Germany Reinterpreted: Through the Literary Lens

23 July 2013

Associate Professor Yixu Lu
Associate Professor Yixu Lu: "I think history and literature are intertwined for me...with literature I can know the past emotionally, not just factually."

How does a Chinese academic end up teaching German Studies at an Australian university? For Associate Professor Yixu Lu, it was a passion for German literature, most notably the works of Heinrich von Kleist, that led her on a path to Sydney, and into the oldest German Studies program in the country.

"I became fascinated by Heinrich Von Kleist's writings when I was in China," says Associate Professor Lu, "He was one of those authors with a very small oeuvre: he wrote a total of only eight dramas and eight stories, and some poems and essays.

"I started to read Kleist and I thought: such richness! How can you do that in 20 pages? Create a whole universe of problems? I found him fascinating. I thought: 'I am going to go to Germany to study his works'."

Yixu Lu was already fond of the German language prior to arriving in Europe, but she was not expecting to be as taken by the culture and history of Germany as she was, a culture that in some ways was vastly different from her own.

"I found it very interesting that Germans who were born during or after the Second World War, who did not actively contribute to the atrocities, could deal with all that. It's not something they avoid talking about; actually, they talk about it constantly... That is very different to the culture where I come from. If something bad happens (in China) and you are guilty of it, it's a shame, you don't talk about things you are ashamed of."

But when it comes to her own learning of the history of Germany, Associate Professor Lu prefers to explore it through the literary canon.

"In literature you don't only find how many people died, how many houses were destroyed, but you also learn how people felt in those times," she says, "that's something you won't get from a strict historical account. I think history and literature are intertwined for me, and I think that with literature I can know the past emotionally, not just factually."

In this same vein, Associate Professor Lu is also researching adaptations of Greek myths in German literature. She has found that German culture is interlinked with ancient Greek culture, and as a result this affinity has played out through the retelling of ancient Greek myths since the Enlightenment.

Although her research on German literature extends beyond her original interest in Heinrich von Kleist, it was inevitably the "most played German playwright" in contemporary German theatre that led her to Australia. Associate Professor Yixu Lu saw a postdoc position focused on Kleist at Adelaide University advertised in a German newspaper. From Adelaide she went on to hold positions at a number of Australian universities, but she has found her academic home in Sydney, where the Germanic Studies program is thriving.

"In our discipline the choice is not big. German is not flourishing like China Studies, so there is a limit to what you can choose. I'm really lucky to be able to work in Sydney because this is one of the very few (universities) left in Australia that still has a very strong German program, where students can learn more than just the language. You can still specialise in German Studies doing a major, honours and PhD, which is no longer the case at many universities.

"The University of Sydney has a very long tradition in Germanic Studies. It is the oldest Germanic Studies program in Australia, so I am happy and proud to be a part of it."

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