Host Christopher Merrill talks with German writer Esther Dischereit about her groundbreaking work Joëmis Tisch – Eine jüdische Geschichte [Joëmi's Table – A Jewish Story], which is a collection of thoughts, questions, and problems regarding life as a Jewish person in postwar Germany. They also discuss her collaborative creative works, and her efforts toward discovering what is revealed when examining the relationship between truth and doubt.
Esther Dischereit Interview Transcript
I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth-year anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Esther Dischereit.
Esther DISCHEREIT (poet, novelist, essayist, stage and radio dramatist; Germany) has given lectures and readings around the world. Most recently she published [Flowers for Othello. On the Crimes of Jena] and edited [Havel, Dogs, Cats, Tulips – Garz Talking]. Her work spans multiple genres and often reflects the post-Holocaust landscape in Germany. In 2009, Dischereit received the Erich Fried Prize. In 2017 she was a visiting professor at the University of Virginia; and now she teaches at the University for Applied Arts in Vienna.
We are recording this from the University of Iowa on Thursday, October 26th, 2017, when we had the chance to sit down with Esther, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.
MERRILL: You’ve been described by your publisher as “possibly the preeminent German-Jewish voice of the post-Shoah generation.” They said, “Dischereit’s work represented a new departure in contemporary writing, a syntax of contemporary German-Jewish intimacy with a fractured consciousness and deeply rutted cultural landscape of post-Holocaust Germany.” Which of your works do you think most represented this identification and is that an identification you’re comfortable with or would you want to expand on that?
DISCHEREIT: Identification, yeah, it certainly is a description and I think the book, Joëmis Tisch – Eine jüdische Geschichte [Joëmi's Table – A Jewish Story], which is translated completely into English by Leslie Morris and Karen Remmler represents this very clearly. But the later works like Exercises in Being Jewish, a collection of essays, or the volume of poetry When My Golem Opened the Door, all these works surely follow my constantly dealing with this subject. And lately the sound installation, Before the High Holidays the House was full of Whisperings and Rustlings, yeah, with this work I even tried to leave the book, and in a way, the book is in a way narrow, so I expanded and in a lot of ways created a sound installation for a square in Eichengrün-Platz. Yeah, I deal a lot with this question but not only it, but to deal with other questions like racism. Just recently there was a series of killings against immigrant people in Germany, mostly Turkish people. This all has to do in one or the other way with this being connected and staying connected to questions which in one or the other way deal with the post-Holocaust era in Germany. It’s not something where you could say, “No, it’s over.”
MERRILL: Do you see your work as in any way in dialogue with a Paul Celan’s project or as a continuation of or against? In the fracturing of language, for example.
DISCHEREIT: It’s an interesting question because once I wrote a poem by heart it’s somewhat like “instead of milk, we drink fear” and then it goes on and refers to Dachau. And when I had written this poem, I hadn’t read any line written by Paul Celan, or of other poems where there is a lot of dust and feathers. And later I realized that Paul Celan already had written the black milk and the milk turned black [a paraphrase from Celan’s poem “Death Fugue”] and that Nelly Sachs was deep into dust and feathers. And when I found out about that, yeah I couldn’t say that I had followed them. Of course, there was a huge break in between but I felt connected and it felt good that it was not the only one—
MERRILL: A kind of recognition.
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, being alone this kind of images and feelings.
MERRILL: So, in another article [Self-Interview by Esther Dischereit—Based on a Conversation with Sonja Fritzche and Jennifer Good], you wrote, “My thinking is an ongoing quarrel, an almost destructive pleasure in getting to truths and then showing their limitations… My writing approaches ‘truth’ only in so far as it distances itself from it at the same time.” And I wonder what sort of results these tensions create in your literary works and the destructive pleasure in getting to the truth.
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, I’m not interested in establishing one truth or finding one way of truth. I’m much more interested in asking, “What else do I now know? What else we all might know now and how can we look for it? How can we search long and maybe come closer to something we at the moment consider to be near the truth, even if we might be wrong in the moment and the next times will maybe show us we were wrong, and we have to come up with something else?’ But it’s constantly doing research to investigate the establishing of doubts.
