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Brittani Sonnenberg
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I first met Brittani Sonnenberg in 2081. In the stuffy dark attic under the roof of the Kunst-Werke in Berlin she was reading a text on retro-future for Georg’s and Christopher’s congress “What happened in 2081?” while downstairs other members of the gang were collecting an archaeology of what was to come (little did we know).

Brittani used to play basketball with the guys like a boss but never allowed me to come and cheer. She sometimes speaks with a Southern drawl, and sometimes, speaking English, she slips into German and unconsciously invents new idioms which have their origin and place somewhere in between languages. She also speaks Mandarin, sort of. Brittani is at home in many places, she was born in Hamburg and has lived in Philadelphia, London, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Shanghai, Singapore, Boston, Phnom Penh, Ann Arbor and now Berlin. She informed me that she graduated from high school in Singapore, “so that’s where the ‘growing up’ part stops.” We have had many conversations about growing up, about home, about being foreign, and about our dystopian visions of our futures with cute little Neo-Mormons running all over the hologram lawn (her words). She is, as you can see, a writer. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The O’Henry Prize Stories 2008, Asymptote, Ploughshares, Time Magazine, as part of the Berlin Stories and elsewhere. I am incredibly curious about her novel Home Leave which is going to be published in 2014.

Sometimes she looks like an Andy Warhol superstar.

Sunday Game

Brittani Sonnenberg about going back in time with soccer
14.09.15
3 min
Post

I played in a soccer game yesterday for the first time in about fifteen years. In high school, during the “fall” season (a misleading term in tropical Singapore, where the temperature always hovers around 30 degrees Celsius, with a fierce deluge in the early afternoon), I laced up my cleats on a daily basis. I was never very skilled in dribbling or fancy footwork; all I had going for me was a doggish desire to do well and a lack of concern for personal injury: I considered bruises to be bodily trophies.
Yesterday, stepping out into a baking Texan heat, sporting shin guards and high white socks, those high school games felt eerily close, even if my sixteen-year-old stamina felt very far away. There are so many selves that we inhabit and shed, which lie dormant for years. Yesterday, suddenly, I was a soccer player again, playing stopper, keeping my eye on the talented center-midfielder on the opposing side, scanning the field for open players when the ball came to me.
I realized how much I had missed the easy, laughing camaraderie of female teammates. Hungry to win, running hard, shouting warnings and encouragement. It’s all less urgent now: no one’s crying after a loss; in the middle of the game yesterday, one teammate yelled “sorry” after kicking the ball out of bounds, and then reflected, as the other team ran to retrieve the ball, that apologizing constantly wasn’t very feminist, there was a book she had just begun reading that said that women—but then the player with the ball was back, and throwing it in, and my teammate had to pause her book review to play defense again.
Shortly after the second half began, the ref blew the whistle, and shouted that there was a player down at another field, and asked if there were any doctors present. The other team’s goalie, apparently a physician, took off to help. My body went cold, as I saw the circle of players around a body at the field above us. My sister had collapsed on a soccer field, when I was fifteen, and never risen again, and as the ambulances came, to pick up this woman, I heard them coming to pick up Blair again, and felt nauseous. That self is always there too, next to the soccer player, or grown woman: the teenage older sister awash in fear and panic, the game paused, the circle of players, life ending, on a blithely sunny field in Singapore.
The woman had dislocated her knee; it popped back into place when she was placed on a stretcher. The game resumed, and the final score was a tie, 2-2. Exhausted and sweaty, I slapped hands with my teammates and made small talk as we changed out of our cleats, discussed the high points of the game. Then I got back into my car, which I never did in high school, because you couldn’t drive in Singapore until you were eighteen. I turned on the radio to a local station that I like and got a little lost trying to find the highway that would take me home.

