making linguistic cheese

„I am astrophysicist,“ meint er dann. „So many useful informations. I have them all. I know all about the world.“

Seine goldenen Zähne blinken mich in der Abendsonne an.

I find out at the end of April that I’ve been nominated Stadtschreiberin – city writer – by StudierendenWERK. At the beginning of May, I switch my creative writing brain from English to German, and start blogging for the Berlin Stories project.

„Let me follow you around,“ says a journalist when he calls me at home, „and write about how you write about Berlin whilst you write. Let’s meet at the carnival.“

I am unsure that will work but am not in any position to say anything at all authoritative. I am eating cake for breakfast when he calls, it is definitely after midday and I definitely should have been in a seminar. I can’t say anything much else for definite because I’ve lost my contact lenses and the world is a blur, the light swims and shimmers like under water.

I walk into a doorframe and he asks if I am okay.

Languages bleed into one another. I write „unterwater“ and puzzle over why it looks wrong. I create a „Presse“ page for my website. German crawls insidiously from the recesses of my brain in an English lit class about borders and boundaries, and I dream in English about speaking German.

Several Germans comment irately about the corruption of the German language: „Denglish, how could she? Was ist das denn für ein Quark?“ they ask. What is that for a curd cheese?

My Bielefeld Oma used to say, „macht kein Käse.“ Make no cheese. Don’t be silly.

To angry German man channeling Jens Spahn, I say there is nothing wrong with mixing it up and making linguistic cheese. Rules are made to be broken etc. etc, and then, fun and games aside, there’s something liberating about dealing the rigidity of German bureaucracy a small personal blow with a light bit of mixing and matching  like „I have to be mich anmelding tomorrow“.

Alright, I say to the journalist, and ask mich how er would reagieren if ich one wort in Deutsch and ein word auf English rede.

Too far, says a friend.




What better a place, with what more macabre an audience – as if they need any audience at all – than here, slap bang, bang slap, in front of the house? Wide open for all the world and its gulls and children and dogs and birdwatchers to see. He does it here, in front of the house, with Dora sitting on the low stone wall crying silently like it’s weather coming out of her. She’s sitting in the sun, which glints off the icy water in the bowl at his feet, the sky blue and cloudless. The smell of crab meat on the air, no, the smell of mackerel, supremely fresh, caught hours ago, perhaps not even that. And there on the road they lie, the mackerel, their eyes open watching her cry, their eyes open watching him sweat over them one by one.

Take that, he thinks, playing engrossed. Knife to the belly, a shallow straight cut up past the fins to the gills. He opens them up deftly, fingers in, a sharp tug on the guts. Next to him a bucket full of mackerel heart. He pinches pectoral fins between forefinger and thumb, administers angled slices up to the cracking point of bone. He throws their heads with their eyes still watching into the bucket of hearts and livers and everything else inedible, and dunks what’s left in a bowl of ice water. They come out clean. The blood water runs up and down his forearms, down the street.

Next door walks past with her dog. She’s not wearing any shoes. The dog runs after the blood water washing pink down the street like it’s a ball, sniffs it, licks it. Next door gives him an odd look, he’s not sure whether it’s because he’s gutting mackerel in the middle of the road (where else would he do it?), or because he’s covered in this pink blood water and raw inside bits of mackerel. Or because Dora is sitting on the stone wall crying, and Evie has just come out of the house and she’s not been here in such a long time that it’s possible everyone thought she was dead.

Next door stops. Oh God, he thinks, she will say something now, he is sure. And look, she’s opening her mouth to speak and in that moment Evie also opens hers. Dora, who has been crying silently until now, begins to wail like like a banshee.

The headless clean mackerel lie on a sheet of newspaper on the tarmac between them. Their scales reflect the cloudless blue of the sky. Next door looks from the fish to Dora to Evie to him and then back to the fish, snaps her mouth shut and walks on. Her lips are pressed together.

He throws heads and hearts into buckets, and Evie and Dora, both sitting on the wall now, watch him. The one weeps, silently again, and the other kicks her flip-flop heels against the hot stone with soft Styrofoam slaps.

He runs his knife along bellies, scoops out guts. Later he will wash the blood water from his hands and arms, and they will barbecue mackerel on the beach.


highest praise

Ate an earplug in the night and thought of you. I knew because of the survivor its twin with teeth marks in wax the shade of the hot pink soles of baby feet straight from the bath. It was exactly like you described it.


daal: novella snippet

The thawing skin under my thumbnails throbbed in time to a song I had woken up with in my head, something about going home. When I think of going home. We’d eaten daal with flatbread. I loved folding the bread around the lentil slop. I loved it when the lentils escaped the safe fold of dough and dribbled down my wrist. I liked licking them off, and I enjoyed being watched doing so. The little green sprigs of parsley lay suspended like lily pads, and I ate the lentils away beneath them. Right at the end I licked them clean and then held them under my tongue like people hold cough drops under their tongues until they melt, only the parsley refused to melt. As a kid I had done the same with olives, nursed them in a recess of my mouth until they were warmer than the outside world, a satisfying smooth warm stone against the ridged roof of my mouth.


panic attack: novella snippet

I had things that I called panic attacks when I was talking about them. It was my old problem with words and labels, there was no way I could possibly choose a word or a combination of two or three words to succinctly describe what happened to me. Don’t lie to me, Nat said when she witnessed me crying and panting on her doorstep one time after a run that I had been on which had coincidentally taken me past her door. That’s not a panic attack. That’s just crying.

She was cruel but it worked like a charm. I stopped crying and panting to hate her momentarily with a force so cataclysmic that it swept everything else away.