Nov 26, 2019

Shevek. A Fulbrighter’s Perspective.

Von Wolfgang Holtkamp

From Rostock to Rhode Island

Fulbright Germany alumnus Dr. Wolfgang Holtkamp who, as a citizen of the GDR, received a Fulbright scholarship to the US in 1989, has processed his individual Fulbright experience creatively through a wonderfully written piece of reflection.

About the author:

As Senior Advisor of International Affairs, Wolfgang Holtkamp coordinates the international strategy at the University of Stuttgart. His Fulbright experience was in the field of American literature, which he still teaches today. He has remained in close touch with his Fulbright host university and professors.

I am Shevek. You know, the character from the The Dispossessed. Perhaps you remember that I was the first to leave my world.

Anarres was my home. My ancestors had left the state A-Io on planet Urras. They had lost an anarchic rebellion, gone to another planet and cut all ties. Their new world was dry and cold and dusty. Only few forms of life existed. Their ideas continued to be anarchic. One of their principles was sharing. Everything. Also ideas. I was a physicist and was about to develop a new theory of time. It would make instant communication possible across galaxies. I wanted to share it. With everyone, everywhere. However, first I had to check it with the physicist Ainsetain on Urras. Therefore I had to go to Urras, and I did. But A-Io did not want to share the theory. So I went to the terrestrial embassy which spread the new concept. Only then I went back to Anarres, to an uncertain future.

I felt like Shevek.

I had a theory, and I needed to check it. There was no direct flight, of course. I had to change planes. At the foreign airport my flight to America was delayed by a passenger who was dragged on board by the police. Against his will. His pants half down. He resisted quite a bit. He did not want to be on that plane, and eventually the captain decided he shouldn’t be.

But should I? There was a problem with the booking, or so it seemed. I got an upgrade to business. “Sorry, sir, only smoker left. But the food will be excellent.” It sure was.

My flight arrived late. I was met at the airport. The guy was unfriendly. Didn’t talk much during the drive. Dropped me and my luggage in the hotel lobby. There were no goodbyes.

A winter storm was coming in. A cold world. Very true. Just as I had been told. It got better once the storm had swept through. The new department manager welcomed me. I was her first Fulbrighter and foreign guest. She showed me my mail box. There was a letter. From an American Fulbright friend in East Berlin. He welcomed me to his country. How very thoughtful. How ironic: He was in my country and would stay longer than I would be in his country. But he had told his wife that I might visit some day. And I did. By then he was already back home. I was not, yet. There was an earthquake in his city when I was on the plane from the East coast to the West. There were aftershocks the following days.

There were other kinds of earthquakes in other parts of the world. Metaphors for what would come. Countries would collapse. Walls would come down. Little did I know.

On a small island in the Atlantic they say, “This is not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” I did not see it, then.

I only saw it after my return. The very first minute. On an empty autobahn in the East. The day before my departure I had been in Manhattan. There it was busy, loud, colorful. You name it. Here it was slow, silent, grey. I could not name it. The quiet before the storm.

I had returned. It is a Fulbright rule that you go back to the country you come from. My friend in Manhattan had said that he does not care for such rules. “You are my friend, and that’s all that counts. You have been with my family for graduation. They love you, they wouldn’t want you in uncertain waters.”

“True voyage is return,” I had read in the novel. What to do? I had to move on to my future.

I was Shevek, once.

Based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic tale of two planets torn apart by conflict and mistrust — and the man who risks everything to reunite them.

Go back