New Visions of Belonging in German Studies

Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin" and other stories: A Conversation with Sharon  Dodua Otoo

The latest installment in our Mission Possible series of reflections on the future of German Studies comes courtesy of the MGP’s own Elizabeth Sun, who situates Sharon Dodua Otoo’s Ingeborg Bachmann Prize-winning short story “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin” in the context of recent trends in German literature and film as well as tendencies in German Studies towards antiracist, transnational, and multilingual conceptions of Germanness.

German Studies’ contributions to discourses on migration, memory, and multiculturalism are uncontested. After Turkey (3.6 million), Colombia (1.8 mil.), Pakistan (1.4 mil.), and Uganda (1.4 mil.), Germany hosts a considerate 1.1 million of the world’s 26.3 million refugees, (as of mid-2020). Due to its changing demography and global connections, Germany’s debates on the entanglement of public and private memories, issues of national belonging, and contestations of differentiating truths, have gained increasing relevance in the context of the modern-day refugee crisis and renewed public debates on systemic racism, xenophobia, and cultural essentialism.

In the past half century, German Studies in America has increasingly shifted its focus from a nationally-defined canon of German literature to encompass a transculturally conceived field of cultural and literary studies; texts that focus on processes of migration have creatively and productively challenged ideological notions of “German” literature and authorship. Transit Deutschland, which traces the history and flows of migration since post-WWII Germany and was conceptualized and edited by Berkeley Professors Deniz Göktürk and Anton Kaes, is a testament to Germany’s more than half-century long status as an Einwanderungsland (country of immigration).

Concurrently, German Studies scholars such as David Gramling (2008 PhD graduate of Berkeley’s Department of German) have focused on the ability of literatures of diaspora, migration, and exile to enable a “progressive, multiethnic conception of ‘German-language literature.’” (Gramling 530). Turkish and multilingual “turns” have also been respectively outlined in studies by Leslie Adelson and Yasemin Yildiz.

Now in its 13th year of inception, Berkeley’s very own TRANSIT: A Journal of Travel, Migration and Multiculturalism in the German-speaking World continues to follow and invigorate discourses on national belonging, multilingualism, cosmopolitan identities, and most recently, traveling forms. German Studies is a vibrant, intellectual center of conversations on migration, multiculturalism, and cultural meaning-making.  

As shown through this year’s launch of Archives of Migration, contemporary German-language writers and artists continue to inform our understanding of current affairs as they carve out poetic space for minority voices. By repeatedly contesting the boundaries of “What does it mean to be German today?”, writers such as Sharon Dodua Otoo, Zafer Şenocak, Abbas Khider, and Yoko Tawada encourage us to critically reconsider the formations of cultural memory, while foregrounding the power of fiction in political spheres. These writers, multilingual in their literary projects as well as their daily lives, have provided us with diverse perspectives on the mediation of minority narratives, the ethics of empathy, and the conditions of belonging.

These considerations have gained additional urgency as we witness the continuous rise of far-right movements, gain increased awareness of the persistence of systemic racism, and sift through contestations of truth and lies within the ongoing phenomenon of “Fake News.” As Annika Orich (2017 Berkeley graduate in German Studies) encourages in her article on “Archival Resistance: Reading the New Right,” now is the time “to read further, to think further, and to act further” and to resist the continued misuse of cultural archives that continue to divide rather than unite.

Of course, solidarity is not only answered by critically sifting through the differentiating claims to truth and reading widely; nevertheless, fiction is one step forward towards social cohesion and political action. When asked to write a critical piece on “critical whiteness,” Sharon Dodua Otoo chose to write her award-winning fiction piece, “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin,” a subversive text on the deep-seated internalization of cultural scripts and the unstable boundaries between Germanness and otherness.

Through the interchange of third-person limited and the creative first-person narration from the perspective of an Ei (egg), Otoo satirically portrays the unraveling of the white, German Herr Gröttrup, unsettled by a resistant, anthropomorphic egg that refuses to boil to the preferred setting. By focusing on the breakfast table, which epitomizes routine and a time-space of idle criticality, Otoo also creatively questions our practices of “epistemic laziness” (Sarah Colvin’s terminology for “not needing to know”) portrayed by Herr Gröttrup who is ever so content in his secure space of white male privilege and—until the subversive egg incident—unbothered by his dominating influence over his wife and maid, Ada, whose name he cannot even recall.

Though we begin with Gröttrup’s third-person limited consciousness, the text’s impact comes through the humor and resistant nature of the post-human egg subject, which sympathizes more with Frau Gröttrup and Ada. German texts such as the above play the crucial role of bringing awareness to subaltern voices and shaking some of us out of our own epistemic ignorance.Recent German productions have also foregrounded the reality of migrants on the move, rather than embracing standardized narratives with a clear-cut start and finish.

Take Christian Petzold’s 2017 film Transit, for example, which highlights the continued precarity of refugee lives through the Jewish protagonist Georg’s attempts to find political safety amidst the rise of fascist forces. Based on Anne Seghers’ 1942 historical novel of the same title, and concretely situated in Nazi Germany, Petzold restages the narrative as a metaphor for the universal refugee, who is repeatedly subject to bureaucratic, psychological, racial, and social challenges. Similar conditions are also highlighted in Abbas Khider’s Der falsche Inder (2008) and Ohrfeige (2016).

Such texts have us critically consider the social and political impacts of human flows, along with their interpolation with public and private cultural archives. How might subaltern voices break into dominant national and cultural narratives, and what can we learn through such processes? Active re-readings of archives, per Orich’s suggestion, is one way to reveal the nuances of integration and assimilation, while underscoring the unrelenting dynamisms of cultural meaning-making. Through Germany’s ongoing status as a nation of immigration and the critical engagements of its German-language writers, German Studies continues to productively question, redefine, and invigorate questions of: Who belongs? Who decides? And finally, what now?

Works Cited

Adelson, Leslie A. The Turkish Turn in Contemporary German Literature: Towards a New Critical Grammar of Migration. 1st ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Colvin, Sarah. “Talking Back: Sharon Dodua Otoo’s Herr Gröttrup Setzt Sich Hin and the Epistemology of Resistance.” German Life & Letters, vol. 73, issue 4, 2000, pp. 659–79.

Göktürk, Deniz, David Gramling, Anton Kaes, Andreas Langenohl, eds., Transit Deutschland : Debatten zu Nation und Migration; eine Dokumentation. Konstanz: Konstanz Univ. Press, 2011. 

Göktürk, Deniz, David Gramling, and Anton Kaes, eds. Germany in Transit: Nation and Migration, 1955-2005. U of California P, 2007.

Gramling, David. “Researching Multilingually in German Studies: A Brief Retrospective,” German Studies Review 39, no. 3, 2016, pp. 529–40.

Orich, Annika. 2020. “Archival Resistance: Reading the New Right.” German Politics & Society, vol. 38, issue 2, 2020, pp.1–34.

Otoo, Sharon Dodua. Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin / Herr Gröttrup Takes a Seat / Herr Gröttrup Sits Down. Translated into British English by Katy Derbyshire. Translated into American English by Patrick Ploschnitzki and Judith Menzl. Ed. Brittany Hazelwood, Berlin 2019.

Petzold, Christian. Transit, Germany: Schramm Film, 2018. 

Yildiz, Yasemin. Beyond the Mother Tongue, New York, USA: Fordham University Press, 2013.

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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