Story of Jewish Family's Flight to Kenya Comes Out in English

Isthmus | June 10, 2004
Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel "Nirgendwo in Afrika" was a remarkable success when first published in Germany in 1995 -- and again and again with each translation across the European continent, in Japan and Korea, and yet again in 2002, when it was made into a movie that won that year’s Academy Award for best foreign feature.

But the book is only now finding a U.S. audience. In a publishing coup, Terrace Books (a University of Wisconsin Press trade imprint) secured the rights to release the first English-language edition this past March -- along with the first English translation of "Somewhere in Germany," to be published next year in conjunction with release of the film adaptation of Zweig’s sequel.

"Nowhere in Africa" is the story of a Jewish family that flees Nazi Germany in 1938 and finds harsh refuge on a remote farm in the highlands of Kenya for the duration of World War II. Lyrical and emotionally rich yet unsentimental, the narrative arc is essentially that of Zweig and her family: Born in Leobschütz, Upper Silesia, in 1932, she fled with her parents to Kenya to escape the rise of Nazism before the war.

When the family returned to Germany in 1947, Zweig -- then 14 and fluent in Swahili and English but unable to read or write German -- struggled to find her footing before embarking on a career as journalist, editor and author.

In a trans-Atlantic interview conducted by fax, Zweig reflects on the long wait for translation of her books to English, on the persistence of memory and on her life now, in the wake of acclaim.

Q: Why do you believe it has taken so long for "Nirgendwo in Afrika" and "Irgendwo in Deutschland" to find an audience of readers in the U.S.?

A: It was hard to find a publisher in the States, because, to my mind, German literature is of no great interest. Some publishers did not even bother to read the book. That is why I am most grateful to the University of Wisconsin Press for publishing "Nowhere in Africa" and the sequel, "Somewhere in Germany."

Q: In your preface to the edition published by University of Wisconsin Press, you are quite gracious in your praise for Marlies Comjean’s translation. What is it about the translation that you find so appealing?

A: I have done translations myself and know how hard it is to capture the tone of the original. Marlies Comjean has taken much care to “save” as much as possible of my writing.

Q: Was anything lost in translation from the original German edition?

A: Translations can never match to the original, but till we all publish our books in Esperanto, and till we all speak Esperanto, we shall have to do with translations.

Q: As someone for whom English “is still the language dearest to my heart,” as you state in the preface, were you tempted at any point to write an English translation yourself?

A: I was very much tempted to offer myself for a translation, but a) my German publisher would have throttled me, because she wants me to write new books, and b) my translation would have been very, very British, and I do not think that an American readership would have followed my literal paths.

Q: What is your reaction to the reception "Nirgendwo in Afrika" has found, first in Germany, then across Europe and in Japan as translations were published, and upon release of the movie?

A: I never dreamt of writing a best-seller, and I never even thought that "Nowhere in Africa" would be translated in all parts of the world -- The Netherlands, France, Italy, Hungary, Prague, Spain, Japan and Korea. Of course, a great part of interest is due to the movie.

Q: To what do you attribute the appeal of "Nowhere in Africa?"

A: I think -- and hope -- that people understood that I did not want to write a book about Africa, but about people losing their home, their tongue and their dignity. "Nowhere in Africa" pays homage to my beloved father and to the people of Kenya who I love and have never forgotten.

Q: As I read the English translation, I found it infused with a lyrical sense of childlike wonder, yet remarkably unromanticized. How did you achieve this when you set out to write the book, some 50 years after you lived the experience?

A: Some of the language and comparisons that appeal so much to readers are “translations” from Swahili, a language I loved as a child and can still speak. That means that, where appropriate, I thought up the dialogues in Swahili. And as to my memory -- at a very early age I made up my mind never to forget.

Q: Books that are made into movies are almost always compromised to some degree. Did you have this feeling with the movie version of "Nowhere in Africa?" Does publication of the English translation provide the opportunity to correct any misconceptions the movie might have presented to its U.S. audience?

