From Gesa Stedman’s beautiful Berlin keynote to Donna Stonecipher, Lucy Jones, Ben Ferguson, Crista Siglin, Ann Cotten and many more, the entire Parataxe Symposium at the Literarisches Colloquium is now online in digital form.

I read from my novel Like Lips, Like Skins (German edition: Kreisläufe) in German and English, and before that had a talk with our brilliant moderator Shane Anderson about Berlin, about going from being a visual artist to becoming a writer, about the difficulties of translation, about what Berlin was like in the ’80s and what it’s like for young people facing the housing market in Berlin today.

From 39:10.

Check out the Stadtsprachen website for videos of all the panels.

I decided to write a bit about coming to Berlin in the early 1980s—and what the city felt like back then to foreigners. The first time I came to Berlin was in ’83, 38 years after WWII ended. I moved here one year later and stayed. 1983 is a midway point in history for me, because now, in 2022, I’ve been living in the city for 38 years, in other words: I am as far in time from the year I first arrived here as that moment was from the end of the war—which was, in many ways, still present and very palpable.

Whenever I try to understand how history is rewritten, I think of these “time bridges” and recall overhearing a conversation between an elderly couple in a diner somewhere uptown on Lexington Ave. many years ago. I don’t recall the precise marker the man used, but I heard him saying: “that’s exactly as far back in time as that time was from the Civil War.” The time bridge, for want of a better word, connected him to what had once seemed to him a kind of pre-history. Come to think of it, that marker was quite likely the year he was born.

For me, growing up in the US, WWII was also a kind of pre-history—but as the decades accrue, and the mind tries to sort them out, that war—in light of the current war—feels closer than ever.

The essay is titled “Musings on Exile, Immigrants, Pre-Unification Berlin, Trauma, Naturalization, and a Native Tongue”—it’s about those first few years, the mental health crisis among refugees, applying for German citizenship, and what happens when multi-generational memory is no longer passed down through a parent’s native language.

Read it on 3 Quarks Daily

Coming on October 16, 2022 at 7:30 p.m.: Lettrétage in der Veteranenstraße 21, Berlin-Mitte

Reading and Conversation with Lilian Peter and Andrea Scrima (in German language)

Wie schreibt sich Erinnerung? Was bedeutet es, erzählend zu erinnern oder erinnernd zu erzählen? Wie bahnt sich das, was wir „Erinnerung“ nennen, seine Wege in literarische Texte? Wie lässt sich über (Familien-) Traumata schreiben, über Dinge also, von denen niemand mehr erzählen kann, die aber dennoch transgenerationale Kraft ausüben und auf irgendeine Weise erzählt zu werden verlangen? Lässt sich der Körper mit seinen vielfachen Erfahrungsschichten „freischreiben“? Und welche literarischen Formen generiert ein solcher Ansatz?

Was heute als „Autofiktion“ in aller Munde ist und sehr modern klingt, ist in Wirklichkeit eine der ältesten Formen von Literatur überhaupt; zugleich ist die Erinnerung, genauer der erinnerte (nach innen genommene) Körper, in der europäischen Kulturgeschichte immer ein weiblicher. Andrea Scrima und Lilian Peter lesen aus ihren aktuellen Büchern, KREISLÄUFE und MUTTER GEHT AUS, und gehen im anschließenden Gespräch diesen und vielen anderen Fragen nach, mit denen sich auch ihre Bücher in unterschiedlichen Formen, Prosa und Essay, auseinandersetzen.

Click here for details.

The situation felt primal, imminently violent; distant epigenetic memories of war and bloodlust shivered in my veins. Turn the music off, I shouted, the lyrics are misogynistic. The truth was, there was no time to even consider what they might have been about in any larger sense; the music was sudden-onslaught deafening, terms for female genitals were thundering throughout a public space occupied mostly by excited, electrified young men: to be a woman in this scenario was to feel under threat in a way that was simple and visceral. 

Read an essay on cultural assimilation in Europe, the appropriation of American Black subculture by minorities, and gaps in understanding on Three Quarks Daily.

