Glossen Sonderausgabe/Special Issue: 15/2002

Autobiography as a Means of Identity Transformation in Minority Literature of the 1990s
Deborah Janson

In Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing, Avrom Fleishman suggests that certain periods of history lend themselves particularly well to "the age-old activity of writing life stories."1 Germany in the 1990s — I will argue in this essay — is one of those historical periods. Changes brought on by German unification inspire life-writing because they highlight issues of national and personal identity. This is apparent from themes common in post-unification literature, including marginalization, adaptation and resistance, and the search for Heimat. In particular, works by writers of non-German heritage tend to focus on the "self" within a cultural context that regards that self as "other." Works by so-called "traditional" Germans, on the other hand, often speak for or about the cultural "other" and not directly about themselves. This difference indicates that minority writers are more personally affected by questions of cultural identity as they relate to recent developments in Germany than are traditional speakers of German. Through a discussion of two non-traditional works, one by the Afro-German Ika Hügel-Marshall and the other by a "foreign citizen of Turkish descent," Alev Tekinay, I hope to demonstrate that minority writers use autobiography to assert their own personal identity as well as to challenge the erroneous notion of Germany as a homogeneous national culture.

According to Timothy Dow Adams, there has been a long-standing disagreement concerning the definition of autobiography, with some critics willing to "expand the canon to include anything with an autobiographical feel," and with others arguing "that autobiography and fiction are completely separate genres and that a line of demarcation between them should be drawn."2 By claiming that post-unification literature is highly autobiographical, I am adhering to a broad definition of the genre. For certainly not all instances of self-writing by non-traditional Germans are "pure" autobiography. Many prefer to tell their life stories via poetry, short stories, or novels, or even hide aspects of their own lives behind the feigned impartiality of "Protokolliteratur." Whatever the literary category, autobiographical writing is built on a combination of memory and imagination that the author organizes to provide an authentic picture of her or his life. Needless to say, persuading the world to see one's self through one's own eyes does not mean telling everything exactly as it happened. It does, however, require relating certain invisible aspects of life, such as the damaging effect that encounters with social prejudice can have on an individual's psyche. It is especially important for minority writers to relate such experiences and to tell their own stories, since otherwise their concerns and interests may not become known.

Minority members' preoccupation with issues of cultural identity had been brewing for several decades prior to unification. Already in the 1970s, foreign residents from Turkey and elsewhere began to give literary expression to their experiences as guest workers, and their contributions were followed in the 1980s and beyond by those of their children, who, though born and raised in Germany, continue to be treated as outsiders. Also in the mid-eighties, Afro-Germans started to develop a sense of collective identity through the founding of organizations such as Initiative Schwarze Deutsche, which sponsors educational and empowerment workshops for Black Germans and other minority groups. In view of the progress being made toward greater social acceptance of minorities in the 1980s, the backlash that accompanied unification, including the increased violence toward individuals presumed to be foreign, was particularly distressing. While non-white Germans wanted to share in the excitement of the Wiedervereinigung, they soon realized their participation in the celebrations was not welcome. According to the Afro-German poet May Ayim, this was due in part to the exclusionary attitudes of the media, who showed interest only in white Germans' responses to unification. Ayim writes: "We sensed that the imminent inner-German union would be accompanied by an intensified closure towards the outside-an outside which would include us."3

The experience of being an outsider — a stranger in her own home — is a dominant theme in Ika Hügel-Marshall's autobiography Daheim unterwegs. Ein deutsches Leben (1998). Hügel-Marshall, born in 1947, was a so-called Besatzungskind, the child of a Bavarian woman and an African-American soldier who returned to the States before her birth. When she was a year old, her mother married a white German, and a year later her sister was born. As a young child, Hügel-Marshall did not yet feel excluded from the world she was born into:

Es gab nur eine Welt, die weiße Welt, in die ich hineingeboren worden war, eine Schwarze Welt existierte nicht, und es gab nur eine Wirklichkeit, nur eine Wahrheit. Alle waren weiß, und da Kinder so aussehen wie ihre Eltern, war auch ich weiß, was denn sonst? . . . Für mich gab es überhaupt keinen Grund, daran zu zweifeln, mit meiner weißen Mutter in meiner weißen Familie in meiner weißen Heimat glücklich zu sein und erwachsen zu werden.4

