languages nobody understands, you know, just because of this, people are not paying attention on it, and that's not okay.

 

Cruise:  You talked with some of the migrants, refugees. Can you maybe share with us one that really stood out to you?

 

Erpenbeck: There was one who was a real main character in my book. In the book he is named Rashid. In reality it was Bashir. And he was a bit like the president of the group, but of course, he was no president and the group was made of different people from different countries in Africa. And he, he, he really fought for, for his people.

 

They wanted to protest against the Dublin regulations that allowed them only to take a job in the country where they landed first, you know. And in all other European countries they are not allowed to work, which is kind of a problem. And he really did work in fighting for his people, and organizing demonstrations, and whatever things to get some attention.

And only when I started interviewing him, I learned...And he was a big man...big man, very charismatic and very humorous and warm-hearted person. You know, everybody liked him. And only when we started speaking, I learned that his father had been killed in Nigeria in 2000... I think 2? And then he left the country, went to Libya, got married, they got two children. And then when the revolution, the so-called revolution, broke out they were forced, because of racist aggression, they were forced to leave the country and to enter a boat. And then they tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and the boat capsized and two of his children, the two children, they drowned. So, then he landed in Lampedusa, so this was his way, how he came to Europe. And then, after having fought for so many years, he died one year ago.

 

Cruise: Oh goodness.

 

Erpenbeck: Yeah, and his condition was not good. And never put himself into bed to rest a bit. He always was on 100 percent.

 

Cruise: Always struggling, or moving forward...

 

Erpenbeck: Yeah, so we, we lost him, and we are very sad about it.

 

Cruise:  Well it seems that this is the power of the art form, that uh, literature, or writing… That you can take a real-world situation and make people think about it in a different context or a different format, and humanizing that which really should bring us all together. We'll definitely look for this book. Do you have another one in mind yet? Or are you just taking a well-earned break? What's next on the horizon?

 

Erpenbeck: In the fall there will be a book published, a collection of texts I wrote in the last 25 years.

 

Cruise: Oh my goodness.

 

Erpenbeck: And after that hopefully I will start to write a new novel. I am already thinking about it, but it is too early to speak about it. [laughs].

 

Cruise: [laughs] Well, thank you so much for talking with us about your experiences and about the books that you've written.

 

Erpenbeck: Thank you. Bye, bye.