You are on page 1of 68

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 1

Abstract
Following my two semesters abroad in Berlin, I found myself struggling with a sense of
disillusionment with my American identity as I had come to understand it as an African-American
female growing up in the southern United States. In this project, I present a phenomenological
argument for cultural hybridity through the use of theory, literature, and experimental
autobiography. Using recollection of experience, observations based on my time within the German
cultural space, and relevant theoretical work, I am able to draw a connection between my moment of
insecurity and a wider global calling for the reevaluation of cultural essentialism. The project will
make use of both American, German, and other European writers such as Toni Morrison, Walter
Benjamin, Frantz Fanon, and will draw heavily on the theoretical framework for cultural hybridity as
outlined by Homi K. Bhabha.

!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 2

!
!
!
!
!
!
!
Ashley Rennt: An Adaptation of the German Heimat
Ashley Washington
New York University, Global Liberal Studies

This thesis has been submitted on this day of April 15th, 2014 in partial fulfillment of the degree
requirements for the NYU Global Liberal Studies Bachelor of Arts degree.

!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 3


TABLE OF CONTENTS
PAGE
Introduction: Departure4
Chapter One: Vergangenheitsbewltigung..17
Chapter Two: The Heimat37
Chapter Three: The Hybrid..57
References.67

!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 4


Introduction: Departure
I flew to Berlin alone over a week early and I was not afraid. It was raining and it made me feel
comfortable. Everything was stony and gray and it made me feel at peace. I could not understand
the space but this was not an unfamiliar sensation. We filed off of the plane in a long, winding line.
Slow and tired but patient in the haze of the strange bond passengers form with each other after
flying, a commodified near-death experience. Someone was right on my back. They kept stepping
on my shoes. One came off. I just held onto it. Everyone was quiet. It was no different than any
other disembarking plane in any other place Id been before. For a moment, I thought that I could
be going home, but I saw the stand for customs processing and the distance set in wrapping itself
around my heart and squeezing. There is this thing that I do on roller coasters, on the way up the
first incline, where I measure the distance from my exit (the ladders up the side of the structure,
distance from the ground). I always cry once we pass the last ladder. The customs officer assumed
that I could not speak German and asked me for my passport. I squinted a bit. Thats what I do
when I dont approve. I thought of ten different reasons why he did that. Then I took a deep breath.
Probably the first one in a while. Thats what I do when I (can) remember (to do it breathing).

!
The baggage claim was immediately behind the customs officer. I sat on the farthest edge of the
room so that I could see everything. I looked for faces that were happy to be home and faces that
were confused. Twice I had to stop myself from staring blankly into the distance. I had been there
for over forty five minutes before I realized that I had not seen my bag. It had been lost somewhere
in the flight process. The panic never hit me the way that I expected it to. I made a note of this to
myself the moment I realized that the reality failed to set in. I strolled out of the gate, hugging my
coat to my chest. No, I walked slower than that. I thought about each step that I took. That is the

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 5


closest anyone can ever get to having an empty mind; reducing oneself to mechanics. This is easy to
do in a German airport at 7 oclock in the morning. Everything I needed was in that bag because I
am stupid. I had my computer, with no charger, my passport, wallet, and my medications. I had
never lost a bag before and I had no idea what to do. I found this laughable. My mother would not
find it very funny. I would wait until after I found my bag to tell her about this.

!
My bag arrived later that day at the hotel. Once I received it, I immediately realised that nothing
inside of it was really so important. It stayed closed for another two days. I stayed in bed for
another seven. I had jet lag, I hadnt had enough water to drink, and my migraine never went away.
I slept all day and stayed up all night. I could only find an Aldi so all I ate was cereal and pretzels.
The salt didnt help with the dehydration. I let myself become trapped in a cloud of German with
only the news on television. I watched Marilyn Monroe movies when I couldnt take it anymore. I
never let housekeeping clean my room and I spoke only to my mother. The day I opened my eyes
(and the curtains) and let the sunlight force them closed again, I knew that I could never leave. This
feeling stayed with me throughout my time in Berlin and, though I lacked the words to explain it, I
understood that it was something that I had never experienced before. After years of planning my
escape from every place that I lived in for more than a few weeks, I had finally entered a place that
felt eerily right. I dug my toes deep into the soil and simply left myself there.

!
The moment at which I successfully found the words to describe my love for the swamp city came
much later months after leaving the city and a year after my initial swooning. That process began

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 6


with my own Vergangenheitsbewltigung1 of sorts. My family, headed by two people who had lived
the textbook definition of the (African-)American Dream (and its reality), was as comfortable as it
gets. I never doubted my disposition. I was taught that I was very fortunate and that hard work and
big dreams would get me exactly where I needed to be; that I was lucky to be where I was and that
no other place would offer me this beautiful wealth of opportunity. In other words, I believed that
my failures would have everything to do with me if I wasnt capable of taking advantage of this
magical silver platter of imminent success. The moment I recognized this for the farce that it was
proved to be the best moment of my life. It was the same moment that I decided that I would go out
of my way to learn a language and its culture long before I knew with confidence that I would ever
set foot on its soil. I would not wait for the American Dream to repay my efforts. I would get the
flowers myself.

!
Realizing the futilities of reductive nationalist attachments is, in many cases, nothing short of
traumatic. In my experience, it manifested as a progressive disillusionment that gave way to a
systematic deconstruction of my own previously rigid cultural identity. It was a slow process that
often left me feeling largely unsatisfied with my surroundings. While in the States, I found solace in
my visits with magical realism, spirituality foreign to my own, and cultural staples previously
unknown to me. Reconstructing my belief system with pieces of these new worlds made more
sense to me than the rituals that I made up most of my childhood experience. Trying to fit these
new and beautiful ideas into the ideological mold I had cultivated up until this point was a painful
and somber practice. I do not know many things about myself but I do know that I dont know is

This word is most accurately translated as a mastering of the past as written by Caroline Wiedmer in The Claims
of Memory: representations of the Holocaust in contemporary Germany and France
1

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 7


never enough. Understanding that I had the capacity to place words with this sensation was all that
I needed to set out on this journey.

!
Hybridity is a valuable strategy for those of us struggling with the question, What happens when
the culture one has been given isnt enough? It can ease the sense that one is an anxiety waiting to
be cured because it replaces a demand for a stable identity with a a sense of plasticity. Yet although
hybridity is a perfect state for a body in flux, it still leaves me with questions of origin, namely: what
is the fundamental basis for my desire for hybrid identity? What problem does hybridity set out to
solve?

!
The work of Homi K. Bhabha provides an approach that attacks the question at its stem, taking off
directly from the multicultural attitude of the liberal West. It deconstructs the essentialist attitudes
towards cultural openness and replaces it with the more thoughtful practice of cultural hybridity.
This post-structuralist theoretical work is something that will lay the groundwork for my own
theoretical exploration but stops short of a phenomenological viewpoint which is something that
my project provides. Post-colonial perspectives can appear to be distance and difficult to detach
from the Western mindset; a phenomenological presentation could use first-person perspective to
minimize some of that distance through experience-based exploration of hybridity. Perhaps of
specific interest is his concept of an ambivalent and contradictory Third Space, one in which all
cultural statements and systems are constructed. I argue that within this construction, the hybrid
development takes place. The second question manifesting itself as a problem posed by the
institution of cultural hybridity is that of its active application-- what happens when the Western

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 8


world exerts itself with these things in mind? What are the products of such multicultural
thinking and what is the product?

!
Salman Rushdies work in his essay collection, Imaginary Homelands, complements Bhabhas work
with the Third Space with his exploration and criticism of the modern day remnants of colonialism
in contemporary culture and the subtlety of the irony through which these remnants manifests
themselves in film, day-to-day life, and politics. While not directly influential from the theoretical
perspective, the Rushdie writings, a collection of his work from 1980-1991, provide insight to the
moments in Western culture where a disruption in the smooth transition from other to us occurs.
In other words, Rushdie shows us where colonialism and ideas of dominance bleed through, even
in attempts to broaden Western perspective. While my work with cultural hybridity is not meant to
remain within the realm of post-colonialist criticism, work with the concept of the other is
essential to creating a framework for the exploration of why my solely American cultural
upbringing was not one that I could sustain without question.

!
We could do worse than beginning with the nature of the term homeland. Wie viel Heimat
braucht der Mensch? or how much homeland does one need? I explore homeland in terms of the
German concept of Heimat, which is similarly defined but generally weightier due to post-WWII
connotations about the Jewish diaspora. The idea of questioning that space is one that raises
treasonous implications in the literal sense but also lends itself to the individual experience of
ambivalence and emotional dissonance as a result of analyzing the inevitably disappointing reality
of such a relationship. This disappointment only becomes amplified when seen from the hybrid
perspective that begins to unfold beneath this questioning spirit. In my writing, the act of

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 9


questioning national affiliation is a productive act that enabled me to view my past in a critical light
as opposed to a resentful one. These are only the first steps in this complicated process.

!
One of the first issues is most easily stated as the title of the first piece of literature I use: Wie viel
Heimat braucht der Mensch? (How much homeland does humanity need?) (1967) This is a
question posed by a Jewish man following his time in Auschwitz and throughout his experience
leading up to his suicide. In this essay, Jean Amry attempts to discover whether or not a heimat is
a necessity. At the surface, it would seem that it is not; that moving from homeland to homeland is
as simple as changing ones name to seem less Jewish. However, deeply woven throughout Amrys
writing we see that the disillusionment with the German reality is something that he cannot come
to terms with. That the answer to the question is viel (a lot) and that he has none. In 1978, he kills
himself. While functioning as both a question and as a reference, this essay is deeply informed by
his experience and its relationship to trauma induced by the same country in which he was born
(in this case Austria). There are parallels here between slavery, a minimized tragedy, and the
American black population which are very important to the underlying discomfort that comes
with submitting wholeheartedly to the constitutional ideals that were not written for you, and the
institutionalized rejection, genocide, and diaspora that Amry is speaking to through his own
investigations. I am interested in this connection because it expands the lens of my criticisms and
creates a historical bridge that appeals to a wider audience and reduces alienation. Absent from this
perspective is only a direct link to the black American discourse. This is to be addressed through
the use of Toni Morrison.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 10


Toni Morrisons book, Playing in the Dark (1992), tackles some of the aforementioned
disillusionment head on. While the relevance is not readily obvious, Morrisons identification of
some of the principles held to be most dear to the American identity and their dependence on
the existence of black peopleis something that can be described as an answer to the issue of what
can be done with the despair of that disillusionment. The reconceptualization of the ideological
national identity is something that I am performing through my own process (generating hybridity,
identifying ambivalence, etc) and is more eloquently brought to light through her own language.
The conversation she raises between the white-dominated resources Ive accumulated to populate
my research and her own realizations is undeniably valuable to vocalizing my perspective.

