Writing Berlin Like It’s Made-Up
by Kat Hausler
When people hear that I’m an American writer living in Europe, they often summon up images of the Lost Generation hanging at some Paris café. But I’m not an expat on a sojourn here; I’m an immigrant. I work a German office job, file German tax returns, have a German driver’s license – not that I use it much – and conduct my daily life in German. I’ve spent almost my entire adult life in Berlin. At the same time, I grew up in the U.S. and write in my native language for an international, but largely American audience.
Because Berlin is the world around me, it’s the setting for almost all my fiction. But I don’t tend to write stories about Americans. That would always mean adding a plotline about why they were here. It would take up space in the story, and I’m usually busy with other aspects like what a neurotic Berlin musician would do if his stalker July suddenly dropped off the face of the Earth (What I Know About July) or how someone might go about convincing their amnesiac ex that she doesn’t have a new life (Retrograde).
Instead, I tend to write – in English – about Germans living in Germany. I always find it a little distracting in those movies shot in English where they have everyone speak with a heavy accent to convey that it’s a foreign country. After all, people living in whatever country don’t perceive each other as having foreign accents. They sound more or less neutral to each other, and I strive for a similar seamlessness between my protagonists and readers. The grammar shouldn’t sound awkward or translated, and yet there should be, as in almost any fiction, a clear sense of place. This means I need to convey the cultural frame of reference for daily life in Berlin, but without the distance of an outsider.
Because I write in either close third or, occasionally, first person, I’m always in my characters’ heads, seeing things as they see them, with no room for explanations by an omniscient narrator. So how do you convey to someone who’s never been to your story’s setting what it feels like to be so familiar with it that you don’t have to think about it?
My answer is: Write Berlin (or wherever) like it’s made-up. Use the techniques you would if it were the magical kingdom in your fantasy novel or a sci-fi dystopia. It boils down to the same thing: slipping your readers knowledge of an unfamiliar world without pausing your story.
If I were inventing an imaginary world, I’d have to decide what populations there are and who speaks what made-up language. That’s where I have an advantage: I don’t have to explain to readers what German is. But, as with a dialect of elves or aliens, I do have to make it clear when it’s being spoken or delimit when it’s not. Many Germans, especially younger ones, speak good English. Simon, the protagonist of What I Know About July, can get by fine in English as his band tours Europe. But, as an anxious and insecure person, he feels self-conscious when he thinks other people will speak better English than he does, like at an afterparty in an abandoned building in Amsterdam. This makes information about the language being spoken intrinsic to Simon’s character, because it’s just one more variation on his usual self-doubt.
Like many writers, I’m someone who loves expressions, sayings, plays on words. But I’m also a translator, so when a character uses an expression in their thoughts or speech, I think of whether there’s an equivalent in German, because language also shapes our concepts. Extraterrestrial languages wouldn’t refer to the phenomena of our planet, and it’s unlikely that a fictional people with a different language and literary canon would have identical expressions to our own. German is a mixed bag, because it shares many cultural and linguistic ties with English.
Some German sayings are self-explanatory enough that I went ahead and used them in What I Know About July: It’s clear that “Life writes the best stories” means about the same thing as “Fact is stranger than fiction” and that “Never praise the day before evening” is advising you to wait and see how things turn out. Similarly, when July’s neighbor spills her coffee and exclaims “Jemine!” upon hearing that July disappeared after a concert, readers can guess that she’s expressing shock.
Other expressions have close enough equivalents that I just used the English version. For example, when we say “Birds of a feather flock together,” the German expression means something like “Like prefers to keep company with like.”
Some German expressions feel interesting and visceral enough to include, but they neither have a close equivalent nor are they self-explanatory. How would earthlings like us know what a reference to the ten moons around our hero’s fictional planet means? By that same token, it would be unclear to many English speakers, worrying aloud about what might happen, what someone meant by telling them not to paint the Devil on the wall (i.e. not to jinx themselves by talking about what could go wrong). Since no one, either in outer space or Berlin, goes around using common expressions and then explaining them to themselves, I have to find other ways to make the meaning clear to readers. Does the expression always remind the character of something, make them think not of the real meaning (slipping it in here) but of XYZ? Or maybe they remember the first time they heard it as a child. The experience of childhood is not unlike being foreign or new on the planet.
Then there are English expressions. Like many Germans his age, Simon likes to throw some into his speech – except he can’t always remember them right. What comes after “See ya later, alligator?” and what would happen if wishes were horses? These familiar elements in an unfamiliar setting are not unlike everyday aspects of our world as they appear in speculative settings: characters in some dystopian future sifting through ancient detritus we recognize from our present day, or mythical creatures encountering familiar, non-magical aspects of human life.