Once she was old enough to attend school, however, local officials persuaded her mother to place young Erika in a Christian home for children with special needs, with the excuse that her personal and professional development would be jeopardized by small-town prejudices were she to stay at home. The initial shattering experience of being abandoned by her mother was followed by years of institutionalized living, first in the Kinderheim and then in a boarding school in which the predominant emotional experiences were humiliation and self-doubt. (One example of the treatment she received in the children's home was when she was subjected to a ritual of exorcism, the assumption being that her dark skin and impure, or mixed, blood meant that she had the devil inside her). Such experiences caused her, on the one hand, to long to know her father, since it was his skin color, "wegen der ich in meiner Heimat unerwünscht bin."5 At the same time she was afraid to meet other Afro-Germans, due to the negative stereotypes she had heard about them: "Schwarze Menschen sind mir fremd, ich habe Angst vor ihnen, denn es gibt Wahrheiten, auf die mich zu verlassen ich gelernt habe. Ich bin Schwarz, häßlich, unansehnlich, habe wildes Haar, das für keine Frisur geeignet scheint, ich drohe ständig zu verwahrlosen, bin unmoralisch, schmutzig und dumm. All dem will ich nicht gegenübertreten."6 For many years, Ika Hügel-Marshall internalized the prejudices about dark-skinned people with which she was confronted daily while simultaneously struggling to disprove them. Despite adversity and self-doubt, she managed to graduate from high school, work as a social worker, receive an advanced university degree in Sozialpädagogik, and "even" marry a white German — a marriage that lasted six years. She also became involved in the (predominantly white) feminist movement, which gave her a political framework for recognizing interconnected forms of social injustice. The longer she worked with her "white sisters," however, the more disappointed she became. They did not want to hear about the racism she encountered daily, both in German society in general and within the feminist movement in particular. In reference to her feminist friends' lack of interest in her experiences with racism, Hügel-Marshall writes, "Ich fühle mich gesichtslos gemacht, nicht berechtigt, so zu empfinden, wie ich es tue."7

1986 marks Hügel-Marshall's first encounter with other Afro-Germans, and hence, a turning point in her sense of self. With other Blacks she can discuss openly the racism she has endured, receive understanding from them, identify with what they are going through, and have proof that the negative stereotypes about dark-skinned people are untrue and unfair: "Ich kann wieder an mich glauben, mich ernst nehmen, vieles, was Weiße mich lehrten, wieder verlernen."8

As a result of her participation in the Afro-German movement, including events sponsored by the Initiative Schwarze Deutsche, Hügel-Marshall gets to know May Ayim and becomes close friends with the African-American poet Audre Lorde and her German publisher, Dagmar Schultz. These friendships solidify her newly developing identity as an Afro-German. In a round-about way they also result in her meeting Sara Lennox, a German professor at the University of Massachusetts, who is able to locate her father for her. This turn of events is a dream come true, since Hügel-Marshall's father and his entire family, his wife and their five children, welcome her with open arms. She is able to discover how much she resembles her father physically, and what a wise and gentle man he is. Though he dies less than a year after she first meets him, the experience of finally knowing him is truly transformative. She closes her book a new person: "Ich hole mir heute die Welt zurück: mein Leben, meine Sehnsüchte, unbeschwerte Fröhlichkeit, Humor, meine Liebe, meine Achtung und den Stolz auf mich selbst. Jeden Morgen wache ich auf, freue mich auf den anbrechenden Tag und erlebe die Welt neu. Ich schaue in den Spiegel und freue mich, denn ich möchte um nichts in der Welt anders sein, als ich bin."9

The details of Ika Hügel-Marshall's life provide clear illustration of concerns common to minority writers in Germany today. Like many others, her value as a person is routinely called into question, she feels the continuous need to assert her own identity in order to resist other people's attempts to define her, and she feels, for many years of her life, estranged from the country in which she was born and raised. By writing her own life story, she is able both to heal some of the wounds she has suffered — to use writing as a means of therapy — and to expose the harm that a racist society causes its victims. This goal is particularly important in Germany, where many "white" citizens are blind to the existence of racism in their midst because they are not the direct recipients of it. Hence, if Hügel-Marshall succeeds in persuading her readers to see the world through her eyes, she will also have helped to raise their social and political consciousness.

