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Compiled by Kristen Cole   Date: 11/02/09 Bookmark and Share

“I am not homeless. Just abroad. A foreigner abroad.”

--Herta Müller, Traveling on One Leg

A Portrait of Herta Müller, 2009 Nobel Laureate

Anca Luca Holden, visiting lecturer in German studies, is currently completing her dissertation discussing the works of Romanian-born German authors Herta Müller, recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Richard Wagner, another critically acclaimed ethnic German writer, and the writers’ impact on the reconceptualization of “German” cultural identity in the 21st century.

Müller is the 12th woman to win the Nobel in its 109-year history. In announcing the award, Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, described her as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”

Holden will give a presentation on “The Question of ‘German’ Cultural Identity in the 21st Century: Herta Müller and the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature” as part of the Liberal Arts Luncheon series, at noon on Thursday, Nov. 19, at the Smith College Club, lower level.

Meanwhile, she offered insights into Müller’s writing for the Gate.

Gate: Who is Herta Müller?

Anca Luca Holden

Anca Luca Holden: Herta Müller is an ethnic German poet and novelist born in 1953 in the Banat, a region in the southwestern part of Romania that was colonized in the 18th century by German-speaking ethnic groups known as “Danube Swabians.” Following the publication in 1984 in Germany of the uncensored version of Müller’s first text Niederungen, (Engl. Nadirs), a collection of short stories, and her refusal to work for the Securitate, the Romanian secret service, Müller was banned from publication and subjected to continuing brutal interrogation and ill-treatment. She immigrated to Germany in 1987 with her then-husband Richard Wagner—another critically acclaimed ethnic German writer. Since then, Müller has been living in Berlin and has emerged not only as a remarkable writer but also as an extremely outspoken critic against all forms of totalitarianism.

Müller’s award coincides with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of communism in Europe. Unlike previous Nobel winners, Müller is relatively unknown outside of literary circles. This could be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that there is little in the lives of most readers, who have not experienced totalitarian regimes, that resonates with what Müller has gone through.

Gate: What is the significance of her writings?

ALH: Müller has authored numerous novels and collections of essays, short stories, and collage poems, which earned her many prestigious literary prizes. In her works, she revisits persistently, almost obsessively, the themes of oppression, dictatorship, and exile. It is not just her experience of totalitarianism as an ethnic German, but particularly the woman’s experience of tyranny that interests Müller. Praised for her “extreme precision with words” (Peter Englund) and the capacity of conveying traumatic experiences in a poetic style, Müller’s works are considered “an impressive example of a European committed literature that succeeds in bringing history into the present-day with analytical sharpness and poetic exactness” (Michael Krüger, Carl Hanser Publishing House).

Gate: What should I read first by Müller? Why?

ALH: Five of Müller’s works have been translated into English: The Passport (1989), The Land of Green Plums (1996), Traveling on One Leg (1998), Nadirs (1999), and The Appointment (2001). With the exception of The Passport you can access English excerpts from Müller novels, including her 2009 novel Atemschaukel (Everything I Possess I Carry with Me). Many consider The Land of Green Plums as Müller’s best novel, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Of the five works listed here, my favorite is The Appointment. However, I encourage you to read excerpts from all of these novels to see which one grabs you the most.

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