Queering the Fourth Semester: Deep Criticality through Helga Novak's "Fahrkarte bitte" (1968)
In Queer Phenomenology (Duke UP, 2006) and, more recently, in Living a Feminist Life (Duke UP, 2017), Sara Ahmed critically examines directions, orientations, and path-determinacies that govern our life. In the heteropatriarchal matrix, as we learn from Ahmed, we are bound to fixed paths in ways particularly threatening to individual self-expression. A life determined by "lines" which direct us by definition produces and accommodates some ways of being while threatening and excluding others. Linked to capitalist modernity, lineage and future-oriented productivity chain us to patterns and render us failures when we don't comply. Jack Halberstam reads this process of failing out of lines in the positive in The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011); failing is quintessential for any project seeking radical detachment from heteropatriarchal capitalist futures.
It seems that concerns about "the path well-trodden" (45) vitally speak to language-culture pedagogy (notice how desperately I cling to both ideas through the hyphen; how frequently--still--one is thought to be devoid of the other). Well-trodden paths serve as metaphor for so much of the work we do in the first two years of our programs. With the well-trodden path I mean multiple things at once: the instructor repeatedly revisiting material and treating it as though one mode speaks to all learners; the reuse of texts long part of the German language-culture studies textual archive for the first and second year without departure from how such material had been used in the past; the "goal" of courses as almost always oriented around linguistic proficiency, which alone cannot sustain interest in language learners increasingly concerned less about attaining proficiency than about how they are engaged in the class. This last one is paramount: why does our profession presume that learner motivation is organized around developing linguistic proficiency alone for the first and second year? Such a presumption is a relic of some time long gone (perhaps it never existed), but the aims from that time are inscribed into our syllabi and appear to the trained eye as nothing more than dangerously well-trodden paths. What possibilities exist for our courses and our curricula (another line!) when we depart from those paths? What are the potentials of queering our approaches and unleashing the scary capacity of empowering uncertainty on ourselves and our students?
Perhaps it can begin with something like this: What if the main goal in a fourth-semester German language and culture course is oriented not around linguistic proficiency (or the compulsion to help students reach a particular proficiency level) but rather around ideas facilitating critical deep thinking? (Perhaps we already think we are doing this.) "By the end of this unit, students will be able to imagine the complexity of experiences in the lives of queer individuals (in German!, don't worry, that is still here!) and will be able to examine how characters' queerness relates to their own lives." Queer here is a marker for failure in the sense Ahmed and Halberstam see it: as failing out of the capitalist success narratives predicated on strutting well-trodden paths. Queer here then means following queer characters and imagining alongside them alternative worlds and outcomes for an already queer path inscribed in a text. Helga Novak's "Fahrkarte bitte" is brilliant in this sense, because it offers access points to students in which they can participate in the queer experiences of the main character and thereby be positioned to critically examine questions often not raised in fourth-semester German courses. My approach to this text below will unveil how fictional queerness can raise the level of critical awareness with which students encounter a text. At the same time, the approach will instantiate a queer pedagogy interested in "goals" only inasmuch as the path to them is made unstable in the sense that it enacts declolonialist ideals.
Queer Potentials of Novak's "Fahrkarte bitte"
A quick plot summary: The female protagonist in Helga Novak's "Fahrkarte bitte" arrives in Kiel in the opening of the text. We are not quite sure why she is in Kiel other than that it is one stop on a journey to somewhere: she's in town the day before her ship departs to an unnamed designation. Maria (whose name we find out at the very end of the story--it is the last word) finds a hotel and checks in: the male attendant asks if she wants to pay upfront, but she states she would rather pay the next day. She wakes up the next morning and notices the attendant had a swollen lip, asks him to use the phone, phones her friend to ask for money to pay for the hotel. The attendant hears this conversation. A discussion between Maria and the attendant ensues in which she asks him if she could go fetch the money to pay for the hotel from her friend. He, in turn does not trust her; he takes her ship ticket (for the ship which is to depart at 1pm on the day of their disagreement) and holds it ransom. The story ends abruptly with Maria writing a letter to her friend, Charlotte, telling her that she's doing well in Kiel, that she's been living there and working as a server in a restaurant (presumably part of the hotel and presumably since the incident). She casually departs a path itself presumably not sanctioned by the social networks around her--we never find out why she is traveling either.
