“I am what i am what i remember” The speech of Nina George at the Brazilian literature festival FLIP in Paraty
I would like to thank the Frankfurter Buchmesse International and the German Federal Foreign Office für the invitation, as well as the National Institutes of the European Union for Culture EUNIC and the Goetheinstitut Rio de Janeiro for allowing me to speak here today.
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Trans-, Queer- and non-binary-personalities:
In my novel The Book of Dreams, which is recently published by Record, I wrote 400 pages about identity and memory. I ask the question: how true are one’s own memories? Can we choose memories, and have each of us actually experienced more than just one life — depending on which memories we chose?
What makes a person who he is? Can we bend memories? Are memories like wolves that attack us if we do not tame them? Why can a perfume that reminds us of someone who left us, break our hearts again decades later?
What about hidden memories, which are taboo, in the family, in society — what happens when memories are curated, changed, repressed, suppressed by political, economic or even just family overpowers, when one forces the cultural and emotional memory of a country into silence, into ashes, into oblivion?
I would like to pass these questions on to all of you today, and tell you three short stories about them.
Story One: The Secrets of Our Mother
Until she died, our mother hated the sound of New Year’s Eve fireworks. She hated the 12 o’clock siren on Sunday. She didn’t trust the police. Nobody in uniform. She didn’t trust doctors. She had no girlfriends, and when she was in the company of strangers, she lied, with decided enthusiasm. Our mother was a fantastic storyteller, she spurned amazing memories about her origins, about her life, about the life and work of her daughters — how embarrassing this was for us, and we always had to decide: do we cover her very multi-coloured memory, or do we put some more black and white and truth in it? But what was the truth?
It was amazing how many apparent memories she had in store and how they were constantly changing, depending on who she was talking to. Our mother apparently had an amazing memory at all, because she remembered exactly who she was serving the fictional memory to.
Many loved our mother. Nobody knew her.
For me she began to lie in the seventies, then I asked my grandfather, why he couldn’t stand up from his chair with wheels, because I finally wanted to drive now. And where did he leave his second leg?
Oh. The looks of the adults.
Where was the leg? Then the first lie. “Grandpa gave his leg to someone who needed it more urgently.” I still regretted not being allowed to drive in the great wheelchair.
For us daughters, my sister Catrin, and myself, finding the true memory was a long journey, in countless nights for over thirty years, sometimes with the help of strong alcoholic helpers. Only then did our mother stop with the secrets and begin with the true memories. They begin with love.
My French grandmother, our mothers Mama, Marianne was born in Mulhouse (A lots of M in here, excuse me) — the daughter of a family of Alsacian cabinetmakers, descendants of persecuted Huguenots.
My grandfather Helmut, a German butcher’s apprentice on the Walz, who wanted to learn how to cut meat in France, met Marianne on his Walz to the south and spent a few nights with her under a dazzling starry sky. Only on the way back, three years later, did he stop by Mulhouse again; then a little blond girl, a petite fille, opened the door for him and said: “Daddy’s back again!” Then Helmut Marianne took her to Germany, a region that would be called “the East” decades later. They had ten children with each other, or perhaps not necessarily only with each other; our mother was the smallest, born in 1939, in May, it smelled of lilac and fear. Three months later the sky first turned black, then red, then bombs.
My grandfather had begun early to help his Jewish neighbors flee. He lent them money, he hid them, he brought them to Switzerland.
Then he was betrayed, to the SS, to the Gestapo, by his own wife: Marianne complained one afternoon with coffee and cake to her German neighbors that her husband would rather give money, time and attention to the Goldenbergs and Rosenzweigs than to her and the children. She revealed a secret. Such a big secret of this time that one should keep to oneself in order to survive.
Our mother was there when the secret was revealed, a small child. She was also there with what happened then.
War. Sirens. Boot steps, knocking on the door, her father was arrested and transferred to the concentration camp in Buchenwald.
