The German Book Prize shortlisted author speaks to Sheridan Marshall about his novel Vatermal, writing for the stage and working as a dramaturge, and the political aspects of his writing.
Sheridan Marshall: Your literary background is in the theatre. Could you tell us about your experiences of writing for the stage, as well as how these shaped your writing of Vatermal?
Necati Öziri: The first play I wrote was written as part of a literature workshop. It was started by a good friend of mine, Sasha Marianna Salzmann, and it was called, ‘Flucht, die mir bedingt’(‘Escape that determines me’). We met once a month for a year, and I thought I was going to be learning how to write, but what we actually did was talk about ourselves, laughing and crying. We were reading and writing too, of course, but it was not the workshop in literary craftsmanship that I thought it was going to be. My first theatre play, Get Deutsch or Die Tryin’, was a product of this workshop.
I learnt a lot about theatre from my work as a dramaturge. I worked as a dramaturge for five years at the Gorki, and for another five years at the Berliner Festspiel. My background is in the spoken word – this direct relationship to the audience: two people in one room in a social situation, breathing the same air, and also addressing somebody directly. You can feel this in Vatermal. A lot of people told me that I didn’t need the letter in the novel, that I could just tell Arda’s story, but for me it was very important to address somebody. In theatre you need to know who is speaking to whom, and in which concrete situation.
For a long time, as well as writing new plays, I wanted to deal with the classical canon. I wanted to correct the canon, taking classical canonical texts – Wagner, Heinrich von Kleist – and then rewriting them in such a way that the story then fits our perspective on history, as well as our present perspective. I try to spot all the racism and sexism, and then I try to correct it – and, of course, that’s a very didactic gesture. The interesting thing is that it starts like a mathematical exercise, but then you end up completely recreating the text, and the characters start to go their own ways.
The way you speak about your writing for the theatre, particularly in terms of the relationships between the speaker and their addressee(s), resonates hugely for Vatermal. Can you describe how you perform that balancing act in Vatermal, whereby you are telling Arda’s story as well as the stories of the other members of his family – his sister Aylin, and his mother Ümran – at the same time?
NÖ: Arda’s story was already there in Get Deutsch or Die Tryin’. His story is quite dominant in the play, whereas Ümran and Aylin, the mother and the sister, were more peripheral figures. That is something that I didn’t like so much, and one of the reasons why I decided to write a novel was to tell their stories – to do justice to them by telling their stories as well. I wanted to make them into three-dimensional characters.
For me, the decision about who gets my empathy is a political one. Screentime turns empathy into a political thing. A character can be the biggest asshole, but if that character gets enough screentime you probably will feel empathy with them at some point – if you really understand the character’s motivations. It is very important to me in terms of the mother, for example, who maybe at first sight is just a bad, alcoholic mother, that we slowly understand that she has a story too. She had a childhood too, with her own struggles, which were very different from Aylin’s and Arda’s. Giving the mother and sister the same screentime was extremely important to me, although Arda’s perspective still provides the frame, and everything we know, we know through Arda listening to his sister. So, there might be things we still don’t know because his sister doesn’t want to say them to him.
I am interested in the political aspect of your writing, and the fact that it feels like you are part of a wider political moment in contemporary German literature, where immigrant voices are starting really to be heard for the first time. It feels as though for a long time there were no opportunities for people to access immigrant perspectives in German-language literature, whereas now, in the twenty-first century, there is a blossoming of immigrant voices in German. I am thinking of Dinçer Güyçeter’s Unser Deutschlandmärchen winning the Leipzig Book Fair Prize this year. It feels like there is now an appetite to hear people’s stories and to hear about the terrible experiences of marginalisation that have been going on for decades. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think this is happening now?
I would say that I am part of a network – with Sasha Salzmann, Deniz Utlu, Sharon Dodua Otoo, and many others. I try to tell the story of people who on their way – that is how I describe it – but the political thing is to find the universal humanity in these stories.Necati Öziri
NÖ: Well, there are writers like Emine Sevgi Özdamar who were doing this kind of work in the twentieth century, but it’s true that they didn’t get the attention that writers like me or my colleagues get right now. The changes in German literature now reflect changes in German society. It’s quite a new thing that Germany has accepted itself as an Einwanderungsland – an immigration society. There are still people who do not want to accept this.
