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From Turkish boy to German writer

Gingerbread hearts, 4711, the lovely Petra and appalling paintings. Feridun Zaimoglu on turning a German diet into a literary career.

Feridun Zaimoglu. Photo: Melanie GrandeFeridun Zaimoglu. Photo: Melanie Grande
Exactly forty years ago, my father got a job as a leather tanner in a factory in Ludwigshafen. Five months later – by which time he was working in Berlin – he brought his family over to Germany: his wife, six-month-old son and mother-in-law. While waiting for them on platform 10 at Munich's Hauptbahnhof, he suddenly realised that in all the excitement, he'd forgotten to buy greeting gifts. So he stormed the souvenir shop and made some purchases. When at last the train from Istanbul pulled into the station and his family, weighed down with onion sacks tumbled out, he leapt upon them, adorning wife, son and mother-in-law with felt hats each with a red feather in it, and hung gingerbread hearts round their necks. Then he tore me from the arms of my mother and threw me into the air - causing the felt hat to fly off and land on the rails. It was all we do to stop my father from jumping down to retrieve it. My grandmother lost her hat in the cafuffle and my mother threw hers out of the window on the train journey to Berlin. Her attempt to bite into the gingerbread heart broke a pivot tooth sent her into such a state that she threw an onion sack out of the window too.

My father was a man who bored easily. He moved flat time and time again until he couldn't stand the city and then he moved city. Life really started for me when we were in Munich. By then I was a featherweight hooligan with the wind up me. I was highly emotional and completely clueless. So I soon found my place in society. A motley German-Balkan crew took me in and we called ourselves the dirty five. We would have given our lives for football but we were always the sorry leftovers that no one wanted in their team. So we hit upon the martial arts: we devoured Bruce Lee films and every time Bruce Lee flew through the air and knocked down the bad guys with his flick leg, up we did too. We practised our kick box moves on chewing gum machines, took out our plastic combs from our back pockets and carved out rocker-style middle-partings in our hair. And then we directed our eyes towards the girls. Who gave us the bird. But we knew this was just their way of coolly showing respect. Until it eventually dawned that these girls were flirting with boys another part of town.

I interrogated my sister. She was 28 months younger than me but she knew the ways of the world. "You and your friends have all got a screw loose," was what she told me. I begged her to to elucidate. She was plucking her eyebrows at the time and with every tiny hair she plucked out, I twitched. "You'll never be stuck for words," she said "because you're naturally dumb and you have nothing to say. It's all a question of standards."

I was not exactly thrilled with her assessment and to punish her I secretly stole her tweezers and gave them to a girl in my class. The girl in question was Petra and she was stunningly beautiful which meant she could dictate which of her classmates were allowed to do their homework at her house. Petra was a middle-class girl and her father was an arty-farty two-metre man with metal-rimmed glasses. She saw me a dreamer from the underclass and she wanted to know what my life looked like. And since I also had a heap of questions about culture and standards, we soon reached an agreement. She was going to give me a foot-up to a higher level and in return I would tell her stories about the immigrant barbarians. "What," she asked me, "makes you others like you what you are?" I didn't have to think about this one for too long. "Martial arts and lifeblood," I said. "Pathos and discipline, kitsch and romanticism, and of course German rules." "We're not in the army," she replied, "you have to question your existence or you'll never go up in the world." What was that supposed to mean?

What was wrong with me? I found "Derrick" dull and "Tatort" (both TV detective series) very Deutsch and very engrossing. My father used to rent sentimental Turkish videos and we'd all sit down to watch them on Saturday evenings: my father, my mother, my sister and I, all fighting back the tears, our noses wet with emotion. When I told Petra about these films she looked at me as if I had a dead fish hanging out of my mouth. "That's trash" she proclaimed, "and trash is the gravedigger of culture!" True enough, these films were made in a week, and they were nothing more than stress-relieving fairy tales for grown-ups – but wasn't that the point of American films too?