This past spring, I found myself sitting, masked, at a wooden desk among a scattering of scientific researchers at the Museo Galileo in Florence. Next to me was a thick reference book on the history of astronomical instruments and a smaller work on the sundials and other measuring devices built into the churches of Florence to mark the cyclical turning points of cosmic time. The gnomon of Santa Maria del Fiore, for instance, consisted of a bronzina, a small hole set into the lantern ninety meters above that acted as a camera oscura and projected an image of the sun onto the cathedral floor far below. At noon on the day of the solstice, the solar disc superimposed itself perfectly onto a round marble slab, not quite a yard in diameter, situated along the inlaid meridian. I studied the explanations of astronomical quadrants and astrolabes and the armilla equinoziale,the armillary sphere of Santa Maria Novella, made up of two conjoined iron rings mounted on the façade that told the time of day and year based on the position of their elliptical shadow, when all at once it occurred to me that I’d wanted to write about something else altogether, about a person I occasionally encountered, a phantom living somewhere inside me: the young woman who’d decided not to leave, not to move to Berlin after all, to rip up the letter of acceptance to the art academy she received all those years ago and to stay put, in New York. Alive somewhere, in some other iteration of being, was a parallel existence in an alternative universe, one of the infinite spheres of possibility in which I’d decided differently and become a different woman.

Not long before this, a friend in Graz had told me that she’d been born on American soil and so, theoretically at least, was an American citizen. She’d never lived there, however, and this was her ghost, her own parallel existence. In July of 1950, her parents had sailed from Bremerhaven to New York on the United States Army Transport W.G. Haan, a ship of displaced persons that had been reacquired by the Navy and enlisted in the Military Sea Transportation Service. Their intention was to emigrate; they’d applied for their visas, all their papers were in order, and yet they were refused entry and caught in limbo for more than a year before being sent back to Europe. My friend was born in this limbo, on Ellis Island.

The first time she’d decided to research the ship manifests and to see what information she could find about her parents’ voyage and subsequent internment, she stumbled, one might say improbably, on a photograph of her mother, taken aboard the ship, posted online by the Immigration History Research Center Archives of the University of Minnesota Libraries. It was part of a series a Latvian passenger named Uģis Skrastiņš had taken to document his trip after leaving a displaced persons camp in Meersbeck, Germany, before eventually resettling in Minneapolis. The collection held a total of 87 photographs recording trains arriving, passengers disembarking, and people standing in line on a dock, waiting to board with manila tags attached to the buttons of their coats, blankets strapped to the suitcases resting on the pavement next to them. People crowded the ship’s deck, near-silhouettes against the churning, metallic-looking water below; crew members handled ropes as thick as their arms, with heavy black smoke curling upwards from another ship’s funnel behind them, and everywhere the latticework of huge metal cranes ready to haul up cargo. Again and again, I came back to the photograph of my friend’s mother. She was smiling, her eyes were downcast, and she seemed to be unaware that she was being photographed; her smile was private, reserved for my friend’s father, the man in the foreground with his back turned to us and his head slightly tilted, also smiling. It was July, and while the ocean air must have had a nip to it, as the people in the photograph were wearing coats, my friend’s mother was wearing hers open. She was two weeks pregnant with my friend; presumably, she didn’t yet know this. Her hair was in place, as was her husband’s: the day was not particularly windy, and two women seated in the background, one of them with a kerchief tied under her chin, seemed to be enjoying the sea air.

xxx

— read an excerpt from a new book-in-progress on Three Quarks Daily.

xxx

Kreisläufe (Like Lips, Like Skins) by Andrea Scrima 

Podcast from May 27, 2022 (from 1′ 22”)

Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus, Berlin branch of Germany’s largest bookstore 

(Excerpts translated from the German)

By Gibran

Andrea Scrima is so many things (…) basically, you could say that she’s primarily a visual artist, and that art informs her widely acclaimed novel Like Lips, Like Skins. (…) And yet it’s up to us—and our booksellers’ honor—to keep books like these on the market. This podcast supports this effort. 

(…) We witness the protagonist Felice as she goes about unraveling her family’s story, a feat she performs largely through her art—that’s the genius of this bookLike Lips, Like Skins is mainly based on perception; when it takes a small coffee stain as its point of departure, it spreads out into wider reflections on how memory works, and how we often only remember the memory of a memory, or the story of a memory we’ve told ourselves. Scrima shows us—and this is one of the book’s key motifs—that our memory is incomplete, and that we have to keep telling ourselves things, that we have to tell stories to ourselves over and over again.