The story flows from one narrative station to the next, triggering and sustaining our interest through what Barthes calls narrative desire: the expository sentences are short and filled with vital information itself not fully serving the function of establishing for readers a fully-explained setting, effectively sustaining interest in all that follows while delaying a reveal (Maria's name is, for this reason, the last word of the story). "Kiel sieht neu aus. Es ist dunkel. Ich gehe zum Hafen. Mein Schiff ist nicht da. Es fährt morgen. Es kommt morgen vormittag an und fährt um dreizehn Uhr wieder ab. Ich sehe ein Hotel. Im Eingang steht ein junger Mann. Er trägt einen weinroten Rollkragenpullover." We are following Maria on her path but notice, with each station, that there is more to her story than she makes available to us. Did political or personal circumstances compel her to leave her previous home abruptly without money in her pocket? The text is, after all, a potential Republikflucht-story, given the author's connections to the former GDR. She may have been rejected by her family or friends and is now searching for a place she can call home. Although she has a ship to catch, circumstances bring her on another path, one she embraces without much resentment. "Sonst geht es mir glänzend," she writes to her friend Charlotte at the end, stating that she had been coopted into the capitalist production narrative (she has to work off her debt and needs money to maintain her stay in Kiel).
Maria's behavior is mysterious because she withholds information about her circumstances, but also because she glides from one situation to the next, from one hardship to another. Reading her story even compels readers to question her choices: she's alone and sasses the male attendant with possibly violent tendencies (his lip is swollen presumably because he was in a fight the night before). She casually lies and thereby swindles her way into the hotel. Moreover, she does whatever she believes necessary to survive at the cost of failing out of systems which rather have her pursue things differently. Precisely her failing out of systems, her "being out of line," is what is interesting here! Although the narrative appears to present a concrete path for readers to follow--opening, encounter with attendant, etc.--Maria's day is filled with numerous paths and thus potentials for her future. New lines emerge every time she fails out of one. The ending is, for this reason, quite startling! Does her taking a job at the end of the story not reposition her back onto an "acceptable" path? Does it not work against her queer orientation? I think the contrary is the case. The logic of the narrative suggests (path, queer failure, path) she won't be able to stay in this position for long and through her taking the job at the end only highlights the fact that she had steered off the path previously. This life in Kiel is queer on its own, even if it abides by a capitalist rhetoric of labor.
What a queer story! And what a queer character Maria is! The form of the story (deceptively simple sentences and "straightforward narration") gives rise to a search for depth: readers have a lot of questions at each station of the story. We think: there is something missing, something is hidden--what's in the closet? We never find out, but in searching for answers we participate in a search for meaning itself reminiscent of a well-trodden path. There is nothing and everything to discover, especially once we find out that we may never know Maria's full story. The story denies us information and thereby denies us a goal, an end point for a well-trodden path of meaning. What a queer story this is!
Thoughts about the Edition
"Fahrkarte bitte" is an excellent choice for a fourth-semester course, because it is linguistically accessible while thematically complex. The text is under 50 lines long. In the present edition, the text is printed on two-two-sided pages. The story itself is on the right page while the glossed vocabulary is on the left.
"Fahrkarte bitte" had been included in earlier editions of Deutsch: na klar! in their "reading corners" (as in, it was a chapter afterthought). However, I stumbled upon the text in an older course reader titled Lebendige Literatur: Deutsches Lesebuch für Anfänger (Houghton Mifflin, 1986, 3rd Ed.). I came to the book itself during a conversation with a colleague, who noted that it was a good archive of shorter pieces glossed and easy to integrate into classes. My approach was pragmatic, initially. This means that I, too, was hoping to march down a well-trodden path by picking texts thematically which would work in a unit on travel. I selected texts entirely because of their thematic connection to the units in my syllabus. The title, "Fahrkarte bitte," seemed literally related to my unit and I was drawn to it. Sometimes we have to work under harsh conditions, and well-trodden paths are all we feel capable of pursuing in a given moment. Queer decolonialist pedagogy is, however, a lot of work. There is nothing simple about it. But for some of us is the only mode of survival. It positions us to be aware of the dangers of pragmatism. It was in these moments of thinking about material, how I approach it and how I deploy it in class, that I came to decolonialist theories of education in the first place.
The question was: how do I make the most of this riveting story, which I was only then discovering? I decided to discover it alongside my students and try to align them with its rhetoric of queerness. Below are some approaches to the text that emerged from my work with it Spring 2017.
