The Sweet Nothing: A Talk with Writer Mely Kiyak

vor 3 years

“At the end of the path, complete darkness awaits.”

 Author Mely Kiyak is one of the most impressive journalistic voices in the country. In her political columns, she analyzes structural right-wing radicalism and racism, criticizes misconduct by the police authorities, and the exploitation of people under capitalism. In return, she has repeatedly been met with hatred and violence. In her new book, womanhood (“Being a Woman”), she turns her gaze to herself. It became a quiet and tender, but also disturbing, text. It repeatedly deals with the barbarism of the West, the lack of culture and substance in our society. What does it mean to be a woman under these conditions, to write from below, to raise your voice?

A conversation about sensuality, freedom, loneliness and shame between Mely Kiyak and Ruben Donsbach


Miss: Mely Kiyak, womanhood begins with the sudden loss of your eyesight. With your final moments of sight, you observe your naked body, breasts, the “triangle between the legs, this enormous nakedness with all its curves and gradations.” Why did you experience a sense of shame at that moment? 

Kiyak: Shame is part of cultural etiquette. My parents are Kurds; their religion is Alevism. The bodies are naked at birth, in love and in death; beyond that, there is no practice of self-inspection. I had little interest in an optical evaluation of my body until the day I developed this disorder and the image literally disappeared in front of my eyes. Then a desire to look at myself very closely became almost overpowering. I had to say goodbye to myself with one last look.

You were a spiritual being?

Totally. I was the most incorporeal person in the world. Until I turned twenty, I was a perfectly functioning machine. I was small and delicate, but I felt strong. In my imagination, I was more of an elephant than a mouse.

But at some point, you became aware of your own body and its features?

I avoided my own intimacy. In my early twenties, I confessed to a man that I had never looked at myself. He couldn’t believe it. I discovered my body through desire and found it all scandalous in a positive sense. Outside of love, I was spiritualized, dreamy, and physically absent.

What was this world that you drifted into like?

A misty place from which I began to orientate myself and explore the world.

What did you discover there as a child and teenager?

The most incomprehensibly commonplace things in the world.

Describe some of them.

When my mother soaked chickpeas in water overnight, the next morning they were soft and you could flick off their thin skins. I couldn’t get over that. What was happening? When my girlfriends would take me to a café, I was amazed at the ice piled up in the glasses. It is not an act when I say that I was insanely ignorant and dumb for a long time. Everything was foreign and seemed miraculous.

It sounds as if you had a microscopic view of the world, much like a researcher.

I couldn’t grasp connections at a glance. I could only approach life minimally from a specific perspective. The view of the whole was missing. You know, even then my field of vision was very limited, but that was diagnosed much later.

I imagine that you saw the world with a kind of magical realism.

When I was twelve or thirteen, my cousin once asked me if I had ever noticed that the color of women’s lips was the same color as their nipples. I replied: What is nipple color? The breast has a second color? And a nipple? My cousin really thought I had lost my mind.

There is a wonderful passage in your book. You describe how you accompany a cousin to a meeting with her fiancé in a Kurdish village. The two disappear to make love; the cousin comes back and tells you everything in detail. Among other things, he “kissed her below” and describes it as “sucking the flesh out of an upside-down fig. It was like putting a soup bone in your mouth and sucking out the marrow.

 [ laughs ] This is literature, of course.

But the language is yours. It seems naive and feminist at the same time, because it takes a radically poetic approach to sexuality.

But the question is: How does one write about intimacy? Aesthetically, that’s a big problem. I thought about it for a year, almost went crazy.

What’s the solution?

You have to leave the familiar formulations behind. In the West, we learned to describe oral love practices, to give just one example, something like this: Part the labia, place the lips on it, and the tongue goes in. This language is composed of sex therapy and pornography and strives for total technical accuracy in the description. I didn’t want that. I wanted to find other comparisons. Caressing a woman’s breasts is like soaping the heads of twins at the same time. The tip of the breast is like deciphering Braille. That is more accurate.

At the beginning of the book, you express that writing is something resistive for you: “I didn’t want to be a woman who has children and writes. I didn’t want to be a woman who manages a marriage and writes … I didn’t want a little of everything, but all of this one thing.

I noticed early on that women who have children undergo extreme changes. The same applies to marriage. I’m not a superhero, I can’t do everything at once. So, I decided on one thing: writing. I wanted the maximum from this one thing.

Your parents were the so-called first generation of guest workers. In Frauein , you talk about how they both wanted social advancement for you and your brother. What do you do with that?

The parents place themselves at the bottom of the ladder, so it is quite natural that they would want to see their children at least one step above. But I saw my parents, at most, socio-economically lower. Not aesthetically, not fashionably, not in any other respect. Looking back, I notice what an insane dignity and eroticism my mother had. I was surrounded by female workers. They were beautiful women who walked slowly and were naturally lascivious. They were well-dressed cleaners, the opposite of how this class is portrayed on television and in magazines.

Did you want to climb up the ladder yourself?

