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In conversation with Olga Grjasnowa: Exposing racism in Germany

  • Published at 10:43 am November 9th, 2018
Olga Grjasnowa Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu

Everything is just about trying it out, she advised

You’ve said very bravely that, “the German society hasn’t learnt anything from the Second World War”. Has that made life difficult for you in Germany? 

I think we learnt some things from the Second World War but not in the way we pretend to. In Germany, there is this narrative of “never again.” Western civilisation loves to lecture other people on human rights, free speech and so on. But human rights stop at the border of the European Union. We don’t give any rights to immigrants; we deport them. Our Interior Minister, when he turned 69, casually joked that 69 Afghan people have been deported on his birthday. And this is a man at the top! Germany’s hate crimes are very much connected to white privilege. 

Even though I came as an immigrant to Germany (and it wasn’t that easy), I’ve always had this white privilege and I know exactly how I am treated on the streets and how, for example, somebody who wears a hijab is treated. The visibility of otherness makes a big difference. I’ve been hearing this question in Germany for many years—“Where are you from?” which means, “what ethnicity are you?” If it’s the first question people ask, it shows that you don’t really belong there. 

Your writing and treatment of your heritage is quite similar to some British and American writers with a Jewish background, such as Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer or Art Spiegelman. Do you see yourself experimenting with characters of other ethnicities, religions or realities?

I wrote a new book which is set completely in Syria, and almost all the protagonists are Syrians. In my second book, the protagonists are from Georgia. But it’s also a question of preparation—how much of other stories should you really tell or is it up to you to tell them? My book on Syria is still a very European book, it doesn’t pretend to be a Syrian book. 

What do you think of DLF 2018? Do you think such festivals help to connect writers from different parts of the world? 

It’s a great festival—amazing place, an amazing format, and has amazing speakers. I think it’s a great place to educate ourselves, not only for visitors, but even all of us in the panels are learning something. For me it’s super exciting as I was uneducated about Bangladesh and Bengali literature, and I’ve learnt so much in just one day.  And yes absolutely, I think these festivals are the best way to connect with writers. Most writers I know and meet are usually at festivals. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers from Bangladesh? 

Just do it! Everything is just about trying it out and that’s my advice. It might or might not work out. It’s not bad to have another idea for a possible career, it doesn’t do any harm if money is an issue. It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t work out, but you have to try.  l