British writer Sharon Dodua Otoo just won the prestigious Bachmann Prize for a story she’d “accidentally” written in German. DW spoke with her about Brexit, xenophobia and life as a Black person in Berlin.
Born in London to immigrant parents from Ghana, writer Sharon Dodua Otoo has had a long-standing relationship with Germany ever since she arrived in Hanover as an au pair in 1992. Now having lived in Berlin for over a decade, she frequently speaks out about the everyday discrimination that Black people face in a predominantly white society. DW talked to Otoo about xenophobia, why she sees Brexit as a racist victory, and why it was an accident that she won a major prize for a book she’d written in German.
DW: What drew you to move to Germany from London?
To be honest, I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Germany for a very long time. It can be very confrontational sometimes the way people communicate with each other in Germany, they’re not afraid to contradict other people. In Britain, I remembered people being more polite. The humor was lighter. In Germany, it can be quite biting. I remember feeling quite upset and attacked in the early years.
But I did appreciate what I felt was a kind of a depth of a general knowledge and a real interest in getting to the bottom of things. There’s this word in German – “Auseinanderestzung, “sich mit was auseinandersetzen” – and I think that word is missing in English [Eds. note: it roughly means to grapple with something.] I have the feeling that with people in England, things tend to stay more surface level in conversation and in German, people really try to get to the bottom of things. And I appreciated that somehow so I kept coming back for more.
Does that influence your writing?
It does. It forces me to think sharper. I feel I have an opportunity because people are willing to really dig deep here; though people tend to argue a lot about things in Germany and have a very clear standpoint, if you convince them, then those opinions become their own. They’re very rarely swinging on the fence.
I felt like this was an opportunity to reach lots of people: I like using humor and confusion and surprises and I think those elements in my creative writing help people take in the messages that I’m trying to transport in a deeper way that works better than polemic shouting. I don’t want to put down political activism at all when I say that but, I do think there are merits to doing things in a subtle way sometimes.
You have an intentional message?
I do. I would challenge anybody who does art who claims that they don’t have a message. We are all influenced by the societies that we live in and we all have an influence, especially if we’re producing art and so for me, there is no such thing as neutral art or apolitical art.
I’m aware of the experiences that I have as a Black person living in a predominantly white society and I’m aware that I have a particular impact that I would like to share with other Black people, to share strategies for how to deal with particular situations, and also with white people to say, look, this is the reality of the life that we experience.
I do know that as a person who lives here with a British passport, I have certain privileges that people who have other passports – or don’t have any passport at all – don’t have access to.
Speaking of British passports, what is the Brexit situation like for you at the moment?
It’s so interesting. When I was younger, I found it important to call myself British because I didn’t think I was typically English. When I came to Germany, I felt very English because I felt like I had enjoyed a different socialization than somebody who was Scottish or Welsh and I didn’t want to claim all of their identities for myself. I was really surprised when I was all of a sudden being called British again.
And now this decision to leave the EU. I was like, how did that happen and when? It’s clearly a victory for the racists – the people who were claiming that Britain was being flooded, so to speak, by migrants. It worked and I was very shocked. So now I have the feeling that I am definitely British. I want to do whatever I can to raise awareness in British society as well about the dangers of xenophobia and racism.
I think this is not just a phenomenon of the UK or Germany, it’s a general movement in Europe and in the US that we’re looking at the rise of politicians and politics that panders to a view that society is homogenous and that we have to protect ourselves from the other. And that other is construed. At the moment, we’re looking at people who are construed as Muslim; whether they really are or not is totally irrelevant. They are being blamed for all the ills, from the lack of emancipation of women all the way through to terrorism. This is a very dangerous mood. We know what this leads to, especially in Germany. It shocks me that we’re doing it again.
What is it like for you to work in two languages? How do you choose which language to write in?
Writing in German was more of an experiment, to be honest. I very quickly decided that I wouldn’t write in German because I don’t feel so confident that I know exactly what I’m doing with the German language. I find German very eindeutig, very clear and difficult to play with. English is more playful; there’s more room for wordplay and experiments with grammar that readers of English will accept. German readers are more focused on ensuring the grammar is correct and the connotation is correct.
I picked German for this particular story [Eds. note: the prize-winning “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin”] because it was such a German subject. The man is so German and the name is so German and what he stands for is so German.
Anyway, I’d written the story originally to make a point about different perspectives. That there are these people who go through their lives with just one perspective, not realizing there are many perspectives they can take on board. But writing in German is not something that I usually do; it was an accident that that story happened.
Were you surprised by Bachmann Prize?
I really was. It felt like this story was a complete outsider, so different from the other nominations. It could only go two ways: it would either be completely destroyed by the jury or they would see it as something new. Of course, I’m really pleased. I’m still taking it in.
On Twitter, your son wrote about being racially profiled on his way home from the awards ceremony. What’s that dichotomy like for you, to be on stage and rewarded for your work against discrimination and then have this happen?
I’m glad you asked that because I’m trying to figure out how that all fits together. It’s something that needs to be talked about. My son was on a high when I won the prize. He’s so proud. He’s read everything I’ve written. But he’s also had this experience in school; people totally underestimate him. He’s constantly fighting this idea – how should I say it – that people have low expectations of him and don’t see him for what his potential is.
On the street, he’s seen as a Black man. In the media, in advertising and in films and in literature, there are very few positive images of Black men. Therefore, somebody who sees him won’t see him as the son of the Bachmann Prize winner but they’ll see him as maybe someone who has committed a crime. And apparently this is what happened on his way from Austria back to Germany. He was stopped in the car he was travelling in with the driver, his friend, and the police wanted to see what was in their car and in their bags. It seems ironic but it’s an everyday occurrence for many Black men living in predominantly white countries.
What’s next for you?
A holiday. Being with people I love to talk about everything and think about what I’d like to do.