Literature as evidence, and the mindfulness and resistance of literary memories: The writers Ulrike Draesner and Ingo Schulze, members of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, as well as Meena Kandasamy and Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, fellows of the JUNGE AKADEMIE, read and talk in a literary-biographic talk about personal and collective memories in relation to colonial past and authoritarian memory cultures of the present, gaps in the archive and the writing of counter narratives.
Ñaangooj: Respeaking Memory
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
Among the sérères, the ethnic Senegalese group I belong to, there is an at once simple and strange game called Ñaangooj. I am not sure that there is a proper translation of it in French, English, or German, but if I had to come up with what Ñaangooj means, it would involve two things which to all appearances have nothing to do with one another. On the one hand it refers to the footprints left by crabs on a beach; on the other, it conjures up a short length of rope that is given away.
Like many children in my village, I was introduced to this game (which, as you have already guessed, is obviously something more than a game) by my maternal grandmother, Mboyil, who is now dead, but an essential part of whose heritage, and the memory I still have of her, has to do with this practice. What is involved is a questionnaire or, more precisely, a dialogue in the form of questions and answers. Mboyil used to start things off.
–An tchi ka u Ñaangooj ? / Who shall I give the Ñaangooj to ?, she said.
–Miii! / Me!, I replied.
–Wo ané? / Who are you ?
–Mi Mbougar. / Me, Mbougar.
–Mbougar ané? / Mbougar of who ?
–Mbougar Sabo? / Mbougar of Sabo.
–Sabo ané? / Sabo of who?
–Sabo Mboyil. / Sabo of Mboyil.
–Mboyil ané? / Mboyil of who ?
–Mboyil Ndiass? / Mboyil of Ndiass.
–Ndiass ané? / Ndiass of who?
–Ndiass Tening. / Ndiass of Tening.
–Tening ané? / Tening of who?
–Tening Sabo. / Tening of Sabo.
–Sabo ané? / Sabo of who?
–Sabo Khaan. / Sabo of Khaan
–Khaan ané? / Khaan of who?
–Khaan Diaté? / Khaan of Diaté ?
I’ll stop there so as not to bore you. In this dialogue which must be imagined as being very rhythmic and very jolly, very serious and very playful, Mboyil gets me to recite and repeat the names of the female lineage and descendants of my maternal branch. I am Mbougar, and I come from Sabo, who comes from Mboyil, who comes from Ndiass, who comes from Tening, who comes from another Sabo, who comes from Khaan, who comes from Diaté, and so on and so forth, until Ngolo, who is my most removed female forebear whom we have in our memory, and who allegedly lived in the 15th century.
There is no point in explaining that after my female lineage, my grandmother was sure that I also knew my female lineage on my father’s side, which dates back to the 14th century. That was its function: a function at once symbolic, philosophical and educational. So every week I spent several hours of my childhood playing that game which, as you now know, is anything but a game—or else it is the most crucial game there is: a game that involves far-reaching existential questions. Sometimes it got on my nerves and I would refuse to answer, or, lacking concentration, I would muddle Khaan and Tening. My grandmother became irritated from time to time and, when I announced that I did not want to play, she would say that I would one day regret not having been more hard-working in those sessions. Today I know that those hours are not only part and parcel of the most enduring memories of my modest life, but that they also represent one of the things I am most proud of. Up until the fourteenth century on my father’s side, and up until the fifteenth on my mother’s, I know the names of the women I am the descendant of.
And yet I am not obsessed by my origins. My pride does not have to do just with the fact that the matrilineal lineages of my family are alive in me. My pride comes rather from the fact that my memories have not been erased by time, but above all that they have not been destroyed by an endeavour which has nonetheless ravaged, with extreme violence, whole swathes of memory and history about my continent, and throughout the world.
By playing Ñaangooj with me, Mboyil was not merely teaching me that my great-great-grandmother was called Ndiass, and that, in the middle of the fifteenth century, the good lady Ngolo already had a part of my blood. No: by playing with me, and making me review my genealogical tree through language, my grandmother was telling me: there is a part of memory in words, and that particular part has not been destroyed, even if it has been damaged.