MERRILL: That’s a lovely line, “the establishing of doubts.” That could define a poetics, couldn’t it?
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, I think this is the only interesting—now, while talking and writing, especially writing this is for me intellectual-wise—really a way to come close to a truth and in the same time, establishing the next doubt.
MERRILL: And how does that work when, for example, you collaborate with a choreographer? Are you creating new kinds of doubts, or new limitations on the truth?
DISCHEREIT: No, not at all. It’s the opposite. The collaborations almost lead to aspects of the works I hadn’t seen myself before.
MERRILL: So, they reveal.
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, in a way they were expanding the work or contributing other pieces and interpreting it differently as I myself had done. So, it’s constantly surprising me and also the way, for example, a dancer interprets work, or a filmmaker, is much more concrete as I mostly want to be. But they need to have it, so it forces me to go on and think it over and ask, “Are they really right? Am I right? And why do they need it so concrete?” I don’t need it so concrete. I like to be sometimes unclear and in the dark, but they don’t. So, this is also this constantly dealing and somehow how could I manage with the subject I had chosen myself, yeah.
MERRILL: And do you think that shapes future work then, the revelation that a dancer might provide you, would that shape future work?
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, yeah. I think over the years I’m not that frightened anymore to be somewhat more concrete, somewhat more realistic, even. Yeah, they showed me a lot and the musicians, too.
MERRILL: In the Jewish Women’s Archive, your entry suggests that you were able to “free yourself from ideological constraints after writing nothing but poetry for one year.” I wonder what kind of ideological constraints you were struggling with and did the act of writing only poetry for a year achieve that liberation?
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, it did, it really did. I was on my way with the book which later became Joëmis Tisch – Eine jüdische Geschichte [Joëmi's Table – A Jewish Story], but I had written thirty pages very conventionally, and I had no idea how to proceed. I knew that the publishing house was waiting. They supported the piece, but I had no idea how to proceed. It didn’t come up, I didn’t have to say anything more. And then I stopped and just started to write poetry for this year and the poetry then led to another totally different style, how to deal with the subject. I really destroyed the pages before completely and dared to establish fragments, to establish unknown ways to handle grammar and whatever you can think of but until this point, I was totally closed, I couldn’t do it, yeah?
MERRILL: Your first book was a children’s book, but you don’t seem to have returned to the genre. Do you think you will?
DISCHEREIT: No. I also wrote a bunch of poems dedicated to children, but I didn’t follow up, no. It was, I mean, when the first children’s book was published, I already had written, or was on my way to Joëmis Tisch – Eine jüdische Geschichte [Joëmi's Table – A Jewish Story], but I really didn’t dare to come out with that. So I, if there would have been one “no” to Joëmis Tisch – Eine jüdische Geschichte [Joëmi's Table – A Jewish Story], I would have stopped writing at all, so the first thing was something that wouldn’t hurt me that much. So, I came up with this children’s book and also at the same time, I had a lot to deal with the child where I’m not the mother, but I was in a, how do you say, the father and I we were a couple so there was a lot I couldn’t really handle, and then I wrote.
MERRILL: When you say that if there had a been a “no” that Joëmis Tisch – Eine jüdische Geschichte [Joëmi's Table – A Jewish Story], wouldn’t have come about, a “no” from the editor or—
DISCHEREIT: Yeah. If there would have been a “no” I really think I would have never ever tried to have a pencil in my hand.
MERRILL: Can you talk a little bit about the experience of editing Havel, Dogs, Cats and Tulips _ Garz Talking, which portrays a rural community? Who wrote the pieces and how did that shape the community?
