Inventor of her own language!
Renowned Berlin poet Zehra Çirak, recipient of prestigious literary prizes such as the Friedrich-Hölderlin-Förderpreis and the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize has been praised for the evocative and inventive manner in which she uses language. Born in Istanbul, she grew up in a small town in Germany and left school at sixteen to learn to be a cosmetician. Barely out of her teens, she published her first volume of poetry Flugfänger, featuring artwork by sculptor Jürgen Walter with whom she lives and works in Berlin. Here, Marilya Veteto Reese, who was among the first U.S. Germanists to interview and write about Turkish-German writers interviews Çirak for S2S.
Marilya Veteto Reese: Okay, the [first] question is the most unpleasant: the biographical question. The issue that we’d actually wanted to avoid back when we first talked about the idea of an interview. We had intended to more or less ignore your biography. Or rather: relegate it to the background. So now the question: if you alone had your way, how much of your biography would you like to have mentioned in the case of an interview?
Zehra Çirak: Biography is certainly important—if I read an interview with someone, I probably want to know something about his or her background. The course their life has taken etc. But for me, it’s not the deciding factor in the quality of the work produced. Humans are always curious—I am too—but when I see an artwork, for example or hear a piece of music, read a book, [then] a small amount of information on the back about the author is enough for me. That does not influence my reading or the viewing of the artwork. And in the case of my biography, my Turkish origins are always forefronted, whereas my writing, my entire approach, and what I have accomplished to date as an author have nothing to do with that. But otherwise, I am happy to tell about my biography! There are some important points as well, for example the collaboration with Jürgen [Walter]. In many ways I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t had the collaboration and this development via Jürgen. That is a very significant biographical point. I would prefer to make even more intimate details public, wouldn’t matter to me in the least, but not always this “Country of origin: Turkey!”
MVR: Another kind of biographical question that will lead in a quite different direction: which role did the city of Berlin play in your life?
ZC: A very large one, a very very large one! Not only in my life as an author, but I think if I had stayed in Karlsruhe and if my life had played out there, no matter in which direction, whether I had gotten further into the Turkish cultural circles there as for example my sister by comparison who didn’t get out at all—she doesn’t want to, she feels very good there!—but I’d always wanted out, not because I felt like I was imprisoned there, but because I had a different way of looking at things than those around me or my parents, for example. The departure from Karlsruhe to Berlin, in a metropolis, was for me, well, seeing something new! As a young twenty-something my God of course you want to see something new. To come to Berlin from Flagstaff would be the same sort of thing, I think, right?
ZC: Well in any case due to the fact that I’ve lived in Berlin, above all that I met Jürgen—if I had had a different husband who wasn’t an artist, who hadn’t take it so seriously that I wrote—my authorial existence might have been entirely different or perhaps not developed at all.
[Jürgen Walter enters the kitchen, where M&Z are sitting together]
MVR: The question that arises here probably should have been the opening question: I had hoped you’d speak at length about your collaboration with Jürgen Walter.
ZC: Well, the collaboration with Jürgen Walter, it was always very important for me. It was clear from the start that we would work on one topic till…You’ve observed our development very intensely. From the illustrations in Flugfänger to the Performances with the texts that you translated on up to the Kleinen Altären [Small Altars] where the texts came out of the loudspeakers built into the objects
Stepchange (orig. title: Schrittwechsel)
Should the voracious go on living
beyond the body’s decay
and only the thought remain
even without destruction
there could be an end
wants not to have been something evil
that which once took a frightened breath
Translator: Marilya Veteto Reese
Copyright May 2013
With the Eyes of Someone Different (orig title: Mit den Augen eines Anderen)
To see the way the neighbor sees
When standing at his own window
To hear the same thing he can hear
To be like him so to speak
Taking the very same dog on a walk
Sleeping with the very same wife
Facing the very same fear of me
and not any fear of him
Avoiding him every single day
and closing the doors so nobody hears
to be like him on days like these
with the eyes of someone different
Translator: Marilya Veteto Reese
Copyright May 2013
MVR: Is it always the case that the object comes before the text?
ZC: Yes. Always. Always.
MVR: Do you confer in advance—Jürgen says ‘I am making an object now, it’s going to look approximately like this…’—so you can begin in your head to work on it, or do you have to see the completed object first?