The most important thing for me, before re-writing memory and history, is to talk about them again. I know very well that there is an old Latin proverb which says that words fly away and writings remain. Yet I hail from a history that has held its ground just on words, stubborn but joyful words, a list of names of women who have experienced things of a violence that I cannot imagine, but who, despite that violence, invented and nurtured the Ñaangooj. This is a lesson for me: when history is denied, the best answer is perhaps invention; the invention of forms to keep it alive, or resurrect it. This principle of invention, which is invariably a principle of courage, is what moves me. The Ñaangooj is the proof that something is resisting, or has resisted. Something, in words, underpins the wounded memory. Non solum scripta, sed etiam verba manent.
I know what you are all wondering. The relation between the Ñaangooj and the image of the length of rope that is offered is evident. It is the metaphor of the place, of the baton that is handed down from generation to generation. Mboyil has handed the baton on to me, and my mother, Sabo, will perhaps hand it on one day, I hope, to my children, her grandchildren. But what does all this have to do with the crab’s claw prints on the beach? I don’t know exactly, myself, but I do have a hypothesis. Or rather, an image: one of crabs whose marks, on the shore, remain visible, even after a large wave has covered them.
But it is just a hypothesis.
Translated from the French by Simon Pleasance.
*1990 in Dakar, lives in Paris
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr was born in Senegal and went to college and high school at a military institute. He studied studied literature and philosophy in Paris and focused on postcolonial and de-colonial works and thoughts. He has published three novels so far; all of them question the complexity of some contemporary situations, in various places (terrorism in West Africa; hospitality (or not) towards immigrants in Sicily; homosexuality in Senegal). One could say that those novels focused on a political and social approach. Is current obsession is more with literature: its power, possibilities, failures, secrets. What do (my) people expect from a writer and what do I expect from literature?More about Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
My first book, a volume of poetry, was entitled gedächtnisschleifen (Memory Loops). When the collection came out in 1995, some people wondered why I chose to deal with memories of situations that preceded my birth.
I could not answer this question at the time. I just knew that it was right. I knew that I had memories: memories of traumatic events, of losses that were mine but did not belong to me.
These days, I refer to the common thread running through many of my texts as my work on the language of postmemory. The term was introduced by Marianne Hirsch in an article on Art Spiegelman’s Maus in the early 1990s. Postmemory describes the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective and cultural trauma endured by previous generations. Hirsch developed the concept by exploring her own experiences and by analysing literary and artistic representations of the phenomenon of ‘inherited memory’. The post-generations ‘remember’ the experiences of those who came before them, but only by means of the more or less anecdotal, rudimentary narratives, images and behaviours among which they grew up. The substance of these experiences, which is only partially expressed and sometimes not even put into words, is transmitted with such intensity that the older generation’s children, and their children too, perceive these memories to be their own. Postmemory describes a connection between the present and the past through imagination, projection and empathetic creation.
Growing up with overwhelming inherited memories, dominated by narratives that predate one’s own consciousness, brings with it the risk of losing one’s own life story.
It means being shaped by traumatic fragments of events which, incomprehensibly, continue to evade our modes of verbal expression.
Inherited memory. Collective memory – fragmented and shared.
Literature is a crossing of borders. It seeks rapture, the abyss, praise, lamentation, love, war, a world with and without the self. Literature makes the borderline between speaking and silence its most intrinsic subject, plying the unspeakable and giving it form (through language).
Literature has the means to translate from one life into another, be it invented or written.
From here, it is retold in stories.
Translation from non-language into language.
Modifying the bounds of linguistic expression.
This act of modification requires scrutiny (and even dissolution) of one’s own speaking ‘position’. This position itself is recognised as a construct and pushed to the limits of speakability.
Translated from the German by Isabel Adey.
Ulrike Draesner is a poet, novelist, essayist and translator. She lives as a freelance writer in Berlin. Since 2019, she has been a member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Literature Section. She studied in Munich and Oxford; from 2015 to 2017, she taught at Oxford University, and since 2018 has been a professor of German literature and literary writing at Leipzig University. The awards she has received include the LiteraTour Nord Prize, the German Prize for Nature Writing, the Bavarian Book Prize, the GEDOK Prize (2020) and the Gertrud Kolmar Preis (2019).
