-When I go to jamilla’s I always cross the playground, the playground’s pretty big and right in the middle of it is a huge sandbox. Somebody drew an invisible line through the middle of the playground and the German and the Russian kids never go on the slide, and the Arab and the Bosnian kids never go on the swings. Back when Jamila and I skated around the playground there wasn’t yet an invisible line
This is a hot hot summer in Berlin, Nini and Jameelah, two fourteen year old girls prepare for the summer holiday break as Stephanie de Velasco presents to us here, in a refreshingly realistic style this coming of age tale, her first book, Tiger Milk, read for German lit month VI.
Nini and Jameelah live in apartments in the same housing complex in today’s multiracial Berlin, there are Muslim, Christian, and Orthodox children but going beyond this simple divide Jameela comes from Iraq, and there are kids from Bosnia and Serbia and they are all thrown together with their emotional ‘baggage’, scarred by the different war zones they have left behind them.
At fourteen Nini and Jameelah experiment with alcohol, their own cocktail called ‘Tiger Milk’, a mixture of milk, brandy and passion-fruit juice, they steal from shops and toy with prostitution. The story’s narrator is Nini (as in Stephanie?), whose home life is pretty much a wreck:
-Mama lays on the sofa basically all of the time, most of the time her eyes are closed, but when I come home she sometimes opens them and asks where were you. When she opens her eyes she always looks horribly tired like she’s just arrived from some far away place and then she’s flopped down in our living room here by blind luck, I don’t think she’s really looking for an answer to her question, me on the other hand I’d love to know where she was, where she always goes behind her shuttered eyelids all those hours she spends alone on the sofa. Mama’s sofa is like a remote island she lives on and even though that island is in the middle of our sitting room, a thick haze obscures it from view. You can’t dock on mama’s island.
The opening quote to this post tells us that the tensions in the housing complex in which they live haven’t always been there even during Nini’s short life. Amid the girls’ realisation that at fourteen life is changing around them, two major dramas occur, the first concerns their Bosnian school friend and neighbour, Amir and his family:
-Last night, said Amir After I had already fallen asleep, Jasna and Tariq had a fight, it woke me up, she told him that she wanted to marry Dragan
-It’s true Amir says, she even has a ring, a real engagement ring that he gave her
-Really, the fight was so horrible that Tariq locked her in the living room, but this morning she was gone she’d broken the front door and gone to Dragan’s place.
This drama unfolds further leading towards a dramatic end, and in parallel, and unimaginably to Nini, her friend Jameela, who had come to Germany at a very young age with her mother, a nurse, after losing both her father and brother to events in Iraq is notified of a possible deportation order. She learns some of the hard truths of adult life, relentless enactment of laws by cold unfeeling burocracies. Jameelah’s mother had gone back to Iraq to attend her sister’s funeral, but if she could go back for this…….
The fresh youth’s telling of this story as, amidst all that happens around her she lets her worries and her doubts about her own life shine through, makes it particularly fascinating:
-Having kids sounds so strange, like some exotic country, Guatemala……and then suddenly I’m shitting myself with fear the way I’m standing on the stump pegs behind Nicco shitting myself about the idea of having kids and being lonely and getting old and dying young.
Stage versions of Tiger Milk have been produced in a number of German theatres.
First Published in German as “Tigermilch” by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in 2013
Translated into English by Tim Mohr as ‘Tiger Milk’ and published by Head of Zeus in 2014