Animating Untold Stories: Sharon Dodua Otoo

The first installment (March 5) of the Zoom workshop series “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News” met an audience of over 130 participants and featured Berlin-based writer and activist Sharon Dodua Otoo, who read aloud excerpts from her newly published novel Adas Raum and engaged in conversations on multilingualism, the political function of fiction, and the black female’s position in German society.

Organized by Deniz Göktürk (UC Berkeley, Department of German, Multicultural Germany Project and Transit Journal) and Elisabeth Krimmer (UC Davis, German Department, Migration and Aesthetics Project), and co-sponsored by the German Consulate General San Francisco, the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington, and UC Berkeley’s Institute for European Studies, the series includes upcoming conversations with Zafer Senocak (April 2) and Yoko Tawada (April 16) and will continue to showcase the diversity of the German literary scene. “Archives of Migration” seeks to foreground issues with increasing relevance in recent times, such as the rise of anti-migrant and racist sentiments, and the conflation of fake news with truth in an increasingly digitized environment. Repositioning the fiction that is set in opposition to truth, to its literary association, the series of conversations with contemporary writers foregrounds the power of fiction to reanimate and activate.

After publishing her first two Berlin-based novellas in English, Sharon Dodua Otoo went on to win the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016 with her genre-bending short story “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin [Herr Gröttrup Sits Down].” Otoo’s participation in the kickoff event for “Archives of Migration” brought in the momentum of her very first novel, Adas Raum, published by S. Fischer Verlag and premiered at the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus just a week earlier (February 23). With introductory remarks by Jon Cho-Polizzi (PhD UC Berkeley, Translator), who is currently working with Otoo on the novel’s English translation, the event balanced both the excitement of Otoo’s book launch and the importance of addressing current conversations on migration, multiculturalism, and minority groups, particularly female-presenting POC’s. As an author and activist with the Initiative for Black People in Germany, Otoo’s political and writerly engagements exemplify the nexus of fiction and social change.

Through both German and English excerpt readings and mediated discussions between Prof. Göktürk, Cho-Polizzi, and Otoo, some central questions guided the workshop:

What does it mean to be German today? What is the role of fiction within political activism? How can a writer conceptualize herself across multilingual spheres?

The conversation surrounding these questions flowed naturally given the scope of Otoo’s debut novel, and the author’s own movement across linguistic and national borders. When asked why she wrote her award-winning short story, “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin,” and the novel Adas Raum in her adopted language of German, Otoo explains that these were stories that principally addressed “critical whiteness” for a German audience, and thus organically grew from the German language. Otoo additionally stressed the importance of multilingualism and how embracing different accents and colloquialisms allows for new levels of intercultural understanding. The title of Adas Raum itself reveals the intricacies and productivity of intercultural translation. Cho-Polizzi’s English translation of the title as Ada’s Realm captures the German word’s meaning as space and realm, but looses the homophonic resemblance to “room” (and the possible allusion to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own). 

Following the lives of four women across 500+ years and the geographical spaces of England, Germany, and Ghana, Adas Raum traces the subjugated individual’s search for recognition and retribution. Despite attempts to categorize the novel as historical fiction, Otoo explains that this is not her intent; rather, Adas Raum is a novel of emotions. It is a novel about the reactivation of violent historical pasts, and the unrelenting ways in which trauma reappears in objects, persons, and interactions. It is a narrative of resistance and rebirth—resistance to dominant narratives written in the colonial voice, and the rebirth, or ascension of the subaltern, post-colonial voice that does not actively reclaim, but waits patiently for retribution and redemption.

Otoo is intentionally using her position as a rising German-language writer to shed light on the sluggish repatriation of African art by European states and private holders. Within Adas Raum, the different female characters are tied together through their association with an ornate, pearl bracelet, which finally reappears as an object listed in the catalogue of a Berlin exhibition. During the workshop, Otoo expressed the hope that her fictional writings might spark political activism. In light of the recent opening of the Humboldt Forum on Berlin’s Museum Island, Otoo remarked that the better allocation of effort and resources would be toward restitution, rather than the continued musealization of artifacts that were stolen during colonial times. Importantly then, Otoo’s contribution to the German literary canon is her determination to reanimate voices that have been systematically excluded within a white-dominated society. It is to give multivalency to the trials of black motherhood and the experiences of navigating the world as a racialized, feminized other. Finally, it is to create new spaces—and rooms—for the historically subdued to finally enter and become heard.

This article is co-written by Elizabeth Sun and UCBerkeley undergraduate student Ardo Ali.

About Elizabeth Sun

Elizabeth is a PhD candidate in German Studies at UCBerkeley. She researches on 20th and 21st century literatures of migration and transculturality in the German and Dutch languages.
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