Like Lips, Like Skins is also a remarkably complex narrative of a mother-daughter relationship as well as a retrospective search for a father who sacrificed his dream of becoming an artist for his family. (…) It’s a generous book that succeeds in converting art into words, into language. Scrima achieves this in different ways: through meticulously precise descriptions of particular perceptions, and through weaving actual artworks into her narrative. At some point, the artist protagonist has a five-thousand-square-foot space in a warehouse building at her disposal, discovers a tiny hole in one of the windows there, and realizes that she can see things at a distance of hundreds of yards through it. When she changes her perspective, the image visible through the camera’s lens shifts as well, jumping hundreds of yards in either direction. Felice takes a seat behind the camera and waits. Now and again, something happens; when a truck appears or a bird flies past, she realizes that she’s unable to press the shutter release. She then takes this observation and uses it as a path that carries her back to her family’s story, and the way she does this is breathtaking. Scrima’s approach to turning perception into words is unique, and it requires a good deal of courage. But the reader has to reckon with the fact that they won’t be told the whole story, because the book’s form is fragmentary—which makes perfect sense, because in the final analysis it’s the way you think on a day-to-day basis that you apply to your own personal biography, and this thinking is also, to a large extent, fragmentary. 

(…) Like Lips, Like Skins should be required reading for all art fanatics, because it offers a glimpse into the arduous path through the art establishment. I recommend this book to readers interested in visual art and perception—but even more to anyone concerned with the problems of biographical writing. I’ve seldom read a novel in which the different phases of an individual life were interwoven in such a palpable, believable way. A must!

(English below)

“I absolutely want to recommend this book: Kreisläufe (Like Lips, Like Skins) by Andrea Scrima. I admire this book (and its author in any case), and it feels as though I should offer my humble thanks to Andrea Scrima, who drills into all manner of trauma, entanglements, the repetitive patterns I’m unable to drill through, not by a long shot. It’s an undeviating book in pursuit of pain and its urgent themes. Andrea Scrima describes growing up in an American family, and at the same time a young man’s early years in a GDR juvenile detention facility and the life of an artist with all its doubts and struggles of self-discovery. I don’t much feel like summarizing the contents, I only want to share how important I find this book, and—I repeat—admire it because it works its way through themes that are only seemingly personal, at first glance—because these are structural matters. This book is a call for a carefulness and closeness that know the traps of every allegedly bad memory.”

So glad to see Elisabeth Wagner’s perceptive review of my book in the taz!

An “I” has to save itself, has to get away from home. Via London, the English Channel, and the East German transit route to West Berlin and a winter that smells like coal dust and bites the lungs. A single furious first paragraph is enough for the escape, a single breath. One could almost say the text inhales. It does this to remember: out of love, out of fear, for reasons that go deep and don’t lend themselves to being easily summarized, whose urgency, however, is beyond question in the prose of the New York-born writer and artist Andrea Scrima.

(…) The world and the narrator’s own life present her with scenes of varying degrees of danger. As moments of decision, of escalation, of quiet observation that is anything but harmless. The “I” draws a brush across a canvas and watches the excess paint collapse to either side; tracks in snow melt, freeze over, wear away. Dreams are a part of reality, a parallel world that leads to new discovery. The text retains its inner logic with virtuosic ease. How lightly and yet how powerfully this “I” holds the narrative reins in her hand. 

(…) In every family, says the first-person narrator, there is a geometry at work, a concatenation of secrets and taboos. Scrima, who translated Like Lips, Like Skins together with Christian von der Goltz, incorporated both fictional and autobiographical material into the novel. Like the “I” of the book, she was born in New York, lives in Berlin, and has a son. The author lends the narrator several of her artworks, as well as much in the characters of the parents. Yet Scrima rejects the label of autofiction. The term causes people to underestimate the importance of the form, she explains in a mail, and one would like to respond that it’s hard to imagine not admiring the formal sophistication of this book. The delicate transitions between grammatical forms of past and present, for instance, which slip by unnoticed as one moves through time and space. Indeed, there’s great precision in the way recurrent patterns demarcate the various layers of experience. So precisely that one could read this novel as a poetic research text that tells the story of the end of a depression and takes on the spell of repetition in its own injured and, yes, passionate way. So much happens in this wise and beautiful book, and it’s all described without the slightest hint at an exclamation mark. The power of its appeal is all the stronger for it. 

