Kathrin Schmidt was born in Gotha, Thuringia, on 12 March 1958. She spent her childhood in Gotha and in Waltershausen. After taking the Abitur in Schnepfenthal, Schmidt studied psychology at the University of Jena (1976-81) and then worked in the Department of Psychology at the Karl-Marx-Universität Leipzig, before working as a child psychologist in the Kreiskrankenhaus Rüdersdorf near Berlin.
Schmidt gave birth to her oldest daughter in 1979 while still at university; around that time her first poems were published in Neue Deutsche Literatur (NDL), one of the most important literary magazines in the GDR. First public recognition came in the form of the Förderpreis der Poetenbewegung der Freie Deutsche Jugend (Advancement Prize of the Lyric Movement within the Free German Youth) and the Becher-Diplom des Kulturbundes der DDR (Becher Diploma of the Cultural Association of the GDR) in 1978 and 1981 respectively. Her poetry appeared in the popular series Poesiealbum (Poetry Album) by Neues Leben in 1982. The topic of the poem ‘Handwerk’ (Handcraft) from the collection (p.18) demonstrates Schmidt’s characteristic way of working with language. It begins ‘ich halte mich schräg/ auf den graten/ der täglichen sprache’ (I hold myself askew / on the edge / of everyday language), and it characterises language as ‘dies menschlichste fleisch’ (this most human flesh). Filtered through Schmidt’s poetic lens, seemingly mundane language often appears in a new light. This process of ‘Wortvernähen’ (suturing words, Ein Engel fliegt durch die Tapetenfabrik, p. 77) allows her to reflect on themes such as love, the body, gender and genealogy, history/historiography and memory. In terms of style, critic Hans Richter (1989: 992) aptly notes that ‘[g]efühlige Verse zu schreiben ist ihre Sache eigentlich gar nicht. “Gefühle” und “Kühle” harmonieren bei ihr als Reim [...], und das wiederum harmoniert mit ihrer Fähigkeit, Emotionalität wirklich und differenziert in Sprache zu vergegenständlichen’ (writing sentimental verse isn’t really her thing. For her, ‘emotion’ and ‘coolness’ harmonise as rhyme […], and this in turn harmonises with her ability to hypostatise emotion in language in a differentiated manner).
In 1986-87, Schmidt took part in a special course for authors at the renowned Johannes R. Becher Institute in Leipzig, known today as the German Literary Institute. The collection of poetry Ein Engel fliegt durch die Tapetenfabrik (An Angel Flies through the Wallpaper Factory ) immediately followed her participation in this course, which sparked her ambition to write prose; yet, after drafting the first 30 pages of what later became her first novel Die Gunnar-Lennefsen-Expedition (The Gunnar-Lennefsen Expedition ), a new post at the Ernst-Ludwig-Heim Polyclinic in Marzahn, Berlin, prevented her from further pursuing her prose writing.
In 1989, Schmidt became involved in the round table discussions on unification as a representative of the United Left. Looking back now, she is critical of that time, not only because of the outcome of the negotiations. In conversation with Gerrit Bartels in 2009, Schmidt described those meetings as a ‘furchtbarer Männerverein’ (an awful men’s club); the participants scheduled meetings at the most inconvenient times of the day for her and other mothers. Schmidt’s interest in women’s issues arose during this period when gender parity was challenged at many levels: ‘Ich fand das so kurios, wie Männer das einfach bestimmen, und ich bin dann mehr auf eine Frauenschiene gekommen’ (I found it so strange that men simply decided on it, and after I became more interested in women’s issues).
After post-unification stints as an editor with the women’s magazine Ypsilon (based in East Berlin), in various job creation schemes as well as working for the Berliner Institut für Vergleichende Sozialforschung (Institute of Comparative Social Research in Berlin), it was in 1994 that Schmidt decided to pursue her writing career full-time, encouraged by winning the prestigious Leonce und Lena Prize of the city of Darmstadt the year before. This ended the period of self-imposed poetic abstinence that had marked the tumultuous years around the reunification of Germany (see Verdofsky, 2011).
Today, Schmidt can look back on a long and ever-growing list of prizes for both her poetry and her prose. Although her first published works were poems, over time, and especially once she become a writer full-time, Schmidt turned to and experimented with prose too, and successfully so. A language rich in imagery is characteristic of her writing in either genre. Die Gunnar-Lennefsen-Expedition received the Heimito von Doderer advancement prize and the state of Carinthia award as part of the Ingeborg Bachmann Competition in 1998. The magic realist family saga, which took 12 years to complete, may be the reason why Schmidt’s prose writing is often compared to that of Irmtraud Morgner or Günter Grass.