With any fictional setting, you have to consider how far removed it is from our reality. How far are we in the future? Do the economic, political and social systems we’re familiar with exist in parallel with roving hordes of the undead, sorcerers or vampires? For a country other than Germany, I might have to give readers more context, but Germans consume so much American pop culture. Most in Simon’s generation would know many of the same U.S. bands and movies as their American counterparts.
At the same time, I try to create a sense of distance even to familiar media, because German characters interact with it in a different way. While I grew up watching many of the same high school movies as my German friends, I saw them simply as over-the-top teen dramadies, whereas many Germans I know watched them wondering: Is that what it’s like in America? Are there really cartoonish cliques of Jocks, Cheerleaders, Nerds, etc. who can never be seen together? Not to mention that a lot of teen movies have kids going to house parties in mansions with professional DJs, and attending prom in ballrooms instead of the school gym. So there needs to be a certain awareness of this media as being specifically American. Simon, for example, grew up listening to American music especially to annoy his xenophobic dad, who doesn’t like anything in a foreign language. This provides information to readers who don’t know how widespread popularity of American music is, but the main point is still Simon’s difficult relationship with his dad.
Any unfamiliar society, whether real or imaginary, has not only culture in that sense, but also its own set of customs and characteristics. Do monsters or aliens shake tentacles when they meet? Is it rude for one dragon to go into another’s cave uninvited? You’d have to show them absentmindedly doing the usual thing or thinking about it specifically if they failed to. Many American readers may not know that it’s polite to remove your shoes when you enter someone’s home here. But they do once Simon follows a supposed witness home and then realizes to his embarrassment that he forgot to take his shoes off.
The frame of reference for a given setting includes not only language, culture and customs, but also logistics. In a novel set in outer space or after some apocalyptic disaster on Earth: Is there breathable air and, if not, how do people handle that? Is interplanetary travel expensive? Where do people sleep and how do they get food, energy and other supplies? What form of society or family structure do they live in?
One logistical issue in Berlin – both now and in 2015, when my novel takes place – is the difficulty of getting housing and the resulting prevalence of shared apartments with one main tenant and several roommates dependent on that tenant’s good will. Simon’s past experiences show readers that one of the hurdles to an affordable room can be seeming sociable enough in a “casting” process and answering (inane, Simon would say) getting-to-know-you questions like “If you were an animal, what would you be?”
Because my novel is set in 2015, it was also important to convey how omnipresent the topic of the refugee crisis was in Germany at that time, whether in the context of volunteering and trying to create a welcoming atmosphere, or in the growing popularity of xenophobic right-wing movements. In an outer-space scenario, we’d need to know both what part of the spaceship the characters eat breakfast in and what’s going on in intergalactic politics. Here, I had to create a sense of daily life not only in Berlin, but specifically in the Berlin of summer 2015 – just like it would be important to know whether a story is set on Earth one week or one century after a terrible disaster wipes out life as we know it.
Most people don’t want to read a book without finding out what the colony on Mars, the mermaid kingdom or whatever setting looks like. Even a familiar location needs to feel present to us when we read about it. But it’s especially important to help readers picture the unfamiliar. I can expect average American readers to know what the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower looks like, but not necessarily the Brandenburg Gate. I try to include the large and the small of the world around me. The space-age TV tower at Alexanderplatz is one of the most prominent landmarks in Berlin, but the large grey-and-black hooded crows sauntering all over are also part of the atmosphere. Simon spends more time in Volkspark Friedrichshain than around any monuments, and after all a sprawling public park that attracts people from all walks of life is a more accurate reflection of the city. The café Simon works at and the concert venues he plays, the places he moves through in daily life, are good settings for observing Berlin’s ample supply of hipsters, students, immigrants, creatives, surly old grumps and odd characters like July who don’t really seem to belong anywhere.
For many years now, Berlin has been discussed as a city that’s not finished, always in the process of becoming something else. The Berlin of What I Know About July may be very different from the city you’d encounter today or a few years from now. Does that make it any less real? For the purposes of fiction, it doesn’t matter either way – as long as it feels real on the page.
Kat Hausler is a graduate of New York University and holds an M.F.A. in Fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she was the recipient of a Baumeister Fellowship. She is the author of Retrograde and The Heroes and Other Stories. Her work has been published by Hawaii Pacific Review, 34th Parallel, Inkspill Magazine, The Sunlight Press, The Dalloway, Rozlyn Press, Porridge Magazine, LitReactor, BlazeVOX, failbetter and The Airgonaut, among others. She lives in Berlin and is also a translator.