Going Dutch with German Writers (13) : Storyfinder Annett Gröschner

Beer and a funeral musician in a smoky Prenzlauer Berg bar – who else could it be but Annett Gröschner, a fine discoverer and writer of stories about Berlin and its more eccentric inhabitants? Katy Derbyshire goes drinking with the journalist and writer, and finds they have more in common than she expected.

Big in Berlin: Annett Gröschner
Big in Berlin: Annett GröschnerFoto: Philipp von Recklinghausen

Who?

Annett Gröschner is a writer, journalist, researcher, teacher, and has published two outstanding novels, Moskauer Eis and Walpurgistag, along with numerous other books. The latest is Backfisch im Bombenkrieg, the wartime diaries of a teenage stenographer, which she discovered and co-edited. I contacted her because I had her email address and thought she’d be an excellent person to go out drinking with.

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Where?

Rumbalotte continua, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg

What?

Annett drinks red wine and water and I drink Berliner Pilsner (and a vodka).

What did we talk about?

We’re both a bit shy and uncertain to begin with; this is the first time we’ve met in person. I ask her about the group blog Ich. Heute. 10 vor 8, on the website of the FAZ newspaper, a project she’s involved in. It came about via a network of women who were angry about how invisible women still are in the German media. All those old men on TV discussion panels! And then Zeit Online started a blog called Fünf vor 8:00, in which five old men explain the world. The idea was to find a newspaper that would host women writing about topical subjects or whatever else they wanted, as a counterweight. So it’s not supposed to be about “women’s issues”? I do air quotes and Annett winces slightly – I’m not sure whether in reaction to the air quotes or the phrase. No, it’s about whatever interests the women who write there. I was confused, I try to explain politely, because it seemed to be about women’s issues and at the same time I really get the feeling that the FAZ (and especially its blogs) is very male-dominated, with women covering the soft subjects like pets and dance. Isn’t she worried they’re creating a little women’s ghetto with the project? Men do seem to be reading it though, she says, because several have left angry and insulting feedback in the comments section. And maybe they have to take things one step at a time, we agree.

Our drinks have evaporated and I get the next round. The barman fills Annett’s wine glass very generously and we have a quick banter about which of us ought to take a sip, but then we turn around and Annett is looking. So the barman comes out from behind the bar and carries the glass over to our table for me. He knows Annett; she seems to come here often and feel fairly comfortable here. She’s amazed that he’s being so nice to me though; they’re not usually nice to women here, apparently. I mumble something about it being my first visit because I’m not sure what she’s getting at, or in fact I have a suspicion but I don’t want to go there. I’m not quite relaxed yet; I should have drunk wine instead of beer. I want Annett to like me and I may be trying too hard. But our edges soften over stories of (single) parenting. Annett says it made her son more independent but she had to kick him out of home in the end. I say women have made progress; we’re doing well enough to live without maintenance from men, if need be. But she says that was already clear in the GDR. You only made a decision to have a child if you knew you could support it. In passing, I mention that my daughter’s dad trained as an electrician. Annett smiles – she’s not been looking directly at me much, and now she’s still looking away and her hair is falling over her face, but it looks like a genuine smile – her son’s father used to be an electrician too.

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I ask her how she came to writing. In the GDR she wrote poetry and was published in official and unofficial magazines, she says. Later she tells me she did lots of readings in churches, although she’s an atheist, because the people in the churches were the only ones offering space to non-conformists of all kinds. And then after 89 she got into journalism because that was something that had been out of the question for her beforehand, but suddenly it was an exciting option. “Like looking through gaps in a fence,” is the phrase she uses. She worked for all kinds of publications that no longer exist, often unpaid but that didn’t matter at the time, and she worked in projects with old people and young people, and in the early 90s there was a phase when people were suddenly open to telling their stories. Old women, mostly, who hadn’t talked about their experiences in and after the war, including rapes by Soviet soldiers, which were of course taboo in the East. Once she sent two young school students, girls, to interview a local woman, and she opened up and told them the story of her rape, for the first time in her life. They were fourteen or fifteen, the same age as she’d been at the time.

She worked with old people in a “story-telling café”, she tells me. This is totally fascinating and I can’t wait to tell my sister about it because one of the best things about her job with old people is listening to their personal stories. The trick, Annett tells me, is to set a certain topic so you don’t get ten people going off on random tangents. Go to a particular place with them, like a former dance hall, and the stories will come tumbling out, or have someone come in to talk about a certain subject. She tells me how someone came in to her sister’s group in Magdeburg with a gym wheel – my mouth is agape – and talked about this German proletarian sports tradition of trundling around the room inside a gigantic double-hoop, and then a few of the old ladies had a go because they’d done it in the old days.

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The Blogger: Katy Derbyshire

Katy Derbyshire is a London-born translator who moved to Berlin in 1996. She has translated many contemporary German writers, including Felicitas Hoppe, Francis Nenik, Clemens Meyer, Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Simon Urban, Sibylle Lewitscharoff and Christa Wolf. She likes talking about books.

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