A few years ago, I would never have dreamt of performing my work in public let alone flying out to Berlin to lecture German students about what it’s like being a British-Asian disabled woman writer.
Last year I received an email from Dr. Katrin Röder, a professor at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, requesting a copy of my self-published pamphlet “Rag Doll” which was out of print. I directed her to my new pamphlet “Patchwork” and my novel. Katrin was searching for disabled British women writers.
She was very impressed by my work and asked me if I would like to come to Berlin to do a reading of my work to her students. I could not believe it. I was flabbergasted and I asked my publisher if this could be possible. Simon Fletcher was amazed too and said I should take the opportunity. The trip was planned for June 2018 but due to some complications, it was postponed to November 2018. My husband was busy and he suggested I go with my publisher who knew my work and could support me in the lecture. I’ve never lectured at a university before let alone flying out to a different country! Simon was thrilled when I asked him to escort me to Berlin. He used to live in Berlin in his early twenties when the Berlin Wall was still up. And for him, it would be a good trip to see how the city had changed.
I also lived in Germany in Frankfurt in my late teens-early twenties, between 1989-1992. It was the time when the Berlin Wall came down, which I was not aware of then. My parents had sent me to Germany in an arranged marriage agreement. Although I felt I wasn’t ready for marriage at 18 years of age, I still had to go to Frankfurt several times to get all the paperwork sorted.
The Germans were terrible in addressing disability. They didn’t believe that a disabled girl like me could marry someone able-bodied or marry at all. I don’t think they had ever seen a girl with cerebral palsy before because the German immigration officer demanded that I have a privately paid ‘brain scan’ before any marriage proceedings could go ahead! I had to comply with this unnecessary and expensive requirement. And the results were surprisingly normal.
The German officials were still not entirely satisfied even when I showed them proof from the English government. I was not happy with their prejudiced treatment towards me. In the end, all marriage plans fell to pieces and I returned to England as a single young lady, which at the time was frustrating for my parents but pleasing for me!
So, Germany was a weirdly exciting experience for me, as going back to a country that clearly did not respect disability, and I wanted to know had things changed at all? On 19th November, I flew out to Berlin and delivered my lecture on the following day. Dr. Katrin Röder was such a lovely host. She escorted us around Berlin and the Humboldt-Universität building. The lecture was very informal and the students and professors were amazed by our presentation. Simon Fletcher and I talked about – ‘Finding a Voice: Writing with Disability and Across Cultures’.
I wore half Indian, half British clothes to the lecture (Punjabi kameez with rose gold jeans) to mark my identity. I managed to talk for just under 2 hours with the help from Simon with a question and answer session at the end. They all were very impressed with my writing and all my achievements in my life, despite being underestimated and disadvantaged for most of my life. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.
The answer to my question, has Germany changed its perspectives on disabled people? I think there’s a long way to go in comparison with British culture and acceptance. As Simon and I walked the streets of Berlin we saw a number of ignorant people who backed away from us as we approached them, however, some people were very helpful and kind: a very mixed bunch indeed. I would like to thank Katrin for giving me this amazing opportunity and Simon for supporting me.
Here is a villanelle I read at the lecture:
Entered the world like an uninvited guest;
I hid away, embarrassed- I was a disgrace.
Flawed, I survived this sentence. A tough test.
A child who was compared with all the rest,
I was different- an alien from outer space;
entered the world like an uninvited guest.
Benefits, wages kept me together, dressed,
I was a cash point- abused without a case;
flawed, I survived this sentence- a tough test.
On display to men for marriage; suppressed,
I was a British visa for Asian men to chase;
entered the world like an uninvited guest.
A lucky escape, rescued by a husband; blessed
with a family that I could love and embrace.
Flawed, I survived this sentence, a tough test.
My dreams came true and all were impressed,
a valued writer, poet, working mum, a place.
Entered the world like an uninvited guest,
flawed, I survive this sentence- a tough test.