!
Ultimately, this is not a story about how I went to Berlin and never wanted to come back. This story
is about the willful deconstruction of that disillusion through appropriation. While highly personal
in many ways, my process is one that reappears in various facets of cultural discourse. In the
beginning, my feelings about Berlin were something like the anvil-shaped cloud that forms over the
ocean before a hurricane. I could only express them through gestures. With time and theoretical
exploration, the feelings became clearer and I managed to conceptualize the major reactions at
work in my mind. These themes are cultural hybridity, homeland, and self-discovery through
spatial immersion.

!
At the core of my personal progress is the wealth of epistemological information that I gained
through deliberate immersion in the city of Berlin. When it comes to the relationship between the
person and the city, notions of space transcend that of a simple habitating relationship. Of course,
people differ in the degree to which they allow the city to define themselves or a phase in their

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 11


personal development. In the most extraordinary cases, the moment in which they take part in this
involvement coincides with a similar moment in the city. For Berlin, this transformative aspect was
particularly important. I am not alone in feeling this way about Berlin: there is much literature to
be found engaging with this topic. The thoughtful personification of the city places it on the same
level with the inhabitant as an individual. The relationship evolves and becomes one much like any
other between friends, or between lovers. In his book, Berliner Kindheit um 1900 (Berlin
Childhood Around 1900), Walter Benjamin uses thoughtful vignettes of upper middle-class life in
Berlin through the eyes of a child in an unconventional approach to flaneurism. Through the
account of Berlin an image of Berlins timeless essences is painted and presented. The approach to
the city in this observational manner is one that has heavily influenced my own. Much of the
inferences I have drawn about the nature of Berlin have taken this form. Berlin is a space in flux
that manages to keep its heart in the same place.

!
First and foremost, this section is concerned with how we can breathe life into the city in a way that
aligns it with a living and breathing individual. How can we personify the city of Berlin?
Interestingly enough, Walter Benjamins semi-biographical book Berliner Kindheit um 1900 (Berlin
Childhood Around 1900) does this through thoughtful vignettes of upper middle-class life in
Berlin through the eyes of a child-- an unconventional approach to flaneurism. Through this
account of Berlin, an image of Berlins distinctively timeless essence is painted and presented. The
approach to the city in this observational manner is one that has heavily influenced my own.

!
Also addressed within this framework is the fragility of subjective experience and how narrative
devices can be used to paint a more objective and therefore supportive picture. Here I am

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 12


employing WG Sebald and his book The Rings of Saturn (1998). While this book does not take
place in Berlin, it is written by a German and is characteristically aware of what the self can project
onto the environment and the beneficial understanding of what can come from this activity. The
nameless narrator of the book explores the city in memory and fragments, vocalizing the
observations of a person that has lived quietly through a period of adversity. Throughout much of
the novel a repositioning of otherwise ordinary elements of urban life occurs and allows the author
to discover things that would otherwise not have seemed apparent. This systematic repositioning
appears within my own observations and reduces the desensitization that may have occurred as a
result of the banality of day-to-day routine.

!
My love of Berlin is that of one presented from a subversive perspective but stating that alone is not
enough. A naked claim of subversiveness only serves to generate the same reductive claims that
have plagued attempts to gain a deeper understanding of the hybrid identity. Having dedicated my
time here to the nurturing of a global identity, I believe it is only fitting that I am able to illuminate
the necessity of deconstruction; deconstruction of Heimat and (temporary) deconstruction of self
in order to facilitate personal development in the most fulfilling and effective way possible.

!
Methodology
One of my greatest concerns is and always has been the difficulty of objectifying the most pertinent
conclusory thoughts that I happen to develop as a result of phenomenological (and otherwise
subjective) experience. Some of my most memorable experiences and (arguably) brilliant
epiphanies fall victim to the inexpressible, tragically wordless abyss that is my mind. The words that
I manage to create for these glimmering sprites never do them justice. I learn to let them go in

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 13


anticipation of the disaster. They become gut feelings, they becomes doubts, they become a passing
suggestion, and I forget. But Berlin was large and I never learned to abandon it because the minute
I left, I struggled to find satisfaction in a separate space. When a student leaves for study abroad,
the advisors teach them that they will be upset when they come home. There will be no one for
them to talk to about their travels because they will grow tired of hearing it. Their own culture will
shock them. This was not true for me. All of my friends were there with me and they came back
with me and my culture did not shock me because it began to disgust me. The deeply rooted
connection that I had worked so hard to generate throughout my childhood was beginning to fall
apart. The sensation was distinctive and it was not meant to be ignored. As a result, I have elected
to employ the phenomenological method throughout my academic memoir but are supplemented
by photographic snapshots from my own collection, archives, and relevant film. The snapshots
function as visual representation for my mental processes and serve as a more relatable point of
reference for you, my reader, amongst an otherwise difficult to relate to slew of recollections.

!
Chapters
My pi l g r i m a g e of s e l f - a c t u a l i z at i on w i l l b e org an i z e d i n t h re e c h apt e r s :
Vergangenheitsbewltigung, The Heimat, and The Hybrid. These are, not temporally consecutive,
but thematically chronological chapters that will describe my explorations and prevent the deeply
personal phenomenological method from becoming characteristically distant.

!
Vergangenheitsbewltigung
This chapter is about my darkest days (literally and figuratively) and my first discoveries about the
realities of my upbringing in the southern United States presented in parallel with the eye-opening

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 14


conclusions I developed in the first semester of my time in at NYU Berlin. It is my problem and the
resulting questions in a neatly packaged winter crisis.

!
The Heimat
Following the confrontation of my past that occurs in the first chapter, is a chapter that discusses
the nature and value of home and the deep connection developed within a space as a result of
conventional identity development. It sounds almost scientific but is, in actuality, far from it due to
my use of fictional and semi-autobiographical narrative as a resource. Here I place my process
during the second semester of class at NYU Berlin in parallel with the processes of similar lost
minds before me. My search for an answer is contextualized as I work with the pieces left behind
following the deconstruction.

!
The Hybrid
The Hybrid is where all of the deconstruction and rebuilding come together in careful synthesis
of the answer that I reverses the disasters of epistemological questions. My work with hybridity
comes to the theoretical forefront and is paired with the conclusory results of my identity
experiment. This section also coincides with my return to the United States and addresses my
culture disgust and attempted solutions.

!
As with most tales like this, it makes sense to start at the beginning. Im not going to do that. Im
going to start where this journey made the least amount of sense and where it was most

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 15


overwhelming; it was precisely the point at which I had realized that I could no longer properly
define my existence.

!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 16

!
!
!
!

!
!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 17


1 - Vergangenheitsbewltigung
Winter in Berlin is one of the most marvelous forms of natural cruelty in that it is a systemic
introduction to a life void of natural light. It is easy to make oneself believe that a well-lit life at
home could ever aid in the accumulation of some sort of resistance for the dark months to come,
but the reality of the situation sets in much faster than anyone might expect. It took a week for
things to change and maybe another week for me to notice that I was a victim of my
environment. But of course I was not the only one. Every morning, I'd open my eyes to more
darkness and stare at the ceiling for as long as I could-- until strange shapes danced into my
vision, until my eyes began to water, and until I remembered that I was already late. That was
always a slow process no matter how many different alarms I tried to create.

!
At home, the sun wakes me up. It pours through my windows and makes the room so hot that I
can't stay in bed anymore. The light bounces off of everything in my room. Light blue and white.
I always found myself sleeping in rooms with white walls. It's a color that will keep you awake at
night. I can vouch for that. In Berlin, everything in my room is white but no light bounces off of
anything. I have large windows but nothing comes through them except for ladybugs. There are
crushed, spotted shells under my pillow and my back. Every day, I tell them to avoid the bed at
night. The maintenance man says that they will only be there until it gets warmer outside. I
seriously considered (and resented) my rejection of the delicate little things while I ja'ed him out
of the room. Mornings at home are busy, warm, and bugless. But when I wake up in Berlin, I just
stare at the ceiling...and roll over in my bed of corpses to see that I am a murderer.

!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 18

!
!
!
!

!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 19


Isnt that just such a stupid thing? To put that kind of weight on the life of an insect? Maybe. But
these are the things that happened inside of me when I could no longer tell anyone when it was
that I last saw sunlight. And it was this moment, the moment after waking up; a moment that
repeated itself in similar fashion everyday for four months of my life, that I feel myself going back
to whenever I wonder where this gloriously painful adventure began. After about three weeks of
this bug killing, I wanted to go home.

!
Okay, maybe this is too large of a leap. The act of killing ladybugs in my sleep was not enough to
push me to return to what was, arguably, a worse condition by itself. It was simply the clearest of
symptoms in this developing illness. These peculiar mornings were accompanied by silent crying
fits, general irritability, and a desire to burrow into my bedsheets and never come out again. Not
for food and not for water. I wanted to go back into the hole that I came from. It would never be
enough for my mother to hold me. I needed to be back inside of her, to start over or die.
Whichever happened. The result was of no interest to me. This was one of the more convoluted
versions of not wanting to live anymore that I had ever been exposed to and I considered it with
great seriousness. Burying myself in my bed was just the next best thing. Darkness was only a
catalyst.