When I got off the train yesterday at Santa Maria Novella, I was convinced that I remembered the way; I knew that I needed to take the 36 or 37 bus, but the stop I recalled turned out to be the Capolinea, the end of the line where I disembarked two years ago, over an hour early for my train departing Florence—upon which, to kill time, I wandered around the neighborhood of San Marco, lugging my suitcase behind me in the early-morning serenity of the still-deserted streets. I remember wondering if this mysterious new epidemic would remain confined to its various pockets of outbreak, when all at once, as I turned the corner onto Via Nazionale, the brightly lit letters of Hotel Corona stopped me in my tracks.

As with my arrival in Florence two years ago, it took me some time to find the bus stop, just enough for a vague sense of anxiety to set in. I was traveling by choice, I had an invitation and a room to stay in, and yet the news images of people fleeing first the advance of Russian troops on the Donbas and then everywhere else superimposed themselves onto the bustling Florentine streets: people abandoning their cars and possessions after running out of gas in thirty-mile-long traffic jams headed west for the border checkpoints; men pulled out of queues by Ukrainian soldiers and forced to bid goodbye to their families and join the armed resistance. Children with bunny ears on their woolen caps alarmed and wailing, their faces turned away or pressed to the foggy windows of buses and trains, their mothers unable to console them. Women carrying toddlers in snowsuits and diaper bags and lugging suitcases behind them, bracing for hours on foot in the freezing cold to reach a border or train station even as students and other people from non-white countries are turned back from the checkpoints and often beaten. People hauling cats and dogs on their backs, their children in tow, most of them too exhausted or too numbly focused on surviving the next minutes and hours to cry. The sight of their shock and their uprootedness slices into the marrow and fuels my own temporary lack of orientation, my struggle to conserve the last six percent battery power on my cell phone. I backtrack several times, perspiring and unable to properly concentrate, knowing all the while that I am headed to warmth and safety, to privilege. It eventually occurs to me that I can check Google Maps, and I finally find the bus stop, ashamed at my lack of resourcefulness, at my porosity and empathy that help no one.

— read an excerpt from a new book-in-progress on Three Quarks Daily.

Andrea Scrima’s autobiographical novel follows an American artist living in Germany back to the US and her family origins

Review of Like Lips, Like Skins for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
By Maria Frisé (excerpt, April 8, 2022)

“I’d never survive in the US,” Andrea Scrima once said in an interview. At the time, the reference 
was to Trump’s America—but one could also apply it to her family background, which she’s portrayed in two unequivocally autobiographical novels (A Lesser Day, and now Like Lips, Like Skins). A scholarship to the art academy enabled the author to move to Germany; she lives in Berlin and has since taken on German citizenship. Yet again and again, the past catches up with her, and feelings of guilt surface. Should she have stayed to protect her younger brother from the violence-prone mother, who tyrannized her four children and silent husband? This is one of the stories Scrima tells in Like Lips, Like Skins

The novel’s protagonist Felice is, like Andrea Scrima, an artist, and an exhibition sends her back to her native New York. Her hopes that things might have improved in her absence prove to be in vain. “Never forget that you can leave again”—this is what her partner tries to impress upon her as she’s departing Berlin. But before long, she falls prey to the past and the mother’s sudden fits of rage. When she visits the old house on Staten Island or the Burger King she worked in at the age of fifteen in a first step toward gaining independence from her family, she becomes immersed in painful memories from childhood. 

Andrea Scrima is a powerful storyteller with a confident command of the German language.
In collaboration with Christian von der Goltz, she translates her English-language manuscripts into German, as she’s now done masterfully for Like Lips, Like Skins (German edition: Kreisläufe, Literaturverlag Droschl, 2021). 

So happy to see the book continuing to bring in reviews — this one from the “Hotlist,” a list of important new titles from independent presses.

