I came to the United States in 1996 on a scholarship that sent me to Buffalo, N.Y. I was eager to take a creative writing class, something that didn’t exist in Germany, and so I started writing fiction and poetry in English. My Austrian roommate and I agreed to stop speaking German to each other. I kept family calls to a minimum, purged all German books and magazines from the house, and read Kafka in English translation. Memories of past conversations came to me translated—my parents admonished and scolded in perfect English.
I wrote the first draft of my second novel, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone in my adopted language, looking back on a country I once knew intimately. Like the Brothers Grimm retelling French literary tales and German folk legends, I plumbed the legends of Germany’s past, weaving together in my own fashion the lore of the Devil’s Moor and beyond. I also added true crime stories—those that make us gasp and question our knowledge of the human psyche—and these made the seams between superstition and reality disappear. In the pages of my manuscript, the poor apprentice of a black magician made an appearance, as did the woman who killed nine of her babies. The era in which the four main characters grow up lost its sharp contours, yet gained precision. Time, as one of them says, was of no importance.
When I was asked to translate my own novel for its German publication, I squirmed. I hadn’t thought or written in German in more than 12 years, and I had never encouraged my wife to learn the language. English words—elegant, clear, simple—suddenly gave way to all-too-familiar idioms and half-remembered phrases that altered the balance between the real and the imagined. The novel, set to be released in late September by Penguin in the U.S., threatened to become too real. Its core, once mythical and alluring, now melded with reality, an evocation of what Germans of my generation remembered of the past.
This made me anxious. What if German readers didn’t find it real enough? What if they disputed my memories, doubted their veracity? What if they picked apart the fabric, discovered the seams, and took umbrage at my blend of fairy tale and fact. Worst of all, what if they failed to remember my Germany? Maybe they had forgotten about the villages in which time had stopped, their peculiar atmosphere of violence and superstition. Everything I thought I had left behind by writing in English—the German filler words, the Northern German dialect, childhood nightmares, high school sweethearts, marzipan and gummi bears—came rushing back, demanding to be loved and taken seriously.
More frightening still, the first draft morphed into a second, then a third, and the additions and corrections had to be done in German. There was no time to write in English and then translate into German; I had to relearn my mother tongue. The rust had to be brushed off, and the more fluent I became again, the worse I slept. At work, teaching creative writing in Los Angeles, I was Mr. Kiesbye, conversing about stories and explaining the craft in English, but at home I became Herr Kiesbye, stony-faced, speaking in harsh tongues. My dreams replayed scenes from my childhood, and in my nightmares I was once again unable to graduate from high school. Suppressed idioms made their way back and wormed themselves into my head. I would unconsciously slip German sentences into conversations with friends, then recoil at their raised eyebrows. German became my mind’s poltergeist.
Once I’d finished with the German text, my English draft needed the same additions and corrections. I translated once again, but what could have been tedious turned out to be a soothing, almost healing experience. Once again I was able to remove myself from my material and let my characters speak in my adopted language. My nightmares subsided; I broke out in German pop songs from the ’60s and ’70s only occasionally, then turned on NPR and poured more coffee. I was back in the language that sheltered me from the reality of my German past, that allowed me to situate ghosts and demons in the realm of the supernatural, in the fairy tale precincts of English.
Stefan Kiesbye has an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan. He teaches creative writing at Eastern New Mexico University and is the arts editor of Absinthe: New European Writing. His stories and poems have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his first book, Next Door Lived a Girl (2005), won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award.