By Thomas Köck
Translated by Marc Silberman
Austrian playwright Thomas Köck’s devised play was commissioned by the Leipzig Theater (Schauspielhaus) to develop a text around the experiences of “socialist solidarity” workers as a contribution to the thirtieth anniversary in 2019 of the Leipzig protests of 1989 that anticipated the fall of the Wall. Based on numerous discussions over more than a year with experts, scholars, and witnesses, he focused on Vietnamese workers and increasingly on the children of these mostly female textile workers and their issues with culture clash and otherness in Germany. The resulting text opened in late January 2019 in the black-box stage of the Schauspielhaus. The flexible space was arranged so that the audience faced three large, otherwise concealed windows, looking out on a major thoroughfare circling the downtown, directly across from the former Stasi headquarters of Leipzig and with cars, trams, cyclists, and pedestrians passing by. The stage design itself introduces the central metaphor of inside / outside and crossing boundaries, and the four actors occasionally exit the stage and are seen through the windows on the sidewalk outside while speaking their dialogues over microphones. Inside and outside suggest that the figures are related to a reality outside, on the streets of Leipzig today.
The play weaves together a complicated Vietnamese family history of three generations layered over three time periods. The traumatized grandmother joins the boat people fleeing Saigon to the Malaysian island of Pulau Bidong with her four-year-old daughter in 1978 and finally ends up in West Germany in 1979 with other refugees but returns, disillusioned, to Vietnam after a few years. The second-generation figure is her daughter, whom she believed drowned in the chaos of that boat escape in 1978, but in fact the daughter survived and was raised by foster parents in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) and later became a contract worker in Leipzig in early 1989, witnessed the fall of the Wall, went underground to avoid deportation, and then moved west with her Vietnamese husband and newborn daughter. Finally, this daughter, the granddaughter, born after unification in western Germany, returns in 2010 to Vietnam in search of her grandmother and finds herself stranded in Tân Sơn Nhất international airport owing to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland that halted air traffic around the world for about a week. North and South Vietnam, East and West Germany, refugees fleeing and migrant workers seeking a better life, collapse and unification—in the airport’s suspended time-space suggestive resonances and reflections about working through memories of migration merge like the pieces of a puzzle that give the non-linear narrative and the disrupted histories their structure and order. The endless deferment of a “solution” and experiences of rupture in a foreign culture on the part of all three generations also constitute a central theme of the play.
Pulau Bidong is a small island located off the coast of Malaysia to which tens of thousands of refugees fled by boat after the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of the American military from South Vietnam on April 30, 1975. It became an official refugee camp in 1978, and under American and UN pressure West Germany accepted Vietnamese boat people from Pulau Bidong beginning in December 1978, after which 10,000 followed rapidly. Meanwhile, in East Germany North Vietnamese contract workers made up the largest single group of foreigners, in 1989 when the Wall came down almost 60,000 of the 94,000 such “socialist solidarity” workers. Beginning in the late 1970s, East Germany contracted for industrial laborers from several socialist countries in exchange for vocational training and instruction in German-language skills. Vietnamese contract workers, especially women shift workers, were strongly represented in the spinning and weaving mills around Leipzig, but all such “foreign workers” were usually segregated from the local population in their own housing units under penalty of deportation if they broke the strict prohibitions on contact with locals or if they became pregnant. The five-year East German government contracts were annulled in 1990 with the collapse of the economy, and many contract workers returned willingly or not to their home countries; relatively few (about 10,000) remained in united Germany.
