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Germany slow to accept its multicultural creators

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In Germany, the novelist Carmen-Francesca Banciu is introduced as a Romanian author; in Romania, she’s considered a German author. In the United States and Britain, she writes, she is considered transnational.

These days questions of identity, integration and belonging threaten to overwhelm us.

It is interesting to see how the complicated and contradictory processes of joining, belonging to, integrating in and being accepted by a new culture affect artists and writers.

Emotion plays an important role in culture. For this reason, even if it seems paradoxical, it can be more difficult for societies to accept outsiders as part of their cultures than it can be to simply formally add them to the national social security rolls. That’s because culture lies at the heart of every society.

I regularly think about questions of identity, integration and belonging, especially when the Leipzig Book Fair nears — more so if I’m about to publish a new book, as I am right now. I’m often asked to talk about my own sense of identity as an author, and not just about my identity, but about those of other writers who were also not born in Germany. Where do we fit culturally? And to which literary traditions do we belong? How are we portrayed? What matters is not just how we define ourselves, but also how we are perceived and presented to others.

Authors with a “migration background,” to use the official term, often have multiple identities. For some of us, German is our native language. It should go without saying that these writers are integrated into the German cultural scene. However, when Herta Müller was surprisingly awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2009, many German journalists did not know what to make of the fact. They wondered whether Müller, who was born in Romania, could be counted as part of the German cultural scene.

Regarded as foreigners

Integration does not mean distancing and disconnecting yourself from your past. Instead, it means settling in a new place and evolving — and possibly even passing something on to the society where you have settled and become accepted.

Authors whose native tongue is not German are often regarded as foreigners. They are seen as experts on issues that pertain to the countries they came from, but their opinion on domestic topics is rarely solicited, even if they have lived here for years and write in German. And there is also the gradually shrinking group of novelists who consider themselves foreign and continue to write in their native languages. A third group of authors choose to write in a — culturally speaking — “neutral” language, mostly English.

In Germany, I am almost always introduced as a Romanian author. But the literary scene in Romania has long considered me a German author. Things are different in the United States and Britain, where I am introduced as a German and Romanian writer or sometimes a transnational author. Maybe that’s because multiple cultural identities are more common in those countries.

I have lived in Germany for almost 30 years. That’s almost twice the amount of time I spent living in Romania as an adult.

A Berlin writer

When I first accepted the German Academic Exchange Service’s invitation to live in Berlin as part of its Artists-in-Residence program, I only wrote in Romanian. And my books were translated. I soon decided to stay in Berlin for good. And that meant that, in addition to using German in everyday life, I would write in the language, as well. I now write in German from the point of view of a Berliner who has a rich cultural background and whose broad perspective goes far beyond the national context — whether I am writing about Romanian events and experiences, life in Germany, or stories I picked up elsewhere in the world.

I have gradually conquered this language. I’ve made it my own. I feel safe and strong using it. And I feel daring enough to bend linguistic rules if that strikes me as necessary for my literary work. I am perfecting the clarity of my writing and trying to make my language even more expressive. I think that I thereby contribute to a nuanced, wide-ranging and enriching perspective on life that helps shed light on its various protagonists.

I was born in Romania.

I’m a Berlin author.

I’m a German and a Romanian author.

I’m a European author.

I’m a transnational author.

No matter what else I might be, I am an author who belongs to both the German and the Romanian cultural scenes.

Carmen-Francesca Banciu began writing in German in 1996. Her most recent books include “Light Breeze in Paradise” and “Berlin Is My Paris,” which were originally published in German. Her next novel will be released in German in March.

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