It was in 2011 when I was working as a German language assistant and had some spare time to read, that it struck me how many new books on the famous Spiegel-Bestsellerliste were telling autobiographical stories of illness. I had just finished Charlotte Roche’s Schoßgebete, and before that, randomly, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (another book with themes of illness/disability). Reading these two very different books consecutively – published a good fifty years apart – made for an interesting comparison. What it brings home is this: Whilst narratives on illness/disability are not new to literature, they have often only been used to signify difference (think Boo Radley), and have largely been used and read metaphorically because of that.
Once I became aware of this new ‘wave’ of life writing on illness/disability in German, I suddenly saw it everywhere in the contemporary German-language literary market – without trying very hard to look for it! There was Kathrin Schmidt’s Du stirbst nicht (2009), Arno Geiger’s Der alte König in seinem Exil (2011), Tilman Jens’s Demenz: Abschied von meinem Vater (2009), and Christoph Schlingensief’s cancer diary of the same year, to name but a few. I had soon read them all, and found myself – hypothetically at first – drafting a PhD research proposal on my free evenings, and gauging the interest of academics at the University of Sheffield, the university I had spent an Erasmus semester at during my BA.
When talking of a ‘wave’ of such books, I don’t mean to suggest they’re all the same (this is one of the most persistent prejudices I come across when conversations turn to my thesis topic. While we’re at it, they’re not ‘misery lit’ either!). These new texts deal with diverse illnesses/disabilities, all in their own ways, and some deal very explicitly with the experience of death and dying. Some are by established authors who were ‘coming out’ with their own experiences of illness/disability; others by first-time authors, turning to writing in search for a medium through which to communicate their experiences.
What they do seem to have in common is that they portray illness/disability in new ways, as a complex, lived experience; it’s negotiated as a facet of identity, and aimed at other ill/disabled readers as well as non-disabled people alike. The wider socio-political contexts of ‘Pflegekräftemangel’ and ‘Sterbehilfe-Debatten’ highlight how the decision to share personal experiences of illness in literature is a political and ethical act in contemporary Germany – and in being able to bring the contemporary context and an individual story together, I think, lies life writing’s greatest strength.
I am currently coming towards the end of my third year of PhD study and the working title for my thesis is ‘Autobiographical Writing and the Aesthetics of Illness – a Disability Studies Perspective on Contemporary German Life Writing’. Informed by Anglo-American disability studies, and using traditional methods and theories of literary criticism, my thesis analyses five key examples of recent autobiographical writing. I focus on narrative strategies, aesthetic forms and experimentations with genre that can be observed in this kind of life writing. My grounding in the field of disability studies gives the analysis an innovative perspective, and crucially enables me to identify gaps in the dominant readings of the texts, which (despite the large amount of attention the texts have received from media and reading public) often disregard the illness experience at their centre and contest their literary quality.
Texts fitting my research focus have continued to come out since I started the PhD in 2012 but of course, I can’t deal with them all. Yet every time I notice this, I have been (maybe weirdly) excited. This is because it adds to my feeling that what I do is of contemporary relevance. Besides that, it certainly matters to me personally.
Thinking back to the beginnings of my PhD for the purpose of writing this blog makes me realise what a long way I have come – I remember the excitement of coming across a whole body of theory under the heading of ‘disability studies’ in my first year, inspiring me and giving me a language with which to express some of the observations made when analysing my chosen texts. I remember having to narrow down and exclude a number of texts from my analysis and draft table of contents (probably one of the hardest bits ahead of my confirmation review twelve months into the PhD). And I can now look back on conference and publication experiences that I would not have dreamt of gaining when tentatively writing the original proposal.
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