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Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Biography

Ida Hattemer-Higgins was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. She studied German and Chinese literature in New York City, after which she left the US in 2001. In the years since, she has lived in Japan, India and Sweden, and for the past seven years as a student of literature and translator in Berlin. Her first novel, The History of History, was published in January 2011, with the publishing houses Alfred A. Knopf, Faber & Faber, and Flammarion. It is an ambitious and highly original novel about a young American woman's amnesia and descent into madness set in contemporary Berlin against a looming backdrop of Holocaust memories.

www.idajoy.com

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Authors' text

Letter to Chika Unigwe

 

Dear Chika,

I am glad to hear that you are happy at Ledig House, and glad to hear that you have entered a phase of your writing life in which you feel that you can make empathic leaps. I know precisely the sort of development you are speaking of. Indeed, I am convinced that the writing life -or perhaps all creative life -- is a life more clearly divided into discrete parcels than any other. We exit one era via a door that opens during some unremarkable moment: while eating an egg sandwich on a foggy balcony, say, or while regarding the shapes in the negative space of the subway map, and find that we have entered a new thought paradigm, never to return to the old.
My stay in Vollezele at the Het beschrijf residency also represented a great change. Before arriving, I had spent close to a year inexplicably unable to write.

But let me explain. My first novel was released in January of this year, and I, after years in Berlin, returned to my home country of America for several months in order to promote it. My publisher sent me on a book tour. For a few weeks I was so busy I didn't write; I didn't pause to think.

When I got back to Berlin, there was a great sense of quiet. I looked around my flat: the self-same drooping and exhausted flat in which I lived through six years of a seemingly eternal struggle with the just-published novel: the struggle first to write this challenging book, then to make sure it found a publisher. It's funny you mention Rip Van Winkle, Chika, because it was many times in those first days back in Berlin that I compared myself to this man who wakes up to discover that while he was sleeping, many years have passed. It often seems to me that the five years I worked on my book were five years in which I slept. Or some kind of consciousness went lost. Sometimes I tell myself that I dreamt a dream of a novel, and the dream intoxicated me. I was drunk or high on that book, and now I am sober for the first time in years.

During the course of those five years, my flat had gradually broken down: the faucet of the kitchen sink somehow sank through the counter top, the old water stain on the ceiling went unpainted, the lock on the entry door rattled strangely and became stuck unpredictably. Meanwhile, the whole place had somehow filled with paper, books, and knick-knacks of all types. As long as the novel was unfinished, I seemed to be in a state of suspended reality, unable to make firm decisions on what to keep and what to give away, for fear that they would prove unsuitable choices once real life returned.

When I arrived home from New York after my book release, I looked around, and it was as though scales had fallen from my eyes. It wasn't only the apartment that was a mess, but all the affairs of my life, both practical and emotional. So for many months I went about putting things in order.

And one day, I was finished. The apartment was clean, my friendships were once again harmonious, the Finanzamt had begun to suppose that I was an upstanding citizen. I sat down to write. And I discovered that I had no focus, no drive. It was as though I had a choice: I could either be inside the sleeping dream, writing as I had been for five years, or I could be awake, sober, and inspiration-less. And I was decidedly awake. I had the outline of a new novel, a skeleton, but no blood and flesh with which to fill it out.

It was in this condition that I arrived at Vollezele. The first nine days were sunny and warm. I expected not to be able to write. I went outside and spent the greater part of the day on a brownish pink woolen blanket under a poplar tree, on the edge of a wide meadow. I did not do very much. I discovered strange things. I noticed that, for a short instant at the beginning, the snorting of a horse sounds very much like the sound a flock of birds makes when it suddenly flutters into flight. I discovered that when a ripe pear falls from a tree, a hunting dog will take it between its paws and eat it as though it were a ham hock. I listened to the sun. I looked up into the branches of the tree above me. I often stayed for six hours without moving, staring into the sun and green. But sometimes I looked into the green for two hours and became so filled with happiness that there was no choice but to write. I had my notebook beside me.

On the tenth day, it rained. I went inside and began to transcribe what I had written in my notebook onto the computer. It turned out there was a lot to transcribe. After the days spent with the sun in my eyes it was both a return to real life and also an escape back into the old dream, the dream in which the images come rushing and playing on their own. It is difficult to build a palace of your own aesthetic, but once you have the foundation laid and the first walls are raised, the structure instantly looks different than you would have imagined it. This is the magical threshold, as you point out, Chika, when you talk of your characters coming alive. To speak of living characters, or a solid palace made of aesthetic taste, is to speak of the point of explosive combination, when the known has been juxtaposed against the known again and again until finally it becomes unknown.

And every day after that, as long as I was in Vollezele, I wrote faster than I have written at any time in my life. Such a thing can feel very much like a miracle.

Yours,
Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Read the letter of Chika Unigwe

 

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26.09.11 > 24.10.11

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