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Olga Grjasnowa: Diasporic voices from Germany

  • Published at 02:04 am October 29th, 2018
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Most readers in Bangladesh, as well as the Indian subcontinent, have been exposed to diasporic works set in either Britain or America

It all started when an eighteen-year-old Grjasnowa entered her first ever writing contest. One thing led to the other when she had casually applied to the Creative Writing program at the German Institute of Literature, Leipzig, and to her utter surprise, ended up getting accepted. With three highly acclaimed novels and many prestigious accolades, Olga Grjasnowa brings to DLF 2018 a unique blend of diasporic literature that infuses dissociation, the power of language, and everyday racism in a multifaceted German society. 

Most readers in Bangladesh, as well as the Indian subcontinent, have been exposed to diasporic works set in either Britain or America. While Mohsin Hamid’s Changez chased an unattainable American dream, Monica Ali’s Nazneen struggled to find her identity in the streets of Brick Lane. Our Hanif Kureishis and Jhumpa Lahiris have familiarized us with the struggles of the brown-skinned immigrants, and given us glimpses of what it is like to be married to an Yvonne or an Adam. Grjasnowa’s diaspora, however, takes us not to the UK or the US; rather it transports us to modern-day Germany where refugees are struggling to adapt to German ways. Uprooted from their life in the former USSR, Grjasnowa’s own family had shifted from Azerbaijan to Germany, suddenly finding themselves at the lowest social strata. 

In her debut novel “All Russians Love Birch Trees,” the headstrong, politically aware protagonist Mascha has been created, as if, in the author’s image. At a young age, Mascha discovers the power of language and aims her sights very high as an interpreter. Like Grjasnowa herself, Mascha too is a product of a Jewish culture, a Russian heritage and new German surroundings where she switches between her many identities. The novel, however, does not remain limited to this autobiographical angle. Rather, she addresses the issue of ethnically-motivated violence by going back and forth in time to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, and the exodus of thousands of quota-refugees to Germany. Published in 2012, “All Russians Love Birch Trees” won the young author the Anna Seghers Prize, as well as a nomination for the German Book Prize.

In her second novel, “The Legal Haziness of a Marriage,” Olga Grjasnowa writes about even more challenging themes- homosexuality and Soviet Russian communism. The 2014 novel revolves around two autonomous protagonists Leyla and Altay, who enter a contract marriage to conceal their homosexual orientation from the prying eyes in Moscow. The author paints the stark contrast between the post-Soviet life in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, as well as the party scene in Berlin that the world has all but forgotten. 

Haziness, the book that won her the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, sees a clash between the idea of freedom and that of entitlement, bringing together two unique protagonists in a bond of tenderness that requires no labels. 

One of the major strengths of Grjasnowa is her head-on attack on conventional forms of thinking. Her newest creation is her 2017 novel “Gott ist nicht schüchtern,” that goes full frontal against social conventions. Her protagonists walk with an air of confidence in themselves, pushing aside their traumatic pasts laced with discrimination, and moving forward to achieve better things. To the South Asian reader, her innovative form of diasporic works will bring pressing ideas to the forefront and overall, be of great literary value.