!
I catch myself wondering if, under other circumstances, I could have been so violently drawn to
any other city in the world. It feels like a normal person would want to go to places like Paris or
an exotic location like Bali or some place in Morocco. These kinds of places never occurred to
me. Coming to Berlin, was something that I had been waiting to do since I was fourteen years
old, long before I knew even the first thing about the city itself. People used to either laugh or

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 20


scoff. They would laugh at my reason for taking German (because I didnt want to take Spanish)
or they would scoff at my apparent disregard for the Germans place in history. After all, there is
only one. History is written by the victor, and everyone knows that we won. Says a friend. At the
time, I had not yet come to see my German classes as more than an excruciating lesson in
fulfilling-program-requirements-earlier-next-time; but I did understand, in a very small sense,
that I could not stay in North Carolina for any longer than absolutely necessary. It was also in my
fourteenth year that I developed an affinity for Friedrich Nietzsche and The Gay Science. I began
to carry it with me like a little bible and his lessons in plasticity began to pop into my brain like
the voice of God. At the age of fourteen these were just pretty words but they stuck like glue and
followed me into my young adulthood taking the shape of epiphanies when my years allowed it.
The willingness to embrace intellectual and emotional fluidity was instilled in me from my first
moments in this new world. Falling into this new abyss, however, often left me feeling as though I
would be forever thrown into Kafkaesque situations of discomfort, that I would always be pushed
beyond my limits, that I would never feel content. Stasis, in all of its forms, became an omen.
Before I left home, I never really wanted to be home. Each sunset felt like the end of the world,
passing clouds, grains of sand filtering into the bottom half of an hourglass.

!
Yet it was wanting to return home from another country, and not being able to, that inspired my
comparative thinking on the matter. Why did I want to go home? Because there was sun. Because
I could understand things there. Being surrounded by a language that requires incredible
amounts of brain power to even begin to understand was stressful in a way that caused me
physical pain. Whenever I watched German television, I felt a cloud of warm air develop on my
insides and it felt like someone was firmly resting their elbow on my throat. It was suffocating. I

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 21


couldnt tell if I was more afraid or anxious but my fear of stress, of making mistakes, was so
incredible that I found it nearly impossible to face this language barrier head on. I wanted to go
home because I knew that my mother would take care of me. I believed that I would have friends
that would understand me. I had my games and my books and my movies and my shows. It
would be warmer and it would be clearer. It would be better until I understood that it wouldnt.
Eventually I would return to this moment of suffocation in all of its glory, its unheimlichkeit.

!
The idea of home functions at least partially on the assumption that a space can belong to a
person, at least in a spiritual sense. When you do that quirky thing that youve always done and
never paid attention to and the person in the elevator notices, tells you that theyve seen someone
do that before, they ask you where you from this is validating. Your birthplace, your address,
your drivers license validating. You have a homewhen you move, you know came from
somewhere. Were so sure, and thats so safe and its all based on a place. This space becomes a
source of comfort as well as a reflective surface for identity that lends itself to the reinforcement
of the values and believes held by the inhabitants of the space. Going home, I return to a space in
which I share a history, set of beliefs, and language with the people that surround me. When I
think about home, not the place, but the thinga very real string pulls at my heart and I could
almost cry. Almost. This is beautiful and comfortable and everything I could have ever wanted
except for the fact that this love affair had ended years before when I stopped reciting the pledge
and became critical of all that is patriot and wholesome. I had already moved into the space inbetween but I was set on denying it.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 22


This would have been simpler if I had grown up anywhere other than the progressive south. I
am the reason why progressive has to be in quotations. Everything else makes sense without
them. The yellow grass, the red dirt, the lack of shade on the playground, the Chik-Fil-A on every
corner and the bible in every drawer of every home. In the south, you dont make a hobby out of
questioning anything other than what has already been questioned and successfully refuted with
a bible verse or gentle word from an elder. If it hasnt been answered, if the answer hasnt been
found, or if the answer has simply been rejected, the question will only bring confusion. It will be
met with the familiar subtly of Hows your mother been?, I saw your sister the other day.
Every time it happens, every time Im stopped and told (with a loving giggle) that Ive become
opinionated, my brain takes on a heaviness, my eyes close like they always want to, and I drop
my head, shake it once in silence, in disbelief, in pity, in the hopelessness of never being heard,
and I smile. In the harder moments, I throw my head back and look at the ceiling as if I believed
in what they believed and someone would hear me wish for open ears and open minds. But like
the other things that I stopped doing when I was in high school, talking to the sky or into the
darkness before sleep was something that I stopped doing too.

!
I was born in California and moved across the country where we settled in Buffalo during my
formative years. I lived in a small village in Buffalo called East Aurora where my family formed
the entirety of the black population. This drew a lot of attention but, at the same time, my father
played for the citys football team and was a sort of town celebrity. As a child, I didnt think much
of the attention. I knew that my whole family had a lot of friends and that a lot of good things
tended to happen because of it. Things were very easy because I was a kid, because my family was
doing well, and because it was the 90s. My best friend was like a sister to me, she was white, and

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 23


she lived in the house behind ours. I wore my hair in small plaits with obnoxiously colored bows
and my outfit usually matched my sisters. Mom was always at the forefront of the Black History
Month celebrations of my school but I never really thought about why. I was a dorky girl that
loved having my mom around the school all day and it seemed like everyone else loved her too.
Sometimes African dancers would come to the school and Id get to meet them because my
mother brought them there. When we were meant to dress up as historical figures, I was always
the most extravagant Harriet Tubman and everyone loved it. I felt like a star. My fathers success
at the time was really the glue that kept everything together as far as our social life went. At heart,
we were a family of introverts and it would only be a matter of time before we figured that out.

!
In the year of 2001, my family and I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. By then, wed gained
two new children and had become a family of seven. None of us were ready to leave the people

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 24


that we had come to know and love, but we followed my father faithfully because thats just what
people do when they have a family like this one. The transition was difficult in a number of ways.
Having been seen as a celebrity family in my old town, we were in many ways isolated from the
realities of racial prejudice that would exist in a space like this had it been anyone else. To this day
my mother and I talk about how there were never any other black people around. I think that it
becomes a little less funny every time.

!
It was both a blessing and a curse that moving to the good Carolina illuminated the realities of
race for me. Everyone always joked about how much worse South Carolina was than North
Carolina. They talked about it being full of hicks and only good for cheaper gas. In South
Carolina, the streets were paved with weird whitish gray cement and it was hard to see the yellow
lines without squinting. In North Carolina, the streets were nearly black, the paint was neat and
bright. Nicer. Richer. I was lucky enough to be in the more forward thinking of the two. I was so
proud of my family for this. We moved to an area where the people were similarly wealthy and
once again became the only black people in the area save for one or two other wealthy families
that conveniently elected to homeschool their children. Here, having a father that played football
was something to make fun of. I drew attention for a lot of the wrong reasons. Most of my
friends were people that were nice to me in hopes that they would eventually get something out
of it and the rest of the people interacted with me were sure enough that I was going to be a snob
that they either ignored me all together or made sure to make the rudest comments that could in
passing. Walls went up in my heart and mind, growing higher and thicker with time.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 25


Their comments were never overtly racist, they never really are. At least not in my mind and, at
this point, my mind was still very lenient. When my friends told me that I was not like the other
black people, I took that as a compliment. I was happy to be accepted. And I was happy to chime
in when criticisms were thrown at the others. A large part of me sought craved that
validation, the opportunity to cover my black skin with a white mask.

!
I eventually came to the understanding that I needed to leave that school and it was because the
friends that I thought I had began to fall away towards the end of my fathers career. I anticipated
this and moved on. A new school had just opened for students interested in theater and
technology. I was interested in acting so I took this as a divine sign and was officially a student at
Central Academy of Technology and Arts for my entire high school career and we all lived
happily ever after for the ten minutes of bliss that was the summer before I began attending the
school.

!
Up until this moment, when I joined my new school, my mothers plans for Black History Month
never seemed to be a necessity. I truly believed that she was there to make these days more
interesting. There is something very interesting about attending a white school where everyone
has accepted you as white; that thing lies in your lessons. We would take social studies classes that
were mysteriously estranged from the society that housed them. It would see as though a group
of foreigners settled in the United States for a time with slaves, found out it was bad and then
moved along. Then, another group of strange modern settlers came along and decided that the
races needed to be separated in order for the country to lead productive day-to-day lives. I
assumed that they left too after the civil rights act disturbed their stasis because the Charlotte that

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 26


I lived in was suspiciously devoid of the descendants of these people. I genuinely believed that
racism in its larger conceptual form had been weeded out of todays world and that only a select
few still held these beliefs. A real select few. Like three families in all of the south. Or Just
Matthew-from-English-Class grandpa who is still in the KKK. Okay then, maybe just the KKK
in Monroe. The family with the confederate flag in their window off of the highway? No one else
could believe in the existence of these things because, for most of the people I knew, the end of
segregation was the end of racism. And maybe, in the legal sense, it wasbut this was a
convoluted history. It made me long for the African dance groups teaching us moves in the
cafeteria, like in the fourth grade, when my mother was always around to make things safe and
sensible. But I stayed here in this whitespace, mentally and physically, in all of my naivety,
because it was easiest and most comfortable.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 27


When youre white enough, no one bothers you about being black. You let them touch your hair
and ask roundabout questions about what its like when its out. I believed that braids really were
mysterious and that these questions had nothing to do with prejudice. They seemed to be
innocent curiosities.

!
I broke up with a number of boys in high school because they refused to reveal me to their
parents. A Haitian girl and a guy from around town started dating and students threw shoes at
them. In the limo, on the way to prom, I was asked by the boyfriend of my best friend to refrain
from playing black music in the car on the way to the prom. My teachers in class used to
ignore me whenever we were meant to have a political debate under the assumption that I was a
democrat and therefore would have nothing to contribute to the conversation.

!
This doesnt seem to be about Berlin and I but these are the moments I think about when I
wonder how I could have spent so much time anywhere else. I dont know what Ive been doing
my whole life without you.

!
In class, wed have to read these strange patriotic pamphlets that informed us about triumphant
moments in American history. At the end of them there would be some real world story to help
reinforce our belief in American principles like freedom and liberty. It was all very simple and it
always made sense. Sometimes there were war stories that taught us about these principles in
action and told us about all of the wonderful things we did for the world. In middle school this
was a wonderful thing and I always looked forward to it. I think it was the war stories that we
were told in high school in the AP US History class that didnt strike the same chords with me.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 28


As a matter of fact, they always rubbed me the wrong way and left me questioning what the true
value of assimilation and integration could have been if I was always going to be taught about the
world and about my country as if the things that minorities dealt with were not happening at the
same time.