The Necessary Blindness of Newness

Brittani Sonnenberg about going, entering, recognizing new places
12.09.15
5 min
Post

A couple days ago, I read a passage (from Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris) that describes the sensation of stepping into a new house. It captures, better than anything I’ve read before, the disarming feeling of encountering a space that you know will become familiar, when it is still strange:
It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment; you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going away. From what you see, there is to be no escape. Untrodden rocky canyons or virgin forests cannot be more entrapping than the inside of a house, which shows you what life is. To come in is as alarming as to be born conscious would be, knowing you are to feel; to look round is like being, still conscious, dead: you see a world without yourself…. Through looped white muslin curtains the unsunny sea daylight fell on French blue or sage-green wallpapers with paler scrolls on them, and watercolors of places that never were. The rooms smelt of Indian rugs, spirit-lamps, hyacinths. In the drawing room, Aunt Violet’s music was stacked on the rosewood piano; a fringed shawl embroidered with Indian flowers was folded across the foot of the couch; the writing table was crowded with brass things. In a pan-shaped basket by the sofa were balls of white knitting wool. Aunt Violet seemed to have lived here always. The fire was laid but not lit. Each room vibrated with a metallic titter, for Uncle Bill kept going a number of small clocks. Out of these high-up windows you saw nothing but sky. The rooms looked not so much empty as at a sacred standstill; Karen could almost hear Uncle Bill saying: “I have touched nothing since my dear wife’s death.”
The stunning confidence of this paragraph lies in Bowen’s decision to describe the protagonist (Karen’s) first impression of a place, not as a listing of details about the place (which comes at the paragraph’s close), but by the blankness and vague horror of newness, of not knowing yourself or your place in the place. (“To come in is as alarming as to be born conscious would be, knowing you are to feel; to look round is like being, still conscious, dead: you see a world without yourself.”) But what does the house look like? the reader wants to know. I’ll get to that, Bowen seems to say, but first, let’s register the blindness of newness, then the slow seeing, which will fade, within days, into another kind of blindness: that of familiarity.
Eudora Welty, another fiction writer, and a friend of Bowen’s, wrote an essay about place in fiction (i.e. setting) that I love. In it, she writes:
It is by the nature of itself that fiction is all bound up in the local. The internal reason for that is surely that feelings are bound up in place. The human mind is a mass of associations- associations more poetic even than actual. … The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” -and that is the heart’s field.
Fiction writers love setting because it is effortless symbolism: encountering place, a character either feels in harmony or in vexing dissonance to it. Stepping into a sunny garden is either an embodiment of the character’s new love or else the wilting tiger lilies, the too-close sounds of traffic, the unrelenting sun, are just another horrible aspect of a horrible day, and the character hurries back inside.
Place is necessarily what is outside of us but the trap of consciousness all too often means that our perspective on place, our literal view, is bound by what is occurring inside, that invisible inner landscape that gets writ large on what we see: the streets, the sea, the shop windows.
Writers often say that they can only write about a place once they’ve left it. I am the same: somehow staring at one place helps me evoke another. I think I need the solidity of a setting I can see; it anchors me enough to write a firm elsewhere.
In Berlin this spring and summer, I traveled nearly an hour almost every day to Krumme Lanke or Schlachtensee. I never tired of staring at those lakes, and I often took the same photographs, each day, of the same scene. There are places that are restive, that call forth other places without eliding the scenery before us. I don’t know yet where that place will be for me in Austin, and I wonder if I will recognize it when I see it.

