For the last month, I’ve been teaching classes in contemporary American and Romanian poetry in the American Studies program of the University of Bucharest, and that time has been well spent indeed, providing me access to new voices and perspectives on poetry and its place in both modern American and Romanian cultures. We’ve had a number of lively class discussions, and I was especially interested in my students’ reactions to the news that Herta Müller had won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2009. representing the first time (and long overdue at that) a Romanian writer had won the award. Not so fast, though. Müller writes (mostly) in German, the students reminded me, and she’d left Romania for Germany in 1987. But hadn’t she been forced to leave, I countered, emigrating only suffering censorship and worse under Romanian communism (Müller recounts some of that vividly here)? Besides, while she writes in German, doesn’t that speak mostly to her having grown up in a German speaking town in Romania, and at a time when the country’s German minority lived under considerable duress? In fact, doesn’t writing about those ethnic tensions, and almost exclusively about life in communist Romania, mark her clearly as a Romanian writer and a vital one?
The discussion led beyond Müller to the idea of writers and their national identity and whether these kinds of designations–“German writer” or “Romanian writer–” carried any real weight. Many of the students concluded that Müller’s value resided in the bleak realities of communist reality that she portrayed in her novels and stories not in her nationality, and on a certain level this seems reasonable. Something about it gives me pause, though. Are there nothing more than bragging rights at stake in labeling Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson an American writer? Are these terms only relevant when dealing with overtly political writers, like Victor Jara or Amiri Barka, and meaningless when dealing with the likes of Wordsworth or F. Scott Fitzgerald? Is Herta Müller a German writer or a Romanian writer (or can she be both)? Does it matter at all? I have to think it does matter, though, as of now, I’m at a loss when it comes to explaining why.
by Martin Woodside