#WITMonth Day 1: Herta Müller

Herta Müller is a Romanian-born German novelist, poet, essayist and the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature laureate. 

She was born into a Banat Swabian family in Western Romania in 1953. Banat Swabians are an ethnic German population from Southeast Europe, ruled by Romania after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Romania fell under Soviet control in 1945, many Banat Swabians were exiled or deported on Stalin's orders, and thousands of them died in Soviet labour camps. Those who remained were subject to terrible persecution, lost their citizenship and had their property seized. 

Herta Müller's family did not escape this fate. Her grandfather, formerly a wealthy farmer, had his property confiscated by the Communist regime. Her mother, then aged just 17, was deported to a Soviet labour camp in 1945 and only released in 1950. Müller grew up speaking German and learned Romanian at school. She began her career as a translator for an engineering company in 1976 but, by then, the new Ceaușescu regime in Romanian had taken a turn for the ultra-nationalistic, and there was open hostility towards ethnic minorities.

Müller was dismissed from her job as a translator when she refused to cooperate with the Ceaușescu regime's secret police. She worked as a teacher, and published her first book, Niederungen, in 1982, in a version that had been heavily censored by the state. Niederungen, (Nadirs), is a collection of autobiographical short-stories, told through the eyes of a child, that describe the lives of Banat Swabians in rural Romania in the mid-twentieth century. An uncensored version was published in Germany in 1984.

In 1987, Herta Müller and her husband, the writer Richard Wagner, were finally able to leave Romania and settle in West Berlin. Under Ceaușescu's rule, Banat Swabians who wanted to leave had to pay a bounty of more than a thousand marks for a permanent emigration visa and a previous application to leave was rejected in 1985. Once in Berlin, Müller wrote over twenty further works, including poetry.

Müller's writing often deals with the themes of oppression, persecution and cruelty that she faced in her own life. Many of her novels are told from the perspective of German minority groups in Romania under the Ceaușescu regime, although one of her most famous novels, The Hunger Angel, tells of the deportation of Romania's German minority groups to Stalinist Soviet Gulags during the Soviet occupation of Romania - a fate suffered by her own mother. Her writing powerfully addresses the individual's vulnerability in the face of oppression and how dictatorships breed fear and alienation that its victims never fully escape.

In awarding Herta Müller the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, the Swedish Academy said that she "with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed".

Recommended reading

The following titles by Herta Müller are available in English translation:

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Portobello Books, 2016)

The Hunger Angel, translated from the German by Philip Boehm (Portobello Books, 2012)

The Appointment, translated from the German by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm (Portobello Books, 2011)

The Land of Green Plums, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Granta Books 1999)