ZC: No, no, even in conception I always ask which direction it’s going in. And then by Jürgen’s descriptions…
MVR: And the overall topic is of course already settled in advance, right?
ZC: The overall topic, the general topic is settled on. And depending on what I see…in the case of a bird-object I see ‘aha it is going to be about disease or pollution or violence or this or that, whatever, with love or loneliness or with childraising.’ Somehow you can see it right away, the direction it’s headed. (Though sometimes that can change.) Then I wait for the completed object, but there are sometimes situations where Jürgen isn’t done yet with the object, where he’s waiting on my text to fill in the corresponding details. That happens sometimes too. But basically the object is there first.
MVR: If I were to sum up Jürgen’s art in a word or two of description and sum up your stuff in a word or two, then I’d categorize Jürgen as surrealist-social-critic. These terms would not be the ones I’d apply to your texts. I would say to your texts “Wordgymnastics’ and ‘with immense understanding of, insight into the human condition’ and ‘containing very much affectionate humor’….and the fact that these two things fit so well together is somehow crazy, because in one sense they are very disparate.
ZC: Yes, I see it that way too, because look: if Jürgen for example didn’t have his sometimes cruel irony, which I approach differently in the text…No, if I had the same cruel irony and if I did it more or less the same way he does.
MVR:….it’d be like a blow with a hammer.
ZC: Yes, it’d be too much of a good thing, you understand? But I don’t do it consciously, the balancing out. That is the way I am.
MVR: No, no—they simply complement one another.
ZC: Exactly, and perhaps that’s why it fits. That is why it is so harmonious.
MVR: Because depth is there in both directions. It’s not as if you gambol along writing some text or another. You have an just as much irony, but a different kind.
ZC: And Jürgen has just as much humor.
MVR: That is what I wanted to mention earlier. I thought, well, if I leave out the word humor then that’s not right either.
ZC: Yes, and he has his approach and I have my approach. And we are lucky that each can do his or her own thing—and it fits! Then it would be quite stupid if for example Jürgen would say ‘yes, I like what you wrote but not how.’ Well, ‘that is too ironic for me…or that is too funny for me or that is too…’ somehow it always fits. Or there are other reasons: because the object doesn’t fit, content-wise. In that sense we really were lucky, I would say, that it works between us. And that we aren’t too alike.
MVR: And his stuff is, when you look at it you notice how intense the colors are. And your words are also intensely colored, linguistically speaking. So in that regard they fit well.
MVR: Wrapping up: which sentence or which paragraph would you like to read in Wikipedia under the heading “Çirak, Zehra”?
ZC: Hmm! Mmmhmm, well, to start with ‘Female poet and ….prose author.’ ‘Sh…’ and then….hmmm…
JW: May I interject something?
JW: Read yourself? ….That you [points to Zehra]tell them or that others write about her?
MVR: Either or. Or both.
ZC: Yes. I”ll give it a try here. What could one specifically say about me, that is that I can’t (describe my own texts)…? I mean, if I look up someone else, an author that I don’t know, Huschel-Budl, Dudldorf, and it reads ‘poetry and prose’ and ‘essay’ that would be enough for me to know. But sometimes there also is something else for example, and I don’t know if that person was content with it. I can’t think of anything, not anything clever. Can you? [to Jürgen]?
JW: ‘Invented her own language.’
MVR: Hah—yes, that is nice!
Cirak is a frequent guest of Goethe Institute worldwide and a recipient of funding from the Senat and city of Berlin. Last year, Çirak published her first volume of short prose, titled Der Geruch von Glück, a collection that includes the short story “Erinnerungspflegestudio,” which appeared as one of only 35 pieces chosen for Dalkey Archive’s BEST EUROPEAN FICTION OF 2013 translated by M. V. Reese as “Memory Cultivation Salon.”
Marilya Veteto Reese is Professor of German at Northern Arizona University. The recipient of Fulbright, DAAD, and Goethe Institut support, Reese has worked with, translated, and published works by Zehra Çirak, Ingeborg Drewitz, Kemal Kurt, Arno Reinfrank, Anant Kumar, and many other contemporary German authors as well as recently-discovered Holocaust poet, Hilda Stern Cohen. Reese’s latest project is an English-to-German translation of Putrefaction Live, a coming of age novel by Flagstaff author Warren Perkins about an Anglo-Navajo youth in a death metal band on the Navajo reservation.