Olga Grjasnowa: 'What really haunted me was the sight of new-born babies and their mothers who had nowhere to go'

Olga Grjasnowa

The author talks about the difficult things she's seen along the way and why it's essential that literature crosses boundaries

Author of three powerful novels, the Berlin-based, Baku-born Olga Grjasnowa is a formidable voice in German literature. Newly translated into English, her latest book, City of Jasmine, follows three Damascenes forced to flee their homeland and trying to survive in exile. The new novel is unflinching, yet intimate in its depictions of desperation, war and brutality. Its foundation in reality, however, ensures it's not an easy read. And it can't have been easy to write, either, although Grjasnowa prepared herself well before starting.

'I did a lot of research in Turkey, Lebanon and Greece where I saw many disturbing things,' she says. 'But what really haunted me was the sight of new-born babies and their mothers who had nowhere to go, especially since I've just become a mother myself. Seeing Syrian children begging for money on a highway and knowing that the only difference between them and my children isn't that I'm a better mother, or that I come from a different background or have a different mother tongue. The only difference is that I have a German passport – a bit of paper issued to me because my family was murdered during the Holocaust – and that's something I will never forget. '

As for many others, fragile pieces of paper remain central to the course of Grjasnowa's life. Just last year, she was invited to be writer-in-residence at Warwick and Oxford universities, and she planned to visit with her young family. Her husband, who has a Syrian passport, wasn't awarded a permit to accompany her and with two young children, she made the hard decision to drastically shorten her stay in the UK. 'I do think Oxford and Warwick are wonderful places,' Grjasnowa says, 'but I'm still upset about the British Embassy's decision that having the University of Oxford as our sponsor wasn't enough to enable us to stay in Great Britain.'

The experience only highlights how essential it is that literature crosses boundaries, barriers and languages. Luckily for us, City of Jasmine has. The novel was translated into English by Katy Derbyshire, and Grjasnowa found that 'working with her, and being translated by her, was a wonderful experience.' And, despite the nerves, shame and anxiety she finds when seeing a book in print, she still finds the process exciting.

Grjasnowa always wanted to be a writer, even when she thought it was an impossible dream. Writing wasn't presented as an option for a woman with an immigrant background living in Germany. 'During my time at school, I was given the impression that it could never happen, that my knowledge of German would never be good enough for anything much. Studying Creative Writing in Leipzig changed my life. It was the first time that nobody questioned my background; I was judged only by my work.'

For writers and artists, there are few bigger rewards than being assessed and celebrated on merit alone. A state we should all be striving for, especially in these divisive times.

Olga Grjasnowa & Sulaiman Addonia, Charlotte Square Gardens, Thu 22 Aug, 3.30pm.

Sulaiman Addonia & Olga Grjasnowa

Sulaiman Addonia fled Eritrea in 1976 and spent his early life in a Sudanese refugee camp. Those days inform Silence Is My Mother Tongue, which also explores gender identity and a close sibling relationship. Azeri author Olga Grjasnowa moved to Germany in 1996 as a refugee and is married to a Syrian actor – her novel City…

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