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The Beauty of Difference

We don’t see things the way they are – we see them the way we are, says the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most important texts. But which way is that? Which stories are told about Germany and its people, and who is missing from them?
The Beauty of Difference Aufmacher
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"Wer wir sind" ("Who We Are"), is the title of Lena Gorelik’s book, an autobiographical novel that shows how identity is forged in the conflict between shame and pride, assimilation and foreignness. It is about a girl who moves to Germany with her family in 1992 and becomes a foreigner. A Jewish refugee child in a homemade parka, who pronounces words so ‘strangely’ that other children laugh at her. Who grows up in Germany during the ‘baseball bat years’ of the 1990s, which have featured in many texts since the racially motivated and antisemitic attacks in Halle and Hanau in 2019 and 2020.

What am I, and what am I not?

Our society needs ideas about how to turn its differences into strength in order to counter prejudice and hostility. This is one reason why, in my book "Die Schönheit der Differenz" ("The Beauty of Difference"), I invite the reader to reflect on the state of our society. On the ideas we have about each other. Constructions. The perception of supposed groups, appearance, background, desire, body and religion.

How can the complexity of our existence and co-existence be better understood from a Black, disabled, queer, spiritual or psychological and neurological point of view? What does it mean to be privileged in Germany – in other words ‘white’, heterosexual, mentally well, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, socialised in a Christian environment, with qualifications and a secure income? To build a good community, each of us needs to understand our own position within society, and to know: what am I, and what am I not? And we must confront this fact without defensiveness or (self) stigmatisation.

There are many authors who produce critiques of power in society and write texts exploring their own position in the social hierarchy, be that an oppressed position or privileged one. In their stories they move away from suffering and towards the causes and consequences of injustice, illustrating the links between power and identity in various languages. They point the way towards understanding, and engage with painful memories of the past. They reawaken memories.

The 1990s are also addressed in "Dschinns" ("Djinns"), Fatma Aydemir’s family saga set in a fictitious city on the Rhine and featuring the Yilmaz family, made up of father Hüseyin, his wife and their four children. A migrant worker from a Turkish mountain village, Hüseyin moved to Germany with his wife Emine but has never really felt settled there. In the book, different narrative voices explore the multigenerational impact of migration and Germanness, gender roles and gender identities, racism, homophobia and classism – all of which were much less part of the public debate in the 1990s than they are now.

Wer wir sind Cover
Lena Gorelik

Who we are (Wer wir sind)

Rowohlt Verlag
Die Schönheit der Differenz
Hadija Haruna-Oelker

The Beauty of Difference (Die Schönheit der Differenz)

btb Verlag
Fatma Aydemir

Djinns (Dschinns)

Carl Hanser

Aydemir’s novel is not the only one in which different experiences overlap like this. Other books also illustrate, in a tangible way, what academics and progressives call intersectionality. These texts perceive people in their simultaneity rather than their individual characteristics. In "Vaters Meer" ("Father’s Sea") by Deniz Utlu, for example, the narrative voice of thirteen-year-old Yunus talks about caring for his father, who is living with locked-in syndrome after suffering two strokes. The adult Yunus looks back on that time, and the migration story is coupled with an exploration of the father-son relationship, self-discovery, loneliness and disability.

The Council of Europe’s ‘No Hate Speech’ campaign supports people taking action against hate and discrimination online.

‘We become ourselves only to the extent that the other becomes himself, we become free only to the extent that the other becomes free.’

Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), German psychiatrist and philosopher, in "Weltgeschichte der Philosophie"

People read novels because narrative voices help them to better understand themselves, as well as other people and their lives. The ephemeral, incidental portrayal of experiences and characteristics in texts thus plays an important role: that of representation. It is a natural way of conveying a message without finger-wagging. Different perspectives on the world resonate with readers and take people out of their pigeonholes. How does it feel to arrive in a foreign city? And how does it feel to be a Black person in Germany in search of a place where you can feel happy and safe? This is what Musa Okwonga writes about in "Es ging immer nur um Liebe" ("In the End, It Was All About Love"). ‘Borderless’, as the poet May Ayim once described it in one of her poems.

In order to understand present-day Germany, we need to understand the interwovenness of people’s differing experiences and of the country’s history. We also need to engage critically with the past, since everyone in Germany, in different ways, carries the consequences of the country’s history with and within them. This includes the Holocaust and the process of coming to terms with it, antisemitism, racism, and the role of the ‘forgotten’ victims, including Sinti and Roma people, gay people, people with disabilities, socially disadvantaged people, and political opponents of the Nazis. We need new narrative forms – because the big political question (still) is: where does far-right violence come from? And why has all never been well in Germany?