Schmidt had a stroke on the day that her second novel Königs Kinder (Children of the King ) went into print. Upon regaining consciousness after two weeks in a coma, she found herself suffering from partial paralysis and memory loss as well as from Broca’s aphasia, an impairment of language owing to brain damage. She struggled to speak and write as well as to understand others’ words. According to Schmidt herself, a long period of rehabilitation only came to an end with the publication of Seebachs schwarze Katzen (Seebach’s Black Cats ) three years later, which she regards as a crucial novel for her to have written at the time. It tells the story of a Stasi spy, and, as Schmidt states gratefully, only came to fruition thanks to the encouragement and trust of her publisher Helge Malchow from Kiepenheuer & Witsch. By means of the book, which came into being in a laborious and slow writing process hindered by constant fatigue, Schmidt wrote herself back into her profession: ‘Es ist zwar definitiv mein schwächstes Buch – es klappert und wackelt überall –, aber dennoch stehe ich dazu […]’ (Admittedly, it is definitely my weakest book – it clatters and wobbles all over the place -, but I nonetheless I stand by it, cited in Ustorf, 2011).
Schmidt’s approach to writing has been altered by the brain haemorrhage: ‘Während ich vorher die Wörter vom Baum pflücken konnte, muss ich jetzt suchen. Das ist ein anderes Schreiben, als es vorher war’ (whereas previously I could pluck words from a tree, now I have to search for them. It’s a different type of writing than before, cited in Schmid, 2009). There have been physical consequences for Schmidt too: she still types using only her left hand. The difficult experience of illness has, however, added to the range of themes around which her literary production revolves. Speaking more personally, Schmidt has admitted in interviews that the experience reduced her fear of speaking in public and that she no longer fears death.
In 2009, Schmidt won the German Book Prize for her autobiographical novel Du stirbst nicht (You don’t die). The book sprouted from her drastic experience seven years earlier. In many of the interviews she gave after winning the prize, Schmidt repeatedly insisted that she had already come to terms with the experience of illness long before she had started writing the ‘memory novel’, as it is called on the book’s cover, and that she could do so unencumbered. The narrative begins with Schmidt’s alter ego waking up from coma. Heavily sedated, narrator-protagonist Helene suffers from memory loss and is, at first, unable to speak. She slowly unravels the thread of memory to regain knowledge of her life before the fateful incident. In the process, Helene comes to question her identity as mother, wife, lover, patient in the hospital space, and disabled person.
Although Schmidt was guarded when confronted with questions about the autobiographical dimensions of the novel, she also challenged some critics’ allegorical interpretation of the autobiographical illness as a metaphor for the fall of the Berlin Wall: ‘das finde ich schrecklich, und ich weiß überhaupt nicht, wie die darauf kommen. Und ich werde auch gefragt, warum ich denn auch in diesem Roman viel über die DDR geschrieben habe. Ich finde nicht, dass ich viel über die DDR geschrieben habe, und ich habe ja nun mal kein anderes Leben. Ich kann ja kein anderes Leben erfinden’ (I think that’s terrible and I have no clue where they get that idea from. And I’m also asked why I wrote so much about the GDR in this novel. I don’t think that I did and I don’t have a different life. I cannot make up a different life, cited in Fietz, Pezzei, Schilke, 2010) In another interview, Schmidt admitted that she could not help but share many crucial personal experiences with Helene, concluding that while the story is based on her biography, it is ‘doch eine andere Geschichte. Das ist komisch verschränkt’ (still another story. It’s just curiously entangled, cited in Krekeler, 2009).
At the award ceremony for the German Book Prize in 2009, it came as a surprise to many, including Schmidt herself, that Du stirbst nicht was chosen over Herta Müller’s Atemschaukel (The Hunger Angel), which had been the favourite. In her unscripted acceptance speech, Schmidt first of all made a point of expressing her delight that Müller had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The German Book Prize, which is conferred annually by the German Publishing and Bookseller’s Association before the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the publicity that came with it, put Schmidt on the map for a larger readership than ever. Since then, she has published shorter pieces as well as her first ever volume of short prose Finito: Schwamm drüber (Finito: Forget it ) and her first collection of poetry since the stroke, entitled Blinde Bienen (Blind Bees ). In 2010, she was one of nine scholarship holders at the Villa Massimo in Rome. Kathrin Schmidt is a member of the German PEN Centre. She lives in Mahlsdorf, on the periphery of Berlin.