We Mostly Write
Memory and the Tamil Woman’s Burden
When I was asked to contribute to this project on rewriting memories, the question of memory under and after colonialism started to obsess me. I was born in 1984, 37 years after India attained independence, and I am nearly 37 now. I want to share an intimate and political poem that I wrote in 2002:
Paracetamol legends I know
For rising fevers, as pain relievers –
Of my people – father’s father’s mother’s
Mother, dark lush hair caressing her ankles
Sometimes, sweeping earth, deep-honey skin,
Amber eyes – not beauty alone they say – she
Married a man who murdered thirteen men and one
Lonely summer afternoon her rice-white teeth tore
Through layers of khaki, and golden white skin to spill the
Bloodied guts of a British soldier who tried to colonize her…
Of my land – uniform blue open skies,
Mad-artist palettes of green lands and lily-filled lakes that
Mirror all – not peace & tranquil alone, he shudders – a
Young wife near my father’s home, with a drunken husband
Who never changed; she bore his daily beatings until on one
Stormy night, in fury, she killed him by stomping his seedbags…
We: their daughters.
We: the daughters of their soil.
We, mostly, write.
The politics of writing memory in the shadow of colonial history is no small thing. When you are a woman, and when you come from mixed caste parentage—my father comes from a nomadic tribe, my mother comes from the low shudra castes—writing memory is not a creative activity, it is combative activism.
In a composite and hierarchical society like India, the writing of memory is further vexatious because we exist not only as post-colonial subjects/ citizens of a new nation-state, but that our independence itself was only a sham project—one which removed the temporary authority and oppression of the British and handed us back to our old masters: the Brahminical caste-patriarchal system. While it is said that colonial history served to “crush, erase and manipulate collective and individual memories” (Johnson and Brezault), I want to stand up and say that our memories were crushed, erased and manipulated collectively and individually even before the colonial powers set foot on our lands, and this happened because we were the oppressed castes under Sanatana Dharma/ Brahminism, because we were women under this caste-patriarchal system which forbade us all education, all learning, all independence. And this is the elephant in the room that a lot of scholars of colonialism/postcolonialism fail to address—that there were systems of oppression in place before the onslaught of colonialism, and these systems colluded with the colonial powers during their reign, and that the overthrow of colonialism did not always witness the birth of radical equality. My charge in the previous sentence that “scholars fail to address” is a mild understatement, what we have also witnessed over the years is the academic tendency to present the manifestation of caste in the present-day as an artefact of British colonialism. There’s the done-to-death Kundera quote: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. In the specific context of India, this power that obliterates, annihilates, erases without a trace—this power operates on multiple levels: caste, gender, class, ethnicity, geography. Brahminism, Sanatana, or this power of caste is unlike any other discrimination in the world, it is religiously ordained as a matter of life. Erasing the memory of the oppressed, erasing the history of militant resistance by the oppressed has been intrinsic to the caste system.
I intentionally muddy these waters in the hope that such agitation would give rise to clarity. These are only some of my introductory comments about the process of writing literature and how I see literature as a conscious effort to create and fashion public/social memory/history.
Writing cannot be divorced from social context. Ravaged by the corona virus pandemic, my country has become an open-air crematorium, the banks of her rivers have now become shallow mass graves. In this backdrop, I looked at archival material. The Census of India of the Madras Presidency from a century ago speaks a story that eerily corresponds to our times:
“It will be seen that seven of the cities return a smaller population in 1921 than in 1911. The decline in Salem is due to a visitation of plague which coincided with the census. In the case of Negapatam and Cuddalore, which have both fallen by 10 per cent, the decline is attributed to slackness of trade. In the case of Trichinopoly, the decrease in the population is ascribed to high mortality which, in turn, is attributed partly to distress consequent on the high price of foodstuffs and partly to the epidemic of influenza. To the same causes may be attributed to the decrease in the population of Kumbakonam and Tanjore.”
