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Jenny Erpenbeck and Claire Messud Talk Refugees, ‘Go, Went, Gone’

Jenny Erpenbeck
Kathryn S. Kuhar

Jenny Erpenbeck, an acclaimed German author, speaks at a Mahindra Humanities Center event Monday evening in Sever Hall.

On Mar. 5 in Sever 113, there was a buzz in the air not unlike the first day of a new class, except the room was filled with more senior citizens than college seniors. Nearly every seat was full, and people were standing against the back wall, chatting with friends about novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, who came all the way from Germany to make a “rare American appearance” in conversation with Claire Messud, a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Harvard. The classroom setting, the presence of a Harvard professor at the front of the room, and the absence of a signing table or any novels for sale lent an academic gravity to the discussion of Erpenbeck’s latest novel “Go, Went, Gone” and the broader issue of refugees it addresses.

The event opened with a brief introduction of Erpenbeck by Messud, followed by a short reading from “Go, Went, Gone” and a discussion between the two writers. The entire event was fairly intimate, in spite of the setting and the format, largely because of Erpenbeck herself. She joked with the audience about her cough and her inability to get her microphone to face the right direction. But she also made people go silent with her speech—a sort of respect appropriate for a discussion of the refugee crisis and humanity itself.

Erpenbeck is, as Messud describes her, “a writer who wastes no words,” and indeed, the novel is said by critics to be beautifully but carefully written, with an intense philosophy tempered by Erpenbeck’s sense of humor and humanity—each word serving a distinct purpose. Set in Berlin, the novel tells the story of Richard, a retired Classics professor. It follows his discovery of the African refugees in Berlin and his subsequent relationships with them, forged over the course of interviews he conducts.

Raised in East Germany in the shadow of the Holocaust, Erpenbeck was brought up on stories about survival, an experience that left her with a deep, unique sense of empathy. This empathy sparked the creation of the novel when an article in a German newspaper made it clear to Erpenbeck the public’s belief in the value of European lives over those of refugees. Her response: “I must write a novel.”

Throughout the conversation, Erpenbeck explored her experience trying to bring together the European and the refugee groups that exist so close geographically. In doing this, she, like Richard, interviewed and got to know several refugees—who she called “my refugees”—trying to understand who they were as people.

“Listening is not enough…learning only is done by experience,” Erpenbeck concluded. “If the thing you are learning is not connected to your emotion it will not stay with you.” At the event as in her work, Erpenbeck emphasized the necessity of understanding other human beings—on investigating one’s own society and using the empathy found to improve the world.

Toward the end of the event, following both Erpenbeck’s reading from “Go, Went, Gone” and her discussion with Messud, Messud opened up the floor to questions from the audience. Here especially, Erpenbeck addressed the parallels between the time of her childhood and the present refugee crisis in Europe, a major point of interest for many audience members. “I thought it was interesting that she was bringing the Eastern German perspective,” Anna M. Agathangelou, an attendee of the event, said. “It was brilliant that she was working with time and trying to understand this concept of transition.”

“Claire Messud was a professor of mine last semester,” Mitchell P. Johns ’19 said. “As somebody interested in fiction and development of characters, it was interesting to hear…how Jenny Erpenbeck can use fiction to humanize a largely statistical current issue. I think [this] is a great use of fiction.”

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