All the Dead Ladies

September 15, 2018

Strictly speaking, attending literary events in Berlin doesn’t fall within the purview of “Leipzig is Lit,” but the initial reason for my trip to the capital was related to translation work. At the end of August I had received a short-notice commission to translate the introductory essay of Sabine Scho’s seminal Animals in Architecture for the translation journal Transit. I met up with Jon, a grad student and editor at Transit, and we walked through Schöneberg for a couple hours, discussing German literature, migration patterns, and his theory on why it’s so hard to get good tacos in Germany: apparently EU regulations forbid the lye that is traditionally used to refine cornmeal in Mexico. I guess I’ll never stop learning.

I eventually made my way to the ACUD, a multi-purpose event space on the edge of the park next to Brunnenstrasse in Berlin Mitte. It is here that most of the Dead Ladies Show’s have taken place. The brainchild of Katy Derbyshire, Florian Duijsens and Susan Stone, the Dead Ladies Show has aimed to draw attention to “celebrate ladies who were fabulous while they were alive, in English and German.” There are many reasons for this, least not because of the tendency for many historical narratives to exclude or diminish the achievements of women.

Agata Lisiak, who teaches at Bard College Berlin, was the first up and presented an entertaining take on Marie Skłodowska Curie, including insights into her youth in Poland (what the Skłodowska family was like), and how she has been frequently misrepresented in film and television depictions. Despite the numerous achievements and honors gathered while in France, she was quite controversial, especially after continuing to work as a single mother following her husband’s death, not least among conservative Catholics. Although most people in the audience presumably knew of Curie before the Dead Ladies Show, Agata Lisiak helped us all remember just how brilliant she was.

Bertha Pappenheim, who was introduced by Uljana Wolf, is clearly less well-known than Curie, at least under her proper name. However, many are familiar with Anna O., a patient treated by Josef Breuer and made famous by Sigmund Freud. With multilingualism a frequent motif in Wolf’s work, she had a particularly strong connection with Pappenheim. The rest of the story—what happened after leaving therapy—was enlightening. Wolf was adamant in recognizing Pappenheim’s achievements (working as a feminist, a writer and translator, and a collector of art) and not just restricting her to the pathological vision transmitted by Breuer and Freud.

Last but not least, Florian Duijsens introduced us to a fabulous, groundbreaking actress named Anna May Wong. Born in Los Angeles in 1905 to second-generation Chinese-American parents, Wong began acting at a young age and during the silent film era. After largely being restricted to stereotyped, Asian parts, Anna May left for Europe in 1928. In Berlin she led a star’s life, becoming friendly with Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and even being interviewed by Walter Benjamin! Berlin was followed by London, a turbulent trans-Atlantic relationship in the late-30s, and a celebrated return to the United States. Despite some improvement in the leading roles given to her, Wong continued to fight racism. Unfortunately, her hard-drinking lifestyle caught up to her and she died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 56. It was inspirational to discover a long-lost figure who lived such an interesting life. After the final presentation, I worked up the courage to pitch one of my favorite Dead Ladies: Hannah Arendt. To be continued.

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