“Wie werden wir zu dem, wer wir sind? Ist es möglich, unserer stofflichen Beschaffenheit zum Trotz, mit der wir in die Welt gesetzt wurden, der eigenen Herkunft zu entkommen? Diese Fragen verhandelt der tief tragische Roman Kreisläufe der amerikanischen Schriftstellerin und Künstlerin Andrea Scrima. Dies ist ihr zweiter fulminanter Roman nach Wie viele Tage (2018), der im Literaturverlag Droschl auf Deutsch von ihr vorliegt.”

“How do we become who we are? Is it possible, in spite of the physical givens we were born with, to escape our origins? The deeply tragic novel Kreisläufe (Eng: Like Lips, Like Skins) by the American artist and author Andrea Scrima explores these questions. This is her second brilliant novel after Wie viele Tage (Eng.: A Lesser Day, 2018) to be published in German by Literaturverlag Droschl.”

Read the Hotlist’s review of Kreisläufe here.

Gallus Frei-Tomic in literaturblatt.ch, January 22, 2022 (Excerpts translated from the German)

Four years ago, Andrea Scrima’s literary debut A Lesser Day was already an epiphany. Now, with her second novel, Like Lips, Like Skins, Scrima deserves a far wider audience. 

All readers know that certain books are capable of generating a very special resonance. Sometimes it’s the themes that appeal or repel or in any case fascinate. And sometimes it’s the language, the sound of the words, the images that rise up from the page. With Like Lips, Like Skins, Andrea Scrima achieves everything a novel can do, at least for me. Her call to “imagine this” was so intense and worked its way through me to such an extent that, once I finished the book, I sat there somewhat stunned and began leafing back to revisit all the scenes I’d underlined and slip back under that warm blanket. 

At one point in the story, after Felice has already begun enjoying some success as an artist, she flies back to New York to put up an exhibition in a gallery. Years have passed; encouraged by her friend Micha, she decides to confront the trauma of her agonizing relationship to a mother who tormented the family with her unpredictability, her explosions of rage, her way of interpreting the world according to her own whims. Felice has barely arrived, and already she’s struggling—and in this struggle she senses that she’s not only at risk of losing her family ties, but also her own self. 

Like Lips, Like Skins is crafted as an act of retrospection. The first half of the book is dedicated to the mother, the second to a largely silent father who recorded what seemed important to him in calendar journals Felice saves from certain destruction and pores through after his death. What so moved me about the book is not the story of a woman’s emancipation, or the family drama, or the poison that eats its way through relationships, but the way in which Andrea Scrima approaches her subject matter—the way she conjures words and pictures at the same time. Here is an author who writes in polyphony, who layers her images and then peels the layers away to reveal the cracks in the paint. The author is uninterested in revelation or exposure. Like Lips, Like Skins is a series of images that show us how to see. 

Review of Andrea Scrima’s new novel Like Lips, Like Skins by Elisabeth Wagner

Published April 19, 2022 in the taz

(excerpts translated from the German)

An “I” has to save itself, has to get away from home. Via London, the English Channel, and the East German transit route to West Berlin and a winter that smells like coal dust and bites the lungs. A single furious first paragraph is enough for the escape, a single breath. One could almost say the text inhales. It does this to remember: out of love, out of fear, for reasons that go deep and don’t lend themselves to being easily summarized, whose urgency, however, is beyond question in the prose of the New York-born writer and artist Andrea Scrima. 

(…) The world and the narrator’s own life present her with scenes of varying degrees of danger. As moments of decision, of escalation, of quiet observation that is anything but harmless. The “I” draws a brush across a canvas and watches the excess paint collapse to either side; tracks in snow melt, freeze over, wear away. Dreams are a part of reality, a parallel world that leads to new discovery. The text retains its inner logic with virtuosic ease. How lightly and yet how powerfully this “I” holds the narrative reins in her hand. 

