Small Literatures and Neighborhood

By Judith Sieber

On February 16 and 17, 2023, the workshop “Small Literatures and Neighborhood” took place at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) as part of the project “Europäische Zeiten/European Times” (EUTIM). The two-day event was organized by Annette Werberger, Anja Jahn, and Claudia Dathe from the EUTIM project; scholars from Düsseldorf, Basel, Oldenburg, and Frankfurt (Oder) were invited.

Small Literatures? Of Misreadings and Visibility

The concept of “small literatures” was at the beginning of the workshop. But what is meant by the term and which questions open up in distinction to “large literatures”? The organizers of the workshop refer to Franz Kafka, who described “small literatures” in a diary entry from 1911, but which has many linguistic ambiguities, as Werberger and also Efrat Gal-Ed (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf) pointed out in their lectures. Annette Werberger also opened the workshop with a reference to Kafka’s text: It was written when Kafka began to deal with Yiddish and Czech literature which he described in distinction to – as Werberger explains ­– the so-called “large literatures” such as German, French, English, Spanish and Russian, but also with regard to their political ambition. This includes, as Werberger emphasizes and becomes clear again and again in the course of the two days, the importance of visibility or the process of “Sichtbarmachung”. The fact that this aspect has been forgotten in Kafka’s text is, according to Werberger, due to a misreading of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who in their book on Kafka spoke of a “littérature mineure” (“minor” literature) and thus made a qualitative distinction from the large or major literatures and thus also promoted a monolingual narrative of nations.

©Judith Sieber

Yiddish Literature and Politerritoriality

In addition to the question of how to define small literatures, the individual contributions also provided numerous insights into the Yiddish, Sorbian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian literature. Efrat Gal-Ed and Daria Varushkova (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf) dealt with the constitution of Yiddish literature in the 1920s, which as stateless and thus “politerritorial” literature was admitted to the international PEN Club in 1927 (Gal-Ed). However, the subject matter was also the translation theories of Aleksander Finkel, which he developed alongside Russian and Ukrainian equally in Yiddish and thus contributed to the expansion of Yiddish as a scientific language (Varushkova). In both lectures, the proximity between Yiddish literatures and the concept of neighborhood, i.e., the proximity between different languages and cultural spaces, was virulent. Gal-Ed and Varushkova demonstrated how Yiddish language and literature were on an equal footing with other literatures – and thus, as Werberger put it, Yiddish was not a “littérature mineure”.

Translation issues and “the Own”

Using the example of two Ukrainian authors, Sofia Jablons’ka and Haska Šyjan, writing in the genre of travel literature, Claudia Dathe vividly described how cultural belonging is expressed through language and spatial distances. For Dathe, it was also important to ask what role the translations of the works play in this process of negotiating what is one’s own. For both authors, Dathe described not only their transculturality but, tied to this, also their multilingualism as characteristic – representing in a similar way “the own” as well as “the foreign”. These considerations resurfaced in Oksana Pashko’s paper (European University Frankfurt (Oder)), which focused on Ukrainian translation and appropriation of Alphonse Daudet’s French-language works in the 1910s and -20s. The later discussion of the paper centered, among other things, on the question of shifting power between small and large literatures through processes of translation and appropriation.

©Judith Sieber

Ways of Relating (to the Outside and on the Inside)

Anna Hodel (University of Basel) foregrounded the specific potential of the regional in relation to the imperial, using the South Slavic literatures of the Romantic period as an example. She defined the (post-)imperial context and space of Eastern Europe as a specific production and reception horizon not only for a demarcation but also a self-awareness of the small literatures there. Hodel also described the Romantic period, the upheaval at the beginning and start of the 19th century, as paradoxical in terms of the relationship between the universal, the national and the particular. This period combined a strong notion of the national with a thinking of the universal, for example, the idea of a world language with an emphasis on the supremacy of German in it (Hodel described this constellation with reference to Goethe). In the discussion, it was also pointed out that especially the small literatures (in contrast to the large ones) have their own and in each case specific relationship to the national, because the unity of people and nation is not constitutive here. Kristina Kromm (Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg) deals in her dissertation with the constitution of contemporary Belarusian literature and gave in her lecture an insight into her research: By applying the field theory of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Kromm outlined the power and dependency relations within the Belarusian literary field and thus complemented the questions of the workshop with a sociological perspective. According to Kromm, it is precisely the expectations placed on literature from Belarus from the outside, especially from Germany, that constitutes its literature as ostensibly political.
The workshop was concluded by Anja Jahn (European University Frankfurt (Oder)) with a lecture on the role of friendship and personal relationships in the formation and further development of small literatures. Using the example of the friendship between the Sorbian authors Mina Witkojc’ and Marjana Domaškojc, Jahn illustrated the importance of personal networks. She also vividly showed how this (textual) friendship at the beginning of the 20th century devised common literary motifs, such as the mud hut as a “small place”. Jahn’s contribution also brought to light the fear of loss of Sorbian language and culture, and can be understood as another specific feature of small literatures.

Throughout the workshop the concept of “small literatures” was sharpened by theoretical considerations and numerous examples. Thus, the specific interconnectedness to “large literatures” became clear again and again. Small literatures concern not only the relationship between small and large, but also between inside and outside, and between spatial proximity and distance. Ultimately, they provide an important approach for a change of perspective in literary theory.

Judith Sieber works at the Forum Transregionale Studien as communication coordinator for “Europäische Zeiten / European Times: A Transregional Apporach to the Societies of Middle and Eastern Europe” (EUTIM)

“Minor/Small Literature(s)” was the theme of a 2019 Transregional Academy of the Forum Transregionale Studien. More:

Citation: Judith Sieber, Small Literatures and Neighborhoods, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.03.2023,

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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