We are here because you were there

‘We are here because you were there’ is a phrase coined by Ambalavaner Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations in London, in the 1980s. It refers to the global context of migration flows, reminding us of centuries of colonial exploitation and pointing out that the reasons why people emigrate or have to leave their homes do not come about in a historical vacuum. Clearly, the answers to questions about the state of German society are connected to the wider world.

Germany is an immigration society. One which has changed over the decades and the generations. A transnational understanding explains why there are no homogenous groups in Germany, because almost everyone is different and many also want to stay different, as described by the contributors to Selma Wels’s collection of the same name: "anders bleiben". In the form of letters, they enter into a dialogue about their lives in German society – sometimes tentative, sometimes vehement, remembering, always seeking.

Vaters Meer
Deniz Utlu

Father's sea (Vaters Meer)

Suhrkamp Verlag
Es ging immer nur um Liebe Cover
Musa Okwonga

In the End, It Was All About Love (Es ging immer nur um Liebe)

mairisch Verlag
anders bleiben Cover
Selma Wels

stay different (anders bleiben)

Rowohlt Verlag

Lena Gorelik, Fatma Aydemir, Deniz Utlu, Selma Wels and many other authors – they do not form one homogenous unit in German society, but they do all express a commitment to the belief that we are all equal at the same time as all being different, as the publicist Hannah Arendt once described it. And this is precisely where the beauty of difference lies: in an attitude that enables us to tell stories. Stories which question what is viewed as normal: because difference is the true normality. This is why it is so important that we get to know each other better, so that we can understand each other better and speak to each other without causing each other pain.

Language is also a means of self-empowerment that leaves aesthetic traces in the German language. It is the plurality that shows itself in the multitude of new words describing worlds which the mainstream too often knows little about. ‘We suck on our nails. They are jagged like a saw. We eat our grinds,’ writes Ralph Tharayil in his book "Nimm die Alpen weg" ("Take Away the Alps"). In a sparing poetic style he describes how two parents of Indian origin struggle to settle and assimilate in Switzerland, along with their children who were born there. Where assimilation does not work, there is pain – because integration is also violent, as Tharayil shows.

Ich-Denkmal in Frankfurt am Main
© Popie; Lizenz: CC BY-SA 3.0

‘Every person is unique’. Since 2005, artist Hans Traxler’s ‘I’-monument has stood on the south bank of the River Main in Frankfurt, inviting everyone to create a monument to themselves.

Where assimilation does not work, there is pain

Different forms of text are needed in order to overcome stereotypes imposed by others: in order to bring about "Das Ende der Unsichtbarkeit" ("The End of Invisibility"), which is the title of a non-fiction book by Hami Nguyen. In it, she describes the interwoven experience of anti-Asian racism and classism, drawing on her own experience and the history of Vietnamese migrants, which is often absent from histories of Germany. Similarly, the issue of social class is often absent from explanations of people’s complex biographical experiences. Marlen Hobrack, for example, debunks the middle-class myths of social mobility and equality of opportunity in "Klassenbeste" ("Top of the Class"), demonstrating that every identity politics debate has the issue of class at its heart. "Vatermal" ("Birth Mark") by Necati Öziri revolves around the experiences of narrator Arda and his friends, and how these experiences relate to immigration, class and illness. These ‘boys’ are seen as outsiders in Germany because they hang around train stations and are on the police’s radar. They have to cultivate their own self-image with which to counter the image others have of them. This theme is also addressed in "Hund, Wolf, Schakal" ("Dog, Jackal, Wolf"), by Behzad Karim Khani, in which eleven-year-old Saam, a refugee from Iran, feels doubly foreign in the majority-Arab neighbourhood of Neukölln as he tries to step into the role of head of the family. On the other hand there are the educational climbers, the people seen as ‘well integrated’, who are described by Betiel Berhe in her non-fiction book "Nie mehr leise – die neue migrantische Mittelschicht" ("Never Quiet Again – The New Migrant Middle Class").

