“Ich bin ein Mensch, der in der Sprache lebt.”
Yoko Tawada is one of the most well-known names in German intercultural literature. Born in Japan in 1960, she first came to Germany at the age of 22 to study German literature in Hamburg after studying Russian literature in Tokyo for her undergraduate degree. She went on to study in Zurich where she completed her doctorate, also in German literature, and has published extensively in both German and Japanese since the late 1980s.
Her relationship with language is one of the central motifs in her works: she, like Abbas Khider, has said that there are just some things she can only communicate in Germany. In an interview from 2011 she shared that ” [Ich bin] wahrscheinlich ein Mensch, der in der Sprache lebt. Wenn ich in eine Sprache lebe, ist mir diese Sprache nicht egal. Ich muss unbedingt damit was tun.” She writes humorously about the failures of translation from Japanese to German, ‘the productivity of misunderstandings,’ and examines both her native tongue and her adopted German closely in both her prosa and poetry. Many of her works are playful and absurd, and are inspired by aspects of German culture which may initially seem silly, such as her latest novel about Knut the polar bear, Etüden im Schnee, the fictional memoir of three generations of polar bears in the Berlin zoo. Yet the novel is really about a family of immigrants, who just also happen to be circus performers in the DDR.
Not all of her works, however, are so lighthearted. Her 2004 novel Das nackte Auge follows the seemingly paralyzed unnamed protagonist as she travels from her home in Vietnam to the DDR to give a talk about the perils of American imperialism at a high school. On her first night she is kidnapped the West German university student Jörg, who incapacitates her with too much vodka and takes her to his apartment in Bochum. The narrator speaks only Russian, and reflects on one rule of Russian grammar that she especially hates: “den Verneinungsgenitiv. Wer abwesend war, durfte nicht mehr im Nominativ stehen, als wäre er kein Subjekt mehr.” This bit of grammatical foreshadowing, characteristic of Tawada’s writings, comes to pass for the unnamed narrator: in Bochum no one knows of her, and she leads a desolate life, trapped in Jörg’s room and his world, even when she is allowed to explore the world freely. She still speaks no German, and in fact refuses to do so, saying “Ich versuchte, diese Sprache nicht zu lernen. Denn ich hatte Angst, durch sie für immer an den Ort gefesselt zu werden.” And so even when she does escape, hoping to head back to the east to hopefully be able to go home, she gets on a train heading West to Paris instead, where she again does not speak the language.
In France she stays with a sex worker named Marie, who she meets when she accidentally hires her for the evening. She begins to learn French during the day and goes daily to the movies: she develops an obsession with a certain actress, and sees all of her movies as many times as possible, despite still not understanding the language. She eventually moves in with a fellow emigrant from Vietnam, Ai Van, who is married to an affluent French doctor, but even once she finds someone with whom she shares a language, she is still somehow absent: she is bodily present but somehow always somewhere else, no more a subject with free will but lost and without agency. She is an illegal unwilling immigrant, and she finds refuge in other marginalized characters, like Maria and Ai Van, who may not always be able to understand her, but recognize within her the familiarity of the margins.
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