For the first time since the Samuel Fischer Guest Professorship was established in 1998, we did not have an author in Berlin this summer. We are all the more pleased that the professorship will be continued in the winter semester with the writer Samanta Schweblin!
We used the summer months to collect reports and texts from our guest professors, students and partners and publish them here. They give an impression of how they experienced the situation with this "other world" - from Bernardo Carvalho from the metropolis of São Paolo to Teresa Präauer from her apartment in Vienna.
The coronavirus hits South and Central American countries particularly hard.
The tense and difficult situation that our guest professors experience in their home countries is described in newspaper articles and in personal messages.
The full extent of the catastrophic situation in which Latin America in particular currently finds itself is described by two of our guest professors in articles for El País: the Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez (Guest Professor in summer 2001) and the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Guest Professor in summer 2021).
Sergio Ramírez' article is entitled: "It is another world. A world that makes you afraid." Progress, which until recently was considered certain, has come to a sudden halt. Suddenly all that remains is uncertainty, and everything that seemed certain belongs to the past.
„Es otro mundo. El mundo que da miedo.“, El País 07.07.2020
Juan Gabriel Vásquez writes in his article: "In Latin America, where citizens distrust governments, short-sighted decisions about the pandemic can turn an already vulnerable country into a violent one."
The numbers are rising everywhere. Not only in the two most populous countries, Mexico and Brazil, where populism and authoritarianism reign, but also in Chile and Peru, where the virus was taken seriously. And in Colombia, despite a three-month lockdown, the worst is yet to come. The shutdown of an economy that was already unjust has already plunged many into despair and poverty, and the often contradictory or capricious statements made by political leaders have caused more confusion than certainty. The mistrust of institutions, which is already present in Latin America, increases in times of pandemic. There is no country in Latin America that does not suffer from appalling inequalities. But now, Vásquez states, the less fortunate choices of the political class, which were already there before the pandemic, can endanger peace where peace is new, or invent new wars where there were none before.
„El virus en América Latina“, El País 02.07.2020
The coronavirus hits the South American countries particularly hard. Brazil in particular is suffering immensely from the pandemic and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to play down the dangers of the virus despite the fact that over 75,000 people have died in his country.
In March, Bernardo Carvalho wrote a text about how he experiences the situation in Brazil and how Jair Bolsonaro deals with the corona virus.
A few days before the shelter-in-place order from the local authorities was implemented in São Paulo, I met an actress I know from Rio, from the days when she was an adolescent and I a sophomore. She seemed dazed and lost, admiring a derelict house a few meters from my building. She was amazed to see me, as if I were some displaced ghost from the past. She told me that she’d just been informed that the play she was rehearsing would be indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus. She was in a state of shock, wandering the streets of my neighborhood as if seeing the world for the last time. She told me how lucky I was to be a writer at this unhappy and strange moment, having enough suspended time before me to write all the books I had postponed for various reasons, while her life as an actress seemed to be over.
I didn’t react at that moment. But now, after little more than a week of confinement and after listening to the president’s loathsome speech on TV, I could tell her how weird it feels to be a writer (and a citizen) in social isolation while the government takes advantage of a pandemic in order to fulfill its plans against the people and the country. There is little writing possible under these circumstances. Everything becomes distraction, impotence, urgency and anger. It felt like this already before the pandemic. The confinement only turned that which seemed more abstract and impalpable after his election into a magnified paradigm. It gave our impotence a concrete representation. And this is where I am now, hostage to an allegory that happens to be real.
Like some neighbors I can hear around the block, but not in my building, I also resort to howling and banging pots out of my window as a way of protesting against the president and calling for his ouster, while awaiting the worst, the expected carnage when the virus reaches the slums and the poorest.
He has said on TV that this is no worse than a simple cold, that people should go back to work and that the media is behind what he insists on calling “hysteria”. Some predict that this will be his end. But a few days ago he also mentioned that it isn’t yet time to decree a state of siege, letting us know what he has in mind, sending us a warning message about what may come. It would be the perfect timing actually, since we’re confined, and going out on the streets would now be a suicidal move.