A: The movie certainly differs from my book. It pains me that the screen-character of my mother and to some extents that of my father has nothing to do with my parents. And for that reason I fervently hope that the book will find its readers in the USA. Many people, often German Jews who had emigrated to the USA (some have even lived in Kenya) contacted me after the movie was out and told me how very much they longed to read my book.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: I am now working on "It Began in Africa," a book about four girls (including myself) who went to school in Kenya and were “replanted” into all parts of the world. The locations are the UK, Israel and Germany. Getting in touch with former friends who I had not heard from for 60 years and who wrote and phoned to me after they had seen the movie, gave me the idea to [write] the book which is due to be released at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year.

Q: Have you returned to Kenya and to Ol’ Joro Orok?

A: I have been to Kenya three times and once to Ol’ Joro Orok, the first time in 1972, 20 years before I wrote "Nowhere in Africa."

Q: Will you be mounting a book tour of the U.S.?

A: As much as I would have loved to go to the USA for the promotion of my book, I cannot do so. After a cardiac attack I am frightened of long journeys. My heart bleeds at the thought, because I always enjoyed my stays in the US, and New York, where I have been five times in my life, is one of my favourite cities.

Q: People in the U.S. know little about your life beyond what they have seen in the movie or will read in the book and in the few sentences about your professional career printed on the back cover. Have you ever married? Do you have children?

A: I never married, and I, one of the great tragedies of my life, never had children. My partner for life and I lived and loved each other for 40 years. Today I love and live with a man who was the best friend of my late brother. My brother, who died when he was only 53 years old, and I were unusually close for siblings. After our parents’ untimely death I was father and mother for him, and we two were, when he grew up, best friends.

Q: Where do you live now, and why?

A: I live in Frankfurt/Main and have lived there since we left Kenya and came to Germany in 1947. I live in the house my father bought. Here I went to school, made friends, here I learnt my profession as a journalist, and here my dearest are buried. That means home.

Q: What books are you reading now? Who are your favorite authors?

A: I hardly ever read fiction, and if I do, I read English and American authors. I still read English literature (Wordsworth, Kipling, Byron, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and G.B. Shaw). My favourite American authors are Mark Twain and Longfellow, my favourite novel is Margaret Mitchell’s "Gone with the Wind." Mostly I read history -- and there I am deeply interested in the Victorian Age.

Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to?

A: I do not work as a journalist any longer. Since childhood I have been an avid reader of the National Geographic Magazine. I owe my first reading experiences to Reader’s Digest.

Q: What is your favorite restaurant? What is your favorite meal?

A: I don’t much care for restaurants anywhere, as I don’t drink alcohol -- and I don’t have a fancy tongue. Mine is the most German part of me. My favourites on the dining table are potato soup and potato salad.

Q: Which artists do you find appealing?

A: The artists that have “made” my life are Frans Hals, Renoir and Chagall.

Q: What kind of music do you listen to?

A: Unfortunately, the second great regret of my life, I am utterly tone-deaf and have no access to music at all.

Q: Are you a movie enthusiast?

A: I used to love movies, but now-a-days movies are not made for people of my age. Most movies make me feel dumb and deaf and senile.

Q: What are your favorite travel destinations?

A: I don’t travel much. My 20-year-old cat does not like me leaving the house and I am her obediant servant. Kenya is the permanent longing of my heart. I love being in London, and I hate being in parts of the world in which I don’t speak the language.

Q: What do you do for recreation?

A: I am not any good at recreating and keep writing books instead of sitting in a rocking-chair and dreaming of the past. My one hobby, though, is reading. And when not doing that playing Scrabble and Chess with my partner.

Q: What would you like readers in the U.S. to know about you?

A: I am most thankful for any interest readers in the US should take in me. After reading "Nowhere in Africa" and "Somewhere in Germany" (due next year) there should not be many unkown details of my life.


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