The census was about counting by a colonial authority: an authority which cites numbers but doesn’t own up to their own guilt and atrocious role in causing famine, their lack of intervention in disease prevention, their lack of treating their subjects as human beings on par with themselves. Today, as an independent nation, we are struggling against undercounting by our state authorities—an authority that does not own up to its own role in the exponential rise in deaths, which has done nothing to secure lives or livelihoods, and which has let everyone die. Our masters have changed, our memories follow the same template.
The only change is a change in numbers—dialectically, a quantitative change that has set into motion a qualitative change. In 1921, the same census mentions that only 21 women in 1000 were able to read and write in the Madras Presidency. Today, the numbers are in our favour: our literacy stands at 96.8%. Today, as women, we write, we rewrite—and view all of this writing as a deeply political, and essential subversive lifetime commitment.
*1984 in Tamil Nadu, lives in Tamil Nadu and London
Meena Kandasamy is a poet and novelist who was born in Chennai, India. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms Militancy (2010). Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess (2014), tells the story of the 1968 Kilvenmani massacre. Her second novel, a work of autobiographical fiction, When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife (2017) was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. Her latest novel, Exquisite Cadavers (2019), is a work of experimental fiction that investigates storytelling. She divides her time between London and Tamil Nadu.More about Meena Kandasamy
Bananas on the Rhine and the Moselle
My relationship with the past changes with every new experience. The way we view the past defines our present. Those who control the narrative of the past also rule the here and now.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990 are crucial to my memory. Everything changed at this point in history; nothing went untouched. The political upheavals not only changed money, food, clothing, street names, even the air, but also love and friendship. In the long run, no relationship went untouched.
It would be too easy to say that it was a shift from ideological to economic dependencies. But of course that was also true.
I always have trouble writing about the time before 1989, because I risk unintentionally justifying the way things are today through my criticism of how things were back then. For me, the change that ensued can only described as a shift in dependencies and freedoms.
A while ago, I was speaking to an author who was born and raised in Germany to a Turkish family. She said: You know that your background is East German and I know that I come from a migrant family; the westerners are the only ones who fail to realise that they are westerners. Though this might be a very simple way of putting it, what she said does touch on an important aspect of the East-West German debate. While one side is considered “normal”, a sort of benchmark, the other is defined in terms of deviation from this norm. Those who have fully “arrived” from the East – bridging the gap, so to speak – are viewed in a particularly positive light.
The analogy between an East German background and coming from a migrant family is interesting. For people from these other backgrounds, many of the things that people born in the West take for granted are not quite so obvious. Of course, the situation is highly nuanced (age, for one thing, makes a difference) and most importantly: in individual cases, this tells us nothing.
It would be interesting to investigate the past of the two Germanies in a comparison with the Global South. To my knowledge, this criterion has yet to be considered in the analysis. It would also be interesting to investigate East Germany with the toolkit of postcolonial studies (measuring the relative share of land ownership, real estate, businesses and management positions).
Former Green Party politician Otto Schily holds up a banana to the camera in response to the first free elections in the GDR. His message: the East Germans have chosen prosperity, the banana. The reactions varied widely, most of them critical in tone. And yet no one questioned the in-built sense of entitlement to the banana, the fact that its availability was taken for granted, as if it grew along the banks of the Rhine and the Moselle.
Translated from the German by Isabel Adey.
Ingo Schulze is a writer, living in Berlin. His debut novel 33 Augenblicke des Glücks (33 Moments of Happiness) was published in 1995, since then several novels and anthologies have followed: Simple Storys in 1998, Neue Leben (New Lifes) in 2005, Adam und Evelyn in 2008, Orangen und Engel (Oranges and Angels) in 2010, Peter Holtz in 2017 und zuletzt Die rechtschaffenen Mörder (The Righteous Murderers) in 2020 und Tasso im Irrenhaus (Tasso in the Madhouse) in 2021. His books have been translated into 30 languages, received multiple awards, and been cinematized. He is a member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, the German Academy for Language and Literature and the Sächsische Akademie der Künste.