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NBG talks to Karen Duve about Macht, feminism and the human species

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‘Femininity is like a bucket full of jam that gets tipped over your head as a child and then drips down on you throughout your life.’


Macht (‘Power’) is an incredible, feminist tour de force, what compelled you to write it?
Well, I originally wanted to write a detective story based on the terrible kidnapping cases in Austria, the US and Russia, where men who were otherwise completely unremarkable kept women as prisoners in their cellars. But then I realised that the interesting thing about those cases isn’t the criminal or pathological nature of the offenders, but the small, all-tooeasily overlooked aspect in which this brutal behaviour overlaps with socially acceptable attitudes. The human need to mean something to somebody else, the need for dominance and control. Values like equality, tolerance, solidarity and freedom are far from being universally accepted. Even where they are acknowledged, they have often only been around for a few decades. The gender equality which might seem self-evident to us is actually a fragile innovation which can be challenged at anytime.

You seem very interested in apocalyptic situations. Your book-length essay Warum die Sache schief geht: Wie Egoisten, Hohlköpfe und Psychopathen uns um die Zukunft bringen (‘Why things are going wrong: how egoists, dimwits and psychopaths are determining the future’) could be described as a study of escalating sociopathic behaviour in society. What can you tell us about your hopes and motivations for writing it?
It is completely incomprehensible to me that an intelligent species like the human being would choose to destroy the basis of its existence through global warming and ecological devastation. But maybe intelligence just isn’t enough to guarantee survival, while we are so lacking in social competence and while our leaders persist in jeopardising the survival of the human race in exchange for short-term gains and recognition at the next shareholder meeting. Oops, we’ve inadvertently ruined the whole planet! To be in a position to be able to do what needs to be done, we have to understand how we function as a species. This is the only way that we will be able to use reason to get around our destructive tendencies.

In your previous books This is Not a Love Song and Taxi you focus on the growing and shrinking female body and a female taxi driver respectively. To what extent would you say these books were exploring the visibility and treatment of women?
Femininity is like a bucket full of jam that gets tipped over your head as a child and then drips down on you throughout your life. Whatever a woman does is judged by the fact that she is a woman and by how she should have done it, being a woman. Or whether, being a woman, she should ever have done it at all. And the loudest voice is usually the one in her own head.

You’ve also written updated Grimm fairy tales in your story collection Grrrimm. What was the appeal of rewriting these stories? Did you see your versions – like Angela Carter’s – as ‘feminist retellings’ per se?
I hold Angela Carter in very high esteem and I did think of her when I was rewriting those fairy tales, but my original motivation was simply that I really love fairy tales. Like most of us I grew up with them, they were my first literary experience and influenced me a lot. On the other hand I do also appreciate psychological novels for the way in which they show their characters’ development and the motives behind their actions. Fairy tales are the complete opposite. Despite her traumatic near-death experience, Snow White is the same person at the end of the story as she is at the beginning. I wanted to change that without destroying the stories’ magical and romantic aspects. The fact that various feminist considerations are in there is due to the fact that I simply can’t do things any differently.

As this issue of NBG is devoted to women’s writing, do you believe writers who are women are represented and appreciated the way they should be? Do you think the German-language literary scene is a welcoming place for feminist writing and women writers right now?
Fortunately the appreciation of literature is a fairly democratic matter. Whereas for fine art the decisions about which paintings are hung in galleries are made by a single curator or at best by a small group of people, at least the financial success of a book tells us something about how much people like it, independently of what the critics say. In Germany, most readers are women which might be an advantage for books by female authors. Feminist literature has been neglected for a long time and still doesn’t have it easy. Many women presumably think that this issue has been resolved and that gender equality is self-evident. They don’t realise how hardwon and precarious their current status actually is. Of course it is also a question of presentation. There is this brilliantly functioning propaganda which convinces women that the struggle for equality and liberty is somehow old-fashioned and embarrassing, so the word ‘suffragette’ evokes an old maid fidgeting with her umbrella and the word ‘feminist’ is reduced to an image of purple dungarees. We have to counter this with something that shows how cool and brave feminism really was and is.

You’ve been translated into numerous languages, what does it mean to you to have your work appear in translation? Did you actively work with your translators?
Of course it is a great honour and a completely delightful – as well as very strange – idea to think that somebody should be sitting in Latvia or South Korea and reading my book. I have only been in contact with four translators and that was just to discuss ambiguous or untranslatable things. Such as when I referred to a character from an advert that was very popular in Germany and there needed to be a Dutch or English equivalent. This showed me how meticulously translators try to find the appropriate expression and how often they have to make a decision between factual accuracy and the proper sound. It really moves me to see how people surmount all these problems and invest so much work and love in a book that will ultimately have somebody else’s name on the cover.

Which fellow writers writing in German would you like to recommend to our readers?
Wolfgang Herrndorf, Sibylle Berg, Frank Schulz, Sven Regener and Heinz Strunk.
 
 

 
Karen Duve Photo: Thomas Müller
Karen Duve
was born in Hamburg in 1961 and lives in the Märkische Schweiz Nature Park in Brandenburg. She has won many awards for her books. Her novels Regenroman (1999) and Dies ist kein Liebeslied (2005), Die entführte Prinzessin (2005) and Taxi (2008), were bestsellers and have been translated into fourteen languages. 2011 saw the publication of her experimental book, Anständig essen (‘Eating Well’), in which she asks ‘How much can I allow myself at the expense of others?’, setting off a wideranging discussion of our behaviour as consumers. Most recently, her polemic Warum die Sache schiefgeht (2014) was published. The film version of her novel Taxi was distributed in cinemas in 2015.
 
 
 

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