Katharina Volckmer: "In many countries, before you transition you have to admit that you're sick"
BarcelonaKatharina Volker's first novel explains, in a first-person monologue, Sarah's visit to the doctor who has to operate on her to "set her free" from her vagina.. The protagonist of The Appointment (La Campana / Anagrama, 2021) tells, with an often very black sense of humour, the series of identity problems - national and intimate - that have led her to make the decision to change her sex. Sarah's testimony, dense, shocking and at times lyrical, is in the process of being translated into fifteen languages after the book was well received in the United Kingdom, where the author, born in Germany in 1987, has been living for fifteen years.
The quote starts with a dream of the protagonist in which she becomes Hitler. Sarah is German and has a problem with her identity.
— I started writing this novel from the voice of the protagonist, and I felt very comfortable: in fact, I share some of Sarah's rage, even though I am by no means her. The beginning of the book came to me very spontaneously. I wanted to tell the story of someone talking to someone else who listens attentively and creates a climate of trust in her so that she can come clean. And that's how the mention of Hitler came to my mind.
It's a book that doesn't spare provocations: at the beginning it's more humorous, but then it becomes more bitter.
— It is more difficult to write from vulnerability than from humour The Appointment is a journey towards the acceptance of this vulnerability.
Would you have written this novel if you hadn't left Germany?
— That's a good question. The German translation of the novel is published this August, and it's a litmus test for me. I have the impression that there may be controversy. Some of the themes in the book may disturb some readers, or even shock them.
Perhaps in Germany what will make the reader uncomfortable is that the protagonist cannot free herself from the guilt of being from the country that promoted the Holocaust.
— Sarah's obsession in the novel is a way of showing that many Germans hide behind Hitler, use him as an excuse. It wasn't just him who started conquering countries and exterminating people. He had a part of the people behind him. In the novel there is also this element of admiration and devotion to the dictator as a sexual fantasy...
Yes, Sarah imagines that Hitler spanks her ass with a riding crop. It will also attract attention.
— It is very difficult to address issues such as the will to dominate or to be sexually dominated. Our desire can go against the moral ideas we have. The very idea of submission is very complicated.
In the novel, Sarah is in Dr. Seligman's office: he examines her before her sex change operation. With everything he explains to her, she seems to be psychoanalyzing herself.
— She is a complex character. She has empathy for everyone who has suffered. She's convinced that society has made her life impossible.
She has had a difficult life partly because she is a woman. And now she wants to stop being a woman.
— In many countries, before you can transition, you have to admit that you are ill. Sarah has been raised as a woman, but in order to leave behind the collective and personal identity, she needs to stop being a woman.
The book explains how the construction of gender affects, from the very beginning, the way we perceive our bodies and those of others.
— The cliché of dressing boys in blue and girls in pink when they are very young continues to be perpetuated. Later, when it's time to go to the beach or the pool, girls have to cover their breasts with their bikini tops. Their breasts are sexualized before their time and for no reason. It's the same with hair removal, or the stigma of having short hair: why do women's bodies have to be inspected by the police? When I think about all this, I shudder.
Do these ideas change in younger generations?
— Gender issues continue to be uncomfortable, on a large scale. There are much more uncomfortable young people, both in terms of gender and sexual orientation. It's hard to know if they are a majority or just a few. Gender issues depend a lot on where you grow up. Maybe you have it easier in a big city than in a rural setting.
Are some of the laws that are being pushed through a first step towards more general acceptance?
— Yes, this is important. But in many countries we are seeing that resistance against freedoms is being organised, especially by the extreme right: everywhere where the extreme right manages to govern, the first thing they do is to put limits back on women's bodies. There are still many people who don't understand that identity can be fluid. It's a scary idea even though it's liberating.
The Appointment often plays with political incorrectness. Was there a red line you didn't want to cross?
— Literature is a space where you can talk about anything, and humour is a very powerful tool to do that. Even so, there was a limit I set for myself while I was writing: I felt I could laugh at Nazi criminals but I had to be respectful of the victims.
In the book there is a phrase about mothers that caught my attention: you say that "one of the most difficult things in life is to learn to love one's mother". Why is that?
— Patriarchy has played a very important role in the division between women. There are women who contribute to strengthening it: treating sons differently from daughters, for example. Sarah rejects that her mother behaved this way towards her, but at the same time this mother is a victim of the system. Coming to forgive her is very important. Empathy and generosity must not be put aside. We have to channel the discomfort towards the system, not towards our mothers.