Sesede Terziyan: Melancholy and Justice

Interview by Irina Lamp
Sesede Terziyan was born in 1981 in the small coastal town of Nordenham in Germany. She studied drama at the Ernst Busch College of Acting in Berlin. She was first cast at the German Theater Berlin and the Maxim Gorki Theater. In 2005, she became co-founder of the Berlin-based off-theater Eigenreich. In 2010 she starred in Nurkan Erpulat's plays “Lö Bal Almanya” and “Verrücktes Blut” (“Crazy Blood”). In 2011 the Theater heute (Theater Today) magazine nominated her actress of the year.
Sesede Terziyan also stars in films produced for both the small screen, such as several episodes of the critically acclaimed German police series “Tatort” (“Crime Scene”), for which she won the Amnesty International Award, and the big screen, such as “Almanya, Einmal Hans mit scharfer Soße” (“One Hans/Jack with Hot Sauce”) and Fatih Akim's latest work, “The Cut.”
Sesede Terziyan has been a member of the Maxim Gorki theater company since the 2013/2014 season. Her most recent plays include “Der Kirschgarten” (“The Cherry Garden”), “Der Untergang der Nibelungen” (“The Fall of Nibelungen”), “Kinder der Sonne” (“Children of the Sun”), “Komitas” and “Zement” (“Cement”).
100 LIVES: Sesede, you are a successful actress today. How did you discover your passion for acting?
I've always felt a strong desire to express myself, something that was taken away from my family. As a child I started making music, singing in a choir and playing the clarinet. As a teenager I also started acting, which always gave me great pleasure. At the age of 16 I did an internship at a small theater in the town where I went to school. For me it was the only place, besides my home, where I could be who I was. Nobody was interested in where I came from, what my religion was, what language I spoke, why I looked the way I did. I was able to express my true self.
100 LIVES: Were you ever confronted with questions of identity?
When we moved from our small coastal town to landlocked Baden-Württemberg, I had just been enrolled at elementary school. At my new school I was put in a class made up of 36 students from different countries. It was then that the question of identity – and, as a consequence, that of exclusion – first crossed my mind. 
100 LIVES: Was the move difficult for you? 
Yes, it was. In my new town, they called me “fischkopf,” fish head. I was the only child who spoke Standard German, which is typical of the north. At first I didn't understand a word of the regional Swabian dialect. On top of that I was surrounded by all those various groups of foreign students. There were the Portuguese, the Italians, the Turks and the Greeks, and lost and lonely among them all was I, a little girl with Armenian-Anatolian roots who spoke Standard German instead of the dominant regional dialect. A little girl who wouldn't fit in with any of these groups.
100 LIVES: You learned about your family history rather late in life. Why?
My parents told me a lot when I was 16 and 17. When I asked my father why he hadn't told me anything when I was younger, he replied, “If I had told you earlier, you wouldn't have been able to process all the information. There is no reason to stir up hatred against people who might turn out to be innocent in the end. They probably paid a poor hungry man to burn down the movie theater we were running in Turkey back in the day. I can't blame him.”
100 LIVES: Has your ancestors' history had a profound influence on your identity?
Yes. My father loves art. I must have inherited my interest in film, literature, art and culture from him and my grandfather, Aram. It's what my father wished for when he took us to Germany. He wanted us to develop our own identities, free of conventions. From early on, my father taught me to question things, to never be satisfied by the look of them. I'm very grateful for what he did. There are people who claim that I derive my identity from my language or my religion, both of which I deny. Sometimes I wish this were the case because it would have made everything easier, but only on the surface. I know that it can all be taken away, I know that tomorrow, my language can be taken away from me. And yet, “I am.”
100 LIVES: You went on a long journey to Anatolia and also conducted some interviews. What were your experiences?
That is a very difficult question to answer. Many in Turkey know nothing about the Genocide or Armenians because the Turks successfully rewrote history. When I tell them that I'm an Armenian woman from Anatolia, they are puzzled. For the last 100 years ignorance has prevailed, an ignorance that also plunged my own origins into darkness. When I start talking about myself, it prompts many to also ask themselves, “Wait a second, what about me, my origins, why don't I know my own? When I think about the family tree, I can go back to my grandparents at best.” Their recollection of the past starts with the day the Republic of Turkey was founded.
I flew to Anatolia to find out more about my origins. The first people I turned to were – as you would expect – members of my family who reside in Istanbul to this very day, among them my maternal grandfather. At first I was worried that I might open up an old wound and appear disrespectful, but my grandaunts and my grandfather were glad that someone eventually came and asked questions.
100 LIVES: You describe yourself as a North German girl with an Anatolian soul. What do you mean by “Anatolian soul?”
A profound melancholy and a very profound yearning for justice. I bear in me the karma of nomadism my family suffered over the last century. I grew up hearing things like “My dear child, make sure your entire belongings always fit in one bag because a shifting tide may cause you to pack up and leave this country any time as well.” I live in a system, I'm also part of the system, but I believe in no system.
100 LIVES: Is the existence of the country of Armenia important to you?
That's a very interesting question. I think it's very important that the country of Armenia exists because it can serve as a hub and home for a community such as the Armenian that is scattered all over the world. To me Armenia is similar to Noah's ark. I believe that, if neither the country of Armenia as such nor the Church of Armenia existed, the Armenian identity couldn't have endured. It's like an anchor. Despite of what I just mentioned I often dream about a world without borders, without flags, without nations. About diversity inherent in us all by default. No more attributes. Isn't it completely absurd to divide the world up with borders? What an absurd world we have created for us!
100 LIVES: You haven't been to Armenia yet. How do you imagine the country to be like?
I was going to travel to Armenia four years ago, but had to postpone the journey. My father was taken ill. Armenia was a little bit like a utopia for me, and at the same time a conecpt I projected my fears onto. I used to think, “Sesede, you don't speak Armenian, how will the people there welcome you? They will probably say you are Turkish, not Armenian.”
100 LIVES: Were you afraid there might be no place for you on the ark?
I was. You never know what to expect there. I feared being crushed by it. I grew up with those things. Some called me a “giaur,” which is a Turkish slur for the godless. Among Germans you are a foreigner, among Armenians someone who's been socialized in a completely different way. Last year in the summer I traveled to the Turkish-Armenian border in Ani for our “Komitas” project, and the nature felt like music in my ears. It seemed as if I could hear the duduk in the wind. I will never forget that moment, that moment of never-ending peace. My very first impression of Armenia, if you will.
100 LIVES: Talking about the theater makes you beam with happiness. Are you living your dream?
Yes, I am. I'm deeply thankful that my father gave us children the opportunity to grow up free of preconceived ideas. He gave us the key to happiness, which I eventually found. Recently I've been meeting more and more people who think the way I do and who are committed to the same causes I am. They tell stories with their art that have never been told before because there was no room. Now this room exists, a little bit of justice has been done, that's how it feels.
The feeling of no longer being the only one moves me to tears. Never before had I been able to share this kind of yearning with anyone. I have found a community other than my family in which we give each other strength. I dearly wish for this sense of fulfillment to stay with me and with others for a long time.
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North German actress with Anatolian soul