Lernen & Lehren In the writing workshop with Maxi Obexer

or: Why reality demands different literary forms

Maxi Obexer sitzt an einem Tisch und schaut in die Richtung der Workshop-Teilnehmenden
Im Workshop arbeitete Maxi Obexer mit den Teilnehmenden heraus, warum es so wichtig ist, sich immer wieder neu auf die Suche nach der dem Material angemessenen Form zu machen. Sonja Knecht

The playwright, radio play, novelist and essayist Maxi Obexer is the winner of the Alice Salomon Poetry Prize 2023, according to the university's jury:

"Obexer's texts (...) do not bow to any pleasing stylistics. Rather, they reflect Obexer's idiosyncratic suffering in the world, her anger, her commitment. She is on a quest. As an artist, she has mastered a wide range of expressive styles, which in turn leave plenty of room for interpretation."

At the end of 2023, the author gave the poetry lecture associated with the prize and in January 2024, two consecutive and very inspiring workshops took place at the university. We took part in these as students on the Biographical and Creative Writing master's degree course and would like to report on them. What did we take away? What inspired us for our writing and for our political thinking and acting?

Maxi Obexer grew up in South Tyrol and now lives in Berlin. She founded the New Institute for Dramatic Writing and has written numerous plays, the best known of which include "Das Geisterschiff" and "Illegale Helfer". Like the novel "Europe's Longest Summer" - nominated for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize 2017 - these deal with the topics of flight and migration. Maxi Obexer is currently working intensively on the deep and complex relationship between humans and animals. Her new novel "Unter Tieren" will be published by Weissbooks in March 2024.

The poetry lecture and both workshops initially focused on the "search" for the appropriate literary form. In the lecture, Maxi Obexer made positive reference to the university jury's appreciation of the "diversity of literary forms" in her work.

In the workshop, the author worked out with us why it is so important for her not to commit herself to one literary genre and to constantly search for a new form that is appropriate to the material. She talked about her research for the "Ghost Ship" on the south coast of Sicily. At Christmas 1996, 283 refugees drowned there and their ship sank. The Italian government denied the accident for years, and the local residents went along with the silence. It was not until an investigation by the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica five years later, with the help of an underwater camera, that proof of the ship's existence was found.

After the interviews in the coastal town, she asked herself: "What is the most painful thing I found?" And what is the appropriate literary form for this? Maxi Obexer observed a theatrical, garrulous speech by the villagers, which revolved around their years of state-imposed silence. She was able to approach this morally fractured loquacity particularly through a fictionalized form. A purely documentary piece would not have done justice to the subject matter, nor would she have been able to adequately portray the villagers in the politically heated atmosphere.

For Maxi Obexer, the search for form is a central component of the writing process. For her - as for all political authors - form is never neutral and must always be questioned anew. In the lecture, she says that this is "a search that sometimes requires following several paths - the intellectual and philosophical explorations, as in the essay. Or - quite differently: the atmospheric condensations in radio plays, or the expression of voices. And quite different again: the public dialog with the audience in the theater, with bodies here and there. Sometimes the different forms are mutually dependent, sometimes they create the conditions for an expression of reality that is able to intervene, to irritate what normality claims to be set - or even natural."

In the two workshops, we were able to explore this diversity of forms together. In preparation, we read Maxi Obexer's multi-award-winning and globally performed play and radio play "Illegal Helpers". The play documents the perspective of people who decide to act, sometimes illegally, in Europe and take personal risks to help people during and after their flight. In the workshop, Maxi Obexer explained why she had opted for a documentary play based on real interviews. In contrast to Ghost Ship, the conflict here lies in the confrontation with a legal situation that is perceived as unjust and inhumane. It is not about an inner conflict of the protagonists - which corresponds to the drama - "the characters do not cast shadows", as Obexer put it. They are at peace with themselves and their actions.

In the workshop, we also dealt with two very different radio plays: the documentary "In the Eye of the Storm", which focuses on the verbal disputes between the MPs during the storming of the Capitol. Here, too, Maxi Obexer opts for a documentary form, allowing the speeches of that night to stand and work for themselves.

In the radio play "Walking with Animals", on the other hand, she tells three interwoven stories in fictional form about the deep, long-standing relationships between humans and animals. Obexer also approached this topic in another form, in the essay "Über Tiere schreiben - Über Tiere sprechen". In the workshop, we talked at length about the question of when and how the often tender and deep relationship between humans and animals turns violent. What effects does it have when relationships are denied and devalued, when animals are functionalized and declared objects? As a form, the essay involves a conscious examination of concepts and the assumptions they contain. How are power asymmetries verbalized? How do animals ("pet") and people ("housewife", "refugee") already become objects through these terms, which can be disposed of and potentially subjected to violence?

Maxi Obexer made it clear how important it was for her to "bear witness to the love, tenderness and affection" that is always present between humans and animals - as well as the painful point at which this often turns abruptly - and long before the killing - into violence. Maxi Obexer has found various forms for writing about her relationship with animals: the radio play, the essay and now the novel.

In the workshop, it became increasingly clear that each form also involves a specific examination of the lyrical self and the author as a person. "The more it goes in the direction of prose, the more you have to think about your own self," said Maxi Obexer at one point. And she pleaded for us to inscribe ourselves as who we are in our own texts. In the essay and radio play on the relationship between humans and animals, this "I" is indeed very close; it is palpable how deeply it takes the author back to her own childhood in the South Tyrolean mountains. "I spoke to the animals while I was growing up with them," she writes at the beginning of her essay.

In the second workshop, we participants also had the opportunity to bring along and discuss our own writing projects. Based on Mareike's examination of Nazi family history, we went in search of the appropriate form and the role of the lyrical ego. The most important insight: we can start writing from ourselves, from our biography. The final form does not have to be fixed yet. Over time, the material will then find its own appropriate form and can - but does not have to - shift into fiction.

We would very much like to continue this work on our own writing projects with Maxi Obexer and hope that she will come to the university many more times to share her rich experience as an author, lecturer and politically committed person with us.