Charlotte Kessler | 6 March 2017
Fatma Aydemir’s debut novel Ellbogen (2017) addresses the experiences of immigrants in Germany in the face of the current political and social climate. ‘Ellbogen’ is German for ‘elbow’ and refers to the pressures in society that cause people to elbow their way to the top in order to be successful. The novel is a striking portrayal of the second generation of immigrants, who are often the children of so-called ‘guest workers’. It captures sensations such as loneliness, alienation and the search for belonging, which Aydemir does through telling the heart-warming story of a teenage girl of Turkish descent living in Germany and by using the colloquial language of Turkish teenagers who mix German and Turkish slang. The observation of migration experience does not end there. There are various situations and characters that lend themselves to an analysis in regard to Claire Sutherland’s chapter on citizenship and migration in Nationalism in the Twenty-First Century (2012).
Seventeen-year-old Hazal lives with her parents and her brother in a small flat in the Berlin district, Wedding. The neighbourhood is home to many other people with a migrant background, and as much as Hazal detests this expression, there seems no escaping it. Hazal feels foreign in many ways: the generation gap between herself and her parents is too big to overcome and she is stuck somewhere in between a German and a Turkish culture, while distancing herself from both. Hazal’s case is a classic scenario of second- or third-generation immigrants who were born in Germany but have a foreign passport. Sutherland explores precisely this connection between citizenship and the feeling of belonging, stating: ‘In some cases, those citizens who do not fully belong in a national sense, such as migrants and ethnic minorities, feel they are denied this cultural citizenship and are treated like ‘second class’ citizens as a result’ (132).
Hazal and her friends bond through their foreignness, referring to themselves as ‘Kanaken’ and to Germans as ‘potatoes’. ‘Kanake’ is used as a derogatory term for foreigners, and is mainly directed at Turkish immigrants. The word has been re-appropriated by many Turkish communities, like Hazal’s group of friends, who positively identify themselves with it. Anger that has been built up in many years of discrimination and frustration is noticeable in the girls’ irritable attitudes and aggressive behaviour. This anger is mainly directed at their German peers who seem to have everything the girls will never have and whose lives are so much easier than their own. Importantly, as Sutherland explains, nation-builders of nation-states consider integration to be the ideal outcome of migration. Integration means that the individual ‘maintains his or her native culture while engaging with the host culture in order to achieve a synthesis’ (136). In contrast, Hazal and her friends experience marginalisation and alienation from both their ‘native culture’ and their ‘host culture’ inspired by feelings of rejection. According to Sutherland, such alienation is the cause of extreme cultural disorientation, which Hazal experiences.
Hazal’s family, like so many other families in Wedding, make a great effort to sustain their Turkish culture in a foreign country. The community strongly identifies with their ‘native culture’ while rejecting the ‘host culture’. In an interview, Aydemir describes that the neighbourhood in Wedding is very similar to neighbourhoods in Turkey, where everyone knows each other and teenagers create their own languages and codes. Sutherland calls this phenomenon separation, which is also often referred to as ‘ghettoisation’ (135).
Hazal’s parents paint the picture of many immigrants who originally moved to Germany as ‘guest workers’, planning to stay only for a couple of years to save money and move back to their home country. For these immigrants it is difficult to accept that they might never move back home and, as a result, they come to reject the German culture. By doing so, they are in turn excluded by German citizens. Hazal is often irritated by the values her parents hold so dear and that seem so unreasonable to her. She is sick of all the political talk involving Erdoğan, judges her mother for not having an opinion and for agreeing with whatever her father says. For the reader, it might even be easy to dismiss Hazal’s mother as a depressed housewife in an unhappy marriage, and her father as an angry taxi driver who escapes the family life as soon as he can, thus reflecting the ways in which migrant communities can often be dismissed.
With its citizens from all over the world, Berlin is a multicultural metropolis and with her novel, Aydemir has worked to shine a light on its Turkish community. With Ellbogen she draws attention to the alienation immigrants often suffer, and, as Aydemir explains, exclusion can begin actively with racist remarks or more passively through misunderstandings of cultural differences. The separation of the individual results from these experiences and turns into a vicious cycle: ‘You condemn the potatoes who condemn you.’ The novel raises questions about what it means to be German or Turkish, and whether national structures are necessary for the contemporary citizen.
Literatures, cultures, languages, theatre and art will never cease to fascinate me. Specifically, I am interested in the theory of cosmopolitanism in regard to literature and will focus my dissertation on the global outlook of contemporary literature. I am currently pursuing a MSc in Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh.
Article edited by Kitty Ruskin.
Aydemir, Fatma. Ellbogen. Carl Hanser Verlag, 2017. München.
Sutherland, Claire. Nationalism in the Twenty-First Century: Challenges and Responses. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Basingstoke.