Out of the Sugar Factory

Dorothee Elmiger

German, Hanser, Munich, 2020

“Throughout the landscapes, this tentative arrangement of things, this essai, I keep returning to that one scene, in which, when I first saw it, something seemed to manifest itself to me, something I couldn’t formulate, but at best rediscover in relationships with a similar, analogous structure, as affinities, repetitions, parallels.”


“Sugar” appears in various guises throughout Dorothee Elmiger’s new book, Out of the Sugar Factory. It refers to each individual’s greed for gratification: of their hunger, their lust, or their yearning for wealth and happiness. But it also symbolises the greed of our capitalist, patriarchal society, which fulfils its desires by exploiting the vulnerable. And, as a self-referential metaphor, it reminds us that literature and art themselves are greedy for recognition.

Dorothee Elmiger’s new book, Out of the Sugar Factory, takes readers on a compelling journey into her inner world. A world of literary and historical investigations, journal entries, chance encounters, dreams and self-referential musings, mapped out in countless snippets of information and some longer narrative passages. In virtuoso manner, she assembles her findings on desire, happiness, and the zest for life – but also on the slave trade and on inequality – into an essai that is both disorienting and captivating.

Life is disorderly, chaotic, unjust, bewildering. What makes it worth living are love, lust, good food, and the pursuit of happiness. That this can be unpredictable is illustrated by one narrative thread in Dorothee Elmiger’s book: the story of Switzerland’s first Lotto millionaire. Having risen from penniless workman to “Lottery King”, he became bankrupt and descended into poverty once more. “Haiti is my most cherished memory,” he remarks in the book. Was his downfall even foreordained, in order to restore the capitalist order?

One symbol of this order is the sugar produced by Haitian slaves: “Sugar is thus a motif or a thing, a puzzle that has surfaced repeatedly in my life in the last few years”. A puzzle or a mystery, because sugar production connects strangers with one another across space and time: “Because of course sugar was historically produced on plantations and then consumed in Europe, by European labourers too”.

A further unifying theme is Ludwig Binswanger’s case study of Ellen West, a clinical-anthropological case study in which social conditions are mirrored in this individual woman’s biographical and medical history. A woman who loved life passionately, disregarded conventions, used food to negotiate life and death questions, oscillated between bulimia and hunger, and hence existed on the margins of society.

Out of the Sugar Factory weaves together these narrative threads and fragments into an impressive compendium of careful research and subtle observation, which also constitutes a personal literary manifesto and a poetic declaration of love.

Nominated for the Swiss Book Prize 2020 and the German Book Prize 2020

Text by Jan-Jesse Müller

Aus der Zuckerfabrik
Hanser, Munich
Translation rights
Friederike Barakat, friederike.barakat@hanser.de
Publication date
August 2020


Dorothee Elmiger

Born in 1985, Dorothee Elmiger lives and works in Zurich. Her debut novel, Einladung an die Waghalsigen (Invitation to Dare Devils), appeared in 2010 at DuMont Buchverlag, which also published Schlafgänger in 2014 (translated as Shift Sleepers by Megan Ewing for Seagull Books). Her work has been translated into a number of other languages and adapted for the stage. Dorothee Elmiger has received numerous awards, including the Aspekte Literature Prize for the best German-language prose debut, the Rauriser Literature Prize, a one-year writer‘s bursary awarded by the City of Zurich, the Erich Fried Prize, and the Swiss Literature Prize. For more information (in German, English site under construction), see: dorotheeelmiger.com.

Photo: Peter-Andreas Hassiepen