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The novel “A Child’s Story”: Strangers in their own country

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Coincidence leads the first-person narrator to this “story of a child” – and probably also the writer Anna Kim to what is now her third novel, in which she has processed a lot of documentary material and not least autofiction.

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In January 2013, as Kim’s book begins, the Austrian-born first-person narrator, whose first name is Franziska, traveled to Green Bay, Wisconsin in the American Midwest. She received a scholarship here and wants to work on a novel. Franziska moves into a room with an elderly lady, Joan Truttman, who gradually gets a little closer to her and one day asks if it isn’t “difficult”, even a lonely affair, here in Green Bay, but also in Austria ” to be the only Asian far and wide”.

Father Austrian, mother South Korean

Franziska doesn’t want to know anything about that, she was born in Vienna, she replies, with an Austrian father and a South Korean mother she feels about as Asian as her American landlady. She then tells the writer the story of her husband Danny, “the only African American in Green Bay, at least that’s how it feels,” and that from the very earliest childhood.

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Daniel, as the infant is named, was born just after midnight on July 13, 1953. He weighed 3.2 kilograms at birth and was immediately put up for adoption by his mother. That’s the first thing you learn from Daniel, and the story continues in this cursory, documentary style after the narrative intro. Because Anna Kim uses only the entries from the files of the social service of the Archdiocese of Green Bay for the description of Danny’s early childhood years; in the book these are also in a different font. In a dry, bureaucratic tone, it’s about how the little one is developing, where he’s supposed to go later and how the search for the birth father is going to be, namely difficult. Little Daniel doesn’t look like what you’re used to seeing in the all-white surroundings of Green Bay.

The nurses in the maternity ward are convinced “that his physical characteristics correspond more closely to those of a Negro than to those of an Indian,” as Anna Kim quotes an entry from August 3, 1953: “The child, emphasized Sister Aurelia, “has characteristics that are not normal”. When this is finally clarified, after repeatedly very precise descriptions of the boy’s physiognomy, the social center goes in search of the biological father, but without success, and finally, more successfully, in search of foster and adoptive parents for Danny.

The entries in the social welfare office for racism in the USA in the 1950s are exemplary, and the racial fanaticism of the National Socialists also found its way into language use and ways of thinking. The social worker Marlene Winkler takes care of Daniel’s case obsessively. She is also from Austria, which doesn’t seem to play a major role at first, but ultimately gives Anna Kim’s novel a new twist. Because the story of a child turns into one of two children, namely in addition to the story of the narrator.

Her landlady tells her about Danny’s afterlife, how lucky he was with his adoptive parents, but how difficult it was for him to settle as an adult. And then Franziska speaks again and again to her origins, which she tries to defend herself against: “I never understood why my mother’s origins should weigh more heavily than my father’s.”

A secret is revealed

Joan Truttman finally asks Franziska to find the social worker from back then, saying she is Austrian and holds the key to the never-before-seen secret of who her husband’s biological father is. Franziska returns to Vienna without bothering with Danny’s file or researching Marlene Winkler – until it is coincidence again that catches her eye: Winkler’s last known address in Vienna, which was noted in the file: It is in her home district, in Hietzing.

From now on, the “story of a child” is also that of Franziska. She remembers her childhood and youth, the complicated relationship with her mother Ha, who she often fought and allegedly drove out of the country: “I criticized her pronunciation, mocked her, as I never tired of emphasizing, her clumsy accent. I pretended not to understand her, forcing her to repeat each sentence several times. (…) Ha was extremely reserved, too shy to assert himself.” Marlene Winkler is now tracking her too. She meets their daughter, a painter, and learns that Winkler studied anthropology in Nazi-era Vienna and carried out head and body measurements.

When reading it, it sometimes seems as if Anna Kim would leave the main role to chance in her story, as if she was only able to tame her material with great effort. But “The Story of a Child” demonstrates precisely through the parallel presentation of the different fates of Danny and the narrator how racism runs through the decades and the most diverse societies, how much appearance and origin have a decisive influence on life paths, especially in homogeneous environments, von Ha, von Danny, also from Franziska himself. How American is an Afro-American in the white Midwest of the 1950s, how Austrian is a woman from South Korea and even more so her Vienna-born daughter?

Anna Kim, who was born in Daejon, South Korea in 1977 and came to Germany at the age of two (she later studied inVienna Philosophy and Theater Studies), should know the racist attributions, the “racial profiling” presented here only too well from personal experience. How equally obvious and subtle all of this is, she congenially depicts on different narrative levels, also inForm of clearly defined dialogical breaks and changes of perspective.

At the same time, this “child’s story” is quiet, still, touching, just as the narrator sees Joan Truttman’s house. Kim’s novel is far from any kind of appellative activism. The files speak their language here – and the ambivalence of the narrator. Attributions are anathema to her, she feels at home inside, not in her outward appearance.And she says, “Rede is not the sole condition of belonging.” There are many such phrases in this timely novel, whose added strength is its lack of bravado.

Anna Kim: A Child’s Story. Novel. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2022. 228 pages, €22.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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