The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 | The responsibility of literature is to keep memories alive: Ronya Othmann

German author Ronya Othmann discusses the impact of war and migration on families, and the role of literature in preserving sanity in brutal times

Updated - January 26, 2024 08:33 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2024 01:19 pm IST - CHENNAI

Author Ronya Othmann in conversation with Kathrina Gorgen at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 (The Hindu Pavilion) held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Friday.

Author Ronya Othmann in conversation with Kathrina Gorgen at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 (The Hindu Pavilion) held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Friday. | Photo Credit: B.Jothi Ramalingam

In brutalising times, literature keeps us sane, said German author, poet and journalist Ronya Othmann, whose acclaimed book The Summers (translated from the German Die Summers), published in 2020, is all about the entanglement of migration and how families are torn apart when faced with war and loss.

To document the years spent in conflict and exile is important, she said, because when everything is lost, it is important to preserve the memories associated with home. “The responsibility of literature is to keep the memories alive,” said Ms. Othman, who was in conversation with Katharina Gorgen, director of the Goethe-Institut, Chennai, at the The Hindu Lit For Life on Friday.

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The immigrant identity

Ms. Othmann’s extensive research on the themes of migration, homeland, and war can be seen in her novel’s protagonist, Leyla. Like many other children, Leyla has inherited her father’s history of a traumatising migration, and is caught between memories of her student life in Germany and her summer travels to her father’s Kurdish village in Syria. Negotiating questions of identity, belonging, and integration, the novel explores how home is a crucial site of one’s life and yet is not about a place, depending instead on people. “It is about another country where memory and imagination integrate experiences, Ms. Othmann said.

Addressing issues of gender and cultural differences, Ms. Othmann said that women migrants have it harder as they must adapt to different traditions in a new country which is not their ancestral homeland. But dreams and hopes bind people together when they are torn apart, she noted.

While she relates to multiple stories of migration and narrates through Leyla’s village stories, Ms. Othmann said that distancing from reality helps with healing. Germany is becoming a country of immigrants where people are negotiating different worlds and reframing what it means to have a home, lose it, find a new one, and ultimately belong to one.

The novel is not scared totackle disenchantment, as when Leyla understands how the people in her grandparents’ village are ready to leave again if needed; as well as how her fun life as a student in Germany is pricked by people’s indifference when ISIS troops enter their village near the Turkish border. “There are many layers to living,” Ms. Othmann said.

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