Bircken, Margrid: ‘Von der Bedeutung eingeholte Körper: Über Kathrin Schmidts Roman DieGunnar-Lennefsen-Expedition’ in Selbstfindung – Selbstkonfrontation: Frauen in gesellschaftlichen Umbrüchen, ed. by Marion George and Andrea Rudolph (Dettelbach: Röll, 2002, pp. 215-231)
Breger, Claudia: ‘Postmoderne Inszenierungen von Gender in der Literatur: Meinecke, Schmidt, Roes’ in Räume der literarischen Postmoderne: Gender, Performativität, Globalisierung, ed. by Paul Michael Lützeler (Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag, 2000, pp. 97-125)
Byrnes, Deirdre: ‘Writing on the Threshold: Memory, Language and Identity in Kathrin Schmidt’s Du stirbst nicht’ in Transitions: Emerging Women Writers in German-language Literature, ed. by Valerie Heffernan and Gillian Pye (German Monitor, 2013, pp. 169-185)
Dahlke, Birgit: ‘landnahme’ (Neue deutsche Literatur, 6, 1995, pp. 183-185)
Donahue, Neil H.: ‘Schmidt, Kathrin: Flußbild mit Engel’ (World Literature Today, 70.2, 1996, p. 396)
Eigler, Friederike: ‘(Familien-)Geschichte als subversive Genealogie: Kathrin Schmidts Gunnar-Lennefsen-Expedition’ in Multikultur, ed. by Paul Michael Lützeler and Stephan K. Schindler (Gegenwartsliteratur: Ein germanistisches Jahrbuch [special issue], 2, 2003, pp. 262-282)
—: ‘Writing in the New Germany: Cultural Memory and Family Narratives’ (German Politics & Society, 23.3, Fall 2005, pp. 16-41)
—: ‘Beyond the Victims Debate: Flight and Expulsion in Recent Novels by Authors from the Second and Third Generation (Christoph Hein, Reinhard Jirgl, Kathrin Schmidt, and Tanja Dückers)’ in Generational Shifts in Contemporary German Culture, ed. by Laurel Cohen-Pfister and Susanne Vees-Gulani (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010, pp. 77-94)
—: Heimat, Space, Narrative: Toward a Transnational Approach to Flight and Expulsion (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014)
Graves, Peter J.: ‘Karen Duve, Kathrin Schmidt, Judith Hermann: “Ein literarisches Fräuleinwunder”?’ (German Life & Letters, 2, 2002, pp. 196-207)
—: ‘Replanting the Garden of the North’ (Times Literary Supplement, 8 October 1999)
Klocke, Sonja E.: ‘Die frohe Botschaft der Kathrin Schmidt? Transsexuality, Racism, and Feminist Historiography in Die Gunnar-Lennefsen-Expedition’ in Sexual-Textual Border-Crossings: Lesbian Identity in German-Language Literature, Film, and Culture, ed. by Rachel MagShamhráin et al. (Konstanz: Hartung-Gorre [Germanistik in Ireland 5], 2010, pp. 143-158)
—: ‘Kathrin Schmidt, Du stirbst nicht: A Woman’s Quest for Agency’ in Emerging German-Language Novelists of the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Lyn Marven and Stuart Taberner (Rochester, NY: Camden House [Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture], 2011, pp. 228-242)
Kramatschek, Claudia: ‘Schnittmusterbögen, magisch: Kathrin Schmidts erzählerische Lust und Tatenkraft’ (Neue deutsche Literatur, 6, 1998, pp. 170-172)
Richter, Hans: ‘Dialoge mit Kathrin Schmidts Gedichten’ (Weimarer Beiträge, 6, 1989, pp. 990-995)
Schmidt, Nina: ‘[E]ndlich normal gewordenʼ? Reassembling an image of the self in Kathrin Schmidt’s Du stirbst nicht (2009)’ (Norms, Normality and Normalization: Papers from the Postgraduate Summer School in German Studies, Nottingham, July 2013, available online at http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/3611/, pp. 65-78)
Wagner-Egelhaaf, Martina: ‘Und Genealogia lacht… Laudatio für Kathrin Schmidt zur Verleihung des Droste-Preises der Stadt Meersburg’ in Literatur in Westfalen: Beiträge zur Forschung [vol. 7], ed. by Walter Gödden (Frankfurt/M.: Universitätsbibliothek, 2004, pp. 297-303)
Interviews/in the Media
‘Guten Abend meine Damundhern’ [Schmidt in conversation with Marcel Beyer and Malin Schwerdtfeger] (Literaturen, September 2001)
Jäger-Hülsmann, Friedrich: ‘Eine eigene Sprache finden: Walfried und Christel Hartinger sowie Peter Geist im Gespräch mit den Lyrikern Thomas Böhme, Kurt Drawert, Kerstin Hensel, Dieter Kerschek, Bert Papenfuß-Gorek und Kathrin Schmidt’ (Weimarer Beiträge, 36.4, 1990, pp. 580-616)
Kippenberger, Susanne: ‘“Ich hab ein großes Hackebeil genommen – und zack!”’ (Der Tagesspiegel, 20 December 2009) available online at http://www.pnn.de/kultur/246906/
Ustorf, Anne-Ev: ‘Es ist ein großes Glück, dass ich diesen Beruf hatte, als ich erkrankte. Kathrin Schmidt im Gespräch’ (Psychologie Heute, January 2011) available online at http://www.psychologie-heute.de/archiv/detailansicht/news/es_ist_ein_grosses_glueck_dass_ich_diesen_beruf_hatte_als_ich_erkrankte/
Verdofsky, Jürgen: ‘Ich fühle, dass ich noch voller Geschichten bin…’ (die horen, 244.4, 2011, pp. 83-108)