Meet the author: Karin Kalisa and her novel “Sungs Laden”

It just failed – only just – to snow. So it was a relief to enter the warm venue, peel of the wet and heavy winter coat and take a seat. What I and quite a few others were unaware of: we would shortly head for Vietnam! Not physically, but through Karin Kalisa’s new novel.

At the moment, this novel is only available in German and this was a “meet the author” and book presentation in German. The novel’s title “Sungs Laden” translates into “Sung’s Shop”. The story starts in Vietnam, but the shop is in Berlin.

Sungs LadenIt all started, so the novelist Karin Kalisa told us, by her moving house. She went from one part of Germany to Berlin. On settling into her new neighbourhood, she noticed she was surrounded by Vietnamese shops and people. Somewhat later, her children would attend school with children who had Vietnamese roots.

It took some time for Mrs Kalisa to start delving into this history, drama, story. She had settled in what was once East Berlin. The reason she was surrounded by so many people who clearly had roots in Vietnam, was a communist past.

Mrs Kalisa had discovered a story which even today, remains forgotten, hidden, one of those not-even-footnotes in the history of people and countries. Her novel’s subject deals with North Vietnamese labourers who travelled to the DDR, to work under awful circumstances. What Mrs Kalisa had stumbled upon, was an example of modern slavery, which is undoubtedly repeated right now in other countries craving cheap labour for say a Fifa stadium, Olympic dreams, or simply dirty and dangerous jobs.

Not so long ago, North Vietnam and the DDR were friendly communist states. The DDR needed cheap labour and North Vietnam had many people who badly needed money. The friendly communist relationships led to exploitation on a scale which would not surprise anybody dealing with the worst kind of capitalist economy and appalling market conditions.

Strict segregation, no or totally controlled and limited interaction with German fellow communists, enforced housing in specific and special buildings, no relationships and certainly no children allowed. Female labourers who fell pregnant had two options. either to have an abortion, or return to North Vietnam and give birth there.

Things hardly improved once the DDR and the Bundesrepublik became modern Germany. One of the many characters in the novel has no health insurance. When the communist DDR fell, ties with North Vietnam changed. The Vietnamese in former East Germany were left in a kind of limbo like illegal migrants.

One of the main characters of “Sungs Laden” experiences it all. Like Germany, Vietnam is torn into two parts. Her family ends up in North Vietnam. She travels to the DDR as one of the first “contract’ labourers and ends up near Berlin. She meets a fellow Vietnamese and they fall in love. She falls pregnant, has to return to North Vietnam, gives birth and leaves her baby to be raised by her sister.

She returns to the DDR as she needs to earn money to support her family. When she falls pregnant again, the DDR rules have changed slightly and she has made German friends. This enables her and her partner to keep their baby. The family will become part of the Vietnamese community in Lichtenberg.

Sungs Laden 2A German friend offers them a shop to run. Sung’s shop is established and provides a means for a new generation to grow up in Berlin. The shop and family manage to survive the downfall of the DDR and creation of a new Germany.

One thread which connects the various characters, is a Vietnamese doll. It has travelled from North Vietnam to Berlin and is quite special. It belongs to a set used in traditional Vietnamese water puppetry theatres. The art and skill, handed down through generations, will ultimately bring together German and Vietnamese children.

This sllightly magical book deals with several generations. The author told her public, she used the so-called butterfly effect: one positive interaction leads to many more. This makes her book an enchanting novel.

According to one of the people present during this “meet the author” event, this was a far too positive take on integration. He – not Asian, not German, definitely not Vietnamese – clearly had problems with this positive and magical story about people from different cultures. Fortunately, the interviewer who presided over the event, managed to break up what nearly turned into a one-activist-issue-statement by ordering: “Wine everybody!”

Before this rather distasteful incident, Karin Kalisa read excerpts from her novel and answered questions posed by interviewer as well as the public. Of course, with the topic of refugees being daily in the news and hardly anybody being familiar with the story of the DDR Vietnamese and East Berlin’s Vietnamese community, there were questions about relations between communities and what the present Berlin-Vietnamese generation was like. Mrs Kalisa tried to answer as best she could, using her own personal experiences.

All in all, the author and the excerpts she read gave an impression of a fascinating novel, well worth reading. It is to be hoped it will soon become available in English and other languages.  As for me: I am looking forward to reading the German version and think I might actually feel quite at home in present-day “Berlin-Vietnam”!

Der Spiegel German review.
“Sungs Laden”, Karin Kalisa, hard cover 255 pp, C.H.Beck 2015. Available in German.

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