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Portrait von Magda Birkmann vor einer Graffittiwand

“Women have always written”: An interview with Magda Birkmann

In Rowohlt Verlag’s newly launched series, rororo Entdeckungen, Magda Birkmann and Nicole Seifert select novels by remarkable but forgotten female authors from the twentieth century for publication. Last week we had the pleasure of talking to Magda Birkmann about this series and the novel Daddy was a number runner (Eine Tochter Harlems) by Louise Meriwether. 

Magda Birkmann is a bookseller at Ocelot in Berlin. She made the acquaintance of author and blogger Nicole Seifert via Twitter. Both share an interest in literature by women. A private exchange about their antiquarian bookshop finds led to the idea of republishing some of them and making them available to a wider audience. Birkmann says: “We thought we should combine our expertise and do more with it.” They were inspired by feminist series from the English-speaking world, such as Virago Press, Feminist Books and Persephone Books, and got in touch with Rowohlt Verlag. The first three books in the rororo Entdeckungen series were published this autumn and six more are already planned for next year.

When selecting novels, Birkmann and Seifert sometimes make choices on the basis of topics they find to be exciting and ongoingly relevant. In other cases, it is unusual perspectives or likeable narrative voices that inspire them. However, it is always about the reading experience. Birkmann suggested Louise Meriwether’s novel for the series: “The protagonist, Francie, grabbed me from the very first page and won me over.” When selecting the novels, commercial aspects must of course be taken into consideration, as was the case with the title of the series. Nothing completely unknown is discovered in the rororo Entdeckungen (literally, rororo Discoveries), but rather literature that has been relegated to obscurity is drawn forward: “Chance often plays a role and the discovery is a bit like a treasure hunt in second-hand bookshops and libraries. But it is also an ironic title, since women have always written; they’ve just been forgotten.” The aim now is to bring books by women that are socio-politically interesting and fun to a wider reading public. Louise Meriwether’s novel is a good example of this.

Meriwether was a companion of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, but never achieved the same level of fame. Her novel Daddy Was a Number Runner was published in the US in 1970 and has now been translated into German by Andrea O’Brien for Birkmann and Seifert’s series. The translation is entitled Eine Tochter Harlems (A Daughter of Harlem), as it is the story of a 12-year-old first-person narrator growing up in Harlem, and number runners, like her father, who manage illegitimate betting arrangments, are rather unknown here in Germany. The novel is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Harlem was one of the poorest districts of New York City at the time and was predominantly inhabited by Black people. Francie grows up in a rough environment: Her family is desperately poor, she experiences racism and sexualized violence daily. But Birkmann is fascinated by this novel because “it is a very dark text that always remains hopeful despite the difficult circumstances, because community and solidarity play such an important role for the families.” Even though the context may seem far removed from the realities of German life at first glance, Francie’s perspective makes it very accessible: “The fact that it’s a coming-of-age story and that we have this very young first-person narrator who is only just beginning to see through the society she lives in makes this book work very well for a broad reading audience.”

Birkmann and Seifert are mainly responsible for finding such treasures and curating the series, while the publisher takes care of everything else – from rights to translation and marketing. In the case of Meriwether’s novel, however, the editors were involved in discussions about how to deal with racist terms or African American Vernacular English, for which there is no German equivalent, in the translation. Birkmann likes to read in English herself and has high expectations of translations: “I think Andrea O’Brien has found good solutions, e.g. she leaves some terms in English in the translation.” And Francie’s language is marked to indicate that it is not a standardized version.

In order to reflect the diversity of literature by women that has been forgotten and suppressed, Birkmann and Seifert do not just want to publish German texts or texts translated from English. In future, they plan to publish translations from other languages, for which the two need more time and allies with other areas of expertise. It certainly sounds like it will be worth keeping an eye on the rororo Entdeckungen.

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