There was a time when Helen Hegemony was the darling of the German literary scene. Her first novel, Axolotl Roadkill was published when she was only 17—by then she had already written greatly received screen and theater plays. Axolotl Roadkill had all the makings of a classic: a bildungsroman of drugs and sex set in post-Wall Berlin. There is no doubt that the tumult of her early life influenced the narrative of the novel, but how much of the novel was her story and how much was lifted from someone else’s?
Born in the south German town of Freiburg im Breisgau, Hegemann moved to Berlin after her mother passed away to live with her estranged father, the writer Carl Hegemann. The elder Hegemann turned out to be a less than stellar father. “Really, for years all I knew about my father was that he worked at a theatre far, far away, “Hegemann told the Guardian, “but I hardly ever saw him and had never visited. Let’s just say when I arrived in Berlin it was a shock and I did not experience a conventional family life.”
In 2007, at the age of 15, her play, Ariel 15 debuted in Berlin at the theatre, Ballhaus Ost. Just one year later, an adaptation of an early screenplay was made made into the short film, Torpedo, The movie is a drama about a teenager’s immersion into Berlin’s countercultural scene, and it received significant praise. After achieving considerable success at such a young age, Hegemann was viewed as something of a prodigy within the literary arena.
Naturally, the release of her first novel in 2010, Axolotl Roadkill, was met with great anticipation. Written when Hegemann was 16, its allegedly autobiographical contents chronicle the life of an adolescent as she experiences the squalid back streets of Berlin, with particular focus on her — often-sordid — experiences with sex and drugs. From its release, Hegemann achieved immense popularity in Germany and beyond, climbing to the tops of bestseller lists, and appearing on television talk shows as well as in magazines.
Yet, all of this was short lived. Not long after its release, information leaked in the blogosphere that Hegemann copied some of the writing from a less popular novel, Sodo. In almost no time at all, the same German literary world that showered her with such resounding acclaim, snatched it away upon confirming that Hegemann did, in fact, steal multiple pages of text from other sources without attributing credit where it was due.
The subject of the young author’s enormous publicity subsequently shifted from the shocking storyline of Axolotl Roadkill to the crusade against her transgressions — headed by Nobel Laureate, Günter Grass, as part of a larger movement to protect intellectual property. The scandal was even reported upon by the New York Times and the New Yorker, severely damaging Axolotl Roadkill chances for US publication. Hegemann at first fought back. According to the Guardian, in a Die Zeit rebuttal to her critics, she cheekily confirmed the rumor that her father had written the novel, though only after she had slept with him.
Hegemony eventually admitted to adapting 14 sentences in the novel from a blog post that wasn’t hers, but in a released statement posted by the English-German website The Local, she claimed her process was similar to that of sampling and mixing: “I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me.” When the novel was prepped for an English (UK) edition, proper accreditation was added to the six pages of work she had taken from other sources.
Hegemann released another novel in 2013, Jage Zwei Tiger (Two Tiger Hunts). Similar in tone and style to Axolotl Roadkill, this sophomore effort takes place far away from Berlin, perhaps a symbolic attempt to distance herself from the negativity of her past. While not as widely reviewed (or reviled) as her debut, nor at the moment translated, the novel helped Hegemann grow her career, a maturity witnessed by the numerous articles for Der Speigel and Die Zeit she has written as a journalist.
In 2016, however, signs of her creative return made a stir when the fashionable culture mag 032c published a libretto written by Hegemann as part of a collaboration with the German director Ralf Schmerberg: “An Innocent Mind Has No Fear.” 032c described it as an idea for the “ultimate Berlin film,” further hailing it as “a manifesto about life in the post-contemporary era, where cultural promiscuity has dissolved into a condition of spiritual bankruptcy.”
The ultimate Berlin film speaks of an ambition surely a younger Hegemann would have taken up without a blink. While a new novel hasn’t yet been announced, it’s a promising sign that Hegemony’s literary career still has some life. The ghosts of her past will certainly never leave her, but they’ll have to contend with her living and breathing fans.