He returned home with only one leg and married a second time, this time the nanny. He taught the children to remain silent forever.
Uniforms, sirens. Secrets. Forbidden memories.
My grandfather, now suddenly trapped in the East, the GDR, did not stop having secrets. He had one of the cars tanked, secretly, even the tire boxes, and then fled with five out of ten children across the border, which was to divide Germany, with a long wall; only five, the space in the car was not enough for more. Five were left behind, five, and our mother’s mother.
Keep secrets, keep silent.
At the German-German border they shot at the car until the magazines were empty.
New Year’s Eve fireworks sound just like gunshots.
The Wall. Locked up behind it: their own history.
In the West, after ten years in the “Nissen huts” of the refugee camp, our mother met our father, another refugee. Our father, born in 1938, fled Berlin, blue eyes, steel muscles, German-Polish-Russian words and songs in his blood, the will to cross the Atlantic as a free man, in his heart, that’s what he wanted, in a container freighter, to Rio, to Brazil.
He came to Dortmund.
They got married. They had two daughters. Two women writers, today, and you don’t know whether that is for a family like a blessing or a catastrophe.
We were brought up in a commitment to humanity. Often we wondered what motivated our parents to stand up so vehemently, for pluralism, for cosmopolitanism, and resolutely against all nationalist tendencies; but the parents kept their memories from us until we had enough of our own; only then did they tell us what they had been made of.
The rift in German history, which forever forces the cultural, the German memory to be ashamed, went right through our family. We helped Jews. We betrayed each other. We had soldiers in our line of ancestors, we had Huguenots, Jewish grandmothers, we are fugitives and escape helpers. We are perpetrators, we are victims.
Our family and German memories give me the choice today: what do I want to remember? What memory do I want to draw from to feel pride or shame?
Yes, you can make up your mind. In France we once met an old Breton, on a football pitch. He said: “This is the first time since the war that I have given a hand to someone from north of the Rhine”. We asked for forgiveness. We met another old Breton. He said: “I love the Germans! — “But why is that?” — “Well, in 1456 you defended Brittany against the Franks with us.” — Well, um. You’re welcome.”
We have the choice of what we remember. Do we? Don’t we?
I understood it at the moment when I wrote the key words for today’s speech here, two years after mothers death. Lying saves lives. But she herself was terrible alone with her undivided, long unspoken memories.
It is a Jewish wisdom: forgetting prolongs exile, but the secret of salvation is memory.
Only those who also remember their inglorious, possibly guilty history can create a change of identity: by confessing and defending values that are diametrically opposed to the past.
Story two: The machine’s stopped.
The writer Edward Morgan Forster, known for his novel “Howard’s End”, tells in his short story “The Machine stops” about a world in which people live underground after a climate catastrophe, in comfortably furnished, fully air-conditioned apartments for one person, and communicate via monitors, cameras and keyboards. They “share” the knowledge they have read, and the perfectly automated apartments play music at the touch of a button, let in a bubble bath and provide their residents with medical care; means of transport drive autonomously. “The Machine”, which selects which memories are worth wandering into an archive, which historiography they read, which books are worth reading and which are not, takes on a divine status.
Their users forget that the machine was man-made. One day, when the machine stands still, panic breaks out. No one can remember how to breathe, think, write books, make music, cook, sow, harvest, dance, orientate oneself by the stars without a machine — how to live.
Humanity, without any memory, crawls desperately to the light: and dies.
The amazing thing about Forster’s story is not the unpleasant absence of a happy ending — but that he wrote it in 1909.
110 years before a time when we travel on self-propelled subways, asking Alexa and Siri about the weather or for a gift for our mother-in-law, legitimize bank transfers by fingerprint, and are more busy photographing our food than enjoying it.
