Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

5.5. Ein Fremder unter den Einheimischen, ein Einheimischer unter den Fremden: zur literarischen (Selbst)Repräsentation des nomadisierenden Subjekts
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Zalina A. Mardanova (Vladikavkaz / Nordossetien-Alanien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Playing kanak identity: Feridun Zaimoglu's rebellious performances

Liesbeth Minnaard (Trier University-Germany / University Leiden - The Netherlands)


Introduction: Feridun Zaimoglu and his Kanak Sprak

Not everyone will be familiar with the author whose literary work is central to this paper. Let me briefly introduce you to Feridun Zaimoglu and his "Kanak Sprak". Feridun Zaimoglu is a German author, born in Turkey in 1964. He came to Germany as a child, his parents being labour migrants. By now he has been living in Germany for over 30 years. In 1995 he published the best-selling work Kanak Sprak, which made him both famous and notorious. Since then he has often been represented - and he also contributes to this representation himself - as the spokesman of the second and third generation of Turkish migrants in Germany. Much can be said about this representation as well as about Zaimoglu's position in German literature. Opinions on this matter differ widely. As an illustration of the author's public image, I present a short quote from the cover text of one of his later works, Kopf und Kragen, Kanak-Kultur-Kompendium:

Als vor einigen Jahren Feridun Zaimoglus Buch Kanak Sprak erschien, veränderte sich etwas in der deutschen Literatur. Hier war einer, der in bislang für die Literatur unzugänglichen Nischen eine Sprache entdeckte, die den Aufstand probt, eine Sprache des wütenden Protests und des Vergnügens an Veränderung. Feridun Zaimoglu ist ein Rebell unter den Literaten, ein glanzvoller Unterhalter mit Freibeuter-Attitüde, ein Bilderstürmer. Jetzt wagt er sich erneut in Niemandsland' (Zaimoglu, 2001)

This is the image that's being sketched of the literary work of this Turkish-German rebel hero. It is clear that such a text functions as an instrument in a marketing-inspired media-representation of the author, the publisher's presentation of something new and exciting. Still, I think it is interesting to have a look at the picture presented here. Words and images like 'Aufstand', 'Niemandsland', and 'Protest' point out that we are dealing with literature that opens up a subordinate, hardly accessible world. The work does not fit the common categories of the German national literature and is presented as "other" literature, other in many ways. In my opinion, it is exactly this category of otherness that the literary work itself picks out as a central theme, and, with countless contradictions and multiplicities, tries to refuse and resist.

In this paper I will argue that Zaimoglu's debut Kanak Sprak reveals, explores and crosses borders of genre, style, language and theme, and that the work makes these borders into issues of debate. Zaimoglu creates confusion by resisting "general" literary rules. Thematically he turns the margins into the centre, putting the focus on those who are generally excluded from the norm. This contrary move draws attention to the normative limits of society, including the inherent patterns of dominance. Socio-political hierarchies are put into the picture, and the division into German self and non-German other is critically questioned. Zaimoglu's work, with its many ambivalences and the thematic centrality of issues of identity, seems a direct invitation to apply the concept of hybridity in trying to describe and interpret this no-man's-land-literature and the representations of the Kanak self that it offers.

In a closer reading of Zaimoglu's debut, I will explore this assumption and focus on the concept of hybridity on several levels of text and story. I will offer an analysis of Zaimoglu's narrative play with categories and stereotypes - literary and other - using hybridity not only as a descriptive concept, but also attending to its strategic implications for possible readings of the text.


Tensions of Hybridity: Literature and Language

On a first level, the level of Kanak Sprak as literary artefact, one can argue that the text, or better, the texts Kanak Sprak, put literariness, more specifically, German literariness, up for discussion. Through the incorporation of tensions and contradictions in terms of genre and literary form, the texts resist categorisation and question the rigid and for that reason deficient categories at hand.

Exemplary for this strategy of confusion is the preface to Kanak Sprak. Here the text-intern narrator Feridun Zaimoglu presents his work as the result of a kind of social sciences project. He refers to his 24 interview-texts as protocols that are the results of his social fieldwork 'im Milieu, im Kiez der Männer'. About the process of 'collecting' the protocols he writes:

Ich tauchte ab in den "Lumpen-Hades", suchte den Kanaken auf in seinen Distrikten und Revieren, Ghetto-Quartieren und Stammplätzen, in seinen Verschlägen und Teehäusern. Es war nicht einfach, gegen das anfängliche Mißtrauen anzukämpfen, das der Kanake "dem Studierten" gegenüber empfindet. Vertrauensbildende Maßnahmen waren vonnöten, um ihn davon zu überzeugen, daß ich ihn nicht "an die Alemannen verkaufe".' (Zaimoglu, 1995: 15)

By stressing his immersion in this "Milieu", - he was really there, he spoke to these angry young men and participated in their "verdammte Unterwelt" -, the author-character Zaimoglu criticises the doctrinal and often paternalistic social sciences, produced from behind the computer. He ridicules the methodological claims of objectivity and neutrality, which, as he derisively suggests, involve a "safe" distance from the objects of research. Zaimoglu's tongue in cheek description of the Kanaken as a specific ethnic group - a sort of subcultural urban tribe - can be read as a cynical commentary on the current socio-anthropological discourse.

