‘Every one of us needs affection, affirmation, human contact’ Marzahn, Mon Amour, the 2023 Dublin Literary Award winner, epitomises this

Katja Oskamp quit writing to become a chiropodist. Then her patients inspired her to tell their stories in a book with a Zen-like understanding of life, ageing and death

Katja Oskamp's book is the story of her decision to quit writing to retrain as a chiropodist and the story of the community of Marzahn, in east Berlin. Photograph: Paula Winkler

Some books tell us the story of a life; other books show us how to live. Marzahn, Mon Amour, by the German writer Katja Oskamp, is the latter sort — and last week it won the 2023 Dublin Literary Award, claiming €100,000 in prize money for Oskamp and her translator, Jo Heinrich.

The book is both the story of Oskamp’s midlife decision to quit writing to retrain as a chiropodist and the story, through the feet of her clients, of the community of Marzahn, in eastern Berlin. It’s a book so rich in wisdom you feel altered after reading it. But wisdom is often hard-won.

“I was in the depth of a crisis,” Oskamp says of her own journey to writing the book. “I had resolved to leave literature behind and change careers. I had such a plethora of questions regarding my life, and I thought anything is better than staying, reflecting and going around in circles at my kitchen table with my family.” When she was offered the opportunity to train as a chiropodist, she jumped at it. “My position was: I have nothing to lose, so why not say yes, see where this takes me?”

Apart from a few chapters focused on her own life, each chapter is about a different client, most of whom are elderly

She credits the experience with lifting her out of her crisis and giving her a new appreciation of life. “I got on to this trajectory and I realised very soon how much energy this is giving me and how wonderful this Marzahn world is, which I entered by sheer accident.”


Apart from a few focused on her own life, each chapter is about a different client, most of whom are elderly. The more Oskamp listened to her clients tell their life stories, the more her own sense of crisis fell away. “I saw how people dealt with loneliness, with children leaving, losing their flat, their job, disappointment, and I got a lot out of this on a daily basis. It was really important for me to understand that you can always rely on that: these people supported me, they helped me, and in that moment of my life I was very open to these small, friendly, warm gestures.”

Oskamp is also telling the history of the former East Germany, or German Democratic Republic, through these elderly people’s stories. “I come from the GDR myself, and I spent the first 19 years of my life in the former GDR. Marzahn to me was like coming home. I was born in a household like that, I grew up in a house like that and the people who showed up in my story were like the people I got to know in my life, teachers, neighbours, and to me it was really important to show that. I simply wanted to portray this in a different light than usual, particularly when talking about the east of Berlin and the suburbs and how it was very often portrayed in the media.”

Heinrich, who translated Marzahn, Mon Amour into English, came across the book by chance. “It’s absolutely remarkable for me,” Heinrich says. “I can’t get over it. It’s the most remarkable thing that has ever happened in my life, ever!”

Heinrich had dabbled in translation, working for a French toy company and translating its instruction manuals, but she had stopped working when her children were born.

“I have a book club with lots of mums from our primary school,” she says, “and one night they rounded on me and said I needed to stop wasting my talents and go out there and do something. It kind of stuck with me. I found myself applying for an MA in translation, and after a couple of years I started doing some commercial work – weirdly, foot-related,” she says, laughing – “a lot of shoe brochures and fashion articles about what to wear with your new heels.”

Oskamp still sees some of the clients she included in the book, although its success has meant she has had to give up working full-time as a chiropodist

Heinrich wanted to make the leap to translating a literary work but didn’t know how. “I had read somewhere that a good idea to get your name out there is to find short stories and get a short story into an online magazine. There was a certain online book retailer that classified Marzahn, Mon Amour as short stories, so I ordered it.” When she realised the book was actually interlinked stories she loved it so much that she decided to try translating it anyway. “And the rest is history.”

Oskamp still sees some of the clients she included in the book, although its success has meant she has had to give up working full-time as a chiropodist. One of the most captivating characters in the book is an elderly woman called Frau Bonkat, who fled westward from east Prussia in 1945, as a seven-year-old. “It was really important to understand how valuable and precious these biographies really were,” Oskamp says. “Nobody knew about these lives.”

She was pleased to be able to help Bonkat, who has since died. “Three weeks before she passed away she couldn’t leave her apartment any more, and she called me. It was clear that she had prepared for death, and she was like a hero [in] the way she did it: she was very much in self-control, and I really admired that. She told me she had friends who took care of her but none of them wanted to touch her feet. So three weeks before she died I took care of her feet, and it made me quite happy. It was very satisfying because it was important to both of us that she would die with pretty feet.”

Did the switch from intellectual, interior work to physical work in which she interacted with people reinvigorate Oskamp’s writing faculties? “It was very important to me at the time that I wasn’t stuck in the intellectual writing experience, a writer in this writing tower. If you are in front of your screen all day long you don’t know in the evening what actually made you tired, what we achieved or did not achieve. In chiropody I know every evening what I have done. I know I had 13 or 16 pairs of feet, everybody was happy, everybody was satisfied, everybody left in a better mood than they entered the room, and this is something very satisfying.”

Working with people’s feet every day also taught Oskamp the importance of human touch. “We perish if we neglect this. No matter at what level, every one of us needs affection, affirmation, human contact. This is something we also witnessed during Covid.”

Things have changed dramatically for Oskamp since the publication of Marzahn, Mon Amour. She has gone from being invisible, as she puts it, to being everybody’s favourite. Is it gratifying to be receiving so much attention now, considering how invisible she felt five years ago?

Marzahn, Mon Amour is a masterclass in perspective, with its Zen-like understanding of life, ageing and death

“I have a lot of work now, everyone is very nice to me, everybody wants me to do stuff for them. But I also know the downside of the industry. Being around my clients and being close to life changed how I handled people from the literary world. When the book was published many people came to my studio to meet me and get an appointment to have their feet treated, and I found that it’s good to treat everybody the same way.”

Marzahn, Mon Amour is a masterclass in perspective, with its Zen-like understanding of life, ageing and death. The book makes a heartwarming case for the ultimate importance of community, kindness and friendship. The small kindnesses Oskamp performs for her clients are a tender reminder that the tiniest acts can have a huge impact, just as the book reminds us that the tiniest lives can be profoundly meaningful.

Marzahn, Mon Amour feels like a perfect antidote to the online culture of wealth, ostentation, excess and envy that seems to saturate modern life — a reminder that ordinary life can be just as wonderful, if not more so. “This is what happened to me,” Oskamp says excitedly. “I didn’t know this ordinary, normal life was that beautiful. It’s also a bit easier. It takes off the pressure when it’s not always shiny and glossy and you don’t have to worry about appearances to the world. That doesn’t have anything to do with real life. Ordinary life, real life, is more beautiful.”