!
I became fascinated with the wild contradictions of viewpoint that resulted from discussions
about Japanese Internment camps and how much they differed from the discussions about Jewish
ghettos. I felt like the only human being on Earth when my tiny history class remained silent
without interjection after the atomic bombs in Japan were described to us as a successful war
tactic and nothing else. The half-minded follow-up comments about ongoing nuclear illness were
like punchlines. Later, at lunch, I would mention this to my friends, and they would look at me
like I was some kind of ideological terrorist. An American speaking against the weightiest
decisions of the American government was something that was and never seems to be tolerated.
But when it came to feeding me the ways of our country, the successes of Manifest destiny, the
colonies, the wars, it didnt matter if I could wrap my head around it or not. We always had
February for that. For noticing. This was just not something we needed to do year-round. But
after years of being taught to appreciate those who fought for the country, and served in the
government to protect my freedom, I wasnt so sure that the repetitive recitations of Martin
Luther King Jr.s history every February were enough. And if I was really thinking about those
people, in the 1700s, in the 1800s, in the 20s, 30s, or 50s, I could not believe that they would have
been doing anything for me. So, I decided that this history didnt belong to me. And belonging is
a funny thing. Funny in that it can always be argued, or simply taken away. This is when I began
to hate my home.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 29

!
I didnt really understand where the notion that home was meant to provide a sense of belonging
had come from. With the growing detachment from Charlotte, I felt as though my belonging had
limits that I was not aware of, that I did not want to believe existed. I felt strange for having these
feelings and, because of this, never found a way to vocalize them. In that way, they were never
validated. I was a parasite, soaking in all of the benefits of being home without offering so much
as a sliver of devotion in return. Sometime in the middle of this past winter, we were assigned a
piece from James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village. In the essay, he writes about the time he spends
in a secluded Swiss village doing work. Before he visits for the first time, he is told that he will
probably be a sight for the people in the village. And he, like me, made the assumption that the
warning could not have possibly meant that there could be people anywhere who had never
seen a Negro. He attributes this to his Americanness. He visits many times and always stays in
the same place. Everyone in the village comes to know his name but they scarcely ever use it.2
Regardless of the amount of time he spends there, he remains a stranger, the Neger that the
children shout at in the streets. Baldwins immediate reaction to this attention and treatment was
one of extreme pleasantness, a form of appeasement. He relates it to the necessity of assimilation
in the American Negros education, one that he receives long before he goes to school; the
American Negro must make people like him.3 This familiar routine, that in America, would have
generated a pain different and almost forgotten, inspired a boldness on the part of the villagers
that made it clear to Baldwin that, to some extent, their questions and amusement were rooted in
genuine wonder. However, missing from this wonder, was acknowledge of James Baldwin the

Baldwin, James, and James Baldwin. Notes of a native son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Print.

Baldwin, 12

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 30


man as just that a human being and in this failure of recognition, he was brought back to
the mental state of home. Everything around him served as a reminder that he would never have
a place in the same world as these people who could trace their lineage back to kings, queens,
worshipped prodigies, and painters. His majesty would only ever be his mother, a negro. People
are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.4

!
What is integral here, and something Id like to return to later, is the ability for the Swiss village to
form a mirror, one that challenged Baldwin to actively view his perception of himself in three
different contexts, in mind, Swizterland, and America. He did not stop at the fear, at the
confusion, or at the hurt. He turned to his insides, took them apart, and worked his way out.

!
So much of this piece resonated with me, from the curious attention of the villagers to the pure
resentment in Baldwins heart. What became clear to me, in reading this essay, was the fact that
my disillusionment was part of a larger mindset, one that had been set up within me, piece by
piece, by my previous and current circumstances. It was something that happened within me
from the beginning, throughout my assimilative efforts (conscious and unconscious). So much of
what I had come to understand as being a given, normal quality of life, was framed in this essay
as a detriment to my well-being, my past had been problematized. Suddenly I was awake and full
of rage.

Baldwin, 12

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 31


In high school, my classmates hated Toni Morrison. In the AP level English classes we
usually at least one of her books a semester. The first one was The Bluest Eye. I dont
remember much of that book anymore, mostly because I chose to push it, and my
experience reading it, out of my head once I jumped through the usual hoops with my
newfound knowledge. After we finished reading a book we always had socratic seminars
in lieu of papers. These were easy days for me. Our only grade was participation and
expressing confusion in eloquent ways always made these engagements effortless. Id
wear my most comfortable clothes with a slew of notes in my pocket and relax during
the simplest of moments in the day. They were not always beautiful, sometimes not
enough of us would have the book finished by the time the seminar came around, and
wed all have to deal with the uncomfortable grilling sessions that would ensue. Pathetic
utterances about the most surface of topics or barely relevant personal anecdotes would
cloud the air for ten minutes before a more pertinent question would be posed.
Sometimes, the more talkative would be pulled aside and asked to refrain from speaking
for the bulk of the socratic so that the wits of the others could be tested. Like I said,
these days were easy.

!
But we read The Bluest Eye in junior year as a joint-socratic project with the senior class.
A lot of my friends were in that group of seniors, most of them maybe. I was filled with
an unfamiliar sense of nervousness at the prospect of being at academic odds with them.
Maybe it should not have been so surprising how disappointing the experience ended up
being once it was all over. No one liked this book, and they made it clear from the start.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 32


Before the socratic began, we were all asked how we felt about the reading. Each student
would muster an opinion dotted with their discussion point of interest. This was a boring
moment when no one would really hear anyone except for themselves. In psychology, I
learned that conceit is a developmental crux around the age of six, but I guess the book
never really mentioned an end. Today, everyone was angry.
It doesnt seem like she wants to do anything except paint white people as the bad
guys.
You can really tell that she thinks highly of herself.
Shes a great writerand she knows it.
Most of her characters are disgusting, and I didnt find any of them likable.
The subject matter was perverse.
There was one girl who loves to be the devils advocate and I think she might have
mumbled something about the necessity of perversion but, like I said, I could only hear
myself. I had earplugs and they were made of anger.

!
Like the best memories, the poeticism of this one works itself out. I was the last to give
my opinion. I said nothing. This is typical of my dissenting behaviors in high school
silence, post-racial submissiveness. I resolved to maintain this composure throughout the
discussion. I told myself to take a deep breath, and I think I took half of one. I closed my
eyes, heard the whirring of unnecessary air conditioning, a soundtrack to the south. We
sat in nice chairs because the office gave us the conference room. There was a projector
on the ceiling, through the windows you could see the libraryI would take my AP

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 33


German exam here at the end of the year alone. I would mess up the audio section and
the counselor would yell at me, spit flying everywhere, from a halo of dry, fried hair and
the smell of weeks of Chinese takeout for lunch hovering hotly in the air. The ringleader
of the senior class got to start the discussion and she began with something boring.

!
By the end of the socratic, I would be in tears, and much of the class would giggle
behind me and gloat about their win over lunch. The only thing I wanted after that was
to rediscover silence and never let it leave me again. Negative associations would keep
me at a distance from Toni Morrison for the rest of high school and the beginning of
college. So, the most natural of resources would be the last person that I would ever
imagine reuniting with in writing this story. In rediscovering resonance with the words of
Toni Morrison, I felt vindicated.

!
Experiences like this would come to define my educational development from that point
on. I found myself rarely reading the work of any type of minority save for Chinua
Achebes Things Fall Apart which we were coached to criticize as a somewhat primitive
take on the male journey and we would never read any work from a black woman other
than Toni Morrison. Slowly all of my literary influence was populated by old and dead
white men. I became accustomed to this and learned to see it as less of a problem and
more of a consequence of circumstance. In this way, I was a bit fatalistic when it came to
educating myself and expanding my horizons, but the requirements seemed to shift
after I moved to New York.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 34


A short time ago, I began to read Toni Morrisons Playing in the Dark aptly subtitled
Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In a chapter called Romancing the Shadow,
Morrison examines the objectification on of African presence as a darkness that is
subsequently used as a means of introspective evaluation by white American writers:
Black slavery enriched the countrys creative possibilities. For in that construction of

blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the

dramatic polarity created by skin color, the rejection of the not-me. (pp 38)

It is the not-me that I find most striking in this thesis for it is the introspection of white
artists forms much the background of my own research. There is a unique level of
introspection that is afforded to us by the confrontation of the not-me, the black, the
unknown. We see ourselves clearest in what we perceive to be our opposite, and for a
long time, for the great white writers that was the African presence. For me, it was my
own presence, my real presence. After spending my entire childhood and grade school life
hiding this part of myself from myself, I came understand that I had been living in a
white mist, one that kept me safe from the dark but would never embrace me.
Impenetrable whiteness5 is the idea that comes to me now and impenetrable, it was.
Unintentionally (subconsciously intentionally) inhabiting some delusional post-racial era
served only to hinder my capacity for the development of an identity that I could truly
call my own.

!
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1992. Print.
5

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 35


So there I was in my white, white bed staring at a white, white ceiling, in a white, white,
city in a white, white Europe, tears falling in perfect lines, down the sides of my face into
my hair and on the bed, and all I wanted in these moments was to evaporate, return to
the womb, or at the very least, to renounce my citizenship and run off in the jungle
where all little monkeys go. But, therein lies the problem.

!
Rejection could never have been the answer. Vergangenheitsbewltigung was never about getting
over the past as much as it was about coming to terms with it and somehow absorbing it into the
present entity in a productive way. From the very beginning, I understood how immature it
would have been for me to simply renounce my American roots simply because I was disturbed
by its historical and literary history regardless of the scale of the failure. What I knew was that the
rift between my present self and my historical self was becoming clearer and more prominent. If I
turned back then, if I had given up and gone home, it would never heal. Home was a beacon of
pain; pain that had become so deeply engrained that I had no longer recognized it as such.

!
I realized not only that I could not go home, but that I did not want to. Home would never be
able to fix me. Home was broken for me and I had taken it apart. I felt powerful and I felt at
peace. But the questions were still there. Where was this fixation on the connection between self
and space coming from?