(…) In every family, says the first-person narrator, there is a geometry at work, a concatenation of secrets and taboos. Scrima, who translated Like Lips, Like Skins together with Christian von der Goltz, incorporated both fictional and autobiographical material into the novel. Like the “I” of the book, she was born in New York, lives in Berlin, and has a son. The author lends the narrator several of her artworks, as well as much in the characters of the parents. Yet Scrima rejects the label of autofiction. The term causes people to underestimate the importance of the form, she explains in a mail, and one would like to respond that it’s hard to imagine not admiring the formal sophistication of this book. The delicate transitions between grammatical forms of past and present, for instance, which slip by unnoticed as one moves through time and space. Indeed, there’s great precision in the way recurrent patterns demarcate the various layers of experience. So precisely that one could read this novel as a poetic research text that tells the story of the end of a depression and takes on the spell of repetition in its own injured and, yes, passionate way. So much happens in this wise and beautiful book, and it’s all described without the slightest hint at an exclamation mark. The power of its appeal is all the stronger for it. 

here is an excerpt from the original German text, which takes off from the concept of autofiction:

I’d like to draw your attention to the second part of an interview Ally Klein did with me that’s just gone up at Three Quarks Daily. We talk about my new novel, Like Lips, Like Skins, the German edition of which (Kreisläufe, meaning circuits, circulations, circles) was published a few months ago by Literaturverlag Droschl, this time with a focus on the presence and function of art in the book:

After years of writing (and finally publishing), I finally felt secure enough to go a step further in my second novel. I began describing the artmaking process, and eventually imported some of my actual art into the work in order to see what form it might take there. I was also interested in seeing how much of the original artwork can’t, in the end, be captured in words. What remains of art in its description? When you narrate it, but can’t actually see anything? Are you merely describing the intentions behind the work, are you describing an idea or the work’s appearance? Are you creating something completely new?
To my surprise, I discovered that it was suddenly much more about the fictional character I ascribed a particular work to, in this case Felice—it shifted the focus to her psychology. How did she arrive at this type of art, what does it have to do with her life? What does her art say about her as a character? A completely new narrative coalesced around the description, one that’s pretty far removed from the original impulses that led to the actual work the writing is based on.
I’m driven by the idea of ​​bringing contemporary art a little closer to readers not normally all that familiar with it. This is a work of literature, after all, and not aesthetic theory. And so the concepts are somewhat simplified, and even if some of the passages are still pretty abstract, I hope the human connection comes across easily enough. Because the art in this book is only one component in a larger work that addresses many other themes: family, trauma, parents, children, getting older.

When, in Like Lips, Like Skins, I lend this work [the installation Through the Bullethole] to the protagonist, she automatically becomes associated with the mental state the work suggests—this slightly crazy, obsessive gaze through a bullet hole, this necessarily limited view of the world—it all becomes far more psychological in the book, and Felice is equated with her work much, I might add, in the way that I’m often equated with my protagonist. There’s this (I hope) hilarious scene in which the work is hanging on the walls of a gallery and Felice tries to explain the photographs to her mother, sister, and the mother’s neighbor, who they’ve brought along for some reason. All of a sudden there’s this 1:1 thing happening, it’s assumed that she’s the subject of the work in a way that never actually happened to me with the original installation—at the time I made the work, the question of authorship was never confused with the idea of a journal or diary, with a confessional gesture. It was understood to be a formal conceit. The work’s inner logic was clear, and the installation cohered in a larger way that allowed the ideas feeding it to breathe, to grow into a sort of organism. When I imported a description of this work into my book, I had to learn what it could do and what it couldn’t do. It certainly wasn’t about selling the reader on conceptual art. I simply wondered what would be left of a work as complex as this after reducing it to words—and what I could make it say about my characters.

x

The first chapter of the German edition Kreisläufe appeared in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe, Statorec, and Zyzzyva. The German version of Part One of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte, the English version here on Three Quarks DailyFor Part Two, Ally Klein corresponded with the author over the course of several weeks via email; the above is an edited version of a talk the two gave in Berlin on December 11, 2021 at Lettrétage.

For English-language rights to Like Lips, Like Skins, please contact Soumeya Roberts of HG Literary, New York.

Read it here (in German).

“Es gibt in der Literatur vielleicht nicht viele, die diese Bilder so detailgenau und mit so grosser psychologischer Tiefe nachzeichnen können wie Andrea Scrima.”

— Paul Jandl

“There are, perhaps, not many in the literary field as skilled at evoking these images and with as much precision and psychological depth as Andrea Scrima.”

— Paul Jandl