Books I love / Literary Citizen

I love to read. I’m compelled to write.

Writing is a solitary endeavor (a bit like playing piano). Pen and notebook in hand, jotting, playing with words. But so much of my progress as a writer has come through reading. As Jo Ann Beard says: “Learning to write comes from reading, both the work of published writers and of our peers, and from using one’s powers of insight and creativity to analyze what one reads and figure out why it works when it does and what is missing when it doesn’t.”

I’ve attended workshops and classes, in person and online, held by Creative Nonfiction and Catapult and The Reader Berlin and at Goucher College and the University of Iowa: on writing personal essays, on writing memoir, on submitting to literary magazines, on pitching essays, on writing the tough stuff. I’ve founded and participated in and contributed to writing groups—off-hand, I count five—and aim to make myself available to fellow writers needing work critiqued quickly. I’ve been a reader for Creative Nonfiction and River Teeth.

As a passionate reader, I joined and then became the organizer for a book group of Germans reading and discussing novels in English that has been going for thirteen years now. In the 2000s, I wrote many book reviews for websites. The one with the delightful name of is now offline, but several reviews from almost twenty years ago can still be found on and on I’ve recently started publishing reviews on Goodreads as well.


Reading widely for a personal and researched book on how it feels to live in contemporary Germany if you weren’t born here, on this society’s integration of the East Germans and its reactions to recent waves of immigrants, I came across a 2019 book that spoke to my heart. I read Jan Plamper’s Das neue Wir. Warum Migration dazugehört: Eine andere Geschichte der Deutschen, took notes by translating passages that resonated with me into English. I typed favorite sentences and ideas as an invitation to myself: ponder this material, cite it, combine it with other, quite different authors—where might it take you?

His book is a series of historical framings inviting one to think of the German people as anything but monolithic, and to consider Germans’ own migrations to Russia in the 1700s and to the United States in the 1800s in a larger immigration context. What differs from what I feel from mainstream German voices is an understanding of Germany as a country like any other, with immigration and emigration ebbing and flowing over time, groups of people leaving and others arriving. It resonated with me at many levels.

I was struck by the bemused tone in Plamper’s Preface: after years spent as a family in Russia and in Berkeley, his 11-year-old daughter started a new school in Berlin. When he asked her to reflect on her sense of identity, she responded, “I’m a foreigner!”—that’s what she heard around her. He felt that not enough time was invested in teaching her the German language, nor, most especially, in the techniques “to function well in this society.” It felt rare that a German-born person could perceive the subtle filter of distance all of us feel here, all of us, that is, making a life in Germany who were not born here, or whose parents were born elsewhere and whose last names do not sound German—from authorities and officials, but also residents.

I’ve long been puzzled, yet slightly amused, by the ironic term Biodeutsche, which could be translated as ‘certified organic Germans.’ Plamper finds that “an idea of the genuine, authentic German resonates” in the term “because of biology and blood. The others would then be, ‘despite’ their citizenship, inauthentic Germans.” Yes, I can affirm, that’s how I feel as a naturalized German, an American residing in Berlin for some 35 years, listening in on German public opinion for decades.

He examined language to support assertions in sync with my convictions: “Still people talk about ‘German Turks’ rather than ‘Turkish Germans,’ even for people who have been Germans for decades. What is necessary is an understanding of the nation where the German identity plus other identities go together. … Had the Gastarbeiter had been given the possibility to assume citizenship much earlier, most appropriately already in the 1970s, … while at the same time maintaining their Italian, Greek, Turkish, Yugoslavian language of origin and culture, there’s quite a lot we would not be discussing today.”

Some half of the 26% non-Germans are “resettlers” of German descent from Eastern Europe—Russian Germans, people from Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania—and 2.3 million of them arrived since 1987. Plamper’s book gave me a framework to think about how they’d “emigrated with the expectation to arrive home in Germany and be among people like them, marginalized as aliens and caught in between.” They received a set of benefits aiding their integration: interim aid, health insurance, unemployment benefits and a language course—that other immigrants do not get. And their past was acknowledged, since the years they’d worked in their land of origin were credited to their German pension. One of the “biggest inconsistencies of the ‘foreigner’ discourse in Germany,” I learned from him, is that it is tacitly accepted that the resettlers maintain citizenship from their country of origin.

Plamper emphasizes that Germany “does not offer any emotional symbolic possibilities to connect with, quite the contrary”—my experience as well. He concludes his book calling for pluralism: we should assume that we all live an infinite variety of identities, including other cultures and languages of origin, which should be appreciated and encouraged. We need access to a collective German identity: “Individual and collective identity are not mutually exclusive.” He calls for a “collective belonging for citizens that needs to consist of more than having a passport: what is needed is an emotional, symbolic highlighting as glue”—collective identity or the new we. It was a vision of a Germany that I wanted to belong to.

We spoke once, late in 2021, just after he’d transferred to the University of Limerick from Goldsmith College in London, where he had initiated pioneering MA programs in queer history and Black British history. He was gently encouraging to an aspiring writer not trained as a historian but fascinated by historical themes, asking how he could help me. “We need many more such projects, combining history and personal history.” “Perhaps if I do publish it, you could write me a blurb, or review it?” “Of course,” he said, “just let me know.” I sensed that he was a “Mensch in the Yiddish sense of the word,” as fellow historian Juliane Fürst wrote in memoriam: “his scholarly and social engagement can hardly be separated.

For, unfortunately, he died on November 30, 2023, aged only 53.

As my book project stalled, I frequently looked toward the bright yellow cover on his book in German, part of the pile of books that inspired me. I had asked him whether a translation into English was planned, as I would want to quote the official version. “You’re a translator? I’m sure your version would be fine.” And also: “Your pandemic project was your research? Mine was translating my own book into English.” We Are All Migrants: A Multicultural History of Germany was published by Cambridge University Press just eight months before he passed.

His historian colleagues at the University of Tübingen wrote of the book: “his intervention acted as a level-headed counterpoint.” Dmitrij Belkin addressed him directly in second person: “Your book Das neue Wir was your personal search for a Germany that is important to us—a country that believes in itself, also in its own contradictions, a tolerant, pluralist, and complex country of migrants. With many Jewish themes.” As Naika Foroutan, who heads up the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research, wrote on X: “I had the good fortune to discuss twice with Jan Plamper when he presented his book Das neue Wir—an astute, deep and warm vision of Germany. As he was himself.”

I am saddened by his passing.

His two other significant books (both from 2012) were The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power and The History of Emotions: An Introduction.