JUNE 15, 2019
GERMAN WRITER Heike Geissler’s autofictional Seasonal Associate, recently translated by Katy Derbyshire and published in the United States by Semiotext(e), is a novel about precarious labor. The narrator is a freelance writer who takes a job as a seasonal associate at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, Germany. The book was inspired by Geissler’s own experience working as a temporary worker in an Amazon warehouse. The anxieties and humiliations of this type of labor are described in a fragmented prose that renders visible and specific a tiny part of the vast human suffering Amazon has caused. Geissler takes the reader into absurdist training meetings, to the boxing line, on tram ride after exhausted tram ride. The narrator notes the pain of others and herself, articulating her alienation from her corporate surroundings. “That’s how it is,” she says. “You’re exhausted now, not just physically; your mind, which is also a little bit your heart, has sustained damage as well. Or your heart, which is also a little bit your mind, has sustained damage.” On every page, Geissler demonstrates the damage of late capitalism while generously reminding us that the act of making art can be a form of resistance.
I saw Geissler read from Seasonal Associate at the Edendale Library in Echo Park, Los Angeles, in March 2019. We conducted this interview via email, when she was back home in Germany.
KATE DURBIN: Your writing process for the book began during a period of exhaustion, while working for Amazon as a seasonal associate. You jotted down notes on Post-its while at work. What inspired you to do this? At the time, did you have an idea of what the notes would be for? Do you still have them?
HEIKE GEISSLER: I still have some of the notes, I guess. But they are faded as they were written with a pencil on yellow Post-its and then carried in my pockets. I started taking notes because I am a writer. Because if something strikes me or is interesting or if there is no escape I need a pen and paper and to make some notes. That is my basic freedom and what I always return to. I felt under pressure and by simply writing down names of products I kept a certain distance from my surroundings and what was being asked of me. The company ate me up every day. Making the tiniest, most irrelevant notes helped me hold myself together and see more clearly why there is not enough solidarity among the workers. It was a little private space.
When you read from Seasonal Associate at the Edendale Library in Los Angeles, you said writing this book gave you a sense of freedom in a way that writing your previous books had not. Can you talk more about that? If I am remembering correctly, I think you said it had something to do with writing against the kind of dehumanization you felt in your work at Amazon. And you mentioned that the publishing industry can also be dehumanizing, serving the same god of capitalism.
When I started writing the book, I was back at my desk. The time of being a seasonal associate was over, and I could get back to my own time management, which means there was time for thinking, reconsidering, doing things the wrong way until I found out if the wrong way was the more interesting, better way, or not. I can handle being my own boss and I prefer being the kind of boss that is absent. I guess the minute my first book got published I started making the mistake of not writing what I really wanted to write. I was writing what publishing houses or readers or editors might be interested in, because I depended on their yes, depended on them liking it. With Seasonal Associate, it was different. After five publishers had rejected the book, I took it off the market, paused for a while, focused on translating and writing other things, until I noticed the text did not feel like it was mine. That was astonishing. I had not noticed that before. It really felt like every text I had wanted to write belonged to the publishers that could potentially publish it. I reclaimed my text by asking myself what I really wanted to do, what I wanted the text to look like, who am I really writing for (me and the readers that I want to reach), and that I want writing to be fun (as it is hard enough and needs all my patience and time). I felt free, and still do. But as most of us are, I am still inside capitalism, though not praying to its god anymore.
One of the unique aspects of the novel is the point of view. There is the narrator, the “I” voice, who works at Amazon. There is also the second-person “you,” the reader, who is also the “I,” the narrator, but not exactly. I thought of it like the shadows of two people on the ground, overlapping. The nature of this type of precarious labor at Amazon isolates people, makes them compete with one another for scraps. I liked this POV shift because it felt to me like a gesture of reaching out to others, of connection. It also feels imaginative, unlike the boring rituals of the Amazon warehouse. Like it’s slipping around playfully, evading the conformity of that environment. Why did you choose this particular POV for the novel?
I like what you say, that it seemed to you like shadows. I created the “I” and the “you” because I wanted to make one point completely clear to myself and readers: Why it is so hard to have a job like that? Why are many jobs asking too much of us? Complaining about those jobs and not being able to handle them is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of life. I usually tend to think that the mistake lies with me, that I am simply not strong, patient, willing enough, for whatever, and hardly ever recognize the capitalist structure as the main problem and so on. For that reason, I could not tell my story by using the “I.” The “I” would have found excuses for the company and never have revealed how rotten this work was and still is. The “you” gives me the chance to speak partly more generally about working conditions, life, and what I think is needed for society. I want to show solidarity with everyone who is being forced to work like a machine and tell them that no matter what, you deserve a good life. But as I very often show no solidarity for myself the “I” would have been the wrong POV.
Seasonal Associate went through a long process from Post-it notes to final, translated book, and included an audio component in-between. Can you talk about the book’s evolution?