!
Ver-gang-en-heights-beh-vell-tih-goong, I said to myself.
Doneish.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 36

!
!
!
!

!
!
!
!
!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 37


2 - The Heimat

There is often something beautiful, there is always something awful, in the spectacle of a person who
has lost one of his faculties, a faculty he never questioned until it was gone, and who struggles to
recover it. - James Baldwin in Stranger in the Village

Sometimes people fall in love with a place. It happens all of the time and it is just as authentic as
the emotion that is shared with another person. Much like real love, it can be difficult to
articulate the reasoning behind the affinity. Unlike real love, putting these reasons into words
isnt always psychologically devastating to the fragile entity that is the love itself. Of course I
met my current boyfriend, Ren (a person), towards the end of my first semester in Berlin. My
professor told me very early on, as soon as she learned of Ren, that I was not to let this
become a love story. But I do believe that, at the heart of every great transformation, lies a love
story; born first as a speck of intuition that slowly and deliberately spreads its spindly limbs like
veins pumping purposefully, full of new blood. Its reinvigorating, frightening, and melancholy
all at once. Think of the moment and the skin tightens into goosebumps returning the mind
to the edge of reality in what will continue to be an exercise in liminalitykeeping my feet just
above the ground, letting my toes graze the dirt every so often. It always feels like I might sink
lower but, returning to this space in-between, bearing the soul with which I first entered it,
could almost make me forget that a fall might be possible. Almost. Its the moment at which I
learned to let go that made this feeling of peace worth the pain, nearly forgotten6, that I had
learned to live with until my Berlin winter destroyed my false solitude.

!
This particular Liebeslied is not for my darling Ren. Its for Berlin, the love that came first and
burned me from the inside out. After the winter came and went, I was left with a choice.
6

Baldwin, 13

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 38


Vegetation would have been so simple for me. Drowning in my own pain was always
something of a pleasure for me. It made quitting an expectation and I no longer felt at odds
with others perception of myself, which had always been inconsistent with my own. But I was
fully aware of the opportunity left behind in my own ashes and I took the same morbid joy,
previously afforded to me by my vegetative tendencies and let the city consume me. I dont
remember being ever being as afraid as I was when I realized that this was what I had always
wanted true love.

!
But what is that other than a bad question and a gateway to cliches. I believe that, to some
extent, we find love at our weakest but most passionate point of existence. It would be easiest to
describe this as a low point but it would also be the most reductive route. Love brings us to new
heights, so I think that it makes sense that we must begin somewhere below that. Its a moment
at which a person comes to terms with one of the most magnificent moments of vulnerability
and they are given something to lose. It is mortality in its sweetest shade of pink, but not so
pink that you cant see the rosiness of the blood beneath it. Its sunlight pouring through closed
eyelids red, orange, some darknessclearly moving but somehow safe. There is a thinness to
all of this, or a fragility. Now, when I close my eyes to remind myself of Berlin, it moves. There
is no one place. It is one thousand moments recollected at once, in one deep breath and a slow
blink. Where I once saw pictures, I see graffiti-painted streets like pulsing arteries, cozy bars
and dner stands like hearts and lungs, snow and rain like blood, candlelit dinners like body
heat, gray sky like skin, and itll never leave me. When I ask myself again and again, What of
my love in Berlin? I do not have an interest in understanding the love itself, I want only to
understand the the nature of it, to ask the right questions. What was the essence of my desire?

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 39

!
I wanted a home that I believed in and I was scared that I would never find it because I also
believed that homes, like personalities and hair color, were things among the many blessings
that I person received based on sheer luck. This was not true but I had to do some searching
before the malleability of home could be realized by me. Part of the problem came from the
rigid philosophies that I spent time with beforehand. At this point, my understanding of home
and identity came with strictly enforced limits. Instability was something to avoid, and my
inability to express unwavering loyalty to any one space or group of people (other than my
family, who I love) made me, and my limited language, feel inadequate.

!
!
One of the first concepts I became familiar with in my German culture classes was the concept
of Heimat. Heimat does not necessarily have an English equivalent and this speaks to its deep
roots in the German history and culture. Though it has gone through many phases, Heimat is
generally accepted as the relationship between a human being and a spatial and social unit. It
implies a spatially derived identity that is very closely linked to that place where a person was
born and raised, its language, and its history. As one might imagine, this idea took on a more
negative implication following the second World War because the Nazi conception of Heimat
and the homeland was meant to alienate and this went as far as blood type. Jewish people who
were just as German as the next were now known as mixed bloods under this new
identification. These were the adjustments made in an effort to plant the seed that would later
justify their elimination to the rest of the German nation. It makes sense that no one would
rush to claim their nationalistic German identity after the Holocaust. While the identity that

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 40


tied the Germans to their country remained important, they were not particularly eager to rub
it in anyones face. Because I was naive and really quite eager, I was immediately drawn to
Heimat.

!
!
Naturally, Heimat, as with other nationalistic concepts, draws up a wealth of problems. I
suppose its difficult to think of the American equivalent in this sense only because the same
symptoms found in the German Nationalist issue manifests as a field of complexities in the
American context. Patriotism doesnt quite cover it. The United States is quite different in that
its foundation is built on immigration, a large population of people that were not born on the
countrys soil and had a plethora of first languages. Patriotism is readily available to all. It is
flexible. Maybe its practice leaves much to be desired but its essence will never be unavailable
to anyone. Heimat, is an inherently rigid concept forced into flexibility by circumstance.
Perhaps flexibility is not the right word. Heimat, German identity, had to be reconstructed in
order to understand and absorb the disasters of the path in a way that could successfully
capture the modern German Geist. It was this conception of intellectual life and large scale
identity reformation that it became clear to me that I could decide what my defining
connections were going to be. Germany was like the superhero role model I never had.
Partially because I was never into superheroes but also because I spent most of my childhood
wanting to know how I could get my hair to look that Brianas.

!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 41

From the very beginning of my ambivalent waltz with academia, Ive been hesitant to engage
too aggressively with any body of theory or discourse in fear of not being able to do it justice
because I believed, and to some extent still do, that I do not have the right to handle these
works in the way that I must. I understood that, in losing myself in Berlin, I would be following
in the footsteps of many a flaneur before me. This was both supportive and highly
discouraging. Engaging with a space in this way is a deeply personal experience but it goes
without saying that certain experiences become more credible than others by way of the
knowledge gained through the engagement. These ideas and stories were already being broken
apart and reassembled in my head and this could not be any less valid than those of my
German inspirations who really did much of the same. So, I set out to find these legendary
thinkers. We will begin where I did with Walter Benjamin.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 42

!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 43


In the beginning, I knew that I would not use Walter Benjamin. In Berlin, I was only just beginning
to admire him. During my German prose class we spent some time learning about his life in order
to gain some background on a piece that he influenced. I cant remember that piece now, its strange
how many things escape your mind from semester to semester, but I do remember holding the
book. The book was Berlin Childhood Around 1900 and it was beautiful in the way that most books I
hadnt had the opportunity to read were beautiful to me. It had a weight that reminded me of
something dense, but the font in the book as large and I could see that its parts were meant to be
read and appreciated as miniature stories. These were the vignettes my professor mentioned, a
poetic approach to the non-fiction work of autobiography. Benjamin called them Denkbilder7.

!
I wanted to be able to take more from Benjamin that I was allowing myself to take. Each time I
attempted to immerse myself in his story, I found myself hitting the wall at the point where his
familiarity with the space transcended mine in a way that made it difficult for me to see where his
flaneuristic recollection of childhood would ever meet that of my young adult life. He writes about
his Tante Lehmann who never leaves the house, his love for his nanny, and things like that. The
severe banality of his bourgeois upbringing was really quite difficult to ignore and even became
frustrating at times. I dont believe that there is anything more self-destructive than having to bend
someone elses narrative to find your own, especially when that narrative seems to be bound by the
bone to its subject and author. But I stuck with little Walter because I trusted him for the same
reason that I was so reluctant to do so in the first place so much of him was in these words. I
admired that and wanted it for myself.

!
Benjamin, Walter. Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
2006. Print.
7

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 44

!
!
!
!
!
!

!
!
!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 45


Somewhere in the middle of the book, I reached a story called The Otter. I was going to skip it
based on the title alone but, as customary, I would read the first few sentences just to make sure
there was nothing here for me. The opening began with this sentence:
One forms an image of a persons nature and character according to his place of

residence

and the neighborhood he inhabits[]. (pp. 78)


Its a game that he played in the Zoological Garden, one of the largest and most well-known zoos
in Europe. It was opened in 1844 and an aquarium was added in 1914. During WWII, much of the
zoo was destroyed and only 91 of the 3,175 animals survived. For a child of his upbringing and of
his time, a trip to the zoo would have been as common as a trip to the playground or park and,
evidently, for him it was. In The Otter, Benjamin writes about his routine deductive
characterizing of the zoo animals, something that is done effortlessly every time he goes to the zoo
until he falls upon the otter hidden near Lichtenstein Bridge, the least used entranceway just
before the most neglected park of the garden. The otter is elusive and young Walter visits many
times before he sees the animal. He muses about how his visits to this space are a trial in his belief
that spaces, like plants that grant foresight, have the power to reveal the future to come. These
visits are defined by Berlins characteristic rainfall which Benjamin in this case describes as a gray
comb that nourishes and baths the pampered animal that seems to occupy a temple rather than a
place of refuge. I was at home with the otter, he says. Like the otter in his cage, Benjamin let the
rain lock him away and in it, the drops would whisper his future as one sings a lullaby beside the
cradle.8

Benjamin, 81

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 46


More important than the picture of Berlin that Benjamin painted for me what the picture of
Benjamin that was reflected in his own exploration of Berlin. My first experience with his book
was meant to provide a glimpse of Berlin at the turn of the century, but what comes through even
more brilliantly than that is the child and person that Benjamin believed that he was through his
experiences and reflection on the space. This was a writing of the self 9 meant for a reading of the
self. While I will always stand by the idea that Benjamin would have never been able to tell a story
like mine, I was, once again, seeing this mysteriously familiar threads of connection that had
appeared to me in other works on Berlin before. The snow that never once showed any signs of
letting up, made me feel safe. I could count on the wind swiftly, and silently, pushing the flakes
into the folds of my jacket and scarf. In the bright gray mornings, with my head down, and eyes
carefully tracing the lines of the cobblestone, I could think and I could see that this would not be
the last of Berlin for me.