A time when a gigantic global digital search engine is curating what mankind should remember, what it’s worth knowing — Google lists 30 trillion pages of knowledge, education, fake news, and cat videos. There are video tutorials on how to open a beer bottle, wrap a child, instructions on how to crack the copy protection on electronic books, there are fake news and manipulated fotos, and each one is writing his or her own story permanently on Facebook (of course only photogenic memories). In online encyclopaedias, 90% of whose entries about famous people report about men; women are currently deleted from digital memory. And will be invisible in future.
According to which information-ethic does a monopolistic global corporation decide what is worth being prominently archived and what is not?
Algorithms decide what we find and see, we call it an “echo chamber” or “information bubble”. The questioning of information also always means: fragmentation of memory, and so it is possible that memories in one and the same group, society, even family, are no longer perceived collectively, but fragmented. You are lost just being you.
This leads not only to a digital split, but also to an analogous one, when fewer and fewer memories and cultural heritage are perceived as individual, no longer as common: The ‘intangible cultural heritage’ means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills — as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith — that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.
Thus these 30 trillion today’s pages correspond to only 5% of the knowledge, memory, history, knowledge of all mankind.
How does the memory of a culture change when it switches to a new medium? Can digital knowledge and achieves replace what we see in buildings, in museums, can it tell history in a new and different way, to which it hurts less?
I am sure: no. Tradition can easily become folklore through the medialization of content, and in the end the Mona Lisa is printed on countless cups and the Samba is in every elevator, but means nothing more. Digital images communicate, analog images remind, and computer-aided digitality has been a technique of forgetting, of detachment from context and experience.
Every government that refuses to preserve the collective cultural memory of a country in instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces and the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills, commits a crime against being human, because, and this brings us to the third short story:
Story Three: »I am what I am because of who we all are.«
I am the first time in your country that is foreign to me and yet already familiar; through its music, its literature, its food, its smells, the rhythm of the streets, the melodies of the night, the faces of the buildings, the shape of the cemeteries and the way of saying hello to each other. Penetrated me. It is already beginning to transform me from within, Brazil is a sculptor of my self under my skin. As I speak, I also change you. We will become a common memory, one that reminds me of the African philosophy ubuntu:
“I am what I am because of who we all are.” Or also: I am because we are.
Ubuntu, from the Bantus languages of the Zulu, means “humanity”, the experience and also the awareness that one is part of a whole. In Ubuntu philosophy, the ego and the community are directly related to each other. Also the present is “ubuntu”, the present a part of the past, a part of the future. Each one is the history of us, and each one is our future.
The social scientist and author Johann Broodryk from Pretoria defines the term Unbuntu in polarity to European thinking: “Where the French philosopher Descartes says ‘I think, therefore I am’, Ubuntu says: ‘I feel, I am in relationship, therefore I am’.
Cultural diversity as the ideological basis — Ubuntu stands for everything where the “I” resigns and the “we” shows itself.
When the brutal race politics of South African apartheid were abolished in 1994, the world feared a bloodbath of revenge. No one could understand why, after decades of humiliation, torture and lawlessness, the black majority mostly openly opposed the white minority. Historians are convinced that the philosophy of Ubuntu was the basis of this peaceful transformation, because Ubuntu also means forgiveness. Perpetrators and victims or their survivors met, heard their stories, confessed their guilt and often found forgiveness after painful common remembrance. Wounds were healed, and a life without revenge was made possible.
All this can only be achieved through dialogue, which respects the individuality of the individual, his history, memory and culture, and gives everyone space to be themselves.
I am what I am, what my parents were, I am what I am, what my society is, I am what I am, what you are.
And so my life as a writer does not end after the last point of a story. For me, fighting for working conditions, for copyright, for the preservation of independent culture, is a service to democracy and a society of integrity, a culture of remembrance and a community. I see literature, culture and their creators as urgently needed opposition to destructive political, economic and monopolistic tendencies. We mediate values, diversity, variations of life, we represent the alternative concept to the totalitarian, to the populist.
Without artists, no culture. Without culture, no life.
Without past — no future.