After five publishers rejected the manuscript, I felt so wounded and I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t take this anymore. Publishers can be wonderful, and it’s good if the relationship is respectful. But my experiences until then were different from that. They were mostly a simulation of respect. I don’t need that. Also, I thought that the publishing houses my agent and I had aimed for were the publishers totally inside the market, who agree to its mechanisms, needs, and forces, and contribute to what books are being sold. They make you fit into the market and never try to stretch the market, open or claim a new one. That is hurtful, conservative, and boring, too. I had no clear words for that back then. I felt neglected and had no plan until I felt anger and noticed how I had given all the power over my manuscript to publishers I did not even think did good work. They were and still are just big publishing houses. I am a very sensitive person and can’t take absurd, cruel, unfair things professionally. Sometimes it can be too challenging for me if I have to appear in public. With Seasonal Associate, it was never this way. There is no Entfremdungseffekt at all. I totally own the book. I wrote it the way I wanted to. I recorded chapters and published them on my website because recording felt so much more convincing than putting written words on the internet. It felt like I helped my very own child take his first steps. Perfect steps. And when Mathias Zeiske, editor at Volte/Spector Books, contacted me to ask if we could make a book together, I said yes in an instant because I knew his work as magazine editor (the German literary magazine Edit) and I was and still am a fan of Spector Books. Together, we made a beautiful book, and I felt enthusiastic and at home. With Semiotext(e), it was the same. They are wonderful. I love so many of their books and bought them before I became a Semiotext(e) author. Of course my happiness about this part of my publishing career can’t cover up the fact that I will have to fight to make good choices in good surroundings for the rest of my life.
I like that the book’s creation process was itself a kind of act of resistance to the powers of capitalism. Do you see Seasonal Associate fitting into the lineage of other books about labor? I am of course thinking of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but also of two relatively contemporary Japanese books, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and Out by Natsuo Kirino. Both books deal with capitalism and dehumanization. Convenience Store Woman is unique in that the narrator gives herself over to working in the Japanese convenience store, and lives for her work and nothing else. Out deals with class and gender, the dehumanizing nature of women’s labor both outside the home and inside the home. The women in Out work in a bento box factory, and their work is very back-breaking and repetitive, similar to working in an Amazon warehouse.
It is very embarrassing, but I haven’t read the books you mention. I consider myself a reader, but the truth is I hardly have time for reading. But why should my book not fit into the lineage of other books about labor? Personally, I feel closer to writers like Christa Wolf, Helga M. Novak, Roland Barthes, Robert Walser, Rainald Goetz, Hannah Arendt, and the British tradition of Mass Observation that enabled people to give reports on their daily lives, special events, or places. A big influence for me are all the protocols that were published in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s in Germany, especially the ones from Eastern Germany.
Another theme in your book is motherhood, and how this work at Amazon affected your relationship with your children. Can you talk about that?
Well, motherhood. By now I’ve been a mother for almost 12 years and it’s still new to me. If you want an honest, open-minded, warm-hearted relationship with your kids and to not boss them around, you need time and a certain amount of money that guarantees safety and stability and enables curiosity, love, excitement, joy, and so on. Most jobs do not leave enough time for spending time with friends or family members, so they cut short our fascinating capability of living social lives and building deep connections to one another. Being a mother is not about being there all the time and in every moment your kid might need you. It is about meeting basic needs and being empathetic, caring, loving, just, and fair. But of course it is also about making mistakes and missing out on things. It is about getting to know each other. I get to know my children; they get to know me. I enjoy communicating with them, finding out how they see the world. And this takes time most jobs don’t leave you. I very often work overtime or at night when others spend time with their children or their friends or other families or in bed. Many people I know work that way. And sometimes I am not sure if I’m exploiting myself or just really interested in what I do and keen on finishing it. Way too often I don’t get paid in time. The nicest people with the greatest knowledge about how to fight capitalism and hierarchies show how much they can keep you in dependence by not paying on time. They permanently rebuild hierarchies they would swear not to ever want to encourage. My life is still full of ugly reenactments that cost me money, time, and my sense of humor. At Amazon, it is very obvious. I was leading my parents’ life, so I knew I would not have time for my children. With writing and those not paying you, it’s different. They all seem to be good, reasonable, nice people that share my attitude toward money and how it should be shared. In my life and actions, there is a lot of subtext dealing with people that seem so contemporarily interested in equality, but contribute to inequality without even noticing.
I confess, Seasonal Associate shattered my fantasies about Germany as a country that is very progressive, with strong labor unions and support for the arts. It reminded me once again that Amazon is ravaging the globe in every way, from hurting the environment to individual human workers. When I read your narrator’s experience, I feel a strong kinship, as a writer, an artist, and someone who has been in precarious work positions for years. And I feel guilty that this man in my country — Jeff Bezos — is so greedy, that he wants to take from everyone and everything, the whole planet. How are Amazon and other American tech giants changing the culture of Germany? Do you see more pushback from the people there? I know the Google headquarters in Berlin was recently rejected, happily.
This question is big, too big for me to answer right now. It causes enormous fatigue, immediately. Maybe because it makes me feel sad. Capitalism is so powerful, and so are populism and hate. Every country can change in an instant, historically speaking. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to describe what’s going on and how not to be weakened by it. Describing how companies — no matter where they are from — change a society or how politicians change societies and politics is something I’m not good at anymore. I’m now focusing completely on writing my next book which is a book on protesting, I guess. The world is full of enemies. But the world is also full of friends. My friends are the strongest and most wonderful, beautiful, creative human beings. Part of me lives in a fairy tale and lives on hope and the simple belief that the world must not just be a fairer place, but a truly fair place. I love fairy tales and feel like writing ones that empower and that I want to come true.
Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles–based artist and writer whose work focuses on popular culture and digital media. Her fiction and poetry books include E! Entertainment, The Ravenous Audience, and the collaboration ABRA. ABRA is also a free interactive iOS app that is “a living text,” which won the 2017 Turn On Literature Prize for electronic literature and an NEA grant.
Banner image by Scott Lewis.