They’ve tried to proceed with their autocratic project behind the scenes, pushing for the overturning of democratic laws and the Constitution. At first sight, the pandemic may seem an unpredicted obstruction to their project, but it also may serve them as an excuse to speed up their plans. A coup d’état would in fact be a way for his military ministers to take hold of the situation, silencing any dissent or criticism, while giving the president a free hand and a way out of this mess. For now, he has opted to a murderous and desperate strategy: a propaganda war against the lockdown.
So this is what I would tell the actress if we happened to meet again now, this is what occupies my writer’s mind, confined to my apartment late at night, long after the yelling and pot-banging have given way to an unpeaceful silence, as if the inevitable was not enough and the barbarians – not only the virus – were already here, hidden around us, waiting for dawn to launch their attack.
The coronavirus is also changing people's lives and routines in other parts of the world.
Here we accompany the work and the perception of our guest professors, project partners and students, who tell us their thoughts and impressions in various "home stories" and publications. How do they deal with the current situation and what does it do to them?
So ist die Welt geworden. Der Covid19 Roman.
"Von schweren Schritten niedergetreten und in den Boden gedrückt. Das war das Gefühl, das sich ausbreitete, wenn sie die Nachrichten las. New York Times. Guardian. La Repubblica. Der Spiegel. Die Süddeutsche. Totenzahlen. Trump-Wahnsinn. Die Welt geeinigt in die Tragödie der Pandemie. Aber nicht einig. Alles aufgerissen. Alles in Frage. Keine Sicherheit. Nicht einmal in den eigenen vier Wänden, die Betty aber dann auch nicht mehr verlassen hatte wollen."
On March 20, 2020 Marlene Streeruwitz decides to write a serialized novel, not for later but for now: So ist die Welt geworden. Der Covid19 Roman.
Until June 29th, she published new episodes on her website every week and provided insight into the inner life of her novel character, the writer Betty Andover.
All episodes of her novel will be published in book form in October.
Listen now to The Quarantine Tapes
hosted by Paul Holdengraber
A week-day program from Onassis LA, dublab and LiteraryHub. The series chronicles shifting paradigms in the age of social distancing. Each day, Paul calls a guest for a brief discussion about how they are experiencing the global pandemic.
How does Iceland deal with the Corona virus? What can literature do and what can it contribute to? These are just two aspects of the telephone conversation between Sjón and Paul Holdengraber:
Listen to all the episodes of The Quarantine Tapes here.
Wohin ich reise, wenn es nur mein Zimmer ist
(das eine Wohnung ist, immerhin)
This is Andrew Sean Greer, Fischer Guest Professor in the winter of 2012/2013. What have I been up to since then? Well, I was writing fiction and travel writing until as recently as March, when suddenly all travel stopped. I was living in Milan and flew back to San Francisco just moments before their lockdown there, and moments before ours here. Like many of you, I haven’t really left the house in a month and half. And oh the weather is glorious out there! But the real question is: how to get writing done when the world is on fire? How to focus on your petty little novel when you feel you should be writing about politicis, information, health, injustice? It is so hard to feel what we are doing matters.
The double exposure offers not simply intertextualities but a way to exist, moment by shifting moment, inside cultural […] and deeply personal crossings. (Rawi Hage & Madeleine Thien)
Inspired by Madeleine Thien’s and Rawi Hage’s seminar Double Exposures: Transposition, Substitution and Autonomy as Literary Response at Freie Universität Berlin and their intermedial approach of investigating and writing literary texts under the guiding idea of the photographic technique of double exposures, I started a small experiment of layering several recently taken photos onto one another, blending them into each other and assembling them. As a result, I would like to share some small experimental photo montages that are supposed to point back to one purpose of the creative process: for its own sake. Not being able to plan too far ahead and being confronted with a yet unknown situation, I was trying to actively adapt the very moment in order to create a possible meaning.
Double exposures and other methods of combining photographs as a way to capture shifting moments in an image of stillness somehow striked me as an option to make current re-experiences of the present visible that are maybe shared by others in similar or varying forms.
Elisa assembled the photo montages in her shared flat in Berlin-Wilmersdorf in April 2020.
