A writer living on fiktion - Hindustan Times
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A writer living on fiktion

ByMaaz Bin Bilal
Oct 03, 2023 02:02 PM IST

On how the author’s time on a fellowship in Germany led him into a quagmire of Kafkaesque bureaucracy and made him confront the inscrutable ways of power

I spent about nine months from November 2022 on a writing fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany. It was a welcome break away from teaching — my first non-academic semester since I was three years old — to give vent to many pent-up creative energies, but also to find spiritual succour, new inspiration, and synergies. Schloss means castle in German. The fellowship was situated in an erstwhile pleasure (literally “lust”) palace cum hunting lodge commissioned by Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg in the 18th century. It is located on a hill overlooking the city. The grounds have fruit trees and pastures for horses. Behind the schloss lie acres of forest land filled with red deer, wild boar, sometimes their human hunters, squirrels, and birds of many different species, a couple of man-made lakes that the duke used to ply gondolas upon, and streams and rivulets, and of course lots and lots of redwood, birch, pine and other trees. There’s ample space for meandering long walks, getting lost in nature.

Land-Art Installation in Stuttgart Forest, “Birds”, poem by Maaz Bin Bilal, installation by Samuel Collins and Mo Langmuir. (Courtesy Maaz Bin Bilal) PREMIUM
Land-Art Installation in Stuttgart Forest, “Birds”, poem by Maaz Bin Bilal, installation by Samuel Collins and Mo Langmuir. (Courtesy Maaz Bin Bilal)

I spent about nine months from November 2022 on a writing fellowship at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany. It was a welcome break away from teaching — my first non-academic semester since I was three years old — to give vent to many pent-up creative energies, but also to find spiritual succour, new inspiration, and synergies. Schloss means castle in German. The fellowship was situated in an erstwhile pleasure (literally “lust”) palace cum hunting lodge commissioned by Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg in the 18th century. It is located on a hill overlooking the city. The grounds have fruit trees and pastures for horses. Behind the schloss lie acres of forest land filled with red deer, wild boar, sometimes their human hunters, squirrels, and birds of many different species, a couple of man-made lakes that the duke used to ply gondolas upon, and streams and rivulets, and of course lots and lots of redwood, birch, pine and other trees. There’s ample space for meandering long walks, getting lost in nature.

Solitude fellows after a somatic poetry workshop. (Courtesy Maaz Bin Bilal)
Solitude fellows after a somatic poetry workshop. (Courtesy Maaz Bin Bilal)

The meandering led me in many different directions as I read with much leisure after many, many years, continued with my translation projects, my poetry writing, my academic work, but also delved in newer areas such as fiction and word art. Some of that word art was exhibited in Stuttgart. I made great friends from among my peers, fellows selected from across the world working in wide-ranging disciplines. There were early-to-mid-career visual, digital and performance artists, curators, musicians, writers, academic researchers, architects and many who combined many practices. Some of my word art came about through collaboration, particularly with Samuel Collins and Mo Langmuir from London, and a forthcoming work with Kombo Chapfika from Zimbabwe. As this might suggest, the fellowship was truly international with participants from all six continents and their various regions. It opened for me various new ways of thinking, writing, research, and art. I also travelled elsewhere in Germany and within Europe presenting my work in Berlin, Heidelberg, and Turin, and visiting galleries and museums in other cities too such as Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne and Karlsruhe.

My meandering though was not meant to be only creative and positively exploratory. The Akademie Schloss Solitude Fellowship is supported by the provincial state of Baden-Württemberg, and thereby I was indirectly a guest of the State. Yet, neither the German Federal Foreign Office nor the Foreigner’s Authority (Ausländerbehörde) at the Stuttgart city Bürgerbüro showed me similar hospitality. Prior to this fellowship, I have studied for a PhD in the UK on an AHRC fellowship. I had got a single visa for the duration of my stay. I went for a Charles Wallace Fellowship to the UK when too I got a single visa for the full duration. I have previously visited Europe for conferences and never struggled with visas. I have full time paid employment in India as an academic and have an extensive international travel history including in the US. But despite being a guest of the state in Germany and having my visa fee waived off by them, the German visa authorities in India only gave me a three-month visa to begin with and I was told I would get a resident permit once in Germany. The bürgerbüro in Stuttgart had other ideas.

