Women on the Halligen

Each new piece of material she works on involves a test for the German author Marianne Zückler. Her latest book Der Blanke Hans und seine Frauen took her to the Halligen – a group of small islands in the North Sea. The »Blanke Hans« is the name of its raging storm tides and hurricane-like tempests. On the Hallig, she interviewed the women there to learn about their lives, their past, and the motives that led them to the island in order to tell their stories in a »factographic novel.« As a Berliner, the author was challenged by the very small community which functions in accordance with very particular laws. But she was also fascinated by the nature and the lonely life on the Hallig. – An interview by Clara Herrmann, the German version can be found here.

Clara Herrmann: Women on the Hallig: how did you come across this subject?

Marianne Zückler: I read an advert in the paper about the Halligen, »Hand gegen Koje« (work in exchange for accommodation), which made me curious. They were looking for people who would do something helpful for free lodgings. I went there and spoke with the mayor. And since I told him about my libretto on witch-hunts, he suggested that I write something about the women on the Halligen. Originally, I didn’t want to work on the topic of women again.
I was still getting over the witch-hunts, but then I got a second wind. My first visit of the Hallig had – I have to say – something magical. It was November; it was very foggy. I felt that I was reaching the summit of a mountain, not an island. This aura which a Hallig emits enticed me straight away.

CH: What is the novel Der Blanke Hans und seine Frauen (Blanker Hans and his Women) about?

MZ: The protagonist is the radio journalist Nina. She receives the task of doing a piece on the life of the women on the Hallig. She is excited about the project and thinks that she can finish it quickly and makes a small holiday out of it. Done. But then Nina starts to reflect on her own life involuntarily.
The novel combines three accounts: first, the research of the narrator Nina on the Hallig; then in the center, the life of women on the Halligen of the past and today; and finally a retrospect of the life of the narrator.

CH: You always endeavor to develop your fictional work from documentary material or sources. How did you research your novel?

MZ: Over a period of about eight months, I conducted about 40 interviews of various length in loose intervals with women between the ages of 14 and 85. They were either born on the Hallig or had moved there. Some were only living on the Halligen for a short time and worked as nurses, pastors, teachers, seasonal workers. Essentially, I was interested in what the women knew about their female ancestors – how present is recent history for them, namely the time of National Socialism and of new beginnings after 1945? And of course the inquiry on the sources: How did women used to live on the Hallig? What motives brought the women to the Hallig? Usually, it was love or desire for adventure or a longing for a new way of life on the Hallig. But how did they cope with their new home? And what does it mean to live in a boundless environment and at the same time a small, very close-knit community.
I, too, – as a Berliner – was living for the first time in my life in a small community of only 100 people during my research on the Hallig. It was a huge adjustment and challenge.
My conversations with the inhabitants of the Hallig were my most important sources. It was hard work. My directness didn’t work. If you try to peer into their lives, they rap you on the knuckles.
There wasn’t much material on the historical life of women on the Halligen, as opposed to the accounts of the men on the island: as seafarers in chronicles and stories, as heroic rescuers during storm tides. However, I found some interesting things in church chronicles and diaries.

CH: How did you come up with this form of story-telling and did you take another form into consideration for the book?

MZ: No, never. I wanted to turn all the raw material into an artistic form. My proofreader named it a »factographic novel,« »historical and collective presentation of resolute fictionality.« It just developed like that. For me, it was above all about collective history.

CH: How did the fascination, the draw of the Hallig of which you speak, affect you? What exactly captivated you?

MZ: It’s the isolation, the silence. The force field you feel as soon as you land on the Hallig. It’s wideness and narrowness at the same time. The wideness of the sea, of the horizon. But then you encounter the same people again and again. You are observed with binoculars. Everyone has a pair lying on the windowsill on the Hallig.
Then the superb nature; the weather changes constantly. From one moment to the next; from sunshine to dramatic darkness.
You increasingly fall into a state of absolute loneliness on the Hallig. It’s a bit comparable to the situation as a fellow at Solitude.
Theodor Storm described his stay on the Hallig as a journey of life in his novella Die Halligfahrt (The Journey to the Hallig). That’s how I felt about it too.

CH: What do Akademie Schloss Solitude and a Hallig have in common?

MZ: There are external commonalities – if you accept them. At Solitude just like on the Hallig, you live on a hill; on the Hallig it’s the dwelling mound. In both places, there is often fog. There are day tourists here just as there are there.
The most important parallel lies in the isolation of the places and the exceptional state they create – or make possible. You are completely left to your own devices. In both places, I felt a great proximity to Schubert’s Winterreise. You are confronted with the existential questions of human nature.
You also become part of a community which functions in accordance with very particular laws. But herein lies the greatest difference: At Solitude, you live in a free community. Here, the force field is a result of being creatively active and entering into a dialog about it. In contrast, on the Hallig you become part of an imposed community whose code of conduct is very difficult to understand.

CH: You once said in an interview that each new material always involves a test for you as an author. How was it during your work on Der Blanke Hans und seine Frauen?

MZ: My conversation partners often entrust me with their life stories. At the same time, what they actually experienced and what they just wish to provide you with as a subtext become entwined. Many want me – either consciously or unconsciously – to bundle up their oftentimes sorrowful experiences and recount them in a story, even the things they don’t speak about openly so as not to hurt anybody or because it involves a family secret. Often, it also entails traumatic experiences, domestic violence, abuse, rape, war, and escape which they still are afflicted by and won’t speak about or only through intimation. However, often I experience my conversation partner opening up and everything coming out.