 Hage, Rawi; Thien, Madeleine: Double Exposures. Introduction. Berlin: Edition AVL Berlin. 2020.
I am experiencing the lockdown in my shared flat in Friedrichshain where I live with two young women, one of whom has an eight-year-old boy.
When the lockdown began I started to take a picture every day. Sometimes in the flat, sometimes in the rare moments outside.
In total I have shot seven films – until now.
Cara sent us her photo documentary of four weeks in March and April 2020 from Berlin-Friedrichshain.
Because I’m here, I’m not there, there, where going out requires a piece of paper. “I hope your family is ok.” Yes, they are. They came back home,
Right when the government was deciding to lock them all down.
Newspapers’ narratives, dialogues between Germany and Italy
Some in bitter disappointment, on some president discourses
Sterile conversations on Eurobonds.
Has my vision of Europe become different?
No. Let’s all be responsible and act as a community -
Keep the distance, wash your hands, even Liam Gallagher sings it to you.
Andrà tutto bene
Back there, my region’s governor invites people to stay at home
or else he would gently use flame throwers to persuade them -
It is a very serious situation.
You see, I am in Berlin.
But invisible wires connect me to the
Cold, brittle tension spreading from Italian voices.
The 16th of March I decided to self-isolate -
A friend from Milan kept on sending me statistics, foreseeing disastrous events
Some kind of common worry, we share, we are closer.
I’ve sewn a mask
With a pocket for the filter, of course.
The other day was a sunny day
The lucky cats were happily shaking their paws to the shiny rays.
I went to the park.
Despite the dystopian-like announcement by the police
Everyone seemed to be enjoying their freedom responsibly-
What a beautiful day
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Maria’s home story was written in her room in Berlin in April 2020.
If I am granted further years of life, I will tell you that of this period, composed of long days that are all the same, I could remember only this. Burnt milk.
The truest image of hope in this quarantine is enclosed in a small blue-enamelled saucepan. Two chapped lips, a denture lost for five days, and a black bikini that embraces ninety grams of skin dangle next to it. In the middle of the bikini stands a D cup size, in which a coffee spoon is stuck. Close to the saucepan, my wife Giancarla smiles. She’s cooking the milk like twenty years ago, she’s been letting the milk cook for twenty minutes. “It’s a proof of love,” she says.
I lick my right index finger. I’ll leave her to it. Ten pages of dead people in the city newspaper. The most important corona of this season of Lent is not that of thorns.
“I hid your heart under the blanket last night. But where the fuck did you hide my dentures? I’ve been looking for it for five days.” My wife has always had a warm, round voice. I love her so much that while she hurts me, I console her. Because, a moment later, she no longer remembers it. I answer with lowered eyelashes: “Giancarla, please cover yourself a little. It’s still not that hot. Have you already checked that the dentures are not in your mouth?”
I lick my right thumb and close the newspaper. The radio transmits Pope Francis’ prayer and blessing Ubi et Orbi. Lonely Rome must be elegant today. Giancarla takes out the coffee spoon and she urges me holding it: “Check.” She tilts her head back and opens her mouth wide.
From the radio indistinct prayers. My tongue already tastes the wine I will drink after dinner. I move closer and put my hands around her wide hips. I snap a kiss into the void of her open mouth. “Every tooth is in its place. Do not worry.” I steal her the spoon and turn off the stove.
Milk is burnt.
But Giancarla is happy. On the radio the Pope says that you can’t save yourself alone.
- Parma, 13 April 2020. Fifth floor of the red brick block of flats in Via Eugenio Ravà, 22. Quarantine day number thirty-seven. Pietro Cavali, a 93-year-old pensioner and Giancarla Bellini, an 85-year-old woman with Alzheimer's. -
“I never have time for anything!”
How many times have I thought or said that? And, most of the time, I actually meant it. Though, in reality, I did not “not have time for anything”: it was always the things I really wanted to do that I could not find time for.
Many take that as ‘having the right mindset’ and ‘setting the right priorities in life’: first comes work, then fun. But what if there is no ‘then’ – what if that ‘then’ never comes? I thought to myself every time.