!
From the month of November to the month of March, I walked to class in the snow. Every time I
did it I thought of those times in the movies or in books when the protagonists grandfather would
remind them not to complain and to take note of their fortune because when he was a kid, he had
to walk through five feet of snow for miles everyday to get to school and the luxuries of childhood
today were not to be taken for granted. I thought of my father, who told similar stories, except
they were about how he never had proper shoes and used to play for every sports team in school
just so that he could use the warm-ups as outfits. At night, six of his siblings would sleep in the
same bed as him. Snow reflects more memories than it does light. In New York, when it snows I
am relatively resentful. Somehow I feel that the stress and disappointment that I deal with in this

Benjamin, IV

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 47


city should earn a few days of good weather but the winter hung around as long as it wanted this
year. In Beriln, the snow was gentle and the city was quiet. I never fought for the best chance at
getting over a moat of brown slush. I didnt cry as if it was the worst thing I had ever heard when
someone asked me to take a walk when them in the snowy darkness. At night, I would go for jogs
and the brightly lit emptiness made me feel like the city was my own. On a lot of days, it could
have been. I did things that I would never do in New York. I said yes, to more invitations,
proposals, dates, stupid questions, than I would even consider responding to back there. At home.
I was moving. In that movement, the complexities of my relationship to the swamp city was
becoming clearer.

!
Derrida says that love often starts with seduction implying that the failure of love occurs when we
realize that the qualities or essences that originally seduced us, were not sustainable or never truly
existed. It is in this moment that we are introduced to what separates the heart: the who and the
what of love a separation that already exists at the very fundamental levels of existence, and of
being, which for all intents and purposes falls under the modern Western interpretation that lends
itself to plasticity and, more importantly, the Nietzschean concept of the will to power. In the
simplest terms, will to power refers not necessarily to any particular drive, but to a pouring out
of ever-swelling energy that functions as a source of a range of human whims and energies.10 Love
appeals to being through this juxtaposition of binaries. In dancing with the liminality of love, one
is being linked to the powerful center of our existence and therefore granted a great deal of
agency; all of which comes from within. The surge of strength that I felt when I let-go-ofidentified-came-to-terms-with (fair-gang-en-heights-beh-vell-tih-goong) my past made sense.
10

Wicks, Robert. "Friedrich Nietzsche." <i>Stanford University</i>. Stanford University, 30 May 1997. Web. 14
Apr. 2014. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/>

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 48


The same subtleties in the narratives that surrounded me were illuminated. These were people
falling in love without knowing it. Tuning into the unsung liebeslied, leaving behind the
uninspired, channeling the elusive bermensch. So, here we were at seduction.

!
A story of seduction that seems to repeat itself at the turn of every century is also one of
movement; movement from the country to the city. In a general sense that move is driven by
promise; promise of money, a career, and success. Theres the concept of the country as a
stagnant space and the city as one of unforgiving change, the previously unattainable tough
lover. I am reminded of Doris. Doris is a character in Das kunstseidene Mdchen (translated:
Artificial Silk Girl) written by Irmgard Keun. The book was incredibly popular in Germany
when it was released, but was swiftly banned during the Nazi regime because of its particularly
realistic, gritty, subtly feminist imagery.

!
What is most significant about Doris is that she is a thoughtful, writerly representation of a
rather average girl trying to benefit from the promise of the roaring 20s in the big city. She is
seduced by the myth of a wonderful Berlin (Berlin of Die Sinfonie der Grostadt and Berlin of
Weimar) Where other interpretations would leave you with the brilliant caricature of the decade
weve come to love, Keun gives us poverty, disappointment, trial and error. Through all of it,
Doris just writes. In place of snapshots, she gives us reels: I want to write like a movie.11 Shes a
collector of images. When I read her words I watched her attempt to confront situations with
her delicate rural thinking only to be met with the shameless fickleness that is urban conviction.
I saw her wish for a real boyfriend only to drift from bed to bed in hopes of acquiring a new
11

"Damned by the Nazis, Hailed by the Feminists - Other Press." <i>Other Press</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.
<http://www.otherpress.com/features/damned-by-the-nazis-hailed-by-the-feminists/&gt>

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 49


shirt or dress. I watched her learn how to do it without sleeping with them. I was with her when
she learned that she would never get the intellectual fulfillment that she hoped for from the men
of her age; that only some people would ever hear her, and even fewer would ever listen. I felt
her tolerance and her openness birthed by her proximity to death on the streets. She grew in
ways that she had never anticipated. She wasnt real but here I was, nearly one hundred years
later, feeling as though my perfectly grungy black boots are falling right into her prints in the
snow.

!
I think of Doris because I felt like her when I moved to New York and again when I moved to
Berlin. Moving to New York, I was filled with different illusions of glamour and a willingness to
abandon control in an effort to fall into place but moving to Berlin, I primed myself for a certain
degree of observation. Years of trying to fit in and behave normally had worn down on me. I was
learning to be alone and in that exercise, I was getting to know myself. Maybe the best thing a
person can do for themselves, while trying to get to know themselves better, is move to another
country alone. The week that I spent in bed recovering from jet lag is the week that I will always
return to when estimating future behavior. I will never be able leave version of myself for as long
as I live, for I discovered it in a moment without precedent and without expectation. In this life,
I am forever expecting, anticipating, or just waiting. In taking in the people and places around
me, in letting strange things, new things, happen to me I felt myself growing stronger, and more
committed to my capabilities as a living, breathing, changing human being, and not a victim of
circumstance. My days in Berlin were not always easy, but I was infatuated. I suppose that, even
if it cant last forever, magical things would take place in that time. And they did. I will always
insist that this malleability was afforded to me by Berlin.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 50

!
!
Berlin is no stranger to the plastic mind, because it is a lesson in plasticity itself. In a continent
full of ancient city centers, Berlin is young. When I think about revolutions as fresh starts, its
even younger. One of the first notable occupations occurred in 1806 when Napoleon marched
under Brandenburger Tor and captured the city. Industrialisation further transformed the city
while the unification of the German nation occurred toward the end of the century in 1871. It
was then that Berlin became the capital city. After a period of wealth in growth during the
beginning of the 20th century, the first World War left the country in psychological and
economic shambles. Primed for yet another occupation, Hitler came along and, through a chain
of self-generated terroristic events, established himself as the most viable candidate for
chancellor of Germany. In 1933, it would be so. As everyone knows, Hitler was gone by the end
of the second world war. Germany was again, left in a battered state. Only this time, they were
made to pay for it with their full independence and the occupation of the country was split
among the Allies and the Axis powers. The unified nation was now two: East and West
Germany. In the East, a strong Communist regime came to power, and in the West, a
hodgepodge of Western influence spread among the US, the French, and Great Britain. It
remained this way until 1989 and the struggle to create a unified identity has remained, only to
be complicated by the great need to integrate the growing immigrant population.

!
The wall came down in 1989. It had been up for nearly 30 years. When youve never lived in an
occupied space, its hard to believe that a wall could change a city the way it changed Berlin.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 51


Even after being demolished there was a Mauer im Kopf12 that keep the wounds fresh through
the remained of the 20th century and into the world today. Sometimes when I walk through the
streets of the city alone at night, it feels like, in a way, the space has grown up with me. This was,
in many ways, exactly what I was looking for.

!
I, then, could not understand why the same thing did not happen for me in New York. After all,
New York was the first place I went when I decided that I needed to leave home and at that
point, my southern problem should have been solved. But it wasnt. In New York, my problems
manifested themselves in different shapes. Without the perpetual gratification of successful
whitening, I felt like I no longer knew who I was. Class was no longer effortless, my friends
were not my own, I was the last person invited out, and every single thing that went wrong
made me question my sanity. New York was not playing the role of the destination in my life, it
was merely a catalyst that helped me recognize that I needed to learn to be my own affirmation.

!
But then the question became more about whether or not this is what I needed. Wieviel Heimat
Braucht der Mensch? (How much heimat does a person need?) I cannot answer this question.
Jean Amry tried to answer this question and his answer appeared to have left him with only
one option suicide. His attempt to come to terms with the past entailed the very real struggle
of being Jewish with German identity during the second World War. In Jean Amerys time, he
would survive Auschwitz and exile to a number of different places. In the beginning of his essay
he describes the distinct form of misery he felt at every border crossing:

This is literally translated as wall in the head. It is a term meant to describe the remaining historical and
intellectual reservations based on various lifestyle and political differences developed amongst East and West
Germans as a result of years of separation.
12

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 52


What misery. Whoever didnt know it was taught later by daily life in exile that the
etymology of the German word for misery, whose early meaning implies exile, still
contains its most accurate definition.13
The German word for misery is Elend and the word for exile that he refers to in this part of the
essay eludes my level of German but, again, we are met with the deeply woven connections
between self and space inherent in German language. Faced with the associations every day I
cant imagine that it would one day become easier to simply separate the two and Amry never
does. He reminisces about a degeneration of life that occurs when one is forced to live away
from their home for an extended period of time, remarks about the potential insufficiency of his
title. He understands that the necessity for a home cannot be quantified, but based on his
experience, he does not come to any conclusion other than the fact that a lot of home is
required. In saying this, it is important to reiterate the incapacity of English to properly
summate the concept of Heimat (the word that he is really using) in succinct fashion. When
read in German, each time I came across this word, I was reminded of the pain and the rejection
as well as the familiarity and warmth that might have been brought to mind in Amrys own
reflections. There is an ambivalence in his words but a clear longing for for a remedy to the
perpetual unheimlichkeit that has become his existence. What remains is the most matter of
fact observation: it is not good to have no Heimat.14

!
13

Amry, Jean. "Wie Viel Heimat Brauch der Mensch." At the mind's limits: contemplations by a survivor on
Auschwitz and its realities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. 42-49. Print.
It was incredibly frustrating to rely on the English translation and the rather insufficient use of home.
Throughout the essay, Heimat is quantified. It just sounds silly to use home, so in an effort to preserve the beauty of
the conclusion, Ive elected not to use home here.
14

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 53


My reading of Jean Amrys essay was paired with a poem from Friedrich Nietzsche called
Vereinsamt15. He quotes this poem shortly before the last lines of the essay when he ponders
Nietzsches cawing crows:
Die Krhen schrein
Und ziehen schwirren Flugs zur Stadt:
Bald wird es schnein, Wohl dem, der jetzt noch - Heimat hat!
Nun stehst du starr,
Schaust rckwrts, ach! wie lange schon!
Was bist du Narr
Vor Winters in die Welt entflohn?

