Her book follows the fantastic journey of an American woman who, after awaking from a state of amnesia, is haunted by the ghosts of WWII-era Berlin and the Third Reich. She spoke with Exberliner magazine’s Cara Cotner.
Like your character Margaret, you left the US and moved to Berlin to study at the Freie Universität, worked as a tour guide and live in Schöneberg. Why did you choose to insert all of these autobiographical details?
Basically out of insecurity. I was writing a first novel, and I didn’t trust myself to dream up radically new or farfetched material. However, that said, the book is a fantasy of what my life might have been had I been a significantly more disturbed, isolated, and troubled individual than I am.
What was it like to work as a tour guide?
To be honest, giving tours is extremely repetitive and quickly becomes very boring. But the job had a very powerful effect on me. I ended up becoming really angry about the way history is not only reduced, but transformed into mythology.
Can you give an example?
For one, people strongly identify with those who resisted the Nazi regime and with its victims, although statistically, almost all of us would have been perpetrators. And the problem is that everybody puts a lot of effort into thinking about what it must’ve felt like to be locked up in a concentration camp, but they’re very slow to try to understand what was happening psychologically to the people who committed these atrocities.
Do you feel that your book romanticizes history?
I feel like the book’s subject is the romanticization of history, in other words, the process by which history is transformed into myth. So the book is performing what it’s critiquing, and I think that’s the reason it’s being widely misread by critics. They see it as only taking part in a certain discourse on the Holocaust rather than critiquing that discourse. There’s an ironic stance, not an enthusiastic involvement in that narrative.
Do you feel it’s impossible to write a novel about the Holocaust or World War II without adding to the mythology?
It is. I think that if you’re going to write a novel, you have to seduce the reader into identifying with a certain romantic way of thinking, because if you don’t, the reader won ’t have any way of understanding what exactly is problematic in the thought patterns presented. If you manage by the end to have come to a point where you’ve deeply unsettled the reader, so that the seduction has proven to be in some ways a trap, then I think that the work has vindicated itself.
The book deals with German cultural amnesia. Do you not feel Germany’s reconciliation with its past has been achieved?
I feel it has. I was very interested in the process by which a person or a society wakes up from a state of amnesia, not the amnesia itself, but the process of remembrance. When thinking about how to describe what Margaret should be going through, I was definitely thinking a lot about what Germany went through as a nation.
What keeps you awake at night?
There’s always something keeping me awake at night: cooking up a new plan for my life; thinking about China, where I used to live. Recently my mind has been churning over critics’ misreadings of my novel. That keeps me up.
Ida Hattemer-Higgins will read from her novel at EXBERLINER’s Wednesday
Night at Kaffee Burger on May 25 at 9pm.