Priscilla Layne (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

What is German Studies and who does it? Who is the “we” German Studies assumes? Who are our students and constituents?  


Last year, my colleague at Duke, Jakob Norberg wrote an essay in about the particular nationalist origins of German studies. But that is a history that is rooted in the 19th century and it doesn’t mean German literature wasn’t more affected by migration and more receptive of transnational aesthetics prior to then. So, one question we must ask ourselves today is whether the monolingual, narrow story we tell about German studies has us rooted in this nineteenth-century understanding of the discipline and whether we need to move beyond that. Personally, I have found it more useful to always consider the permeability of the alleged border around what/who is considered German and what is German studies.


I’ve been increasingly thinking about the question “What is German studies?” as my career has developed, but I was first faced with this question in graduate school. At the University of California at Berkeley, I had the pleasure of taking classes with Deniz Göktürk, who ended up becoming my dissertation advisor. I took two film courses with Deniz, and neither of these courses were particularly “German,” meaning neither course was dominated by material in German, concerning Germany or made by German artists. Instead, each course had a broad enough theme that it might appeal to graduate students outside of my program; themes like mobility and humor. And there were in fact several graduate students from other disciplines who signed up, as they were eager to work with Deniz in film studies more generally. I really grew to appreciate the kinds of conversations that become possible in a graduate seminar with a diverse makeup of students; and with “diverse” I mean intellectually and disciplinarily, in addition to diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender and ability. In each class, one of the ways Deniz fostered diversity was by leaving several weeks in the syllabus open so that at some point in the semester she could flip the classroom and ask the graduate students what film they would like the rest of the class to watch and why. This was a brilliant approach that exposed me to a variety of topics I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered in a grad seminar housed in a German studies department. In one course we discussed anything from Armenian exile filmmakers in Canada to the partition of India and Pakistan. And even if these topics didn’t directly relate to my own research, learning about them increased my critical thinking skills and encouraged me to think more globally, which can only be a benefit in this day and age, considering that German film is typically a transnational enterprise and the most successful German literature is often written by individuals with a so-called “migrant background.” I think encountering such an approach to German studies that is more inclusive than exclusive has had a really formidable and positive influence on my own teaching and research. It is my doctrine to not allow Eurocentrism to limit what I’m willing to teach or what lens I’m willing to apply to my research. In grad seminars, we frequently assign non-German theoretical readings such as Lacan, Derrida, and Bakhtin. But at the same time, we don’t assign Fanon or Lorde or DuBois. Why? Is it because German scholars allegedly read the former group and not the latter? And when our theoretical toolbox merely consists of authors who are significant to Germany, whose voices and perspectives are we possibly excluding?


Who does German studies?

From the perspective of Black German studies, the people who do German studies or contribute to it were not necessarily trained in German literature, film or history. They might be housed in Ethnic Studies, like Fatima El-Tayeb, in Women’s and Gender Studies like Tina Campt or Maureen Maisha Eggers. They might be independent scholars like Natasha Kelly. Or they might not even be scholars associated with an academic institution, like Noah Sow or Philipp Khabo Köpsell. The reason why Black German studies acknowledges a variety of actors contributing to the field has a lot to do with the limitations placed on the study of Black people in Germany. There’s a reason why there are so few Black Germans in academia and a reason why Black professors in Germany, even if they study race in Germany, are not housed in . We all know that the German education system involves a lot of gatekeeping, which arguably begins with the decision of whether a student should go on to the , or to  or . If you are a Person of Color, if you have a “migration background,” if you have a name that is deemed “foreign sounding,” if German is not your native language, these can all be potential barriers to a career in academia. That is why a lot of the work done in Black German studies has to be done outside of Germany, or in disciplines other than or German studies. The main agenda of scholars working in Black German studies is to do the work, and they will do that work, whether it’s within a university, some other state institution, in Germany or outside of Germany or on stage as an artist or in a self-published book. Black German studies recognizes the contributions made by the community as a whole and stresses the agency of those being discussed, so the discipline does not amount to outsiders examining Black Germans as objects. 


Is German studies only done in German?

My teaching in Black German studies has definitely changed my perspective on how German studies relates to the language, literature and culture of Germany versus other disciplines. Black German writing is often multilingual involving German and one or more additional languages. There are also Black German authors like Olumide Popoola who prefer to write solely in English. Born in 1975, Popoola grew up in Bielefeld. She has been writing poetry since her teens, when several of her poems were published in the Black German magazine Afro Look. Following her university study and a period abroad in South Africa, she moved to the UK permanently where she has been publishing in English ever since, including a play, a novella, and, more recently, a novel. Popoola claims she chose to write in English for a number of reasons: 1) She has an audience in English; white Germans aren’t interested in her writing; 2) She feels more comfortable speaking about issues of race and identity in English; 3) Her years of living in London among Black people from the Caribbean and Africa who speak English in multiple dialects and accents have made her feel at home in that space and in the language. Thus, just because Popoola writes in English, should we not read her texts if they address the Black German condition? And what about Sharon Dodua Otoo, an author born in England of Ghanaian descent who has lived in Germany since 2006. Otoo writes in English and German, but sometimes writes in English first and then has her work translated into German. Her short story, “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin,” won the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann prize in 2016. Will we read that story with our students because it was originally written in German and not read her novella Synchronicity because it was originally written in English, even though both narratives concern Germany and German culture? Or what about Amma Darko? She is a Ghanaian author who lived in Germany in the 1990s as an asylum seeker. She has written several novels about that experience, in English, and some have been translated into German like Beyond the Horizon (Der verkaufte Traum, 1995) or Spinnweben (1996) which is only available in German. Her novels offer priceless information about the life of African women in Germany. They also tell us something about whiteness in Germany and constructions of German identity. Should we exclude them just because they weren’t originally written in German, even though we don’t do the same with Aras Ören’s work? What’s the difference?

Finally, it is time to rescind the idea that German literature is something created primarily by a homogenous group of white German authors. In a controversial op-ed for the German newspaper Die Zeit, German author Maxim Biller posed the following rhetorical question: “Warum ist die deutsche Gegenwartsliteratur so unglaublich langweilig? Weil die Enkel der Nazi-Generation noch immer bestimmen, was gelesen wird. Was hier fehlt, sind lebendige literarische Stimmen von Migranten. Die aber passen sich an und kassieren Wohlfühlpreise.”[1] Biller’s op-ed triggered an interesting dialogue between German intellectuals about publishing and privilege. In this piece, Biller explores similar questions to the ones I’ve raised here. He claimed that the most exciting German literature at present is being published by Germans who have a so-called Migrationshintergrund, including authors like Olga Grjasnowa, Saša Stanišić, and Yoko Tawada. But as many have argued before, migration and globalization are not new to German literature. You can go back centuries to find examples, such as the French Huguenot Adalbert von Chamisso, the namesake of the prize given from 1985 until 2017 to authors publishing in German whose mother tongue wasn’t German. I prefer to see migration as a reality of German experience, and there will be different waves of migration from different countries. But German literature has always been affected by migration, and whether or not one acknowledges this fact depends on what narrative of German literature one wishes to tell.