No, never. I had no idea what a life other than that of my parents could look like. It is a big misunderstanding when reviews say that I was torn between two cultures. That is wrong and also an arrogant reading. I only had this one culture and I thought it was wonderful. Everything I learned about the culture and the image of women by Germans was strange to me. My values ​​of femininity, beauty, eroticism and aesthetics come directly from the women in my familial environment. They gave me security and self-confidence. I would have certainly become a messed-up woman with the current feminist discourses.

What do you mean?

In Western feminism, everything is made out to be spoiled and ugly. Talking about femininity has become a unique, denunciatory culture of devaluation. Even in empowerment, the view of women is low.

Devaluation takes place within feminist discourse? What is that based on?

I have a problem as soon as women start talking about themselves in the plural. Except for the solidarity aspect: We women must stick together. Men as well as women, people, that is a matter of course, it is a political attitude. But all other discourses about physicality, beauty and sexuality, including maternity or non-maternity, I find absolutely unworthy.

What do you think about body positivity?

Completely hypocritical. All fixations on body and weight, no matter in which variation, is ugly, uptight talk. Adult, self-confident women don’t need to hear from magazines or networks whether they should shave their legs or not. I do it exactly the way I think it is right. I have no need for someone to approve my actions. I come from a culture where it’s sexy for a woman to do exactly what she wants. Any form of voluntary infantilizing and public negotiation is unattractive. Apart from that, making yourself presentable is part of my upbringing.

Making yourself presentable?

Making yourself presentable as a woman has to do with dignity and respect. I see this even in refugee women, who even in such an extreme situation still “get ready” before they go out in public. This is an aesthetic attitude, a question of mentality, a form of self-assertion, and not least an aspect of survival. In this way, they fight against political conditions or the degrading gaze. Attributing significance to oneself is a form of resistance.

In Frauein , you write that many cultural codes in your community are “attempts to keep up with everything regardless of the stigma of low social class.” What does that mean?

My family is part of a political group that is persecuted in Turkey, which had to suffer prison, torture, and death and could not ascend to higher state positions for many decades. So, there was a compulsion to keep one’s origins hidden. One trained oneself not to speak the Kurdish dialect and practiced the Alevi religion in secret. This was done out of political necessity; ultimately, it was an existential survival strategy to leap into the middle class.

Have you had similar experiences in Germany?

Yes of course. In the city where we lived, there were mainly Turkish Sunnis. Even compared to them, we were considered inferior: socially, culturally and religiously.

How was it at school?

Of course, as a child, you want to be like everyone else. Then you started high school, and everyone carried these Benetton duffel bags, but you still have a colorful bag made of home-woven kilim. No matter what you do, you’re always a few degrees off. It is exactly these nuances that count.

Do you have a certain resentment towards young, privileged women from Germany who pursue identity politics, possibly ignoring the economic conditions and the reality of classes?

No, they are my friends. On the contrary, I find that it is precisely the images of femininity in the privileged class that are most deficient. In my youth, there was a pivotal moment that I didn’t write about in the book for fear that it would be misunderstood. In my family, we girls were considered perfect. Women had beautiful bodies, beautiful voices, and were funny. They were strong or severe; it didn’t matter what they were, they were good just as they were. That is the world I come from. One morning I picked my girlfriend up on the way to school. She came out of the door and her mother said, “Christina, you can’t wear these pants; unfortunately, you’ve inherited my wide hips. ” So, Christina went back to her room and changed.

How did that affect you?

First of all, I realized what kind of optimization stress these girls were under. I realized that women in Western culture are broken down into their individual parts and evaluated. It was utterly foreign to me.

Could one say that the codes established by Western culture are the cause of its own misfortune?

Yes, clearly, this is a self-made hell on earth. If I read in serious media about how women tear each other apart over their ideals of beauty, how they voluntarily drag every aspect of their body and femininity into the public eye, I’m stunned. With us, people liked to eat, laugh and love. The bodies were lustful. My culture is totally lustful and sensual. But it’s kept private.

Critics say that being a woman is a contribution to the debate on integration. Is it?

No. People constantly want to project their concerns onto me. That’s why it’s essential to protect yourself. Nobody has the right to adapt my text to their discourse. The fact that this book exists has to do with my existential need. It has to do with the fact that I was sick and had been through so many years of attempts by many doctors to enable me to see. I wrote this book for my own sake. Not in opposition to whom or what or as a contribution to an existing debate. I wrote to save myself from my despair.

My impression is that you nevertheless formulate a counter-program: By telling stories from the periphery, what emerges is a refusal to accept traditional authorities, a description of female solidarity. You counter the sound with silence and recognize the beauty of the world, even in small things.

Yes, but the misunderstanding of those who consider my text to be non-fiction and not literature is that you politicize my views and derive an agenda from them. But I describe experiences, tell anecdotes and draw conclusions from them. I understand that the men in my life also taught me to be a woman. Seen in this light, it is also a book about being a man.

How so?

Maybe I was lucky with these men. They recognized my insecurity and gave it space, they gently enlightened me. They supported and protected me. My relationship with the men in my life, from my father and brother to my partner, was like a mirror. I saw and experienced myself in them.

Central to your book is the separation from your long-time partner, the turning to a kind of inner immigration.