In June 2019 I saw this production at the annual theater festival (Stücke-Festival) in Mülheim/Ruhr, where it was awarded both the prestigious Jury Prize and the Audience Prize. Impressed with the text, the performance, and the focus on Vietnam, I decided to translate it into American English, in view of this country’s own conflicted relationship to the fallout from the war in Vietnam. Köck’s publisher, Suhrkamp Theaterverlag, granted me non-exclusive rights for the English translation and provided the German text, which is distinguished visually by the lack of capitalization and punctuation as well as the center alignment throughout that suggest—together with the playwright’s recommended musical accompaniment—the lyrically sculpted texture Köck seeks. Aurally the frequent use of repetition, enjambements, and choral speaking echo this lyricism. In the original dialogues, verbs are often missing, which may be an attempt to parallel the lack of conjugated verbs in Vietnamese (i.e., tense is conveyed by context), a stylistic characteristic reproduced sparingly in this translation. Moreover, English-language words frequently appear in the original: display, delay, sellout, status update, crowd, which I chose to “carry over,” although for a Germanophone audience they mark the trendy, neo-liberal universalism and empty promises of globalization. Vietnamese intertitles and phrases are not provided in the German text, but I added the English equivalents in footnotes. Among the challenges for this translator is the word “Fidschis.” In East Germany the Vietnamese, especially after 1989, were referred to as “Fidschis” (or Fijis, i.e., exotic Asians, a pejorative equivalent to the N-word in English). In this translation the word “gook,” used widely among American military during the Vietnam War, takes its place.
Upon winning the festival prizes, atlas triggered an open, anonymous protest letter from the Asian-German Artists Association that criticized the play for “yellowfacing,” that is, for supporting the appropriation by a white, European author and white ensemble actors of the stories and interviews of real Vietnamese and Viet-German individuals without naming them or giving them credit. The letter also denounces more generally the invisibility and thus silencing of Asians in German theater culture who are not considered to have the “right credentials” to participate. While the entire performance was accompanied by surtitles in Vietnamese to acknowledge the interviewees’ input and in the hope that Viet-Germans would feel welcome in the theater, Köck did append a preface post facto to this open letter with suggestions of how to integrate the voice of minority members in public theaters.
Subsequently atlas opened in early February 2020, right before the pandemic lockdown, at the Schauspiel Wuppertal in a second staging, and this second production included taped voices of four Viet-Germans who speak some text in Vietnamese. Also, the regional public radio broadcaster in southeastern Germany (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk) produced a significantly shortened radio version in November 2020 that was awarded the renowned Prize of the War Blind: https://www.mdr.de/kultur/radio/audio-hoerspiel-thomas-koeck-atlas-100.html.
Finally, the American Literary Translators Association included a brief table-read of a scene from the play and granted my translation an honorable mention at its November 2020 (virtual) conference, for which I am grateful.
Thomas Köck was born in 1986 in Steyr (Austria) and now lives and works as a freelance author, playwright, photographer, and theater maker between Upper Austria and Berlin. He studied philosophy, literature, and Sinology in Vienna and at the Free University in Berlin, as well as creative writing for the stage at the University of the Arts in Berlin and the Literature Institute in Leipzig. For several years he was associated with the ensemble “theatercombinat” in Vienna and the Forum Freies Theater in Düsseldorf as well as Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center in Long Island, New York. Since 2012 he has been writing audio dramas, prose, and internet anti-neo-Nazi blogs (see: http://www.nazisundgoldmund.net/), but mostly he has authored plays, which have been performed in major German-speaking theaters and awarded numerous prizes. Köck’s scripts are available from the Suhrkamp Theaterverlag and in 2017 Suhrkamp published his climate trilogy: paradies fluten, paradies hunger, and paradies spiele. He is especially interested in interdisciplinary or crossover theater projects that integrate dance, music, and choral speaking.
Marc Silberman is Emeritus Professor of German at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught as well in the film studies and theater programs. He has published extensively on German literature, cinema, and culture of the twentieth and twenty-first century. He edited Communications from the International Brecht Society (1982–1986) and the Brecht Yearbook (1989–1995) and curates the online Brecht Yearbook and the Bibliography of Brecht’s Works in English Translation. He has published extensively on Brecht, Heiner Müller, and the tradition of political theater in Germany and translated and (co-) edited three volumes of Brecht’s essayistic writings: Brecht on Film and Radio (Methuen, 2000), Brecht on Performance (Bloomsbury Methuen, 2014), and Brecht on Theatre (Bloomsbury Methuen, 2015), as well as plays and texts by Heiner Müller and fragment plays by Brecht. His homepage: https://gns.wisc.edu/staff/silberman-marc/
© SuhrkampTheater Verlag, Berlin 2019
© Translation by Marc Silberman
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