Excerpts from a Course Unit on the Story
Initial Work with the Text
Though handy, I enlist the help of the students to amend the glossary as one of the first exercises to a text. That is, before diving into it, before giving them any information about the text, we start with an exercise in which students scan the text for words important to include in a glossary. (This is not a revolutionary idea, but I feel that often we resort to pragmatism and our compulsion to stick to paths and decide to provide the list of words to students instead of helping them discover it.) Identifying the words is the first step and then a dictionary exercise helps students define them in a second step. The goal of the dictionary exercise is solely to build student confidence to encounter the material when we do subsequent work with the text.
Working with titles helps students anticipate the subject matter. Again, this is not a revolutionary idea. "Fahrkarte bitte" offers much and, at the same time, offers little. Students will be able to come up with some ideas about the text based on some of the work they did mining the text. However, the goal here is not to be accurate, but to trigger ideas: what are some possible scenarios for which the title would serve as descriptor? A trip. What kind of trip? Vacation? Work travel? Personal travel? Forced travel? Students generate these (and other) options quickly with some help. The next step is to attach characters to these scenarios. Who could be part of them? Why? Family? Friends? A group of people? A single person? Next is the designation: what is it? Home? Away from home? A specific place? I believe this exercise helps students establish the semantic fields present in the story before they fully engage with it. I also believe that it helps students think about "generic" scenarios--that is, those within the "line"--which the story helps deconstruct. To feel the energies of the story, one must know abasing which energies it is positioned.
In-Class Reading of the Text
I chunk the text into four sections: the exposition, the interaction with the attendant, moments of uncertainty, and the ending. Students come into the reading exercise having completed the glossing of the text and the pre-reading exercise. I pair up students and have them take turns reading the text out loud--each section twice. In between sections, they are to answer questions about who is in the section, where they are, what they are doing there. Once they finish reading the section aloud in chunks, I have students read the text individually once more--in class! I believe such extensive in-class work with texts is important, because it primes students for what they are to do on their own with texts outside of class. Because the text is short, this is feasible.
The notes students took reading the text aloud will serve well for generating character charts. Next to Maria and the attendant, there is Maria's friend and there are guests at the hotel. The character charts entail finding the characters in the story, developing a profile about them: how old could they bey, what is their personal/familial/professional background. What are they doing in the scene and why? Where do they come from and where do they hope to go? Students can base the content of the charts on any aspect of the text, even if it is not entirely certain if the text backs up what students say in their charts. That is, I encourage students to imagine options--this is, after all, something the text positions us to do as well. Students quickly realize that it is not possible to base everything on the information provided in the text. For me, this moment seems quite important. It offers students a chance to feel empowered by having worked extensively with a text in German to be able to say that it is ambivalent--meaning, the text is ambivalent about some parts of it because that is its rhetorical position and it is not because students cannot discern it because of proficiency issues.
Wo ist Kiel?
Considering the location of Kiel is a starting point for an analysis of linear paths. A map exercise is quite helpful (and won't take long). Students are asked to consider (imagine) where Maria comes from, where she is (in Kiel), where she might like to go and chart all that in one line on a map (a printout of one I found online). Questioning the line is more effective once we try to imagine it. The point here is that the line is not quite as easy to pin down, especially when a new one emerges. This exercise leads into a discussion of possibilities in which students have to take a side: Was glaubst du: wohin will Maria reisen? Ich glaube, dass Maria . . . The use of modal verbs here is quite important, because it is not a matter of counterfactuals (although there would be ways to integrate subjunctive use here too). It is a matter of identifying that Maria may not know where she is headed, she does not want to reveal it, and, finally, her designation is not up to her. A structured discussion around these matters reveals the queerness of the story to students and it begins with a simple drawing on a map.
Imagining Alternative Endings
This story lends itself well to a multitude of writing activities, either as homework in preparation for coursework or as a final project. Having students rewrite the story if it were written from different generic vantage points is especially important here. For instance, what if this were a comedy? What would the "line" look like and what effect would/should it have on readers? What about a melodrama? What about a horror story? Each imagining is an iteration of the sort of imaginings into which the story positions us.
To drive home the point about the non-linearity or queerness of the line, students could write a follow-up: what happens after the story? Where is Maria? Does she stay in that position? Does she leave? Does she ever get her ticket?
Ervin Malakaj, Ph.D.