In Transit, not in Motion

Brittani Sonnenberg about going from one place to another
09.09.15
4 min
Post

I spent this past weekend in Sky Valley, Georgia, a small retirement community in the Smoky Mountains, where I spent most of my summers as a kid after my family moved to Asia. It’s also where my mother’s family, originally from Mississippi, now mostly in Tennessee, gathers on holidays. We were gathered, this weekend, for Labor Day.
It felt surreal to board a two-hour flight for Atlanta, a flight that has been at least a twelve-hour journey for the past seven years, and for most of my life. Summers in Sky Valley were always distinguished by their ghostly, vanishing quality: something common to summers for every kid, but for us summers were a brief Persephonic spell away from foreignness: back in belonging, or something approximating it (if you can call two months surrounded by geriatrics in golf carts “belonging.”) I didn’t mind not being around kids my age, aside from my sister; the retirees were friendly enough, and waved wildly from their Buicks, you didn’t have to worry about wearing the right outfit for them.
When Dorothy steps into Oz, the landscape bursts into Technicolor. This is often said of travel, or of life abroad: that it’s more thrilling, that you feel, by extension, more alive. I don’t feel that I’ve stepped back into a black-and-white color scheme, by returning to the United States, but I do have the unnerving sensation of stepping into something like 3-D: life feels, in a strange way, more real, more deeply dimensional, and also more bewildering. I’m not sure how certain things are done, after so much time away, while I understand, much more implicitly, what’s going on.
My house is missing most of its furniture, and I find this to be a relief. Moving through Austin, I feel the pressure to approximate familiarity, or at least remember how to exit the highway without having a wreck. In my small house, I am slowly settling in, not yet angekommen, as the living room, which looks like the inside of a mosque, with its single carpet, and no sofa or chairs, confirms.
And what about the millions of refugees streaming through Europe? What metaphors would they choose for their shifts, for their deprivations, for their wavering identities, in the eyes of European authorities? Will they ever be able to repatriate? There are many words for the body’s rejection of moving too quickly through air or water: motion sickness, sea sickness, getting the bends. What is the word for the nausea, the paralysis, of moving too quickly from one home to an imagined new one, that hasn’t been guaranteed yet? Of sitting in a camp waiting on papers? In transit but not in motion?
In his essay “Refugees,” Charles Simic, a poet whose family fled Belgrade in 1945, writes:
Immigration, exile, being uprooted and made a pariah may be the single most effective way yet devised to impress on an individual the arbitrary nature of his or her own experience.  Who needed a shrink or a guru when everyone we met asked us who we were the moment we opened our mouths and they heard the accent?
The truth is, we had no simple answers. Being rattled around in freight trains, open trucks, and ratty ocean-liners, we ended up being a puzzle even to ourselves. At first, that was hard to take, then we got used to the idea. We began to savor it, to enjoy it. Being nobody struck me personally as being far more interesting than being somebody. The streets were full of these “somebodys” putting on confident airs. Half the time I envied them; half the time I looked down on them with pity. I knew something they didn’t, something hard to come by unless history gives you a good kick in the ass: how superfluous and insignificant in any grand scheme mere individuals are. And how pitiless are those who have no understanding that this could be their fate, too.

Smile, Child: You're in Texas

Brittani Sonnenberg about coming home, sort of
06.09.15
4 min
Post

I have up and repatriated. In other words, shifted from an expatriate to a repatriate. Or, from an ex-patriot to a re-patriot, even if I don’t feel very patriotic. I am in Texas, where the heat coming off the concrete and the smiles at furniture stores are stunning in the white glare of the afternoon, and can give you a headache if you stay in them too long.
I’ve witnessed a wide spectrum of American service sector smiles in the past week. There’s the losing-it smile, a brittle, bright smile that barely conceals a volcano’s worth of resentment. In Germany, where I lived for the past seven years, no waitress or postal worker would find it necessary to mask their anger with a smile. They have no problem regarding you and your order with raw rage. Here, the lady at Pottery Barn is smiling, but there is no question that she wants to throttle you and stuff your corpse under the sofa cushions. It’s a confusing, depressing combination of facial expressions, like a dog wearing a sweater or wintery weather in June.
Then there’s the Southern smile. This is usually paired with heavily teased hair, in the direction of Dolly Parton’s ’dos. I don’t mind this smile. I’ve known it since visits to Mississippi as a child. This smile has an element of “Bless her heart,” in it, a vaguely pitying (read: Besserwisser) tug at the corners of the mouth (as in “Bless her heart, the poor child doesn’t know how to work a tape measure”). There is a nihilistic serenity behind this smile, which is also a little frightening, but not if you don’t think too much about it: just measure your goddamn lamp, smile back, and get in the car as fast as you can.
Thirdly, there’s the “Hey, man!” smile, which I am beginning to think is distinctly Austinian. After ordering coffee and iced tea at a food truck, I received this smile and stream-of-consciousness speech from the kid manning the truck: “Hey, man, our coffee sucks, so I’d go somewhere else, but sure, I’d be glad to get you an iced tea. How’s your day going? Yeah? Nice. Mine is good, last night I hung out with some friends, no big deal, just a few of us, and we all watched the sun go down. It was beautiful. It was just a really chill night. It put me in a good mood and I’m still feeling happy about it. You know what I mean? Here you go. And just take this iced tea, my manager’s not here. Yeah man, it’s on the house. Sure, no problem. See you.”
The fourth smile, which I witnessed at a distance in Starbucks, is an entreating, I’m going-to-call-you-on-your-smile smile. This smile says, Okay, you’re going to smile all friendly? Let’s see if you mean it, bitch. The bearer of this smile was a Starbucks barista who was having a terrible day, as he informed his co-barista: his roommate sucked, she had given him hell for getting a dog without telling her. This story was repeated, with added flourishes and roommate insults, to every customer that approached the counter and asked how he was doing, after he asked how they were doing. And there was nothing for the customer to do but listen for ten minutes to the ins and outs of this man’s domestic drama, because they had smiled and asked, after all, how he was doing.
The Starbucks employee’s strategy breaks an unspoken rule of American friendliness: you’re not supposed to betray how you’re actually doing, at least not for a ten-minute monologue. The only customers with the power to deflect such oversharing, I would guess, are foreigners, who are not held to the same social expectations. I miss that Auslaender-get-out-of-jail- free card, which always came in handy in Berlin with telemarketers and people you didn’t want to talk to at a party.
Did I mention that I live on a property with miniature donkeys? I haven’t figured out what the donkey smile etiquette is yet. So far, we just regard each other warily, until I summon the courage to scratch their ears, and they summon the courage to let their ears be scratched. Which is its own kind of honesty, and its own kind of straight-faced relief.  

