Young black teenagers, where are they now

Author Olivia Wenzel on identity: "Coming out as non-whites"

In “1000 Serpentinen Angst” the author tells of growing up as a black person in East Germany. And she talks about happiness in life.

Olivia Wenzel: The main concern of the protagonist is where her place in the world is Photo: Julia Baier

Olivia Wenzel is sitting in a café in Berlin, the lunch soup is already on the table. We'd have to wait a moment before the interview, she still has a few things to arrange for the book premiere - and uses the phone and laptop at the same time. "1000 Serpentinen Angst" is published this Wednesday. It is the story of a young woman, her life with an anxiety disorder, the loss of her brother and the question of belonging.

taz: Ms. Wenzel, is your book a kind of coming out as an East German?

Olivia Wenzel: It is more of a "coming out of not being white", a coming out than notWhite. In the first plays I wrote all the staff is White, and i didn't even notice Then I was in a workshop at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, and then I realized that I was actually only white People think when I write. After that I wrote pieces in which this aspect came up, but only now with the book has it become a central theme.

The mother of the protagonist was a punk imprisoned in the GDR, the grandmother is a SED member who is loyal to the line. What role does this origin play in the book?

was born in 1985 in Weimar and lives in Berlin. She writes theater texts and prose, makes music and leads workshops for children, adolescents and young adults.

While writing, I had the feeling that the protagonist was primarily concerned with the question: Where is my place in the world? And this question is linked to the question of where do I come from and what are the seats my family sat in before?

The story begins with the arrival of the protagonist in the USA, where she witnessed the 2016 election campaign. The first and last parts of the book are structured in questions and answers. One question repeats itself over and over again: Where are you now? Mrs. Wenzel, where are you now?

With your head on various construction sites. Half with the family, half at the book launch and half at the next project. When it's quiet for a moment, I'm emotionally at Hanau and I'm pretty angry. It makes me very sad. I ask myself: When will there be a wider political response?

What do you wish?

Mely Kiyak put it in a nutshell: It's a shame that Merkel didn't go straight to Hanau and give her condolences. It's only coming now. Instead, there was a speech in the market square, to which the relatives of the victims then had to go themselves. Politics does not come to the relatives, but they have to go back to politics. I also lack serious public thought about banning the AfD.

Another question that comes up a lot in the book is: What are you withholding right now?

I like to hide how much hard work this book was. In everyday life I relatively often suppress being loud, outraged and angry. When confronted in everyday life, I am always friendly first and try to sort things out in a charming way, but I often get annoyed afterwards.

A fast-paced story, a look back, a position is developed in the book through these questions. It's about a love affair, about racism, about a dead brother. Who is the questioning person?

I always call that the questioning authorities and ways of speaking. In the beginning there are very different voices. A headline from once inspired me to answer the questions Buzzfeed or something that I heard from other people in passing. The texts come "from everywhere", the questions are based on current political events, are psychological or, in some cases, interrogation situations, such as when entering the USA. And later it becomes more of a dialogue between the protagonist and herself.

I also saw the questions as an impossibility to be with yourself and to ignore the questioning counterpart.

Many people and their bodies are marginalized and thus used to reflecting on the outside and thinking: How do I work in this situation? For example, if I sit in a seat on the BVG bus and be the first to get up when an older woman gets on the bus, then I'm not just doing it because I'm polite. I also do that because it still resonates that I am currently representing something. I want to represent the good so that one can say: Look, this young black woman was very polite to you. In the USA this is called double consciousness, this looking at oneself from the outside.

You are a musician, performer, dramaturge - what can you express with the book that you cannot in these areas?

I have a lot more space and can speak and think more extensively. I actually prefer to work in a collective and that means that a lot of content from other people flows into my work. An important piece of work was, for example, the play “The Invention of Gertraud Stock”. With the collective Suggestion: hammer we interviewed 14 women over 80 and fragmented their biographies into one great biography. I unconsciously adopted this pattern for the book. In the play we stand on the stage and put on the biographies of the older women as if they were our own, bringing in our own content. For the book, however, I often worked with autobiographical material.

How much Olivia Wenzel is there in the protagonist of the book?

That woman in the book, I'm not. But I can understand what she describes and how she speaks. We have seen many similar things. I would say it's a darker version of myself that I couldn't stand to be in everyday life.

The protagonist as well as you have moved away from Thuringia. Are you preoccupied with the topic?

Not then, in retrospect, yes. I left because I wanted to be somewhere that was better for me. And when I got that, it became difficult for me to drive back into the corner. I studied in Hildesheim. When I drove the bus there, after a few stops I noticed: I don't look around all the time to see if there are Nazis sitting anywhere. And I don't even look who gets out with me. It was only in this moment of everyday relaxation that I noticed that I was not able to achieve this degree of relaxation before. This fear is therefore also the subject of the book. To be away from this fear is good and important.

Racist violence has also become very visible in West Germany last year, most recently in Hanau. Can you still feel safe as a Person of Color in Germany?

You have to try, otherwise you have to go away, like many from the East. I personally feel safe and valued in my environment. But I also know that this can break in quickly, even in Kreuzberg or Neukölln. In the book I try to say that I can't be constantly afraid of all these things because then life becomes too stressful. Neither can I constantly look up at the walls of houses to see if something is falling down that kills me. It's still more likely that I will die in a traffic accident than in a racist assault. As shitty as it all is and as much as it feels like it is currently piling up, it is still the case that each of my days in Berlin is pretty okay.

In the book there is this dialogue: “Are you looking forward to everything that is to come?” The answer: “Strangely enough, yes.” Are you a confident person, Ms. Wenzel?

Absolutely. I think this year will be very good for me. I've been very lucky in life.