I would say that I am part of a network – with Sasha Salzmann, Deniz Utlu, Sharon Dodua Otoo, and many others. I try to tell the story of people who on their way – that is how I describe it – but the political thing is to find the universal humanity in these stories. Racism always works with paradoxes: the so-called ‘other’ is inferior but dangerous, the ‘other’ is lazy but takes all our jobs, and so on. So, the strategies for responding to racism are also paradoxical and contradictory. I want to tell the story of migrants, but I don’t want to tell their story as migrants, I want to find the universal human moments in these stories, which could be a father-son relationship, or a mother-daughter relationship. That is my strategy – to generate the greatest possible empathy for characters in our society who are not usually afforded this empathy. I don’t want to tell their stories as heroes or losers, but as three-dimensional characters, giving them a lot of screentime and attention, showing their mistakes and their agency.
I wanted to ask you about Arda’s dual experience of rejection: his abandonment by his father occurs alongside his rejection by German society and the continual marginalisation that he and his family experience. These two forms of rejection interact with and mirror each other throughout the novel. Is this part of the narrative strategy that you have just described?
The absence of the father unfortunately also condemns Arda to a life of poverty. If you look at the official poverty report for German society you can see that 50% of the households who live in poverty are single-parent households – mostly single mothers. The second biggest category of households living in poverty are people with a migration background. In Arda’s case the two things come together.Necati Öziri
NÖ: It is true that there is a correspondence between German society and the father in Vatermal. Arda grows up in a society that tells him: ‘You are a nobody, we don’t need you, we would like to get rid of you.’ This corresponds with him having a father who is absolutely not interested in him. The absence of the father unfortunately also condemns Arda to a life of poverty. If you look at the official poverty report for German society you can see that 50% of the households who live in poverty are single-parent households – mostly single mothers. The second biggest category of households living in poverty are people with a migration background. In Arda’s case the two things come together. I absolutely agree that there is a correspondence between his father ignoring him, and society telling him that he a nobody. When Arda says in the novel that it is so hard for him to say ‘I’, this is not just a poetic device, it is his lived experience.
What did it mean to you when Vatermal was shortlisted for the 2023 German Book Prize?
NÖ: It was good because it created a lot of attention for the book. I don’t think it makes my book better, but of course being shortlisted draws attention to the book, which means that in turn more people will read it, and that is important. I want as many people as possible to read Arda’s story, and to hear Ümran’s and Aylin’s voices.
I was struck when I came to two of your readings in Frankfurt this year by how well-attended they were and by the long queues of people waiting to buy the book afterwards.
NÖ: The readings are important not just because people buy the book, but for the encounter that happens there. My theatre background makes me aware of the political dimension of having a minority on-stage talking to a majority sitting in front of the stage. What I really like about the book is that I haven’t just written it at my desk, and then people are reading it at home, but that there are these continual encounters at readings. These happen in different ways – during the reading, when people tell me afterwards what they thought of the book, and also the people that write to me via Instagram explaining that they have a similar story, or that they were moved or touched by the book in some way. The capacity of literature – and of art in general – to generate these kind of encounters is something that is very important to me. That is also why I do so many readings. It is important to me not to wear a mask, not to have a stage ego, but to be approachable and really in the moment. Right now, I am doing so many readings it feels like I am a professional reader rather than a writer.
Is your book being translated into any other languages, that you know of?
NÖ: I think there is a Turkish translation in the pipeline. I think it must be a difficult book to translate in terms of its sound and rhythm – but I don’t know, you tell me!
In a good way, yes! I think the key to translating your book well is in capturing the quality of the address that you talked about earlier – the relationships that are held in your book by the speaker and the person or people that they are addressing.
Which contemporary German-language authors do you find exciting and inspiring at the moment?
NÖ: Sasha Salzmann, Deniz Utlu; I also love the way Sharon Dodua Otoo writes, and Max Czollek’s poems and essays. Fatma Aydemir’s writing is very important to me, and especially when I was writing Vatermal. There are also a lot of non-German writers who I find inspiring. I am currently reading a book that has been on my list for a very long time, Emile Ajar’s Du hast das Leben noch vor dir, (original title: La vie devant soi).
The network I have with my friends ensures that we are continually inspiring each other and reading each other’s texts. This constant exchange helps to counteract the inherent loneliness of writing.
Read a sample of Vatermal in English by Sheridan Marshall
Read our recommendation of Vatermal
Author photo © Şebnur Tansu Kayaalp
Necati Öziri studied Philosophy and German in Bochum, Istanbul, and Berlin. He writes plays for the Maxim Gorki Theater, the National Theater Mannheim, and the Schauspielhaus Zurich, among others. As a curator, he directed the Maxim Gorki Theater’s Studio Я and the International Forum of the Berliner Festspiele. His prose writings have won two prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize reading competition awards.