«Homeland and mother tongue have become very fluid terms …

… in the recent past. How do you look at your own situation, a Swiss author living in and writing from America?» – Dr Swati Acharaya, Pune.

Thank you for this question, Dr Acharaya. It is one I ask myself often, without really finding an answer. Or rather, the answer is as fluid as the concept itself. Starting with homeland – «Heimat» in German – which was never a clear concept for me. Growing up in Switzerland in the 1960s and 70s with a German father and a German passport was not easy. The Swiss are pretty reluctant to embrace foreigners in their country, to put it mildly and Germans are probably the ones they like the least. There are lengthy theories about this, which I will skip for now. But I remember my teacher pulling me out of the classroom during census, in order to spare me «the embarrassment» of having to admit my then still German citizenship in front of all the other children. When I was nine years old, my father was naturalized and I finally got my coveted red passport. But the damage was done. My father moved back to Germany shortly thereafter and I was never quite able to shake the feeling of not being welcome, not being part of it, not fitting in.

Of course, that made it easier for me to leave. I lived in Paris when I was in my twenties and in the United States in my late thirties and early forties, and then again since 2015. I lived in San Francisco and Santa Fe, in Aarau and in Möriken-Wildegg, in Zurich and in Paris. I truly believe I could make myself at home anywhere in the world.

As for the mother tongue, that is a complex problem for Swiss writers from the German speaking part of the country (there are four national languages). Our mother tongue, Swiss German is a dialect, not a written language. Newspapers, books, television news and of course, school are in what we call «Hochdeutsch», «high» German. It has a slightly different rhythm, some differences in spelling and different expressions than the «real», German German. It becomes our second language as soon as we start school, it is familiar to us, we master it – and still. It is not our mother tongue. Although in the last decade or so, some Swiss writers decided to publish in their dialect (again, there are many variations), most of us write in a language that is different from the one we speak, think or dream in.

I do believe it is this early training in juggling more than one language that protects mine and explains why I still think and dream in – no, not in German, but in Swiss-German.

Thank you for your thought provoking question!


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  1. Sonja Weber says

    You have been my favorite Swiss writer for a long time and reading about your background just made me appreciate you all the more. I have a German/American background myself and have lived in Switzerland since my teens. I have given up trying to figure out where „Heimat“ is for me. Liebe Grüsse aus dem momentan ganz wunderschön verschneiten Zürcher Unterland, Sonja

  2. Uta says

    Well said and accurately said, Milena. My parents immigrated to Ticino from Germany in the early 70s and I had similar experiences. I moved around a good bit in my 20s, and once I arrived to the US, I was delighted at the enthusiasm Americans had for my roots.

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