DISCHEREIT: We came up with—we, is eight young authors from the University of Fine Arts, Department for Language Arts and me—the idea to go in this little village. It came from the idea of concept art, someone was establishing a huge concept for the whole area, how to develop art in this more or less poor area. And I was asked if I could contribute something and I said, “Oh yeah, I could portray a village if you can be a photographer like in the classroom, yeah, after the year is over, everyone would maybe come out and maybe some people are missing but the most were there, and this photo, often people do not like it, but they all want to have it. And so, I thought, okay, maybe I can do this with writing, through writing. And also, I had another experience before, this was much more according to a project about the Shoah in Vienna, where I had the experience that the young authors I was working with avoided very much to talk to people, they really avoided it. They talked about everything, but not really with people who were living and were witnesses and so. And I thought a lot about. I thought okay, maybe we need more to exercise about it and maybe we need more preparation for it and now I have another chance to try this. Then the mayor of this little village, she agreed to this project, not knowing us at all, but of course she knew some of the organizers of this whole art project, they were somehow open, but at the time they didn't know what was going to happen, and I must admit, I didn’t know it either. I didn’t know it either. We went there then and stayed there for eight days and talked to sixty people and this is what was important for me, it should be really a representative part of the village so at the end you could say, yeah, this is the village. Yeah, for the authors, it was free whether they did a documentary piece or a play or a poem or a fiction story, according somehow to the people.
MERRILL: Coming out of those conversations with the people.
DISCHEREIT: Coming out of the conversation and in the end, we put together the whole book like a dictionary, so it starts with A like Analisa and then it’s R like Richard and like, yeah. It’s sorted out after the first names of the people and they were all asked whether they agree, whether they gave their full name or at least the first name, most of them gave their first name but some fully name, really fully. Yeah, this was really exciting.
MERRILL: That actually rings a bell with a wonderful book here called The Oxford Project where a photographer went into a little town of Oxford, Iowa and photographed a number of people I think twenty five years ago and then again twenty five years later and brought journalists with him who recorded their stories in six hundred words or less and really, it was the revelation of that town.
DISCHEREIT: And this is interesting, the same idea came up when we premiered the book in the village. The villagers themselves came up with this idea, they said, “Can you come back in ten years?” This was really very, very great.
MERRILL: And this would be great!
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, and it was wonderful experience and we were able to present the book at the Leipzig Book Fair several times, it got a lot of attention also by scholars by the way, “How could you do that, just go there? You have no education in ethnology or something like that?” and I said, “Yeah, but maybe we can go as a neighbor or just as a neighbor.”
MERRILL: Oh, what a lovely way to think of it.
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, or in the beginning some would say, “Yeah, but they were not celebrities,” and they say, “What? Is that any interesting?” And the villagers themselves, the same kind of, “Is it worth to tell?” and I said, “Yes, it’s worth to tell, twenty years someone who was milking cows, or ten years was busy with that and then your factory was laid off, you were laid off. What happened then? It’s the former GDR so the conditions according to property changed. What about you during these times and what do you think about the system before and what do you think now?”
MERRILL: Well, before we wrap up our conversation, could you tell us what you’re working on now?
DISCHEREIT: Yeah, in a moment I’m working on a manuscript. It’s titled, A Pile of One Dollar Notes, so according to the title you can already figure out that it’s somehow a story which reaches from Europe right into the US and back and forth and whatever in the world and somehow deals with again, with Jewish circumstances but not only Jewish because Jewishness in the post-Holocaust era means to be dispersed all over in the world, so you have in the same family, different passport holders, different religions, different languages, so how do you deal with that? What does this mean if, all of a sudden, a famous Afro-American football star is in your family, like in mine? So, this is the next project.
MERRILL: And what are you reading?
DISCHEREIT: I’m reading Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook and I’m totally excited about this book. I was so enthusiastic that I even immediately wrote an email to the author and to the publishing house because I think it’s really, really great that this is done. Because when I did research about Flowers for Othello which deals with Nationalist Socialist underground crime against Turkish people, I realized that the Antifa was the strongest part to doing research, investigate coming out of truth and they really forced the authorities a lot to come up with riots which were considered not to be there and so on. To me it really was the right book now that I saw this Mark Bray and on the other hand, yeah, I think it’s coming up, it’s not really out, it’s Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.
MERRILL: Esther Dischereit, thank you so much for making time for us.
DISCHEREIT: Thank you.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to next podcast available August 15, 2018 where I talk with Somali-Italian Ubah Cristina Ali Farah on ApplePodcasts and SoundClound. Thank you for listening.