This practical social sciences methodology, which, as the author-character Zaimoglu claims, underlie his protocols, can be considered a direct contradiction with the "usual" literary concept of artistic inspiration and creativity. With Kanak Sprak Zaimoglu does not present himself as the creator of a literary work, but he narratively stages himself as an intermediary between the dominant German society and a mostly irreproachable German-Turkish underworld. In his preface he connects this self-representation with an outspoken political aim. Whereas Gayatri Spivak states that the subaltern cannot speak(1), Zaimoglu tries to realise the opposite by giving this Kanak subaltern a voice. He takes a position against the marginalisation of this group and angrily prophesies revolt. Zaimoglu insists that in Kanak Sprak the Kanaken speak "in their own tongues", and for this reason he does not label his book as literature but as free rendering and translating. Zaimoglu is "just" the conductor of Kanak words. As the "sole intermediary", he lays claims to a high degree of "authenticity".

In respect to migrant literature this highly problematic concept of authenticity appears over and over again. In his provocative essay 'Gastarbeiterliteratur. Ali macht Männchen', Zaimoglu aggressively criticises this, in his opinion, supposed (by the dominantly white German readership) and installed (by the first generation migrant authors) authenticity of so-called migrant literature. He argues that authenticity is the appropriate label for the migrant-other, which the hegemonic dominant society has stereotypically constructed for itself: the convenient and acceptable other. It is this idea of the "authentic other" that in Kanak Sprak is reversed and turned into a play, into a performance, a staged authenticity. In the contradictory conflation of interviews and literature, protocols and narrative, the borders between (discursive) reality and fictionality mingle and disappear. Indefinably hybrid, Kanak Sprak resists and criticises this homogenising and undifferentiated politics of categorisation.

A similar argument can be made about the language of Kanak Sprak, a second level of hybridity. Zaimoglu comments on this language:

Die sprachliche Manifestation unserer Mobilmachung heißt Kanak Sprak, das ist das babylonische Kauderwelsch einer unbedingt auffälligen, unbedingt angestoßenen Generation, auf die dieses Land wirklich gewartet hat.' (Zaimoglu, 2001: 15).

In this Kanak Sprak a variety of different languages and dialects comes together. The new language is hybrid, in that it is neither one nor the other, nor a specific mixture of all. In every single speech-act Kanak Sprak is re-invented. Every interviewed Kanake performs his own personal version of the language, which, as a result, resists determination and categorisation. In this way the book Kanak Sprak incorporates a contradiction. The language's shifting hybridity cannot be captured in writing; the protocols cannot but be artificial constructions.

What becomes clear is that ambivalence and instability, core characteristics of hybridity, are the basic ingredients of Zaimoglu's literary rebellion. His narrative play with the concepts of "authenticity" and "construction" compellingly posits the question of how we actually (and exclusionary) define literature. Kanak Sprak's explicit, self-conscious and hybrid "otherness" - in genre, style and language - confronts the German reader with the insufficiency of existing categories. With its manifold crossings of borders, the book Kanak Sprak demands a reconceptualisation of the dominant and delimiting literary categories. Its unconventional literary language questions the naturalness and self-evidence of the German language as the foundation of German literature.


Reading Kanak Sprak: Polarised Images of Self / Other

Finally, it is on a third, more thematic level of hybridity that the concept of identity is put up for discussion. Unfortunately the format of a paper does not offer sufficient space to fully elaborate on this complex and challenging play with hybridity on the narratological level of the story. I will shortly point out some of its most interesting aspects though.

In general, the identities described in the book Kanak Sprak appear rather limited. Let me explain. Almost all interviewed male Kanaken live their lives outside of the dominant society. Many of them repeat and confirm all of the stereotypes that determine dominant public discourse: these Kanaken are aggressive and criminal, working in jobs of the lowest ranking and are often involved in illegal activities. They are the second-generation labour migrants, who cannot be identified as of exclusively Turkish or German ethnicity. As hyphenated German citizens, they occupy an ambivalent position, moving in the so-called 'in between'. The idea of an open, creative space that is often ascribed to such a position, a space where one can break away from the limits of the dominant discourse and freely construct one's self-chosen identity, does not seem to apply though. Despite their provocative and transgressive character, the imaginations of Kanak identity presented in these protocols fail to resist, no, even repeat the violent and hierarchic polarities of the dominant discourse.

