Carolyn Gammon is no stranger to Canadian Writers Abroad, having been profiled by Gabriella Goliger (From Fredericton to Berlin) and having shared her poetry with us (“Fault Line“). Thirty years in Berlin, she has published several books while living a full and busy life. Johanna Krause Twice Persecuted (2007) and The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger (2014) were published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. On Her Own Terms: Poems about Memory Loss & Living Life to the Fullest was published by Harbour Publishing in 2021.
Here are her three answers to the tenth anniversary Q&A.
CWA: Where were you ten years ago?
Ten years ago I had just celebrated my 50th birthday in rural Canada at Grand Lake, New Brunswick with 50 guests and 50 lobsters on the beach. Very Maritimes! I impressed all my German friends as lobster cost about $100 a piece in Berlin. They didn’t know I bought them for just $10 a piece in Fredericton and so they thought I was wealthy. One of the most thrilling things about my birthday was that my mother, the former Fiddlehead founding poet Frances Firth Gammon, at age 92, was present. She’d had a tough year: a fall and broken arm, she needed a wheelchair and had to move into a full-care home. We thought she might not make it to my once-in-a-lifetime party but there she was, the guest of honour. I wrote a poem called “Learning to Die” because it occurred to me that Mum was indeed learning many new skills to cope with waning abilities, learning to live with less and yet still see life as full. She loved the party, and though very shaky on her feet, she walked toward the rainbow Canada flag to have a photo taken with me, the birthday gal. That year was the start of writing a collection of poems about my mother’s valiant life with memory loss: On Her Own Terms: Poems About Memory Loss and Living Life to the Fullest.
Here in Berlin I was working for Europe’s largest Jewish tour company, Milk & Honey Tours, and the boss and I visited Israel to try out guides for our company. At Pollack’s bookstore in Tel Aviv, I bought a book of love poems by the 18th Century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn — a book published in Leipzig, Germany in the thirties — and I contemplated what it meant that an entire German Jewish bookstore was transplanted to Tel Aviv.
I met the Canadian filmmaker Francine Zuckerman and her amazing comedian partner Deb Filler in Warsaw. They were working on the film about Polish Jews today, “We Are Here.” Our multi-cultural association Joliba, run by my partner Katharina Oguntoye, was in its 15th year, celebrating Black history and culture in what was an annual event called the Black Bazaar. And in a successful conclusion to anti-racist activism, a street name was changed from that of a man who carried out the slave-trade for Germany to that of May Ayim, an Afro-German author and activist. Our son was 12 and just starting high school. It was a very exciting year both in Germany and Canada!
CWA: What top tip would you share with a writer considering a move abroad?
My top tip for writers living abroad is get to know the elderly of your new country. One of my first jobs in Germany in the 1990s was caring for the elderly. I met people born at the turn of the century who had lived through both world wars. Those relationships affect me to this day. My favourite patient, Lisa, was born in 1905. It took her many months to confide in me that she was Jewish and had survived the Nazi era in hiding…for 12 years! We shared a love for cake, cats and gossip. Lisa never left her house yet her life was rich and full of people and stories. In this time of COVID-19, years later, I still profit from Lisa’s outlook on life.
At Ravensbrück concentration camp memorial site, I met the Dresden Holocaust survivor, Johanna Krause. She was 52 years my senior and became a close friend. Meeting Johanna changed my life, leading me to help survivors write their life stories.
Visiting the Afro-Turkish community in recent years with a group of Afro-German youth, I interviewed the elderly and wrote down their stories. When I asked them about their grandparents I felt I was touching history back to the mid-19th Century. In my opinion, nothing gives a writer insight into a country like the elders of that country.
CWA: What are you doing now?
Ten years on, Berlin remains an inspiring place. A huge new cultural centre has opened up in the heart of Berlin called the Humboldt Forum. This museum complex includes the former Museum of Ethnology. Many of the objects to be displayed have questionable provenance. Katharina and I have been hired to write audio plays for the children’s section of the museum, in particular about the Benin bronzes that were stolen in 1897 from what is now Nigeria. What a challenge to be asked to teach kids about this difficult and exemplary moment in history when these bronzes will finally be returned to the Edo people in Benin City.
We have not noticed COVID perhaps as much as others because Katharina has been critically ill and we have had to spend much time home-bound anyway. But it did not keep us from celebrating our 30th anniversary recently. In fact, a German social media show for young people called “Auf Klo / On the Can” (where you are literally interviewed while sitting on toilets!) spoke to us about being 30 years together and it has 130,000 views. (Click the YouTube link.) We laugh that we are now influencers! My partner is one of the founding members of the Afro-German movement and is much in demand as a speaker. Oddly enough, COVID and the wide-spread use and acceptance of online get-togethers, panel discussions, interviews, conferences, etc. has made her work possible despite health challenges. We were recently thrilled to learn that the street our Joliba Association office is on will soon be renamed for Audre Lorde. So there are great things happening.
In terms of recent writing, I was honoured to write a memorial piece about Eleanor Belyea Wees, who at 98 had been the last surviving founding member of the Fiddlehead. (#289, the Autumn 2021.) I have started writing my automythography and have been composing songs to poems.
In October 2021, I had a wonderful online launch of On Her Own Terms that was part of Fredericton’s annual Word Feast literary festival. As we say in our family ever since our son loved the sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest: “Never give up, never surrender.”
- List of more of Gammon’s publications at New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia.