Meike Ziervogel’s session, “No One Too Small For History,” is only one of the many interesting sessions on the first day of the forthcoming Dhaka Lit Fest. She, herself, is many things. First and foremost, a novelist, she was also, once, a journalist for Agence France-Presse, and now runs a publishing house, Peirene Press, and has an established literary Salon in London.
As an avid reader of fiction, I am, instantly and inevitably, drawn to her life as a novelist and her ensuing body of work. Of German origin herself, her debut novel, Magda, about the wife of Joseph Goebbels, one of Adolf Hitler’s most devout followers during the Second World War, was shortlisted for the Guardian’s “Not the Booker Prize” award. A most interest take on World War II, from the point of view of one of its more forgotten players, Magda -- both the novel and the character -- aims to provide us with a perspective that is at once interesting and new. This fictionalised alternate history narrative is an attempt to place us right in the heart of one of history’s supposed monsters.
Her last novel, Kauthar, which came out in August, whose protagonist is an intelligent and educated young woman in her 30s, is another perspective-changing take on one of the most relevant issues of our time: Islamic extremism. The novel finds the character of Kauthar, who is a convert to Islam, slowly becoming more and more extremist in her viewpoints, to the point where she finds herself being pulled into the world of the terroristic narrative the media is so adamant about sharing.
All her novels, not just these two, deal with issues of – what she calls – the “other.” Earlier this year, when Ziervogel was here for the Bengal Lights Literary Conclave, I was lucky enough to have interviewed her. Suffice to say, we discussed her work – and her life, which is just as interesting, and which I’ll come to in a bit – but, especially, these two novels, in which she covers possibly two of the most “monstrous” ideologies of the past two generations. She says that referring to these people as “monsters” is actually part of the problem.
With her fictional work, what Meike Ziervogel is attempting to do is flesh out this concept of the “other,” something that is especially prevalent in Western society. But what exactly is “other?” It is an attempt by society to distance itself from the apparent monsters that went on to conduct these atrocities, such as the Holocaust and the continuing Islamic terrorist attacks that have plagued current events for the last two decades.
She goes on to say that this is society’s way of removing itself from blame. For example, Magda Goebbels, a very real woman under very ordinary circumstances, is a perfect example of how even an educated, middle-class woman can be forced to believe in ideologies (in this case, anti-semitism and the extermination of the Jews) that most of us today can safely say we will never consider. And her other character Kawther, who too is of a similar background, was her way of sending her “protagonist on a journey to see what needs to happen psychologically for her to start and to then misinterpret her religion.”
If one thinks Meike is treading on unchartered waters, one would be wrong. She herself had thought about converting to Islam when she was studying in university – where, incidentally, she studied Arabic language and literature – and living in Egypt. She was drawn to the mystical side of Islam but, ultimately, did not convert; she says it would’ve been for the “wrong reasons,” unlike her protagonist, Kauthar, who converts what she deems to be the right reasons, and then goes on to lose herself.
Coming off of this, it’d be interesting to figure out what to expect from her panel, “No One Too Small For History,” in which Meike, along with Zoe Wicomb and Minoli Salgado, and hosted by Anatara Ganguli, will disect how “the simplest of lives are decisively, indeed harrowingly, reshaped by the tumultuous turns of history.” Magda Goebbels is a great example – or victim? – of how easily we can be taken away by the tides of history.
S. N. Rasul is a writer. Follow him on Twitter: @snrasul