Nimm die alpen weg
Ralph Tharayil

Take away the Alps (Nimm die Alpen weg)

Edition Azur
Das Ende der Unsichtbarkeit
Hami Nguyen

The end of invisibility (Das Ende der Unsichtbarkeit)

Ullstein Buchverlage
Marlen Hobrack

Top of the Class (Klassenbeste)

Carl Hanser
Necati Öziri

Birthmark (Vatermal)

Hund Wolf Schakal
Behzad Karim Khani

Hund Wolf Schakal (Dog Wolf Jackal)

Carl Hanser
Nie mehr leise- die neue migrantische Mittelschicht
Betiel Berhe

Never quiet again (Nie mehr leise)

Aufbau Verlag

These books all bear witness to the variety of fluid identities in Germany. They all broaden the scope of German-language literature and tell stories about our society that are different from the usual ones – such as "Adas Raum" ("Ada’s Room") by Sharon Dodua Otoo. This book is about Black and Afro­German identities – because Germany is made up of many post-societies, and people have many different stories to tell about their ancestors. All of these stories are simultaneously shaping people’s lives today in different ways. Sociology has an encouraging insight for us in this regard: diverse societies can actually become more integrated as a result of conflicts, as long as these conflicts are recognised as necessary and are institutionalised. This means not only acknowledging what we have in common but also what makes us different from each other – engaging with disability and ableism as an able-bodied person, for example, as Luisa Laudace and Raúl Aguayo-Krauthausen encourage us to do in their books "Behindert und stolz" ("Disabled and Proud") and "Wer Inklusion will, findet einen Weg. Wer sie nicht will, findet Ausreden" ("If You Want to Be Inclusive, You’ll Find a Way. If You Don’t, You’ll Find an Excuse").

© Deutsche Post AG, ill. Bettina Walter, Bonn

A statement for diversity that can be shared: the 85 cent stamp from Deutsche Post

Adas Raum
Sharon Dodua Otoo

Adas Raum (Ada's Realm)

S. Fischer Verlag
Behindert und Stolz Cover
Luisa Laudace

Disabled and proud (Behindert und stolz)

Wer Inklusion will, findet einen Weg
Raúl Aguayo-Krauthausen

If You Want To Be Inclusive, You'll Find A Way. If You Don't, You'll Find An Excuse

Rowohlt Verlag

What does inclusion mean – including in a literary sense? It is something fundamentally democratic, because it is a learning process, a sociopolitical principle according to which nobody is excluded and forced to adapt; instead everybody is included just as they are. And ‘we’ are a society of intersections, which explains why there are sometimes tensions between us, why there are hierarchies and ambivalent narratives. For this reason it is important that we accept the contradictions arising from our differences. And literature can help us to better understand these.

They live the beauty of difference

The cosplayers set a colourful sight at the weekend of Frankfurter Buchmesse 2024.
Cosplayer auf der Frankfurter Buchmesse
© FBM/ Niklas Goerke

Learning together – learning togetherness

A ‘learning process of socialisation’ is what the educationalist Maisha-Maureen Auma calls concepts that look critically at societal power structures. And children’s books fall into this category, because they have an impact on children’s thinking, language and view of the world. We need only look at a bookshelf and ask ourselves who is represented there, or which children will feel themselves represented there. Is it only white children, able-bodied children, children living in heterosexual family units?

Ich bin anders als du
Constanze Kitzing

I am different from you - I am like you (Ich bin anders als du – Ich bin wie du)

Die Sonne, so strahlend und schwarz Cover
Chantal-Fleur Sandjon

The Sun, So Bright and Black (Die Sonne, so strahlend und schwarz)

Was wird es denn? Ein Kind! Cover
Ravna Marin Siever

What Are You Having? A Child! (Was wird es denn? Ein Kind!)

Beltz & Gelberg

Children do not need books that are explicitly about racism or other experiences of difference in order to see norms being challenged. What matters is that differences are perceived as natural, which is why our plurality is now increasingly found in children’s books too. "Ich bin anders als du – Ich bin wie du" ("I Am Different From You – I Am Like You") by Constanze Kitzing is an example of how this can work even for very young children. And the young adult book "Die Sonne, so strahlend und Schwarz" ("The Sun, So Bright and Black") by Chantal-Fleur Sandjon helps readers discover multiple perspectives on life by exploring Nova’s complex identity and love life as a queer young Black woman in Germany, in rich poetic language. "Was wird es denn? Ein Kind!" ("What Are You Having? A Child!") is the title of Ravna Marin Siever’s non-fiction book about giving children a gender-neutral upbringing. Because the process of growing up is particularly full of ‘pluralities’ which adults, in their homogenous bubbles, often do not experience any longer. There are many opportunities to unlearn what we have learned. Including in children’s literature.

About the author

Hadija Haruna-Oelker is a journalist, radio news presenter and political scientist. Her journalism focuses on social issues, migration, racism and intersectional perspectives. She is co-­translator of Amanda Gorman’s "The Hill We Climb". Her first memoir, "Die Schönheit der Differenz", was published in 2022.

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