Mutterzunge; Mother Tongue

Mutterzunge; Mother Tongue (1990)

This book is composed of four short stories of varying lengths, which relate to the themes of migration, memory and Turkish German identity. The book is dedicated to Özdamar’s mother, Fatma Hanim.

All of the stories attempt to negotiate the interlinking categories which define and divide people: ethnicity, nationality, gender, class, and language.

The first two stories in particular focus on the role played by language in shaping subjectivity; in the second story, ‘Großvater Zunge’; ‘Grandfather’s Tongue’, the letters of the Arabic alphabet seem to come alive and they have a strong physical presence of their own (pp. 18-19, 40).

Page references in brackets refer to the German edition of Mutterzunge [1990], 2nd edition (Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2002).

1. ‘Mutter Zunge’; ‘Mother Tongue’

The title of this story is a phrase which does not exist in standard German; it is a literal translation of the phrase ‘mother tongue’ which exists in English, French and Turkish, but not in German. The narrator begins by explaining that in her language, ‘tongue’ also means ‘language’. Then she emphasises the flexibility of the human tongue: ‘Zunge hat keine Knochen, wohin man sie dreht, dreht sie sich dorthin’ (p. 9); ‘The tongue has no bones, wherever you turn it, it turns’. Here, the flexibility of human speech implies the flexibility of human identity. The narrator’s own tongue has ‘turned’: after living in Germany and speaking German for years, she has lost her mother tongue and her identity has also changed. Now she remembers her Turkish experiences in German. She recalls that her grandfather spoke Arabic, before Kemal Atatürk banned Arabic script and replaced it with the Latin alphabet. She decides to learn Arabic.

2. ‘Großvater Zunge’; ‘Grandfather’s Tongue’

This story describes the narrator’s study of Arabic and her sexual relationship with her Arabic teacher Ibni Abdullah who lives in Wilmersdorf in West Berlin. It is not clear which country Ibni Abdullah comes from, but he says it is in Arabia (p. 43). Ibni Abdullah’s seven brothers were all killed in a war against Israel (p. 15). It is not clear whether the text is referring here to the Six-Day War of June 1967 or to the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.

During her relationship with Ibni Abdullah, the narrator assumes a voluntay purdah (female seculsion) for forty days. Then she leaves Ibi Abdullah. She goes to a motorway and throws some of his papers away, and then she goes to stay at a Christian mission run by nuns (p. 44). At the end of the story, the narrator meets a young woman sitting on a park bench, weeping because her boyfriend has just committed suicide. The narrator remembers that ‘ruh’ means ‘soul’ in Turkish; this is similar to the German word ‘Ruh’ (p. 48). This suggests that European culture and Arab culture share a common heritage.

3. ‘Karagöz in Alamania. Schwarzauge in Deutschland’; ‘Black Eye in Germany’

This is a prose version of Özdamar’s play of the same name. The longest text in the collection, it tells the story of a Turkish peasant farmer who goes to Germany to become a Gastarbeiter (guest worker). The Turkish word ‘Karagöz’ means ‘black eye’ but it also means ‘shadow puppet’. The word ‘Karagöz’ simultaneously refers to the main protagonist of the story, and to Turkish shadow puppet theatre which has influenced the unreal, episodic, carnivalesque narrative technique of this story.

The farmer leaves his home village accompanied by his talking donkey, and leaving his wife behind. Later his wife follows him to Germany and becomes pregnant. She cannot stand living in Germany but she cannot stand living in Turkey either (p. 72). The donkey becomes an intellectual and starts quoting Karl Marx (p. 82). The farmer attempts to seduce his German language teacher; she throws him out (p. 84) and so he returns to his village in Turkey bringing lots of domestic appliances with him (p. 87). The farmer has become politicised (p. 89) but the donkey is hit by a car full of Gastarbeiter (p. 89). The donkey survives, and he and the wife go to Germany, but the farmer stays behind to investigate whether his wife had an affair with his uncle (p. 90). Then the farmer goes to Germany. Dressed as a cleaner, he sends his wife and children back to Turkey (p. 94). The donkey has started writing a novel but the farmer tears up the pages (p. 95). The farmer moves back to Turkey; he goes to bed with his domestic appliances because he prefers them to his wife (p. 102). He sees his youthful self stealing apples, and he doesn’t know who he is any more. Then he and his family all get in the car and the farmer drives the car backwards to Germany (p. 103).

4. ‘Karriere einer Putzfrau. Erinnerungen an Deutschland’; ‘Career of a Cleaning Lady. Memories of Germany’

This short text is narrated in the first person by a Turkish cleaning lady whose experiences bear comparison to those of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The woman’s first husband in Turkey is rich and arrogant, and she feels like she is drowning in an ocean of his dirty bedlinen (p. 105). Then she moves to Germany where her next ‘prince’ is a dog, it is her job to follow the dog and put its mess in plastic bags. Then the dog is carried away by an eagle (p. 108). So the woman gets a job cleaning the stairs in an apartment block instead.

Finally she gets a job cleaning a theatre in Berlin. There are numerous satirical references to the play Hamletmaschine by Heiner Müller. The narrator’s job is to clean up the mess made by male intellectuals such as Heiner Müller who stage dramas of emancipation but still rely on low-paid manual labour by immigrant workers in order to do so. The theatre is described as ‘ein einziges Männerpissoir’; ‘one big men’s urinal’ (p. 114). The narrator wants to be an actress but instead the theatre people give her a machine and tell her to polish the stage.

English Translation

Mother Tongue, trans. by Craig Thomas (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994)

Further Reading

Leslie A. Adelson, The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Toward a New Critical Grammar of Migration (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

Stephanie Bird, Women Writers and National Identity: Bachmann, Duden, Özdamar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), Chapter 6 on Mutterzunge

Meliz Ergin, ‘Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Translingual Poetics in Mutterzunge’, Seminar 49:1 (2013), 20-37

Brigid Haines and Margaret Littler, Contemporary Women’s Writing in German: Changing the Subject (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Chapter 6 on Mutterzunge

Margaret Littler, ‘Diasporic Identity in Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Mutterzunge’, in Recasting German Identity: Culture, Politics and Literature in the Berlin Republic, ed. by Stuart Taberner and Frank Finlay (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2002), pp. 219-34

Margaret Littler, ‘Intimacies both Sacred and Profane: Islam in the Work of Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Zafer Şenocak and Feridun Zaimoğlu’, in Encounters with Islam in German Literature and Culture, ed. by James Hodkinson and Jeffrey Morrison (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2009), pp. 221-35

Frauke Matthes, Writing and Muslim Identity: Representations of Islam in German and English Transcultural Literature, 1990-2006, igrs books vol. 6 (London: Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, 2011), Chapter 4, pp. 173-214

Yazemin Yildiz, ‘Political Trauma and Literal Translation: Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s Mutterzunge’, Gegenwartsliteratur: A German Studies Yearbook 7 (2008), 248-70

Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), Chapter 4 on ‘Mother Tongue’

Web Link in English

Steven D. Martinson lectures on Transcultural Literary Interpretation in ‘Großvater Zunge’; ‘Grandfather’s Tongue’