To my mind, Daheim unterwegs is a classic example of "pure" autobiography. It fits Phillippe Lejeune's well-known definition from the 1970s, in which autobiography is described as "Retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality."10 Like other straightforward autobiographies, Hügel-Marshall's work elicits what Lejeune calls the "autobiographical pact," whereby the reader "agrees" that the protagonist represents the author because, as Paul John Eakin explains, the protagonist bears the same name as the author — a name that can be "certified" as referring to the real person it is known to represent.11 While poststructuralists tend to deny an autobiography's referentiality, most readers join critics such as Lejeune and Eakin in their allegiance to it. It is, writes Eakin, "a kind of existential imperative, a will to believe that is, finally, impervious to theory's deconstruction of reference as illusion."12

As Linda Haverty Rugg points out in her 1997 work on the relationship between autobiography and photography, it is particularly important to acknowledge autobiography's referential power in works by women and minorities since these deal with bodies that are culturally defined.13 This point is substantiated by Ika Hügel-Marshall's autobiography, where referentiality is crucial to the author's message. It is, after all, her body, in particular her skin, hair and nose, that have made Hügel-Marshall the target of racism. Throughout her life she has heard negative comments about her personality and moral character that are based solely on her appearance. Her identity transformation thus involves learning to love a body that she had previously been taught to hate. In the photographs she includes in her book we see images of her body at various stages of life, alongside pictures of her mother and father and other people close to her. Her use of photography in her autobiography thus corresponds to one of its functions as described by Rugg, namely, as proof of "something material, the embodied subject, the unification (to recall the autobiographical pact) of author, name, and body."14

In contrast, autobiographical novels rarely include photographs of the author since this would disturb not only the reader's understanding of the work as fiction but also the author's desire to remain as ambiguous as possible about the work's precise degree of fictionality.15 Authors who decide to tell their life stories in the form of autobiographical novels, mock autobiographies, fictional memoirs, etc., have little interest in sticking to the facts. Nonetheless, they remain intent on imparting the truth about their lives. This can be seen in Alev Tekinay's autobiographical novel Nur der Hauch vom Paradies (1993). It is, on the one hand, a mock autobiography in which the protagonist, a "second-generation Turk," tells his own life story, in part by reading passages from the autobiography he has written. But it is also "truly" autobiographical, since it features two characters whose lives bear strong resemblance to that of the author's. One of these is Fa, the protagonist's mentor, who, like Tekinay, comes to Germany when she is eighteen to study Germanistik and later teaches at a university there. The other is the protagonist, Engin Ertürk. To help Engin come to terms with his hybrid identity, Fa shares with him her life metaphor of a tree that connects Turkey and Germany by bending its branches over the 3,000 kilometers separating the two countries. Fa explains that without the tree's roots being firmly planted in the Anatolian earth it could not blossom, but without the nourishment it receives from German soil, it would dry up and wither away.16 Applying this metaphor to his own life eases Engin's identity conflict and enriches his sense of self because it allows him to feel both Turkish and German, rather than neither one.

Tekinay first created her tree metaphor in a poem she wrote in the 1980s called "Grenzgängerin oder der Schmerzbaum."17 Indeed, this work is but one of several she "shares" with Engin Ertürk. Another poem of hers from the 1980s bears the same title as Engin's first published poem, "Dazwischen," which also addresses the difficulties of living between two cultures.18 And the plot of Engin's second publication, a fairy tale for adolescents, resembles Tekinay's youth novel Engin im Englischen Garten.19 Both of these pieces of Jugendliteratur feature the same four characters-Engin, Emel, Martin and Sabine. And these characters reappear in Engin's autobiography, Nur der Hauch vom Paradies, which is embedded in Tekinay's autobiographical novel of the same name. This type of intertextuality indicates that Tekinay identifies closely with her protagonist and that many of his experiences resemble her own. Tekinay's blurring of the boundaries between autobiography and fiction and between what are often regarded as distinct national identities provide further proof of her desire to come to terms with her own hybridity and to help others do the same.

From her use of such "autobiographical intertextuality" it is clear that Alev Tekinay and her protagonist Engin Ertürk traverse similar stages in their development as writers. As Jennifer Burkart points out, these include "writing to be published, writing as an act of therapy, and writing to raise critical consciousness."20 When Engin first embarked on his writing career, he was concerned primarily with becoming known. Once this ambition was achieved, personal identity issues became paramount. For example, he explores in his autobiography the difficulties of living with a tyrannical father who resents Engin's integration into German society. This and other concerns fade into the background, however, when Engin learns of the circumstances surrounding the death of his friend Enis, whom police mistake for a thief and a foreigner. The outrage and sorrow he feels as a result of Enis's death propel Engin into his next stage, into writing in a way that raises his readers' social and political awareness. He recognizes that although he has lived a relatively privileged life in Germany, this is not the case for many other "foreign residents":