CH: In keeping with that, there is a point in the book where the narrator speaks about how she feels she has to »carry« the stories of the women and says about it: »My God, I’m not cut out for this.« How do you handle the responsibility?

MZ: Good question. That is a challenge for every author who works in this way. I really became a carrier of secrets and was even a sort of »pastor« occasionally. The balancing act in the later stages of the writing process consisted of working freely as an author with the documentary evidence on the one hand, and changing and encoding it so that no one would feel »recognized« on the other.
Managing the negotiation of the border between reality, fiction, and authenticity was one of my main goals. I wanted a play within a play.

CH: You seem to have modeled the character of Nina in such a way that you were able to show with her what you couldn’t say with the women of the Hallig.

MZ: Yes. At some point, it went in that direction. Memory is a tissue which sooner or later won’t allow itself to be separated from what it feeds from or is inspired by – in my case, the research.
Where are you a chronicler? Where is it your own story? I couldn’t write some things. The topics of violence, the Nazi-period – taboo topics. The taboo of the sister of the protagonist Nina, who commits suicide because of abuse, the conflict with the mother, with the father disabled in the war. I was able to recount these things with my narrator Nina.

CH: What does authorship mean to you with regards to this book?

MZ: Authorship is firstly a privilege. People present me with their story and I have the task of transforming their often touching, very personal, sometimes sorrowful experiences so that all of them in their encoded form will become pools of experience for us and merge into the collective memory of our society.

CH: The most impressive descriptions of the women in the book are those of the great storm tides, which can destroy everything in one night. The mystic or mystified force of nature which the women face, who are just as unrelenting as the environment itself. What sort of image of women exists on the Hallig? What form of femininity does the novel deal with?

MZ: Traditionally, women on the Halligen organized life; looked after their parents, their children, and the sick; and additionally, had to perform the hard agricultural work. We assume that their was a form of matriarchy in the past since the men of the Hallig were often at sea for many months as seamen or were enlisted in the wars as soldiers.
In my conversation, many residents of the Hallig commented on the image of women in the following way: »The women of the Hallig were strong, ready for sacrifice, willful, and hard on themselves and others.« One of the older women summed it up: »We had to be strong. We had no other choice.« The present-day women on the Hallig – predominantly, individuals who have moved there – are often searching for an alternative world to the mainland, maybe even in order to escape from cliches of femininity, which seem to have been overridden on the Hallig. But life as a woman on a Hallig is not easier.

CH: How was the response on the Hallig towards your book?

MZ: After the Leipzig Book Fair, I gave my first »normal« reading on the Hallig. I was very happy about the uniformly positive echo. After the reading, I found out that many of the women I had interviewed later felt directly addressed with the fictive names. And there you have it: the play within a play.
A letter from a reader made me especially happy. She was originally from the mainland, until she became a victim of an Hallig intrigue and had to leave the Hallig. Her fate is not a one-off occurrence. Those who are not prepared to fall into line will potentially be bullied by the Hallig. The reader thanked me for the book because she felt vindicated in her own fate through my description of one such Hallig intrigue.

CH: Is this then also a new chance for reflection for the women, this play within a play?

MZ: That’s a good question. For me, it is important – and this has to do with my experience from political theater – to have an emancipatory aim. I didn’t just want to write a novel; I wanted it to continue and my protagonist to begin to take control of her own story and assert herself.

CH: You get the impression that Nina’s initially very positive relationship with the Hallig shifts over the course of the novel. The Hallig even appears increasingly threatening. How did you leave? What remains?

MZ: On the day before my departure, a few of the women on the Hallig organized a women’s Global Day of Prayer. The theme was »I was a stranger and you took me in.« That’s how I felt. I remain the stranger, but I was very sad when I left. It was clear to me that no farewell is forever here. It really moved me that some of the women came to the harbor to say goodbye to me one more time.

CH: How will it continue for you? What are your next projects?

MZ: Here at Solitude, a few delicate plants are growing: a Solitude fairy tale for adults. I’m also working on a further development of Der Blanke Hans und seine Frauen in a new form – maybe as a radio play or for the music theater. For this, I want to work more closely on the question of how we are dealing with the current refugee movement and the people who are coming to us. I live in Moabit in Berlin, in the immediate vicinity of the state office for Berlin. Up to 800 people arrive per day, predominantly from Syria and the Balkans, and apply for asylum. The site of the former Moabit hospital is bursting at the seams and is increasingly turning into a tent without a roof for those without a homeland.
I think all of us are called upon here. In the past and after the Second World War, many refugees came to the Halligen and the people of the Halligen had to do quite a lot to take in that many people. They managed to do it despite the small amount of space, despite reservations, and human self-interest.
And a further project which I’m currently working on is a piece on the lives of LGBT people in eastern Europe. The conservatives, homophobes, and reactionary tendencies towards people who are ostracized because of their sexual orientation must be driven back. LGBT people need our support. We western European artists have to react to this. We can’t remain silent.

Reading Der Blanke Hans und seine Frauen and discussion in German: 29th of September 2015, 8 pm, Akademie Schloss Solitude.