Or that.

I love the partnership, but I don’t miss it. I am a part of society, but not in the form of two people in a relationship. You can just go crazy, and everyone goes crazy. People around me, with lots of money and time, are unhappy. But I have nothing, can do nothing, and yet I feel like a queen.

You write: “Sad women everywhere. Women covered in sadness, traveling around with their husbands, burdening themselves with occupations, whose togetherness with their husbands consists of nothing more than two people sharing an apartment, a car, a bank account, raising children together, and a holder for their toothbrushes. Women who have the sadness of it engraved on their minds and faces. “

When do you ever see a couple walking down the street, side by side, arms linked with relaxed expressions on their faces? They are happy to have a partner, but there is less and less sex taking place. My sixty-year-old aunt and seventy-year-old uncle were always crazy about each other. It was almost unbearable.

What makes us so lustless?

I do not know. I read everywhere about sex therapists who are supposed to teach adults to be interested in each other again. Sad women everywhere.

Sad men, too?

Yes of course. Isn’t that crazy? Why don’t they split up? What are they afraid of? Don’t they have a few lives left in store ? That’s my main focus: sad women and sad men in sad relationships. They turn permanently to the public. In columns, books, speeches. They just don’t talk to their partners.

Do we lack the words?

People feel that the pursuit of personal happiness is decadent. But they don’t think it’s decadent to buy a car for 50,000 Euros. Decadence is when a woman or man says to his or her love: “I am looking for happiness. Every day. And every night. If it is no longer wonderful, I will end it. ” This is considered selfish, brutal and cold. But a mortgage for a couple that hasn’t had anything to say to each other for a long time, that hasn’t kissed for ages – that this joint financial obligation will chain them together for decades is considered normal.

How long did it take you to find peace in being alone after your separation?

When I left my husband of many years, this great, wild and insane love, not only I, but my whole family, was lovesick. But I knew then: A woman who really wants to write must be alone.

This isn’t possible in a relationship?

You sit together, an hour, a day, a month, a year passes. Then ten years are gone, then twenty, and you still haven’t managed a good sentence. Loneliness is the prerequisite for art.

Then they’re just gone?


When did the moment of redemption come?

It never came. I am alone and lonely. All the world forsakes me. Still, I sat down at my desk and said to myself: “Now you’re an adult and you’re doing it right.” And I started writing.

What was the first thing you wrote?

I translated Kurdish folk songs and poems.

Can you think of a line from that time?

“Please come. The moon is black. “I began to reinterpret Ahmed Arif’s poems in German.

And then?

I read a lot about loneliness and beauty. You cannot be a beautiful person if you act and think in an ugly way. I discovered the term for this in Greek is kalokagathia ; it combines beauty and goodness, physically and mentally. This also includes clearing up all the inner crap within oneself and not always bothering others with it.

What did you ultimately learn about yourself?

That I was never really aware of what it means to be the daughter of a cleaning woman working in a man’s world. You go through life bent over. A cleaning woman is considered the lowest thing in any society, just short of nothing. And I am the daughter of Ms. Nothing.

What did you feel at that moment?

The pain and shame that such a woman must endure every day. It is inevitably transferred to the children.

In the end, do you feel comfortable making your story public, even if you have interpreted it into literature?

It was physically challenging to finish this book. I have never opened it and looked at it once.


Because I am afraid to read what I wrote. I tried hard to forget it. I won’t do any readings either; it’s impossible. For me, it is closed.

What are you afraid of?

I think of the confrontation with myself. I could never see very well in the mirror, but I could in language. There, I can see everything.

Are you ashamed of being a woman?

No. It is just as I wrote: I am a woman. I like being a woman. There is no strife. No regrets. No lack. But also no abundance.

And also not in terms of sexuality and desire.

(laughs): So not! But don’t believe me. I work through imagination. As an author, I reconvert reality into truth. In political columns, of course, it’s different. But introspection only works through poetry.

If I had to sum up your book in one concept, then I would say: It is true.

I would go even further: It is the true truth. I recently read: The author is one who uses the lie to tell the truth .

At the beginning of your book’s truth, there is darkness, loss of vision; in the end, there is a kind of healing.

Yes, my vision was operated on. For almost a year, I couldn’t see anything, and then for years I mainly saw blurry oddities. I was able to buy some time. At the end of the path, complete darkness awaits.

How have you survived this time?

I imagined beautiful pictures: how the weeping willows bend over the water, how the sandy beach soaked by the rain looks like heavy whole meal spelt flour. I went into the pictures. Remembered the beauty of things. I imagined death; often, I had an insane longing for death. That was also beautiful.

What did death look like?

No light, no dark, no warm, no cold – no category of this world. The sweet nothing.

Is there still the idea of ​​manhood or womanhood in this place?

No, you leave everything behind. In Alevism, you go through four gates, and each time there are forty steps. Leaving your humanity behind is the last of these doors, but in Alevism, you believe that in the next life you will become a part of the whole. My idea is simpler: In death, I leave being somebody. The fact that in the end, just nothingness waits, is the most beautiful thing in life.


Photos: Svenja Trierscheid


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