The crows caw


and go with zipping wings to the city:
soon it will be snowing.
Happy is he who now yet has a homeland!

Now you stand numbly,


gazing backward, ah! for how long already?
Why, you fool,
did you flee into the world as Winter approached?

The world - a door


to a thousand wastelands silent and cold!
He who has lost
what you have lost, never stops anywhere.

Now you stand pallid,


cursed to wander in the winter,
like smoke
that is always seeking colder skies.

Fly, bird, rasp out


your song in the melody of a bird of the wastes!
Hide, you fool,
your bleeding heart in ice and sneers!

Die Welt - ein Tor


Zu tausend Wsten stumm und kalt!
Wer das verlor,
Was du verlorst, macht nirgends Halt.
Nun stehst du bleich,
Zur Winter-Wanderschaft verflucht,
Dem Rauche gleich,
Der stets nach kltern Himmeln sucht.
Flieg, Vogel, schnarr
Dein Lied im Wstenvogel-Ton! Versteck, du Narr,
Dein blutend Herz in Eis und Hohn!
Die Krhen schrein
Und ziehen schwirren Flugs zur Stadt:
Bald wird es schein, Weh dem, der keine Heimat hat!

!
!
!
!

The crows caw


and go with zipping wings to the city:
soon it will be snowing.
Woe is he who has no homeland!

I worked to translate it before I read the essay itself, and I suppose that, in doing so, Id found the
answer to the title well before reading it. Amrys suicide was not a surprise. While the
Holocaust is set on a sort of pedestal when it comes to comparative discussion, Id like to think
that much of the nature of the Jewish diaspora resonates with that of the modern American
Negro. In both situations the individual is left grappling with an identity that she believed
belonged to her. Movement, be it exile, forced, or voluntary as a result of this struggle is a
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Earl R. Nitschke. In lonesomeness = Vereinsamt. Mt. Pleasant, Mich.: Enigma
Press, 1968. Print.
15

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 54


characteristic element in both

situations. At the root of the pain is a rejection, a violent

rejection, by a mother figure a conceiver of identity a country and its people. Its so easy to
perform reductive rationalizations of this situation. No one in the United States likes to be
compared to Nazis, but sometimes it feels like no one in the United States likes to think about
anything. This was a necessary mediation for me and I believe that the bonding reaction I had to
this essay is valid, regardless of how reluctant one might be to illuminate these bridges between
the two.

!
Nonetheless, exile (voluntary or involuntary) cannot always be answered with home. Otherwise
everyone who much leave, every victim of a diaspora, would die or be killed by the lack of
reconciliation between themselves and their respective homes. The answer cannot even be to
find a new home, because that could only serve to move us into the same dilemma with a
different background. The answer has to be found in the self, an extension of the will to power, a
redirecting of the freshness of vulnerability afforded to us by a tremendous amount of sadness
and pain so deep that it becomes a banality. The answer is in movement.

!
For Derrida, love is movement. It is the movement of the heart. This movement or, more
annoying, labor of love, is essential to embracing the nature of home. That it only sometimes lies
within identity and that perhaps identity does not need to be its derivative. The fuel or, more
accurately, the catalyst for the movement is the object of our affection. This is the place that
Berlin occupies in my soul.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 55


In my case, there was no better place for me to learn to embrace large-scale changes and
openness than Berlin because like cities, people change too. They are constantly changing. Our
personalities are not fixed. We evolve with age and with experience, so too should our identities.
It doesnt have to mean that our sense of cohesion must be thrown to the birds. It simply means
that we should release our tight grasp on a singular, stable, and simple process of personal
attribution. I realized that I now had not only the knowledge but the power to do this as well.

!
I had a past that I interpreted in a certain way (history is written by the victor) and I hadnt won,
so it was whitewashed, softened, and prosaically rearranged. I treated it like the gospel, as
formidable as my textbooks, as my fathers ashen, cracked heals, the swelling where my mothers
hand was on my bottom, the bible. WASHINGTONS 7:5: What THEY said, how She swung the
belt, He spoke and it was written. My past, like sidewalk scrapes and iron burns, was s(h)ealed.
But I should have known I would pick those scabs later. I left home to rediscover what I believed
that I had lost. I went farther away, discovered that I was wrong, had to start over, wanted to go
home, but I did not need home,

!
I needed self. So I would make it.
Like history, identity is a construct.

!
This is not a healing narrative.
No healing will happen here again.
It is one of creation.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 56

!
!
!

!
!
!

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 57


3 - The Hybrid
Everything is in constant flux on this earth. Nothing keeps the same unchanging shape, and our
affections, being attached to things outside us, necessarily change and pass away as they do. Rousseau Reveries

!
I tell people that I've become a monster and it always makes me laugh from so deep down inside
that you can hardly hear it when it finally reaches my lips. I mean it in all of the ways that you
can mean a thing like that. I feel a jolt of electricity every time I think about it and it makes me
smile. I suppose I expected something different upon my return to New York. Based on what I
had been told while I was in Berlin, or even before Id left the United States, I expected a
disconnect. I expected to long for Berlin every second of the day. I was told that my friends
would grow tired of my travel stories, and I was told that American culture would begin to
shock me. This was not a guarantee, but I had learned to see myself as representative of a certain
average. So, when I came back to Manhattan and reacted with indifference and distaste, I was
confused. I credit much of my confusion to an insatiable optimism about the usefulness of
nonspecific psychological warnings, but even unbridled skepticism could not let me ignore the
fact that something inside of me was, once again, undeniably amiss.

!
It was the summer before my sophomore year of high school when I decided that I wanted to go
to Stanford University. After a less than impressive freshman year, something inside of me
snapped and I realized that I wanted to do better than everyone around me. Nowadays, I would
do any number of bizarre and illogical things to obtain the same blind ambition that I had then,
but this little Ashley has become foreign to me. One of the things that I did first was sign up for

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 58


any and all AP classes offered at my school. There were only two, AP Literature and AP
Language. If I wanted to take more than that, I would have to take them online. So, I did. The
first one was AP Psychology and from there my life just seemed to fall into place in the same
way that glitter falls into glue on a homemade Christmas ornament indiscriminately yet
without opportunity for error. It was perfect because it had to be. All of the adults applauded me
for my conviction while my friends consoled themselves with stories about how no one ever
knows what they want to do before they go to college. Counselors had told them that it was
okay to switch, even to be undeclared. This was not me. This would never be me. My aversion to
fluidity started early and I never gave it a second though. All work was and would be effortless
and AP Psychology was something of a gateway drug for me.

!
The introduction to a psychology textbook can be the strangest thing in the world when you
think about it. Full of things to rectify the delusions of a student anticipating lessons in mind
reading. I remember mine running through the basics of critical skeptical thinking. Being as
impressionable as I was, I took everything inside of the book very seriously and even more so
when I realized that I was reading my very first college textbook. One of the most important
points in the introduction was the necessity for this critical skepticism, not only of other ideas,
but my own as well. Though it was only a page of reading, the impact left on my brain from the
idea that I had to power to model my own thinking with other ideas was counterintuitively
potent. Growing up with biblical stories and church hymns sprinkled on every morsel of life had
instilled in me the belief that every new fact, and every complex idea needed to be believable
within biblical context. I couldnt imagine a human brain functioning without it. But this simple

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 59


introductory paragraph had released me with the diligence of witchcraft and, for the first time, I
saw myself as a truly malleable entity.

!
I guess, it could be argued that I was a certain type of monster before I became this monster. A
high school girl can be one thousand different types of monstrous all in one day, but the real
monstrosity was always the belief that I could ever happily be any one thing. Time and time
again, love will be the answer when it is least expected. To some extent I had lost this with New
York, and this made my conflict all the more upsetting. I never set out to develop a hatred for
the city but it happened nonetheless, and now I was left to come to an understanding of why I
felt this way because I knew, deep down inside, that I would be just as unhappy as before if I
could not find contentment in both of my spaces. Why? Because I did not want this to be a story
about running away. I wanted this to be about confrontation in every way. the answer would be
larger than me.

!
Of the few things I knew for sure, I knew that the solution could have never been to simply
embrace New York. I hated New York because all it served to do was remind me of why I loved
Berlin. I struggled with the fact that New York no longer represented forward-moving life in my
mind. Every day felt vegetative. Every time a friend announced that they would move to the city,
I surrendered to confusion rooted in seemingly baseless distaste. I truly believed that only only
idiots would leave perfectly secure environments to put themselves in New York on purpose.
While I had never felt so much hatred for New York in my previous experiences, I tried my best
to accumulate a list of things that New York had actually helped me come to terms with, ways
that the city had changed me for the better. I realized that, for the most part, I was able to

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 60


abandon some of the initial fear that I had leaving my home and that had made all of the
difference. A lot of mistakes were made here that I couldnt have made anywhere else. While I
didnt necessarily believe in the things that NYC had come to represent in my mind, it was
essential that I absorbed my time here as something useful. After all, I didnt pull myself apart
only to mess myself up again with repressed resentment.

!
While my original observations led me to believe that I would ultimately have to choose
between my two cultures, I was beginning to understand that occupying this middle space was
not really something that I needed to run away from. I was always afraid that without these
definitive boundaries, I wouldnt be real. But, at this point, I understood that believing in these
boundaries, and subscribing to definitive extremities would only be to my detriment.
Categorization is a very human tendency but, as with before, we would evolve. Perhaps this
would simply be another evolutionary understanding. So, I moved forward. Integral to my
movement was the work of Homi. K. Bhabha.