Petra was not impressed by my line of argument and marched me off to see some French art-house films. I was gobsmacked. A man and woman are about to embark on the love of their life, but after only a couple of scenes of kissing and nudity they shake hands like business acquaintances and go their separate ways. "What was all that about?" I asked Petra, and she informed me that individuality has its price. But I didn't like stories about beautiful, cold people. Naturally Petra had her own theory about this too. She accused me of human failings – in her opinion, I should abandon myself, let go. I could only shake my head. According to German rules one should maintain a healthy distance and I told her that intoxication and inhibition-shedding was not the way forward. Petra told me that my thinking was über-Deutsch and I should heed the pulsing of the blood in my veins instead. And with that she terminated her training programme and I was out.

My parents also made a huge effort to fit in. They never tired of inviting German guests. No sooner had the Germans sat down in our vast armchairs, when in stormed my mother with a plastic bottle of 4711. My father showed them how to press their hands together and the Germans thought they were being asked to say grace. It happened more than once that they launched into the Lord's Prayer. That was the cue for my mother to serve her home-made cakes and cherry-juice spritzer. The guests stared at the blood red juice residue at the bottom of the glasses and swallowed drily. At which point my father would suddenly remember that as the host and master of the house he was duty bound to entertain his guests. He asked them to wait a moment while he went down to his hobby room in the cellar and emerged with a huge bag of hand-sawn chipboard animals which he arranged on the three-finger-thick glass tabletop. The stars of his collection were ten almost identical geese which he shuffled back and forth making low honking noises. The German guests always politely turned down the offer of watching a Turkish film, made my father copious compliments on his beautifully hand-crafted geese and exited the den of the barbarians as rapidly as possible.

I fulfilled my parents' dream and applied to study medicine. I was accepted at Kiel University in the winter semester of 1984. I soon realised that I was not of medical mettle and dropped out of university and started experimental painting at the art school. I was fired with passion and painted appalling paintings from morning to night. To my amazement I found a number of buyers. It was the wild Eighties, cultivated bad taste was the name of the game and I was just a beneficiary of this new German wave.

I had a creeping suspicion that this was was not all there was. Something was tearing at my heart but I didn't know its name. So I started to read, magazines and newspapers at first, then pulp fiction, and later, with a headache or two, new publications, in other words high literature. If a book was not to my liking I stopped mid-sentence, put it to one side and opened another. There was no method, I read everything I could get my hands on cheaply. Money was short – I worked as a butcher at Nordfleisch, I delivered bread rolls at the crack of dawn, I washed pots and pans in an upmarket hotel and I worked as a surveyor. Real life was supposed to make you tough, but it only wore me out. I didn't want this bone-breaking reality and I escaped into books every free minute I had. Nine years passed by like this and it felt as if I was living in a dream.

Then for no particular reason, I got hold of a second-hand typewriter and started writing stories that other people had told me. I wrote them in my language and I followed my inner voice. Thirty manuscripts later I asked myself why I was doing all this. So I put all the pages in a big envelope and sent it to a publishers in Hamburg. Two weeks later I got a letter from the editor thanking me for the MS and actually asking if there was any more. Goddamn, I thought and threw myself at the typewriter. I torn out a page full of writing and put in a fresh sheet of paper. I wrote about how I used to read and paint and by the end of the week I had another thirty pages to send off to the editor. Then he asked me to come for an interview and the thought alone sent my heart pounding. I turned up to the appointment a nervous wreck and after four hours of cross-questioning he revealed to me that he wanted to publish my book. Is this a success story? To some extent it is, but I'll never forget the trail of disaster behind me. I started off as a Turkish boy and now I'm a German author. I owe it to my parents and Germany.

I'm a very lucky man.


Feridun Zaimoglu was born in 1964 in Bolu in Turkey and grew up in Germany. He has published numerous books, writes regular newspaper columns a number of film scripts. Zaimoglu lives in Kiel and his most recent book is a collection of short stories "Zwölf Gramm Glück" (twelve grammes of luck).

The article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on November 26, 2005.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european