Rooted in ethnographic fieldwork, rich historical archives, and literary analysis, Moving Words examines the different claims people make on and for literature as it carries them through the city of Berlin on irregular and intersecting paths. Read the full Q&A by author Andrew Brandel here:
1. Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?
This book started (as many do I suppose) as a different sort of project. I went to Germany as a graduate student for the first time in 2011 because I wanted to learn more about the enormous impact of texts from India on literary and philosophical culture at a pivotal moment in German history. I spent time in Heidelberg and Berlin, visiting archives and libraries, but quickly found myself spending more and more of my time in antiquarian bookstores. Many were still selling copies of great works in Sanskrit (often but not exclusively translated into German) and even in some cases, key examples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Orientalist scholarship. The more time I spent in bookstores, the more I came to see how this earlier moment of colonial reading was still in the air two centuries later. This was particularly the case since by 2015, public discourse would be gripped by talk about the migrant “crisis,” protest movements, and concerns about resurgent ethnonationalism throughout Europe. I also began to appreciate just how important bookstores, salons, reading circles, poetry workshops – and of course the texts themselves – were to people’s experiences of the political moment. They play a terribly important role in oppression and in resistance. They give shape to the various ways people conceive of and perceive difference.
2. What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
Like many ethnographers, I feel primarily responsible for words entrusted to me. I hope that in my descriptions and reflections, the voices of the people I met are as clear, powerful, and challenging as I found them. I hope too that I have found a way to convey something of everyday life in Berlin – including its contradictions, its fancies, its dangers, and its possibilities. I wanted the book itself to reflect that texture. I didn’t want it to feel as though every story that emerged had to fit into an overarching narrative. I didn’t want to give a false impression that all these experiences could be huddled under and explained by a single, unifying idea.
A small example comes to mind that arose in the copy-editing process. I didn’t want words ostensibly from “foreign” languages to be orthographically marked – for example, to be italicized, as is a common practice in academic monographs. I also didn’t want to include English translations in every instance. I made that choice because I felt that life in the city had that character, that among the tangle of language one could hear walking down the street or riding a subway were words one didn’t fully understand or recognize. For me, it was also one way to show how the sense that something is “foreign” isn’t a brute fact about a language, but the result of a deeply power-laden process.
3. Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you?
Many things surprised me. Fieldwork profoundly shaped my thinking. I think of methods as responding to pressure from the world. I went into the project with some ideas about things I might try, but a lot of the work I ended up doing was borne from an engagement with writers, readers, publishers, booksellers, and performers.
When I first started working in Berlin, I cast a pretty wide net. I went to every public reading I could. I joined every group I came across. I introduced myself to writing clubs. I made a routine of visiting bookstores on long walks. As time went on, I found myself particularly drawn to a handful of spaces that oriented me within the broader landscape – an innovative bookshop owned by authors, a literary magazine and walking tour, a salon for writers living in exile, a pair of independent publishers – and ultimately, each provides a centre of gravity for a chapter in the book. By the same token, I tried to resist the temptation to give a synoptic view of the city. There’s no Archimedean point. It never made sense to me to approach a research topic like this one by aiming for comprehensiveness. Instead, I think of each as offering a kind of fragmentary opening; not only another way of thinking about shared questions, but also new questions to consider.
4. What was your experience working with the editors of this book?
I was extremely lucky to work with incredible editors at UTP. Michael Lambek, who edits the series Anthropological Horizons, was incredibly enthusiastic and supportive throughout. Jodi Lewchuk believed in the project from the start, and it’s a much better book because of her encouragement and insight. She really ensured the book was true to my voice and the voices of my interlocutors; that the mundane, the strange, and fantastical elements all had a place in the stories inside. I want to also mention Janice Evans, who was the managing editor for the book and was extraordinarily generous with her time and guided me through the production process so ably.
5. What do you hope readers will take away from reading Moving Words?
I think for most readers, there are two main things I’d hope they would take away. The first is an appreciation for the many things that literature means for and to people in different contexts. When we give up looking for definitions, and for certainty, I think we start to see the possibilities that are opened (and closed) every time we use a concept like literature. The second is an awareness of the violence that can be perpetrated under the sign of welcome and inclusion, indeed in the name of art. There’s been a lot of justified excitement about Berlin’s cosmopolitan potential, and especially its artistic and literary communities. Unfortunately, I think that excitement sometimes obscures the exclusions daily perpetrated by this discursive regime.