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Home: The Toast

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1. Choose an excerpt from your translated novel. Practice it out loud. Realize that you do not understand 10% of your own text, even though you’ve been living in Germany for the past six years. Look up the words you don’t know in the dictionary and make small, inscrutable notes on the page. Read through again, stumbling more than the first time, due to the small, inscrutable notes.

2. Board train to the book fair in Leipzig. Take out your text and practice again. Catch disapproving looks from strangers as you whisper the foreign words to yourself, including the different voices you’ve created for the characters. This turns out to be an excellent strategy for keeping the seat next to you free. Finish reading the excerpt and reward yourself with a soggy sandwich, watching the early spring farmland fly by.

3. Check into the hotel. Your German editor has left a hardback copy of your translated novel at the front desk. Hold it in your hands, testing its weight. Flip through the novel, admiring its creamy pages. Feel suddenly grateful to the German language for its complex grammar, which has significantly increased the word count of your book and makes it seem more hefty and serious. Head to the elevator beaming, carefully cradling your adopted child, which has come into the world three months before the novel in your home country, which is still kicking in your belly, and is due on June 3rd. Give up on the extended metaphor of childbirth and adoption, which only made sense for the first clause of the previous sentence, and sounds too much like a scene from Alien.

4. Sit in your hotel room, overlooking a lovely, quintessentially European square. Lay out your dress for the reading. Go on a walk around Leipzig, enjoying the spring sunshine, trying to look like an Author. Go back to the hotel, where your friend is waiting on you in the lobby, a fellow American expatriate writer. Head back to the room and ask her advice on brown leather boots versus black heels. Place the tulips she has brought you in a hotel glass. Thank God, for the billionth time, for the home that hovers around two close friends in self-enforced exile.

5. Arrive at the reading venue. Hug your editor, your publicist, and the other two colleagues from Arche. Hold your book tightly, sit in the front row. There are two readings before your own. The first writer delivers his text in a monotone and glares at the audience for a good thirty seconds in silence before the moderator leaps to her feet and claps. “I can keep going,” he offers. “No you can’t!” the moderator snaps back with a smile, and summons the next author, who she introduces as a writer, actress and director. The woman reads the text moodily, interrupting the passages to interrogate the point of readings and to speculate on who she was when she wrote the book, which was years ago, concluding that she can’t really remember what she was thinking, and that she should probably just sit down. Wonder if you are also expected to offer such existential musings; decide against it.

6. Take her place on the tiny stage, facing the twenty or so listeners gathered below. Read the first page in English, like hanging out in the shallow end of a swimming pool. Take a deep breath and dive into the translated version, heading for the deep end with shaky strokes. Thanks to your translator, you’re finally speaking flawless German, without screwing up the articles or the declension. For the next ten minutes of your reading, translation will seem like a small miracle, closer to transformation, or transcendence.

7. Go to dinner with the publishing crew and your German literary agent. Screw up your articles and declension again. Bask in the joy of your book’s having found a home in the country you live in, with an editor you deeply admire. Feel you’ve finally arrived.

8. Hug your friend goodbye, who is taking the train back this evening. Head out into the crisp night air, to a party where a translator friend of yours says everyone will be. Realize, at the party, that you know no one in the room. Realize that “everybody” to her means does not mean “everybody” to you: you barely know anything about your adopted country’s literary scene, preferring to keep up with what’s happening at home. Wish you were one of those people that could just lean against the bar and meet strangers. Head back out into the night, even though they’re playing a song you love. Walk back to the hotel, feeling like you often did your first year in Berlin. Call a friend in Boston from your hotel room, laugh a lot, feel a bit better when you turn out the light. Remember how, in the language of your adopted home, “arrival” or ankommen is understood not as a moment, but as a matter of time.

9. The next morning, force yourself to part from a sumptuous breakfast buffet in order to make it to the book fair in time for two interviews. Head to the exhibition hall with your editor, wading through bespectacled literary types and teenagers dressed as slutty fairies, wings and all: there’s a manga convention happening here, too. Head to your publisher’s booth, marvel at the sight of your book on display; feel offended when people walk past it to check out other books. Conduct two interviews: one for a large newspaper, the other for a regional radio station. Wish you had a translation to refer to. Watch the newspaper journalist’s pen hovering over her paper, waiting for you to say something interesting. Try to say something interesting. Wonder if the vulnerable discomfort you feel, heading back to the booth, is a product of your clumsy answers to intimate questions in a foreign language, or if it’s just how interviews feel. The radio interview is even more terrifying. Speak clearly and confidently into the microphone, even if you’re not sure you fully grasp the questions. Ignore the journalist’s look of mild confusion as you discuss the inspiration for the book’s first chapter.

10. Hang around the fair, sign your novel’s front page with a flourish, meet up with an American novelist who shares a mutual acquaintance with you, commiserate with him on the weirdness of launching your novel in a foreign language. Make plans to meet up later with the novelist and a few other friends who have since shown up. Head to the reading of a Swedish writer, a beautiful woman with large brown eyes with a loud laugh. She is a journalist reporting on historical woes with humor and depth, who has also been translated by Arche. Feel a sudden rosy gratitude for “international literature,” if that’s what all of this is.

11. Go to parties with new American author comrade and other friends. Sip gin and tonics and spot the newspaper journalist who interviewed you talking to someone across the bar. Stifle the urge to approach her and give her better answers to the questions she asked that morning. Head to next party, where a DJ is playing “Empire State of Mind” and “Call Me Al” like it’s somebody’s wedding in Dayton, Ohio. Wonder why you always seem to wind up at parties with horrible dance music in a country that is famous for incredible dance music. Dance.

12. After a few hours of sleep, get on a train back to Berlin. Watch “Friday Night Lights” on your laptop. Rain thuds against the windows, the landscape is moving by so fast you could be anywhere. Texas, for example.

13. Get in a taxi back to your apartment. The taxi driver surprises you by asking if you’re coming from the book fair, you proudly announce that you gave a reading there. Spend the rest of the ride discussing notions of home and belonging: the driver left Vienna when she was eighteen, and has been moving around ever since, a habit she refers to, somewhat disturbingly, as “gypsying around.” She asks for the title of your book and scrawls it down.

14. Walk up the stairs to your apartment. Fall into bed, glad to be home. Dream in English.

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Brittani Sonnenberg’s debut novel, Home Leave, is forthcoming from Grand Central on June 3rd, and is available from Arche in Germany (as Heimflug.) She is based in Berlin, and can be found on Twitter.

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