“I am Georgian but I feel at home with the German language”: An interview with the writer Nino Haratischwili9 min read
The Georgian-born writer Nino Haratischwili recently toured Italy presenting her latest novel, The Lack of Light. Nino lives in Germany and her writing language is German, her literary mother tongue; yet her works depict her home country, its specificity, people, and history. In Lack of Light, she tells the story of four women who share a common courtyard and a specific timeframe: the novel is set in the 1990s, a dramatic period in the history of Georgia. The novel presents at once personal and collective memories from a specifically feminine perspective, since the 1990s were an extremely “masculine” period in Georgia, as Nino points out. The narrative presents the reader with a vivid glimpse of Georgia through the eyes of the generation that “lost the most,” especially in terms of dreams and hopes, during the 1990s, according to the writer. Yet, the point of view is that of the present, which helps in creating the necessary distance to approach that “dark and brutal” period during which, however, people (and Nino’s characters) find space for little joys. Martina Napolitano, writer and president of Lossi 36‘s partner Meridiano 13, had the chance to talk to Nino at the book festival Pordenonelegge in mid-September. What follows is their conversation on belonging, Georgian literature, and the importance of history.
Nino, you were born in Tbilisi, but you have lived in Germany since your twenties and have chosen German as your “literary mother tongue.” What is the role of German for you, compared to Georgian?
It plays a very important role, but I cannot say that writing in German was a conscious choice. I started learning German very early, at school in Tbilisi. There, I attended a theatre group where many teachers were native German speakers; they came from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Study exchange programmes were organised and a theatre group from Bremen came to Tbilisi; they encouraged me to write my first play in German. That’s how it all started.
My entire professional life in terms of writing has been in German. Then I moved to Germany, where I studied theatre directing, and at some point I decided to stage my own play. I was already writing a lot, but I was very shy and I wasn’t sure if it would work. I thought that if I wrote in Georgian, then I would still have to translate into German; so I tried writing directly in German. I was already fluent in German at the time.
So I wrote a text, put it on stage, and I liked it; I found that the distance to the language is very helpful for me. After that, I found a publisher — it all happened without me having a specific plan in mind.
When I came to Germany, I was 20 years old, and my idea was to study and then return to my country. But when the German language “adopted” me, it became more and more difficult to return.
One day, I realised that I had not written in Georgian for years and I got scared. Of course I speak Georgian, I go to Georgia often, I talk to my children in Georgian, and so on, but writing for me is something completely related to the German language.
So you have never tried self-translation, right?
Oh no, that would be terrible! I would have to rewrite everything from the start.
Are you satisfied with the Georgian translations of your books?
My last book was translated by one of the best Georgian translators. In the case of languages I don’t speak, I don’t feel so involved in the translation process precisely because I don’t know the language, whereas in this case I was very happy because I trusted the translator.
Do you think that a non-Georgian reader can understand all the Georgia-related realia contained in your books?
It is difficult for me to answer, you should ask the public. Sometimes I think that I should explain in more detail to the reader. However, I really trust the readers and their intelligence. Today it is so simple, you can Google everything. Often, I also think that one can understand from the context. For me, it is the same when I read books related to other cultures and countries: I may not understand everything, but if I have a doubt I can look it up online or get an idea from the general context.
I think good literature should be universal.
In my previous book, The Eighth Life, there is a lot of talk about the history of Georgia; it is a family saga that unfolds over the course of a century. At first, I did not plan to write about an entire century, but then, as I was writing, I realised that Western readers would not understand if I did not go back in time and explain more.
In the case of the latest book, I thought that if some readers are not sure about some historical information related to the 1990s they can look it up on Google. That is why I did not worry much about the possible reception of the book.
Your latest book came out in Germany two days after the invasion of Ukraine, and many people at the presentations asked you questions more related to politics than to the book itself, asking you to put on the role of a geopolitical analyst. In addition to this kind of “reception” related to the moment we are living in, how has the public in Germany reacted to this novel?
There have been very good reviews. In the case of The Eighth Life I know that many readers then wanted to go on a trip to Georgia, and this makes me happy, of course; however, I honestly don’t know if anyone after reading this novel will want to go to Georgia.
As far as I remember, whenever I met with the audience in Germany they always talked about politics, everyone put the events in the book in relation to what is happening now.
The questions they asked me were not even so much about Georgia, but about Eastern Europe in general, Ukraine, often Russia, because of the many parallels between Georgian history and what is happening today. It was not something I was even remotely expecting while writing the book. All this attention was in a way good for the book, but it is not something you can be happy about since it is related to a war. I have mixed feelings about it.
How did the Georgian public welcome the novel?
Really emotionally. I have received many letters, people write to me on social media or through the publisher. Readers take the book very personally, especially the generations born between the 1960s and 1980s for whom the 1990s are linked to childhood and youth. These were intense periods of their lives during which they had to pay a very high price, especially those born in the 1970s. All have vivid memories of that period. Many have told me that the book has awakened old memories.
I am aware that I did not write about MY personal memories or things I made up; I am aware that this is a collective memory shared by those who lived through the 1990s. Everyone remembers this period in a similar way: as a long, cold, dark winter, due to the frequent lack of electricity. Clearly we all have different memories, but there is a basis shared by all.
Actually, history plays a specific role in your novel, I’d say, rather than being just a setting for the story…
It is the background against which the narrative is built, but it is also an engine that pushes the narrative forward. Everything that happens in the book, everything that happens to the characters, even when it is something fictional, is connected to real events in history. Everything that happens takes shape according to the historical context of Georgia at the time. It is a real driving engine.
Do you keep an eye on contemporary Georgian literature? What is your opinion on it?
There are many good female writers who are getting more and more visibility; some are dealing with specifically feminist issues. I can’t read everything that is published, but I try to keep an eye on what comes out, and I buy books when I am in Georgia. An interesting new generation is emerging.
There was a time when I was reading Georgian books and thought, “What the heck? These authors are trying to adapt to the Western market, they write things that are not authentic, you can feel that everything is very artificial.” To me, it’s not a good book when you feel that the author is talking about things that don’t affect them directly, but they write that way because they think it will sell better. It seems to me that this trend is changing now.
On the contrary, the problem is that, when you describe typically Georgian, Caucasian, national aspects, it is difficult to get that specificity across in other languages. I think the key is to find a balance: not to give up your own spirit, but also to try to be understandable to other cultures. I hope Georgia will be able to find this balance.
In 2018, Georgia was the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and it was a successful moment for Georgian literature, which succeeded in making many books and authors known. Now the political situation in Georgia is terrible, but after all that is the trend in Georgian history: you take two steps forward and then three steps back. Now we have gone those three steps back again, but I hope that soon we will go back to those two steps forward.
One last question, out of pure curiosity: do you consider yourself a Georgian or German author?
People keep asking me this. In a sense I am a German writer because the language of my writing is German.
However, you know what’s curious: When I started publishing my books in German, at first, in all the reviews, I was referred to as a “Georgian writer,” then I became a “Georgian-German” writer, and finally, after The Eighth Life — and this is really funny since it is a book of over a thousand pages about the history of Georgia — I became a “German writer.”
Even in Georgia they ask me this question and sometimes people think that I write in German because I don’t speak Georgian well. Then when they hear me speak they are amazed and cannot understand, it is strange for them and I understand it. For me it is normal and I don’t think about it too much.
I, as a person, would say that I am Georgian, very Georgian, because the more I live in Germany the more Georgian I become, it’s very curious but that’s how it is; however, of course, I feel at home in the German language.