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Books

Divisive columnist Ronja von Rönne makes her literary debut

Ronja von Rönne caused a controversy last year with a rant against feminism. In an interview with the 24-year-old novelist DW discusses her novel, which traces four people struggling in silence with a lack of direction.

"The last four months were a nightmare," says Ronja von Rönne, drumming her fingers on the cover of her debut novel.

Though she says she prefers binge-watching Netflix over writing, somewhere in the midst of serious self doubt she managed to write "Wir kommen" ("We're coming"), a book that rejects extreme situations. In it, the protagonist Nora battles panic attacks with the help of a therapist who has recommended she just "write down everything."

Nora is in an open relationship with Karl, Leonie and Jonas, and the four characters clearly prefer the idea of each other - they are in love, "as if you could really fall asleep entangled" - yet no one has an orgasm despite the allusion in the book's title.

"Wir kommen" either explains everything or nothing at all. While navigating anxiety attacks, Leonie's silent daughter, unwritten guides to happiness and broken cell phones, the performance of polyamory feels just that - a performance - and there's nothing "noir" or pretty about it.

Von Rönne calls it a non-love story in the same way that "sometimes relationships end before anyone breaks up," she says. "At the end it's still romantic. Between the lines, it reads that whatever shape you try and press love in, it still always wants to leave. That impossibility of love is pretty freeing."

On controversy and self-censorship

Sitting in a small cafe in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood with a glass of wine, von Rönne admits she doesn't quite know what to expect from critics when "Wir kommen" is released in two days.

She is no stranger to criticism. In 2015, she was at the center of controversy in Germany after writing an angry piece on how feminism has become obsolete.

"Online feminism is the slightly retarded daughter of traditional feminism. It suffers heavily from its superior mother and fights a disturbing and irrelevant battle for more clicks," she wrote.

Von Rönne says she was completely taken aback by the stir these lines caused and still doesn't really know what the point of the new wave of feminism is. Next time she's angry about something, however, she vows to "eat a pear instead of writing a rant."

That's the kind of dry humor she's so good at, and it's the same humor that makes her writing so refreshing. But the personal attacks, the insults, the angry comments and messages she faced after her rant have left a mark, without a doubt. For the sake of inner peace, von Rönne now writes about lighter topics like Ikea (annoying) and youth publications (very annoying). Is that self-censorship?

Maybe. But von Rönne finds retracting her words to be "legitimate because enough people out there have an opinion." The side effect, though, is that in the midst of all that information, the opinions and headlines of the refugee crisis, a sense of powerlessness is creeping in.

"I think language is having a hard time at the moment because expressing something is difficult if you don't want to come across as either naive or racist," she says.

She talks about a personal conviction that the good will win, and that right-wing extremists who burn down refugee shelters or people who vote for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won't ever be the majority.

"And that's why I can do without writing another rant," she grins.

Von Rönne herself seems extremely grounded, which puts her way ahead of her protagonists. "I had a rough time at 18 with drug-induced panic attacks, but anything you've overcome will ultimately help you."

After dropping out of four university courses, signing one book contract, writing dozens of columns for "Die Welt" newspaper and then overcoming controversy, she radiates the quiet confidence of someone who knows more often than not where she belongs - and where she doesn't.

'Nobody voted for me to represent them'

Where von Rönne doesn't belong is on top of a generation that journalists like to call Millennials - Generation Y, Generation Tinder or Generation Internship.

"Nobody voted for me to represent them, I feel a little uncomfortable speaking about a generation," she says. "But there is a sense that the compass of life hits out in every direction at the moment - it's not very clear what the right thing is and there's the vague possibility of getting it right."

So is that generation unable to maintain stable relationships? For her personally, being in love ("the ultra conservative and monogamous way") was a welcome distraction and perhaps salvation. But von Rönne can see why thinking that would be comforting: "You can delegate your own mistakes to a whole generation and think, I feel like that, some others do too, so it's not my fault. That mechanism works."

Those who know von Rönne from her columns or blogs will be a little surprised that someone who has so much to say has written a novel in which almost nothing ever happens. On the last five pages - the part von Rönne is most proud of - the bomb finally drops and it's painful for everyone involved.

Her debut will either comfort or wound its readers, as it serves as a mirror for a generation that may or may not really exist. It takes the drama away from a head full of doubts, the coolness from the complicated mess and the intellectual from the sadness. It will hurt or give comfort because you'll wonder where you - like the four protagonists - have been waiting for some magical compass to finally show the way, knowing that life really is about getting up and starting to walk.