!
For Bhabha, this in-between space, is exactly the place for one to be when attempting to
explore the nature of selfhood, a space in which I can come to terms with the
incommensurability of my pre-given cultural identity and learn to make it into a more livable
reality. In the in-between, yielding to conventions is not necessary. It is a space in which new
signs, new perceptions, and new identities can be created. For Bhabha this is meant to pave the
way to a truer more encapsulating history of cultures. For me, this is part of a reflective process
that would lead me to adopt an explorative stance in my identity formation. Now that I learned

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 61


how to effectively internalize the pain of the past, I had to decide what I was going to make of it.
Getting over it is never enough.

!
Understanding the value of occupying the in-between was only the first step. There continued to
be issues in my thinking that kept me from generating any useful results from my reflections. I
often found myself wondering if what I was doing was right; whether or not I could really
claim any real affinity with German culture as someone that is not a real German. How could I
fall in love with a culture that didnt belong to me? These are the same questions that I mulled
over with the Baldwin texts. However problematic, Baldwin was addressing the very real limits
imposed on cultural identity by preconceived traditional beliefs about cultural belonging and
historical inheritance. It becomes very complex when the ideas of historical inheritance that you
possess are tainted by a period of persecution and involuntary movement (hello, slavery). This
would be solved elegantly by the simple remolding of my notions of boundaries afforded to me
by Bhabhas work with cultural repositioning.

!
In the introduction of Bhabhas The Location of Culture, he rather appropriately quotes
Heidegger saying that a boundary exists not as a point at which something stops, but a place , or
moment, from which something begins its presencing.16 For me this speaks through the
power of validation through difference. Simmel too recognized something similar in his work
with the sociology of metropolitan life:

16

Bhabha, Homi K. Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 62


Man is a creature whose existence is dependent on difference, i.e. his mind is stimulated by
the difference between present impressions and those which have preceded.17
Honing this consistently comparative thinking is something that I believe makes the idea of
intellectual hybridity, at the very least, rather intuitive. On a larger scale, thinking this way about
culture can lend itself to the development of hybrid identity.

!
I remember that the first thing that came to mind, in my initial moments of fear and instability,
was The Satanic Verses, a book that I held very close to my heart despite my difficulties with the
material upon my first time reading it. Much of its story was about transformation, something
that I had not wholly understood having been so loyal to my perceptions of what a stable
minded individual should be. Both of the storys protagonists, Indian expatriates in England,
become monsters in their own right literally and figuratively, the former of which I found to be
grotesque. One becomes the archangel Gibreel and the other, the devil. When I first read the
book, I spent most of my time exploring the more controversial religious aspects of it. It was
really too easy to read the whole novel without doing much more than that; it is a commanding
and frontal confrontation of the historical artifacts of Islam. But this one-dimensional reading is
evidently insufficient. After a tumultuous course of events between the two characters while
they struggle to come to terms with their news lives, we are left with a polarizing conclusion.
Farishta, the archangel Gibreel commits suicide, and Chamcha, the devil, returns to India,
learns forgiveness (by means of Gibreel), and stays there. We are made to understand that his
experience in England has changed him in a way so deeply that he was unsure that a return

17

pp. 1 Simmel Metropolitan Life

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 63


would be possible or beneficial, but the final image is that of Chamcha looking out to the sea. In
many cases, this transformation is not only possible, it is a necessity.
Childhood was over, and the view from this window was no more than an old and
sentimental echo. To the devil with it! Let the bulldozers come. If the old refused to die, the
new could not be born.18
The old here would be Chamchas previous perception of identity as a rigid construction

!
The final part of my process would have to be and continues to be reconciliation with my third
identity, a black woman in the United States. I spent an unhealthy portion of my time so far
existing in a world that I believed to be essentially post-racial. At this point in my life, I can only
manage to see that as another form of ignorance. What Ive learned is that this issue is always
going to be complex but it is never something so overwhelming that it merits repression. All I
wanted to do was find a point at which this part of my life meets the newer facets of my identity.
In trying to bring these words together, I think of the sharp words of Frantz Fanon. He was
addressing the Vergangenheitsbewltigung of the American Negro by illuminating the nuances
of the black psyche in the 1960s. In his book Black Skin, White Masks addresses a range of topics
from black-white relationships to the complexes of the colonized, but the most valuable piece
that I took from Fanon really came in the end. In a chapter titled By Way of Conclusion, Fanon
gives the reader a manifesto of sorts, something that I found to be quite helpful in an ocean of
language that is otherwise difficult to digest. Beneath the confrontational addresses, Fanon
believed in the importance of agency, agency that extended itself not only to whites in the

18

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary homelands: essays and criticism, 1981-1991. London: Granta Books ;, 1991. Print.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 64


interest of acceptance, but blacks who he believed needed to be the main actors in the creation
of their futures:
Havent I got better things to do on this earth than avenge the Blacks of the seventeenth
century?
I have not the right as a man of color to wish for a guilt complex to crystallize in the white
man regarding the past of my race.
I have neither the right nor the duty to demand reparations for my subjugated ancestors.
There is no black mission; there is no white burden. []
I find myself one day in the world, and I acknowledge one right for myself: the right to
demand human behavior from the other. []
I do not want to be the victim of the Ruse of a black world. (pp 203-204)19
And I didnt want to be a victim; not of the ruse of a black world, not of my past, not of my
current circumstances or even what I believed that my future could and could not be. So much
of my experience with my black identity has been dealt with through the appropriation of ideas
and discourses external to the issue itself. I was afraid of the directness. I was afraid to be
uncomfortable and to make uncomfortable those around me. But if there was anything that I
learned through all of this, it is certainly that comfort is, at least in some part, the enemy of
productive deconstruction. I learned that I needed to displace myself in Berlin. Now, having
ignored most of it for a large part of my academic life, I was able to engage with the black
American narrative of the past and while its been a slow process, filling myself with the rage of
decades past, and the fresh confusion of our modern colorful universe, its been one of the most
important points of awareness that I have taken away from my experience. And now, even more

19

Rushdie, 203-204

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 65


than before, I know that what has come and will come of this will become yet another part of a
complex whole. An identity that I forged for myself; one that has allowed me to approach each
new challenge with an open and eager edge and my new Heimat (Berlin, du bist so wunderbar)
has afforded me that.20

!
I always feel as though I've done myself justice when I find myself at the beginning again, a
changed girl. For me, the beginning has always been characterized by a lack of (the right) words.
Theres this quote from a Wilhelm Raabe story that I was never really able to translate properly:
In der Natur liegt alles ins Unendliche auseinander, im Geist konzentriert sich das
Universum in einem Punkte21
A man of leisure ponders life in a dank and crowded alleyway in Berlin during the Biedermeier
period. The sun shines onto his rooftop and into his Dachstube. He looks through the window of
his attic room and spots a bubble imperfection in the glass, and just behind that glass he sees a
woman that reminds him of his love from the past, a Putzmacherin. It is at that moment that he
realizes the truth to the aforementioned quote from his professor of logic.
It can be translated as:
In Nature, everything is eternally (asunder), but in spirit, everything in the Universe can
be concentrated into one point.
This is not a commentary on culture in the purest sense but I truly believe that hybrid identity
can be imagined in these terms. Its easy to forget, after living life as a devoted inhabitant of a
single space, that we are one of 7 billion as well as one of however many millions in a state. We
20

Berlin, you are so wonderful - a song turned slogan

21

Raabe, Wilhelm. Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse. Berlin: s.n., 1857. Print.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 66


exist already within this web, but we are not prey, not victims of a unary disposition. We can
move and we can throw ourselves into another part of this web22. Sometimes this happens
without warning and of course, some of this can be seen as fate. But writing it off as entirely so
would be a mistake and, honestly, a severe discredit to the plasticity and willpower of the human
disposition. While I had no control over my high schools limited resources and the resulting
lack of options for second languages, I made the very deliberate choice to let my exercise in
fulfilling requirements become what I believe will be a lifelong tango with the German language.
I chose to make the connection with German culture and while I did not chose, the person, or
the city, I chose to let myself fall in love.

!
Today, everywhere I go, the light from outside wakes me up. My world is spread asunder, but in
my mind and spirit from my Dachstube23 of cultural enlightenment, all of it can be concentrated
into one point-- a sun-drenched bed in Berlin.

!
!
!
!
!
!
!
Benhabib, Seyla. The claims of culture: equality and diversity in the global era. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 2002. Print.
22

23

This word describes a sort of roof dorm.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 67


REFERENCES
Amry, Jean. "Wie Viel Heimat Brauch der Mensch." At the mind's limits: contemplations by a survivor
on Auschwitz and its realities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. 42-49. Print.
Appiah, Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.
Print.
Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge, 1995. 206-209. Print.
Benhabib, Seyla. The claims of culture: equality and diversity in the global era. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 2002. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1950.
Print.
Benjamin, Walter. Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2006. Print.
Bhabha, Homi K. Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill
"Damned by the Nazis, Hailed by the Feminists - Other Press." <i>Other Press</i>. N.p., n.d. Web. 15
Apr. 2014. <http://www.otherpress.com/features/damned-by-the-nazis-hailed-by-the-feminists/>
Dblin, Alfred. Berlin Alexanderplatz: die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf. Olten: Walter, 1961. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Press ;, 2008. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the dark: whiteness and the literary imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1992. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Earl R. Nitschke. In lonesomeness = Vereinsamt. Mt. Pleasant, Mich.:
Enigma Press, 1968. Print.
Raabe, Wilhelm. Die Chronik der Sperlingsgasse. Berlin: s.n., 1857. Print.

ASHLEY RENNT: AN ADAPTATION OF THE GERMAN HEIMAT 68


Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary homelands: essays and criticism, 1981-1991. London: Granta Books ;, 1991.
Print.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 1988. Print.
Wicks, Robert. "Friedrich Nietzsche." <i>Stanford University</i>. Stanford University, 30 May 1997.
Web. 14 Apr. 2014. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/>
Wiedmer, Caroline Alice. The claims of memory: representations of the Holocaust in contemporary
Germany and France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Print.
Sebald, Winfried Georg, and Michael Hulse. The Rings of Saturn. New York: New Directions, 1998. Print.

!
The companion to this thesis can be found at: http://ashleyrennt.com