Wounds, Not Miracles

16.10.13
3 min
Post

Every Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 I go to high school. The school is in Wedding, in a grand old pre-war building, with echoing halls, fluorescent overhead lights, and Koreans who can’t find their classrooms. I ignore their beseeching looks – I’m late to class myself – and take the stairs two at a time.

Inside Room 304, Reinhard, my philosophy teacher, is holding forth. I get out paper and pen and take furious notes:

Of course, I’m not really in high school. I’m just at the local Volkshochschule, an adult education center, which offers a philosophy class for non-native speakers. But everything about the setup screams being sixteen – sitting behind a desk; Reinhard’s easy charisma and wild gray hair, like the most popular high school teachers; the strong smell of floor wax; and my dorked-out joy, as I jot down the three different meanings of aufgehoben, and come up with a nifty pendulum illustration (which I’m pretty sure I also drew in 1998, when I was in high school in Singapore, learning about Hegel from my then-history teacher, Mr. Dodge). The fact that aufgehoben somehow simultaneously means nullified, lifted up, and held back makes more sense than anything has all week.

The Portuguese student raises his hand and volunteers a lengthy response to Hegel’s Dialectic, something involving Wunder that no one, not even Reinhard, understands. The Portuguese guy repeats it three times, to utterly blank looks, and then says forget it. This is a common occurrence. All of us can understand what Reinhard is saying, but we can’t understand each other, and find it hard to articulate, in German, what we think about being and nothingness.

Start over, Reinhard prompts the student. What does Hegel have to do with Wunder?

I think he’s talking about Wunde, nicht Wunder, says the other American woman in class.

Ja, the Portuguese guy says, relieved. Wunde, nicht Wunder. Wunde und Narben.

Wounds, not miracles. Wounds and Scars.

I jot this down, too. It seems like a crucial insight.

Later in the class, Reinhard hands out the poem “Stufen” by Hermann Hesse, and asks if we know the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” by Pete Seeger. There is a nervous silence, in which the American woman and I exchange looks, and somehow, I’m suddenly singing the song like I really mean it: “And a time to every purpose, under heaven.” I get a look from Reinhard like that’s enough before I hit the chorus, so I clear my throat and stop, disappointed that nobody claps.

That’s maybe the best thing about going to high school when you’re 32, you can sing a Byrds song without worrying if your bra strap is showing or if your shorts look weird or what the other kids think of the fact that you know the song by heart. And you can take notes that say “IMPERATIV! Stirb und Werde.” (Imperative! Die and Become.)

Sunday Game

Brittani Sonnenberg about going back in time with soccer
14.09.15
3 min

The Necessary Blindness of Newness

Brittani Sonnenberg about going, entering, recognizing new places
12.09.15
5 min

In Transit, not in Motion

Brittani Sonnenberg about going from one place to another
09.09.15
4 min

Smile, Child: You're in Texas

Brittani Sonnenberg about coming home, sort of
06.09.15
4 min

Wounds, Not Miracles

16.10.13
3 min