Wednesday 18 March 2015

Berlin by Yvonne Owuor

To venture into the interstices of implanted memory through the vehicle of literature and a festival. The site is the Berlin Literature Festival. Truth be told, I am not there for the festival, my heart pounds at the thought of encountering the corporeal notion of Berlin. Some words take on the texture of emotion. Berlin is one of them. The substance of history, the crossroads of human strangeness, mythic tangible and intangible war frontier. I had always meant to learn German one day. When I was a child, I discovered the word ‘Schadenfreude’. I thought that a language that can encapsulate this sensation was worth knowing. Has not happened yet. But it also seems everyone here speaks English.

Brandenburg Gate

There is the Reichstag. There is the Brandenburg Gate. There are the traces of the wall that fell twenty-five years ago. Here are the Berliners, a people set apart, even in Germany. Here is the bus showing up on time. Here are more Berliners. I like them, for no other reason than that they are Berliners, but maybe because they are now real faces to people my pre-imagined Berlin. The author of ‘A Woman in Berlin’ walked these streets. Here where birds now sing, are echoes of old screams, the traces of bad ghosts, the site of furious fires, here is where hope rose and was murdered and emerged again, here again are memory labyrinths, here are where thousands and thousands died.

Yvonne with her 'guardian angel' Barbara

The festival has assigned me a guardian angel. Her name is Barbara. A gentle, self-deprecating lover of literature, who cooks the food that the books she reads offer. She will share her Berlin with me. We will traverse the city on foot, by bus and the metro. We shall sit together in the blue cathedral, and stop and stare at the signals from history’s books. We will dash into gorgeous clothes shops and exclaim over silhouettes—in Berlin. She will have to drag me out of bookshops where I go insane. She will also arrange a surprise—a visit to another bookshop where she has commanded the gleeful bookshop owner to display my book, Dust.

Yvonne's debut novel

Ah, yes, the festival.
Refined, elegant, tastefully disarrayed, intense, the universe of books, writers, readers, words. Drinking in deeply, a sense of ‘home’, allowing that other being, writer, to be, to become, to engage, to listen, explore and speak. Turn left. In this sea of faces, a deep nod and special grin for the ones you remember by reputation and name. My first international outing with the book Dust unfolds here. The festival has appointed an actor to read a German translation. I read the English. I listen to the German telling and discern the feeling from the voice of the actor. I wish I could touch the book’s words in German. In the audience are friends made in Kenya. Anna, and beautiful Paul, fellow Middle-Earther, who flew in from Moscow. There are those who will become new friends, Africans living in Berlin who come to show their support. It is a gentle, loving, curious audience, the delightful kind who engage with story and story worlds. The facilitator with a synaesthesia secret, Susanne, is incisive, brilliant, and her questions prod, dig, and cause an honest sputtering. She has read the book. Many times my answer is, “Amazing, I hadn't thought of it that way.” I am not sure it helps her cause. I find that some stories are no respecter of their author medium. They reveal their meaning to others and then lurk in shadows to ambush their writer.
It is a most delicious evening. After the event, we gather around a table basking in the afterglow (I fall into an ultra-campy red chaise longue— why not?) and share good red wine in the writers’ tent. We talk about the world and Kenya and laugh about nothing and everything under a balmy evening in Berlin. We laugh until we must leave. It is a little past midnight. A day later, destiny and the organisers will fling Tope Folarin, Ismael Beah and I together. We have been invited to speak about those themes that writers connected to Africa are often expected to address with competence—Death and Disaster and Disease; War and Woe. Inner struggle.

Relaxing on the chaise longue after a busy day at the Festival

I would rather perch on a crag and howl at the metaphorical moon but my parents, aka The Royal Owuors, raised my siblings and me with a strict code of manners. We know how to be exemplary guests: Do not embarrass your host. Be polite. Allow them their foibles. Do not judge. Be grateful for small gestures. Above all, do not embarrass your host. But see, I am neither a virologist nor a security specialist. I would prefer to explore humanity’s sacrificial predilections and its contemporary manifestation, and the language of value used to obscure this. I wish to debate the application of semi-colons. I want to ask Berliners what they think about JRR Tolkien, whose works obsess over love more than I ought to.
A television crew gallops in our direction. Word is out that there are three African writers in town. It is urgent that they interview us about . . . Ebola. We agree to answer their questions, Tope, Ismael and I. The Ebola strain we talk about is the Spooky Africa European Hysteria one. I do not think they will air our views.
It sets the stage.
I suspect we may have been a little too hard on our audience this was the ‘Africa Fundamentalism and Ebola’ session. Ah well. However, in the end, I think we all understood one another. A tow-haired audience member finally asked, suddenly struck by exasperated realisation, “Why are we asking you writers to talk about Ebola? You aren't medical specialists.”
Sigh. Exactly.
Later, struck by the absurdity of demands inflicted upon most writers of African linkage when abroad, Tope, Ismael and I exchange ‘war’ stories. We laugh and laugh. Not sure if it is relief or resignation.
This is my last night.

In some places, my soul throws a moaning, “Why must we go” tantrum when it is time to depart. It results in a horrible, lingering ache in the heart--Brisbane, Gaborone, Maputo, Moscow, Dublin, Salvador de Bahia, New York, Santa Fe, Rome and UngujaI almost scoff (it was inevitable) when Berlin enters the list. I have already told Berlin’s September sunset that I shall return.       

Yvonne Owuor was the 2003 winner of the Caine Prize for her story "Weight of Whispers" published by Kwani? Her highly acclaimed debut novel "Dust," published last year is one of eight books shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize; the winner will be announced on 23rd March 2015.

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