For most of the interviewed Kanaken, positioning themselves appears extremely important. In general they present themselves as part of a group, referring to this group as 'we Kanaken'. This hate-speech vocabulary - 'Kanake' - is used as form of self-interpellation. The fact that this time it is not the dominant German-white majority that is using this hate-speech to objectify a non-white other, but the 'objectified Kanake' himself, changes the tone, frame and meaning of these devaluating markers. The active and self-conscious application of hate-speech turns its (subjective) meaning-horizon from a passive one - a specific social minority group being labelled and muted by the term -, into a meaning-horizon of performative mocking and self-irony. By the semantic shift that this repetitive speech act impels, the dominant hate-speech discourse is provocatively opened up, and a space is claimed for self-definition and identity politics. With their self-determination as Kanaken, the interviewees strategically apply the power of definition in order to modify the delimiting and contemptuous value attached to the hate-speech term.(2)

The interesting question now is how the interviewees re-signify this devaluating term, which they successfully appropriate. How do they construct an "alternative" Kanak identity? This question, the performative construction of a Kanak identity, is central throughout the protocols. One Kanake puts it as follows:

Erste sorge: identität, ne person sein. (...) wo bin ich und wie bring ich meine haut in 'n sichren hafen? Mußt dich fragen, ob's dir oder anderen passt oder nich, hier geht's um deine ganze verdammte haut, vor der du 'n riegel basteln musst, damit andre nich drauflosgrabschen.' (Zaimoglu 1995: 44/45)

The image of two antagonistic worlds that is sketched here, the public one and that of the interviewed Kanaken, returns in almost every protocol. The Kanake constructs his identity in angry opposition to a violently exclusive German (white) identity. Discursively dominant roles of self and other are repeated, but in reverse order, without subverting the ascribed hierarchy of these polarised roles though. The Kanake holds the marginalized position of the underdog, but this marginalisation undergoes a semantic shift. The involuntary exclusion from a dominant centre is re-signified as a chosen, even preferable, position in an isolated Kanakistan. The Kanake's other - especially the Alemane, as the white German is disdainfully named - is aggressively stereotyped and approached with mistrust and hostility. Possible differences within the constructions of Kanak or Aleman identity are denied. Multiplicity, one of the major characteristics of the concept of hybridity, is reduced to the one binary opposition of self and other.

As Gerardo Mosquera states: 'Deterritorialization, hybridization and multiculturality should not turn into new structures of power'(3). In my opinion, Zaimoglu's imaginations of a hybrid Kanak identity run this risk. It is a homogenising and polarising Kanak-discourse that determines most of the protocols. The few "Kanak voices" that take a different tone - very interesting voices that are definitely there but that again for reasons of space I cannot discuss here - generally get lost in the verbal violence of this dominant Kanak-discourse, which also determined the hyped reception of the book. In the end, the new, supposedly 'alternative' Kanak identity turns out to be just as exclusive and static as the German national identity was exposed as being. In Kanak Sprak, Kanak "hybrid" identity is turned into a new categorising regime that leaves no space for diversity. The only and hardly reassuring distinction is the fact that this new Kanak identity can be read in terms of self-representation. It is worth considering, though, whether self-colonalisation may not be a more suitable term here.



Let me conclude. Whereas Zaimoglu's Kanak Sprak on the surface succeeds in being literary and discursively transgressive - in terms of definitions of literature, of socio-political criticism and also in terms of its Kanak self-representation -, the work fails in being actually subversive in the sense of offering truly alternative constructions of identity that do not fall back on polarisations and exclusionary practices. On the one hand, Kanak Sprak succesfully presents a confrontational critique of German social and literary discourse, focussing in particular on the negative and exclusive determinations of others. On the other hand, it is exactly this discursive strategy of determination and exclusion that Kanak Sprak, in my eyes, problematically repeats in order to construct and claim a "one-and-only" Kanak identity.

© Liesbeth Minnaard (Trier University-Germany / University Leiden - The Netherlands)


(1) Gayatri C. Spivak, 'Can the Subaltern Speak?'. In: Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. A Reader. London / New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

(2) The performative power of language (in particular hate speech) is discussed in Judith Butler, Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative. New York / London: Routledge, 1997.

(3) Gerardo Mosquera, quoted in Salah Hassan and Iftikhar Dadi, Unpacking Europe. Towards a Critical Reading. Rotterdam: Nai Publishers, 2001. P. 13.


Zaimoglu, Feridun, Kanak Sprak: 24 Mißtöne vom Rande der Gesellschaft. Hamburg: Rotbuch, 1995.

Zaimoglu, Feridun, 'Gastarbeiterliteratur. Ali macht Männchen'. In: Ruth Mayer, Mark Terkessidis, Globalkolorit. Multikulturalismus und Populärkultur. St. Andrä/Wördern: Hannibal, 1998.

Zaimoglu, Feridun, Kopf und Kragen. Kanak-Kultur-Kompendium. Hamburg: Rotbuch, 2001.

5.5. Ein Fremder unter den Einheimischen, ein Einheimischer unter den Fremden: zur literarischen (Selbst)Repräsentation des nomadisierenden Subjekts

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Liesbeth Minnaard (Trier University-Germany / University Leiden - The Netherlands): Playing kanak identity: Feridun Zaimoglu's rebellious performances. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 31.8.2004     INST