SPIEGEL ONLINE Interview with Author Dilek Güngör 'My Identity Is Constantly Present'

SPIEGEL ONLINE talks to Turkish-German author Dilek Güngör about her relationship to Turkey, German ideas about nationality and the absurdity of being considered a poster child for successful integration.


Author Dilek Güngör has just published her first novel, "The Secret of my Turkish Grandmother."

Author Dilek Güngör has just published her first novel, "The Secret of my Turkish Grandmother."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You recently published your first novel "The Secret of my Turkish Grandmother," about a young German woman of Turkish descent who travels to Turkey and gets to know her grandmother. What inspired you to write it?

Dilek Güngör: A few years ago, I had several interesting conversations with my mother and my grandmother. I realized that my grandmother wasn’t this poor, uneducated woman from a remote village in Turkey who has no idea of how the world works, but rather a funny and wise person who knows how men are and speaks openly about sex. It was her that inspired me to write my first novel.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did you choose to write about a family feud?

Güngör: I wanted to write about a person who finds out that someone she loves has done something terrible. I wanted to explore how a person might react in such a situation, where she would have to ask herself: Am I a bad person if I still love her? Besides, it would have been too corny if I’d just written a story about a young German woman of Turkish descent who travels to the heartland of Anatolia and learns to love her Turkish family.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How is your relationship to your own grandmother?

Dilek Güngör: At first it was a little bit like the relationship between Zeynep, the main character in the novel, and her grandmother. I didn’t know what to talk about with her. But once I got to know her better it was easier. I thought she would feel sorry for me because I was 30 and unmarried, since she married when she was 15. But the opposite happened. She said to me: “It’s great that you have your own profession and that you’re independent.” And then I realized how prejudiced I was about my relatives in Turkey.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How was the public’s reaction to the book?

Güngör: Of course everyone wants to know how much of the novel is autobiographical. They ask me if my grandmother is still alive. Apparently this is the kind of question people ask when you write in the first person. Luckily the readers have not focused on the family feud and they have accepted the book as it is: a story about a young woman’s journey to an unknown world.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The women in your book are very submissive. Are women in Anatolia really like that?

Güngör: I’ve often been asked about the patriarchal structure of society in Turkey and the way women react to that. Actually it is just the way I described it in my novel. Women in Anatolia do not go alone downtown; they either go in a group or with their husbands. But it is normal for them. I’d never walk hand in hand with my boyfriend there because no one does that there. When I was there I had no problem with that -- probably because I knew I’d go back to Germany in a couple of days.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, the women in your novel seem to be stronger than the men.

Güngör: Yes, that’s what I experienced in Anatolia myself. That is the case with my grandmother -- the men in the family always consult her first and ask her for advice when they have to make an important decision. Nonetheless, I have the feeling that men are not very present in their daily lives. There is a strong division between life at home and life outside. Men are always either working in the fields or visiting the downtown markets. Women are always at home, where they are their own masters.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think that women in Anatolia wish they had more freedom?

Güngör: Yes. My mother, for example, left her village when she was 19. I know that women there have a very hard life.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You grew up in southern Germany as the daughter of Turkish immigrants. What was it like to grow up in these two different cultures?

Güngör: Even though my parents come from a rural region in Turkey, they brought me up in a liberal way. Nonetheless, when I was a child, and I was told I couldn’t do something, I always thought it was because we were Turkish -- I thought German girls could do anything they wanted. I associated Turkishness with negative things like being underdeveloped, strictness, prohibitions and secrecy. But as I got older, I realized that my German girlfriends also had to be home by 10 p.m. It took me a while to change my attitude, but when I turned 30, I finally changed my way of thinking.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The German media has labeled you as an example of a successful Turkish woman who has integrated into the German way of life. What do you think about that?

Güngör: It’s absurd. I believe in the right to be acknowledged as an individual. There are plenty of talented people that are not successful and many stupid people who are successful. I think that luck plays an important role. Often high quality does not get the recognition it deserves.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you think a lot about your identity?

Güngör: Not on a daily basis, no, but somehow my identity is constantly present because I will always be confronted with situations where people will ask me where I’m from. I don’t really know how much of myself is Turkish and how much is German. But, for example, I know that when I go to a German family, there are certain things I’d do differently. In Germany, everything is more direct. If someone asks you if you want tea then you say "Yes, "end of discussion. But in a Turkish family, you wouldn’t just say "Yes." You’d say: “Don’t go to so much trouble.” These may seem like empty phrases, but they are very important.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You did a master’s degree in Race and Ethnic Studies at Warwick University in the United Kingdom. Did people in the UK ask you about your family roots as often they do in Germany?

Güngör: No, in England, it does not matter that much where you are from. If you say "I’m British," it’s enough because people can see that your parents maybe come from India or Pakistan. The British are used to living together with millions of immigrants. But, in Germany, if I say "I’m German," then they ask: "But where do you really come from?"

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is it so different in Germany than in England?

Güngör: Maybe because of Germany's Nazi past. Germans still think that you are only entitled to be called German if your parents and grandparents are Germans as well. In fact, legally it still works that way, even if you can apply for German citizenship. It is not like in the UK or France, where you automatically receive citizenship if you’ve been born there. I was born in Germany but I had to apply for citizenship. But nowadays to be German can also mean that you were born in Germany and that your parents are from Turkey. This is Germany’s reality. I think that the concept of being "German" should be broadened -- Germans should slowly understand that Germany is a country of immigration.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did something change when you got German citizenship?

Güngör: Now I say I’m German, whereas I used to say I was Turkish. I was 20 years old when I applied for citizenship and I had to give up my Turkish citizenship. It is just a piece of paper, but it makes your life simpler. I don’t need a residence permit anymore.

Interview conducted by Vera von Kreutzbruck

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