Fiction in Berlin

When relatives ask me how my semester abroad is going, I usually tell them that Berlin is a lot like New York City except with better bread and a lot more techno music. I mostly stand by that assessment. But as I finish up my classes here and prepare to return to New York City for my senior year, I can’t help but linger on the new memories from these past four months. While  the spirited Berlin nightlife has, of course, provided many adventures (too many to recount), I’m realizing now how many of moments of my time here are actually unique to the place I studied: Bard College Berlin.

Back home I major in creative writing at Columbia University with a nonfiction concentration. Focusing on nonfiction writing throughout college has provided me with a distinctive opportunity to examine our culture through storytelling. Nonfiction always seemed like the most logical direction since it combined my love for journalism with more lyrical elements of the craft. Although I take as many writing seminars as possible each year, I rarely attempt classes outside of this chosen genre. At Columbia the heavy course loads which fulfill the many graduation requirements leave little space in my schedule for experimentation. As the semesters passed, my process solidified: I finish every finals season with a new, neat collection of either personal or well-researched essays. And while this pattern was sufficient to earn good grades, I grew to resist new forms. I kept myself busy writing in direct response to class readings until eventually I hardly wrote beyond those assignments. Although I love the nonfiction concentration, I felt entirely consumed by its content. Six months ago the prospect of taking a fiction class seemed not only harrowing to me, but impossible on the path I had chosen. But as one might guess, studying abroad exploded my routine, and with it, the constraints which I had built around my own writing.

I knew I wanted to branch out to different topics while at Bard College Berlin. It seemed only fitting to expand my academic interests since I would be traveling to a new continent for the first time. I had taken two years of German at Columbia, so I hoped to immerse myself in the Berlin culture while taking classes in English at BCB. Having planned for this single semester without core requirements, I signed up for classes that I thought might inform my nonfiction pieces: a narrative theory class, an advanced politics module on the future of work, and, as always, a writing workshop. But this workshop was a fiction workshop. I was nervous to tell a story that I had not experienced. Despite the apparent freedom, I thought I would run out of steam or be unable to imagine an ending for the pieces we were assigned. But as soon as the writing process began, I was totally hooked. During the daytime, I focused on my academics in Pankow and worked on my short stories. Then, at night I would venture out into the city, unable to shake the visions of the characters I was inventing. Many nights in Berlin I took the M1, leaning my head against the window, and imagined the world through a new, structured point of view. I listened to the sounds of German conversations around me, picking up what I could. I met new friends (mostly other wandering Americans) and wrote out sketches of the neighborhoods we discovered (Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Friedrichshain) interpreting and recording every unfamiliar detail of so that my world-building could commence. I eagerly took note of how these foreign spaces transformed at twilight, the local energy, at times similarly bursting to New York, and at others, mellow and comfortable.

The stories I wrote for my fiction class didn’t take place in Berlin. But exploring this city, a mysterious place which had been utterly unknown to me, was essential in widening my perspective enough to take on any new voice. I was always most secure writing from my own point of view, referencing small areas of the world that I knew inside and out. But in my fiction workshop, we focused on the point of telling; the point of telling is not about who narrates a story but from where they are speaking. At what time does the narrator relay events? How is their relation to the story perceived? Most importantly, how does this distance alter that voice? Here in Germany, I realized that traveling and writing fiction are not so different: they both require embracing discomfort in order to discover new characters. As I invented new narrators, my fiction professor, Rebecca Rukeyser, was the essential guide. Rebecca structured our lessons in such a way that we bypassed the typical awkward phase of any workshop. Beginning and digging into our work was never intimidating as she taught us to identify the project of each piece and stay true to it. Now, as I make plans to expand my stories from this semester into long-term fiction projects for this summer, it is hard to remember ever having been so scared to create new material. Suddenly every day in Berlin feels so ripe, spawning potential stories that may or may not exist in the reality of where they first occured to me.

On our last day of the workshop, we had an in-class reading where students performed fragments of their own pieces aloud. We also had a guest speaker, the distinguished poet and translator Jennifer Kronovet. (Based in Berlin, she edits the poetry press Circumference Books.) Jennifer performed several pieces for us which stretched across genres, exhibiting a broad scope of expertise — her pieces ranged from poems about childhood linguistics to eerie stories concerned dissecting the gaze of Chinese surveillance — and a keen ability to utilize disparate forms as effective vehicles. My favorite poems that Jennifer read us were about Peacock Island, a special forest preserve near Wannsee. The day after I heard her poems, I went for myself to see Berlin’s best-kept secret.

Peacock Island, or Pfaueninsel, is a small island just a short bus ride from the S-Bahn station. The bus lets you off at a narrow stretch of the River Havel at the edge of woods. Then a ferry boat delivers you across the river. Then you find yourself in a quiet, green park stretching for miles. The park is filled with peacocks and small castles. The setting becomes a literal fantasy as you explore the curved trails of the island and huge birds appear from the bushes to block your path. The birds look at you inquisitively, fanning out their impossible, iridescent sheaths: plumage that is white and purple and green. Leaning against a stone castle wall, untethered from the city you thought you knew, there is nothing to do on Peacock Island but to watch unfolding feathers and wonder how any of it is real, nonfiction or not.

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