As part of the PEN World Voices Festival, Herta Müller spent an afternoon at NYU's Deutsches Haus on May 3 to discuss whether it's possible for literature to bear witness. When I arrived at the venue, the main floor was packed, which I expected for a Nobel Prize winner. I did not expect, though, to receive a printed, stapled, ten-page, single-spaced English version of her speech translated by Philip Boehm, who is also the translator of her recently released The Hunger Angel. The entire audience was engaged, either listening to Müller read her speech in German or watching the English translation projected on a screen at the front of the room.
Müller talked candidly about the relationship between words and our lived experiences, recounting many experiences of her own that led to her development as a writer. In asking the question “Can Literature Bear Witness?” Müller admitted that she’s also asking herself why she writes and what her goals as a writer are. In each memory she recounted, Müller dealt with the fundamental challenge of writing based on life: there is not a one-to-one correlation between what we experience and words available to describe those experiences.
One paragraph Müller read was particularly moving; it began: “When I read the books of other authors, writing resembles speech. When I write my own, I only speak inside my own mouth, and the writing resembles silence.” I often hear writers talk about “voice” and treat it as an essential element of storytelling. Maybe it is, but Müller, at least in her own writing, is more interested in the silence of storytelling than in the voice of the storyteller.
Müller elaborated on how she had silenced her writing in order to be understood. She was encouraged not to write about the most extreme examples of the repressive Romanian regime’s actions because, she was told, Western audiences would not believe her and would stop listening to what she had to say. She later realized what good advice this was. “I chose to talk about less dire examples of crimes, and I saw that the warning was correct. Because even those examples were seen in the West as exaggerated. Even they made people suspect I might not be completely right in the head.”
Luckily the awards Müller won for her work, as well as her international presence, have protected and freed her to some extent to talk about the crimes that she had formerly kept to herself. But communicating with Western audiences still holds some challenges. “The belief that speech can overcome confusion is something I’ve never heard anywhere but in the West,” Müller observed. I appreciated Müller’s point that every culture, place, and time has its unique form of silence. Even in the West, where many view language as an antidote to confusion, confusion reigns, as does a reluctance to talk about or investigate certain aspects of our experiences. As Müller said in the Q&A, “there will always be taboo, there will always be silence”; and there is also a fear that past silences will rise again in new forms.
“What has been lived couldn’t care less about writing; it needs to be completely transformed before it can be reconciled with words. Only then can a sentence begin to resemble life,” said Müller. “Whenever I put lived events into my sentences, a ghostly procession is set into motion. The events packed inside the words pass on to some new place known neither to them nor to me.” Meaning that writers have to in some way separate themselves from the experience and then take it apart, examining all the physical and emotional pieces before beginning to reassemble them on the page.
Learning other languages can help guide the process of writing and bearing witness. As Müller eloquently put it, “We gain our mother tongue without much effort. It is a dowry that emerges unnoticed and is judged by a language that is acquired later and in a different way. From then on, the mother tongue is no longer the sole repository for objects, the only measure of things.” Another language changes our relationship to the world and our relationship to what we write. About how Müller’s second language, Romanian, influences her writing, she said “Romanian is always co-writing; the language grew into my view of the world.”
But even allowing several languages to “co-write” still doesn’t always enable us to share our experiences in the often wordless, complicated ways we experience them. So can literature bear witness? Yes, but maybe not in the way we expect. “The author takes what is lived and casts it in another form. It is no longer day or night, town or country; the new world is ruled by nouns and verbs, main and dependent clauses, meter and sound.” Müller left the audience with these final thoughts, “The words in our mouths do as much damage as our feet on the grass. But so do our silences.”
Read an excerpt from Atemschaukel here in a past issue of Words without Borders.