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Creative process

Yulian Ide
July 9, 2013

Writing in German is a struggle that is essential to her style, says Ukrainian-born author Katja Petrowskaja. The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize-winner tells DW about her creative process and the role of war in her writing.

Katja Petrowskaja
Image: Imago/gezett

DW: You are a journalist and have a column in a weekly newspaper. What led you to pursue literary writing?

Katja Petrowskaja: I don't describe what I do as literature. When I was about 38 years old, it seemed to me that it was time to write down my family history. Obviously that's not very original - a lot of people do that. It was surprising to me that I formulated sentences in German. In the conglomerate of Soviet-Jewish history that opened up in front of me, I stumbled over and over again on the war, though I didn't want to. I didn't know why. My plan had actually been to write something peaceful. The German language was liberating.

How is that?

When you write about this period in Russian, you inevitably get trapped in a moral discussion about victory and willingness to sacrifice. Writing about the same events using German words means imagining a German counterpart. And in that way I was able to explain that the history of victim and perpetrator is passé for me. Those who continue in these roles inevitably get trapped in them, without understanding them.

What does writing in German mean to you? You have said that you feel "underage" in the language.

I write together with two other people. My husband corrects all of my mistakes and a friend of mine is my first editor. I couldn't manage without these two people.

(L-R) Austrian writer Nadine Kegele (Audience Award), German writer Heinz Helle (Ernst Willner Prize), Ukrainian-born Katja Petrowskaja (Ingeborg Bachmann Prize), German writers Verena Guentner (Kelag Prize) and Benjamin Maack (3sat Prize), and ORF-chief Alexander Wrabetz pose at the award ceremony of the 37th Festival of German-Language Literature in Klagenfurt, Austria, 07 July 2013
The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize has been awarded for the 37th time.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

I speak German quite well, but writing is something completely different. I humbly call it "my struggle." It's a struggle with this language. But the difficulties imply a certain quality. My writing must be difficult and complicated. I spent 10 years of my life learning this language. Maybe this sacrifice was too great.

My wish is to write very different texts in both languages. I don't know how it will continue to develop. Some of the texts for my book originated in Russian or in a mishmash. They are a delirium between the languages. I felt the slightly disturbed, non-functional aspect - and exactly that is my voice.

Is your winning text "Vielleicht Esther" ("Perhaps Esther"), in which the narrator attempts to reconstruct the murder of her great-grandmother by the Nazis, also part of your family history?

Yes, the entire volume entitled "Vielleicht Esther," which will be released by the Suhrkamp publishing house in March 2014, is meant as a family book. I did quite a lot of research until I understood that I don't need historical facts at all - that I don't even need my family. But by then it was too late. Now I have to see if I can separate myself from the family part and write pure fiction.

You were born in Kyiv, studied in Estonia, and did your doctorate in Moscow. You've lived in Berlin since 1999. What brought you to Germany?

I met a German man in Kyiv in the mid-90s. He took me on a short trip to Berlin, where I stood on Potsdamer Platz like right out of Wim Wenders' film "Himmel über Berlin." What attracted me most was the indeterminateness, the raw condition, the empty space. It's like meeting a teenager: You see this person and know what he will become. That's really exciting.

It was its destruction that made Berlin so fascinating, so free for new things, and so peaceful. It's a fascinating space that arose out of consciously coping with the war. In Moscow, you could already feel Putin stamping around at that time. I couldn't stay there. My German husband wanted to live in Moscow, but I brought him back to Berlin.

The Brandenburg Gate
Petrowskaja was drawn to Berlin's raw indecisivenessImage: Reuters

What does "home" meet to you?

I'm like a person out of a road movie who can't drive a car. For me, home is a place you can travel through, but where you can't strike roots.

Last year's winner of the Bachmann Prize, Olga Martynova, also comes from the Soviet Union. Is experience with various cultures and languages an advantage in writing?

Perhaps yes, because alienation always has an impact. It's terribly interesting that many authors who have a different native language write in German. That may be a fashion. But it's true that there's something unbelievably attractive about this country. And that's something Germans can maybe only understand through the longing foreigners have for Germany.

Katja Petrowskaja was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize on Sunday, July 7 in Klagenfurt. Maja Haderlap, a Slovenian-Austrian, won the award two years ago, and Russian-born Olga Martynova won in 2012. Petrowskaja is now the third winner with a multicultural background, giving German literature a new facet and making the prize a major European cultural event.

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