But it did come. Though it didn’t come in like a nice, welcome guest I have known for a long time and whose visit I’d been expecting. Instead, it burst inside like a crazy burglar, slamming in the door and taking me hostage in my own home. In comparison to a real hostage taking, the conditions of this one were pretty good, however: having to stay at home all day with no work to do – the ‘then’ had finally come, presenting itself on a silver plate and giving me no other option but to take it!
One should think that when I finally have time off – and not just a day or two, but lots and lots of time – I would do all the things I “never have time for”; catch up with my to-read-list (although I’d need at least a year off for the whole of that), watch all the shows and movies I want to, and, most importantly, work out all the story ideas brewing up inside my brain and actually get some writing done.
But now that I finally have all the time I could wish for, it feels like I barely do the things I’d like to do. I get up early every morning, but waste lots of time I gain from that. I sit down to write something, but as soon as I do, all motivation and inspiration disappear in an instant. I read almost all day, but it takes forever to finish even one book.
I always thought having no time to do the things I’d like to do is the worst feeling, but now I know that I was wrong: so much you could do, so much time for anything, but you get nothing done – that feeling is far worse.
Fleur sent us her home story from her apartment in Berlin-Moabit.
At the beginning of February, when Corona was still one crisis among many, my roommate Daniele asked me what I thought about this virus. We sat on the balcony and smoked. The question took me by surprise. Not even a week ago I had arrived in Lisbon for a semester abroad. I had other things on my mind. There will be a reason for the warning, I suppose - I told him without being too serious. He waved it off: They’re exaggerating.
A few weeks later, my life abroad was set up. I had made close friends, went surfing with them every week, played tennis, learned Portuguese, attended seminars and had a light but persistent sunburn on my face. I could hardly wait to share my life there with my girlfriend, who was soon to come to visit me.
Meanwhile, my Italian roommates reported with increasing concern about their home country. The crisis continued to smolder and the Portuguese began to take precautions. Many wore masks, worked from home and closed their shops – restaurants were already only delivering.
That was on the 12th of March when there were as few as 41 confirmed infections across the country. In Germany, the pandemic was still considered scaremongering in many places (confirmed cases: 2.369). On the same day, I was on my way to university. The teachers were free to choose whether to teach locally or online during that week. But I wanted to be on location once again for my favorite course.
Nothing was the same anymore. The red plastic tables and chairs draped around them had been abandoned. Under the lemon trees on campus, the student stalls were missing, nobody smoked weed, nobody was kissing, all the music had fallen silent. Then, and only then, I finally understood that the planned semester abroad could soon be over for me too. I’d read it, I heard it, I thought it through before. Yet it didn’t feel real until the announced measures became perceptible, until they were conflicting with the way I was living my life. I think a lot of people felt that way.
Paul edited this snapshot in Schwanewede, a Lower Saxon village close to Bremen, in the guest-room (which was formerly his) of his parents’ house in April 2020.
j'erre dans paris vide
de nos rires de notre frénésie
absent de notre absence
le soleil de printemps
déchu de nos flâneries
des baisers des amants
et de leurs mains complices
le long du canal saint-martin
j'erre dans paris
qui ne sait plus nos noms
silencieux de nos rires
et de nos pâles angoisses
le soleil noir et nu
a l'odeur délavée de la faim
dans les yeux d'un enfant de mon île
borgne et sale
de morgue et de gouaille perdues
telle catin d'une fois
usée de syphilis et d'artificiels paradis
paris ultime refuge
paris a la cadence vide
de nos doutes planétaires
plus rien n'est certain
le diable ni même le bon dieu
hormis le carton-pâte
des jours lents
sur le balcon rabougri du bâtiment d’en face
une fillette à fleur de vie
invente ses premiers pas
suspendue dans le vide
toute à sa découverte
les yeux rivés à demain
qui s’ouvre sous ses pieds
elle brandit un sourire indifférent
aux applaudissements convenus
des voisins de l’immeuble d’à côté
tandis que les corneilles
de leurs ricanements insolents
déchirent à pleine gorge
le silence écrasant de la ville
la nuit comme les pas de la bambine
hésite en ce début de printemps
j'erre dans ma chambre
sur le néant
paris, le 3/04/2020