5 Questions with German Author Elina Penner

Elina Penner was born near Orenburg/Soviet Union (half from village 1 and half from village 4) in 1987. She has lived all over the world and by that she means Berlin, Virginia and Bavaria. Now she is back in the same area where the Germans put her as a 4 year old after arriving in Germany. Her new novel Nachtbeeren is available now.

1)In Canada, we sometimes use the term “Aussiedler” to refer to Mennonites who have moved from the Soviet Union/Russia to Germany or North America in recent decades. Do you use this term?

I actually prefer this term. It might be a little nitpicky, but there is a difference between Aussiedler and Spätaussiedler, a legal one, actually. So, when I say I am an Aussiedlerin, people should know, it means I came to Germany in the early 90s. The term ‘Russlanddeutsche’ is fairly new, at least that’s what it feels like.

1a) What do you wish Canadian Mennonites knew about Germans who are from a Russian Mennonite background?

Ugh, I have no clue. I’d say I am not even sure, if I know everything there is to know.

2) Most Mennotoba readers would be familiar with the Canadian Mennonite literary scene, which is quite vibrant. What is the literary and artistic community like among Russian Mennonites currently living in Germany?

I am going to get in hot water here but from my personal point of view, I knew nothing about anything. Even when I was researching for the book, I came across some books from other younger (anything below 50 tbh) authors who seemed to have a similar background but then didn’t. I do adore Miriam Toews and considering I have a Masters in American Studies, I usually only read US literature, mostly immigrant perspectives. So that being said I have my issues reading contemporary German literature.

I hate canonizing art or saying that good or bad literature even exists, but I get bored easily and then I don’t continue reading books that don’t fascinate me or keep me on the edge of my seat.

So maybe I am not the right person to ask this question. Heinrich Siemens, the founder of Tweeback Verlag knows much more. I got to meet Dr. Lilli Gebhardt, who knows so much more, and writes beautiful poetry. She said my novel was the first ‘readable’ piece of German Mennonite literature so I am just going to let that quote stand for itself.

2a) Can we call you a “pioneer” of Russian Mennonite writing in Germany?

Y’all can call me whatever you like and I’ll humbly blush.

3) What was the inspiration for your novel Nachtbeeren?

In true Mennonite fashion I went the pragmatic route. It’s easier to win Takeshi’s Castle than trying to even get noticed as a new writer over here. I am not exaggerating, it is mind-blowing how many new books are getting published not just each year but every month, almost impossible to keep up. I run an online magazine called Hauptstadtmutti.de and I try to at least portray female writers or writers who come from a marginalized group. Because so many voices are not heard (enough).

I have said it a few times, but the overproduction of new books reminds me of fast fashion. So I feel like we still get to hear so much from male authors, who have been writing the same book over and over again for the past decades and, if we are lucky, we get to see a book or read an interview with someone who is not white, born in Germany, male, able bodied. The German Buchpreis was just announced, and the lists do get more diverse, but people still love and adore boring literature over here. The more complicated, the better.

I wanted to write a book about my experiences or what I have witnessed but super exaggerated (most of my readers will say none of it is exaggerated, it is very much a realistic book of what it was like in the 90s). I wanted a Plautdietsche perspective, with our humor, our language, all that. I was not aware that I was writing something, that could potentially hurt the older generations. Apparently, it does, I know this from hearsay, only a few women came up to me and said the book is not just awful but also how could I dare to write something, that would portray ‘us’ this way. I lovingly call Nachtbeeren a book for Mennonite Millennials, they’re the ones who email me or slide in my DMs and I can hear their tears and sobs while I read their messages. How would you translate ‘mitgebrachte Generation’? The ones who were kids and teenagers, maybe adolescents, when they arrived in Germany? The ones who were brought with, who weren’t asked?

I was foolish and thought I could just write a novel and have the characters be from the same background as me. Then my grandmother died, and it changed the entire trajectory of the book. It turned into a book about grief, mourning and trauma, but funny. Our people are not necessarily the most sensitive ones, this turns into great stories and jokes, plus we probably financed quite a few vacation homes for therapists worldwide. All jokes aside, Mennonite Germans, or Germans in general who stayed in the Soviet Union till the 90s are…I don’t know how to say this, but maybe: broken? Sad? Really good at pretending? We look for ways to hide the sadness. It honestly doesn’t matter if it is alcoholism, an eating disorder, religion, or general distraction found in dusting. There was no period where we could overcome this collective trauma and maybe this generation now, my generation that is birthing and raising children are faced with a new generation that asks more questions. We do as well, we want to know why there is a fucked up relationship with food, hoarding, not being able to rest or relax.

There was a woman who said it was a shame that they call my book a novel about Mennonites. It is not, she said. It is a book about families and how dysfunctional we all are. It is about looking away and testing how long we can do it. Till someone hangs themselves? Or drinks themselves to death? When our cousin gets skinnier and skinnier, who says something? When we notice the black eyes on our aunt, who says something? We ignore it, we all do. It’s the spouses’ issue, or the parents’, but not ours, we have so many problems of our own.

Another woman, in her 50s, also Plautdietsch and Mennonite told me two days ago, that she loved my book, but I am holding up a mirror to her generation and that is what hurts. What they, as overworked, discriminated young parents endured in their 20s and 30s, when they got here, most of them did not have the capacity to also help us arrive. They didn’t have time to heal.

The protagonists are extreme, especially Nelli. But as her brother Eugen tells her son Jacob at some point: ‘Everything that happened to Nelli could happen to anyone else, and they’d be fine, but some people can’t take it forever, so they snap, like Nelli.’ Maybe that’s our revolution, to snap, to cry, to scream, to not just take it anymore. That was my inspiration.

4)Where can Canadians get your book? 

Uhm, I don’t know I guess you can order it in any bookstore, online or you know, like a real bookstore, y’all have those, too, right? I mean I order from overseas all the time; I am sure you guys can figure it out. Maybe the easiest way is to ask your Cousin Anna to bring a few copies next time she visits from Germany?

4a)Is there any possibility it will be translated into English in the future?

They started the process, but I am not sure, where that’s at. I would love for it to get translated and it would make a lot of sense, I think.

5)Many Manitoba Mennonites are familiar with writer Arnold Dyck, since he lived for many years in Steinbach, Manitoba. Can you tell us about the Arnold Dyck Prize, which you won last year?

Not much more than what is written here: https://www.plautdietsch-freunde.de/und-die-gewinnerin-ist-elina-penner.html, and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-agivX6DPE8 But I am a published children’s book author as a result of this prize, Tjinafroage is the project that came out of it. http://tweeback.com/katalog/kinderfragen

6)Bonus question. Can you tell us a little about your life in Germany? What else do you do when you aren’t writing novels?

Oh boy, so much. I run an online magazine where I portray parents mostly, but not necessarily. I write articles for Vogue, Spiegel, all kinds of platforms and I host events for brands. I guess in some kind of way I am also a parttime influencer or content creator, whatever we call that nowadays. On paper my life might seem conservative, I am married, I have two children, I live in the country. I curse a lot, I love football, beer, fashion, Dolly Parton and Beyoncé.

I have always loved reading and still do.

If Britney wouldn’t have made it into my book as the inscription, it would have been Joan Didion. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ is of course the essence of humanity, but it also sounds super Mennonite.

(questions by Andrew Unger)

(photo credit: Kai Senf)