Having registered my arrival at the bürgerbüro I was asked to come back in two months for my resident card. By the time it was two months, I had begun writing some fiction. When I went in, I was told that my file had not arrived from India yet and I was issued a Fiktionsbescheinigung or a fictional certificate instead of the resident card. I was now a fiction writer officially living on fiction. No, this did not mean that my fiction was paying me enough to support my life (although to an extent that was true too since I was on this fellowship based on my writing), but my legal status seemed to be a thing of fiction. Fiction is defined as 1) imaginary literature, 2) something invented or untrue, and 3) a false statement believed to be true as it is expedient to do so. Now this was something that even my mind, trained for Keats’ negative capability and the suspension of disbelief, struggled to wrap itself around. I have always thought of myself as a model citizen of the Republic of India, and never travelled or stayed anywhere with an ambiguous status. I love the various ambiguities of Urdu poetry, Ghalib in particular whose work I have translated, but was my very existence to be in doubt now? The prospective NRC in India had thrown up the first question mark, but even a country to which I had no belonging except this nine-month stay as a guest was quibbling my existence.

Schloss during a concert (Courtesy Maaz Bin Bilal)
Schloss during a concert (Courtesy Maaz Bin Bilal)

This meandering fellowship had now lead me into a quagmire of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the inscrutable ways of power. The well-meaning fellowship supported by the same State went out of its way to attract, select, and invite people from different countries and continents over to Germany and to support their stay and work. Yet, the other departments of the State were unsure whether they wanted me there. I did not find anyone else subjected to the same fictionality. Although, some international fellows did get short-term visas they had to renew, no one else at the fellowship was issued the Fiktionsbescheinigung in my time. And here I was, hanging out with the bürgerbüro guards every two months waiting for my turn to extend my fiction.

I started to wonder what was possibly invented or imaginary or a downright lie in my self that this powerful nation of Europe could not make up its mind about. On the one hand, it invited me and funded my stay, but on the other it kept my status ambiguous. This was a near existential crisis, and I was trying really hard not to go all Woody Allen on this. There were other Indians there too on the fellowship, but all had a full tenure visa. Although, none of them had my name nor was anyone a writer. Was my identity or status prompting this joke on me? Was there some deep irony that I was missing?

I did some more research. The fictional certificate was apparently issued in Germany when: 1) documents are missing or the foreigner’s file is not available, 2) an electronically applied for residence permit (eRP) cannot be issued prior to expiry of the currently valid residence permit, or 3) the outcome of punishable offence proceedings is still outstanding. Point 2 never applied to me since I was never issued a residence permit in the first place. But if point 1. was a problem it certainly wasn’t my fault, as I had submitted all paper work in India and been issued the first visa on its basis. And there certainly wasn’t any ground for point 3. Not that I knew of.

Maaz Bin Bilal bidding adieu to Schloss Solitude (Courtesy the author)
Maaz Bin Bilal bidding adieu to Schloss Solitude (Courtesy the author)

Yes, I could go around acting as if nothing was different in my life. Maybe it really wasn’t and we give too much power to governmental paperwork. Or is that wishful thinking, and our very existence in the modern governmental state is contingent upon our citizenship status and our visitor rights?

Getting fictional renewals every two months as I continued with my imaginary writing, I finally spoke to my fellowship executive to speak on my behalf at the bürgerbüro. About 20 days before my intended return, I was finally given a residence permit for my remaining days in Germany. Here was a story of an Indian citizen who became a writing fellow in Germany but lived in fiction for many months until the promised land accepted him briefly as a resident before showing him the door. It’s not that I ever wished to stay on in Europe but a less ambiguous state of being, even for a writer, would have been far more welcome.

Maaz Bin Bilal is an author and translator and teaches at Jindal Global University.

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