Deutschland für Ausländer — das hat verschiedene Gesichter. Da ist die harte Arbeitswelt, das Deutschland unserer Eltern voller Heimweh und Einsamkeit. Dann das andere Deutschland, das Deutschland der zweiten Generation, unser Deutschland, die Selbstverständlichkiet der Heimat. Aber es gibt auch das Deutschland der Ausländerfeindlichkeit, der Brandanschläge und der rassistischen Überfälle. Und es gibt das Deutschland der Gerichtssäle, der Einzelhaft und der Abschiebungen. Ein schlimmes Deutschland, Enis' Deutschland.21

Now aware that his responsibility as a writer is to expose the difficulties that minorities in Germany face, Engin decides to write a novel in which his friend Enis is the hero: "ein Held ohne Papiere, ohne Identität. Ein geborener Münchener meines Jahrgangs."22 His decision allows for a blossoming of his own development. He is no longer the self-obsessed youth longing for attention and acceptance but a writer committed to effecting positive social change. This transformation mirrors Tekinay's, whose growth as a writer is documented by the similarities in her and her protagonist's literary production.

The two works discussed in this essay give insight into the authors' lives and their roles in German society while demonstrating how varied autobiographical writing can be. Autobiographers may create a fictional framework within which they tell an authentic story, as is the case in Alev Tekinay's Nur der Hauch von Paradies, or they may depict their life circumstances as accurately as possible, as Ika Hügel-Marshall does in Daheim unterwegs. Ein deutsches Leben. It is difficult to distinguish "pure" autobiography from other autobiographical texts because, even in the case of straightforward autobiography, an author's composite of subjectively selected and arranged memories is likely to be as much fiction as fact. As Paul John Eakin explains, this is because "Fictions and the fiction-making process are a central constituent of the truth of any life as it is lived and of any art devoted to the presentation of that life."23

Many minority writers share with Tekinay and Hügel-Marshall not only the desire to impart the truth about their lives but also the desire to raise readers' awareness concerning the politics of exclusion still dominant in Germany today. Confronted with the myriad of social and political issues that challenge the development of a secure sense of self, minority writers have turned to various forms of autobiographical writing to assert their own personal and cultural identity and to defy traditional assumptions about what it means to be German. In so doing, they illuminate for themselves and others aspects of their lives that would otherwise go unnoticed, thereby accentuating Germany's heterogeneity and troubling the illusion of national unity.


1 Avrom Fleishman, Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing (Berkeley: U of California P, 1983) 39.

2 Timothy Dow Adams, Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990) 2.

3 May Ayim, "The Year 1990. Homeland and Unity from an Afro-German Perspective," Fringe Voices. An Anthology of Minority Writing in the Federal Republic of Germany, eds. Antje Harnisch, Anne Marie Stokes and Friedemann Weidauer (Oxford: Berg, 1998) 107.

4 Ika Hügel-Marshall, Daheim unterwegs. Ein deutsches Leben (Berlin: Orlanda Frauenverlag, 1998) 17.

5 Hügel-Marshall 12.

6 Hügel-Marshall 86.

7 Hügel-Marshall 83.

8 Hügel-Marshall 92.

9 Hügel-Marshall 140.

10 Phillippe Lejeune, "The Autobiographical Pact," On Autobiography, ed. Paul John Eakin, trans. Katherine Leary (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989) 4.

11 Paul John Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999) 2.

12 Paul John Eakin, Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992) 30.

13 Linda Haverty Rugg, Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997) 10.

14 Rugg 13.

15 Adams 8.

16 Alev Tekinay, Nur der Hauch vom Paradies (Frankfurt a.M.: Brandes & Apsel, 1993) 94.

17 Alev Tekinay, "Grenzgängerin oder der Schmerzbaum," Über Grenzen. Berichte, Erzählungen, Gedichte von Ausländern, ed. Karl Esselborn (München: dtv, 1987) 259.

18 Alev Tekinay, "Dazwischen," Zwischen zwei Giganten. Prosa, Lyrik und Grafiken aus dem Gastarbeiteralltag, ed. Franco Biondi (Bremen: Edition Con., 1983) 59.

19 Alev Tekinay, Engin im Englischen Garten (Ravensburg: Ravensburger Buchverlag, 1990).

20 Jennifer Burkart, May Ayim and Alev Tekinay: Writing to Raise Critical Consciousness, Electronic Thesis (Morgantown: West Virginia U, 1999) 29.

21 Tekinay, Nur der Hauch von Paradies 181-82.

22 Tekinay, Nur der Hauch von Paradies 184.

23 Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985) 5.