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Memory Meetings: Semra Ertan’s Ausländer and the Practice of the Migrant Archive


Turkish migration to Germany has long been debated as not having been sufficiently documented and given an adequate place in German national archives. But these debates have often reified a static and nationally organized logic of the archive. This essay instead traces the literary figure of the Ausländer as poetically claimed by the writer Semra Ertan and visually staged by media artist Cana Bilir-Meier in order to give an account of the unspeakable experience of racialization as ongoing foreignization in a Germany shaped by labor migration. Based on the discussion of Ertan’s select poems and the textual, visual, and audible material compiled by Bilir-Meier, this article demonstrates how the figure of the Ausländer animates “memory meetings.” Ertan’s words and personal experience are co-produced by Bilir-Meier’s interventions and given out to meet with contemporary intersectional anti-racist activists, who are enabled to make a claim about their own present in which the figure of the Ausländer has been mostly forgotten.

The article makes several claims based on the figure and the workings of the Ausländer in these memory meetings. The first claim is that the figure of the Ausländer allows a conceptualization of race in Germany that is grounded in the experience of alienation—as seeing oneself from a racializing gaze—resulting from unequal labor, institutional abandonment, and the devaluing of migrant-knowledge production. Another claim pertains to the nature of the archive itself. The material collected from various sources, including German and Turkish national media, in which the details about Ertan are rather marginalized or documented to be forgotten, are reorganized by Bilir-Meier from the margins to establish its own center. This archive is situated in migrant-knowledge, particular to the experience of Ertan’s migration and affectively charged, but able to tell a larger story about the racializing experience of migration. Taking these claims together, the article argues that migrant archives are not just dispersed documents waiting to be nationally organized and acknowledged. Rather, the “the migrant archive” is a form of embodied, lived, and practiced knowledge with others in moments of commemoration. The migrant archive then is a dynamic and shifting practice, able to adapt to transnationally moving experiences if it can find a ground for mnemonic interaction regardless of, or even in counter-position to, a nationally sanctioned status.

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