Reflections on Archival Resistance: Conversations with Sharon Dodua Otoo, Zafer Şenocak and Yoko Tawada

In spring 2021, we hosted a series of conversations with contemporary writers titled “Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News.” Organized jointly by Professors Deniz Göktürk and Elisabeth Krimmer (UC Davis), this series was supported by the German Consulate General San Francisco, and co-sponsored by the German Historical Institute Pacific Regional Office and the Institute for European Studies at UC Berkeley. UC Berkeley undergraduate Jezell Lee and recent alumna Ardo Ali, both students in Prof. Göktürk’s “Archival Resistance” seminar, participated in the workshop and share their thoughts on the course and the broadening horizons of German Studies, alongside a selection of reflections from their classmates.

Throughout the semester, we have had the opportunity to engage with three prominent Berlin-based authors of diverse multilingual backgrounds, Sharon Dodua Otoo, Zafer Şenocak, and Yoko Tawada. This was carried out through a joint UC Berkeley and UC Davis Zoom workshop series titled, Archives on Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News. Hosting the workshops in pandemic times via Zoom allowed for ease in broadening the audience, by bringing in international guests ranging from Chicago, Illinois to Valencia, Spain. 

During the workshop series, each author provided insight into their breadth of work both new and old, highlighting sentiments of cultural remembrance, issues of contemporary German identity, and more. Each writer also combined their artistic musings with archives, ranging from familial letters and memorabilia to the documented works of other notable authors like Paul Celan. 

The engaging conversations with the writers we read were guided by questions about their own multilingualism, identity and culture, and I deeply appreciated the fact that we were not only able to read very recently published literature but also interact with their authors to gain a heightened sense of understanding of their own backgrounds and foundations for their work, as none of them are German in the “traditional” sense.

Jezell Lee

The first author, Sharon Dodua Otoo, took us through her recently released realm-bending novel Adas Raum. Otoo, being of an English-Ghanaian background and writing this novel in German, can draw on a diverse source of influences manifesting in the main character Ada, who appears at different points in time throughout the text. Ada materializes as a woman of different stations and culture intermittently in the periods between pre-colonial Africa to modern-day Berlin. 

The title of the novel is intended to portray the multifaceted essence of space through the use of the word “Raum”, which, when translated, can take on a handful of different forms in English, such as space, room, and area. Additionally, Otoo enjoyed that it could also denote the space that black female authors like herself could take up in the literary world. A focus within her workshop was the use of language and how publishing this novel in German was the key to having it come together stylistically. She noted that each language has its flavors, accents, and slang that contribute to its overall tone, and emphasized the power that language has in connecting individuals to one another. 

The interaction fostered by the German department between renown guest speakers such as Yoko Tawada, Sharon Dodua Otoo and Zafer Senocak has allowed me to better grasp the unique nature of the German language and the intricacies of German literature. Listening and analyzing these amazing speakers and their respective texts produced an array of different emotions for me each time and ultimately allowed me to identify my own style of writing and where I sit in the field of literature. Prior to this class I had a very basic understanding of literary translation, yet through our collaborative efforts I have come to understand the importance of identity in developing an accurate translation, as well as scrutinizing each individual word in order to convey the meaning as concisely and as accurately as possible to the reader.

Oliver Arter

In the second installment of the workshop series, Turkish-born German writer Zafer Şenocak led a discussion on his latest novel, Das Fremde, das in jedem wohnt, as well as his new novel in progress, Eurasia. Born in Ankara, Turkey, raised in Munich, Germany, and currently based in Berlin, Şenocak writes in both Turkish and German, reflected in the colorful multilingualism of his workshop, conducted in German, English, and Turkish. 

Framed around Şenocak’s own multilingual and transnational background, his fascination with unreadable archives is a testament to his “atypical Turkish background” that manifests in his writing. His protagonists in Gefährliche Verwandtschaft and Deutsche Schule deal with the unreadability of papers they come across, which reflect in the idea of a fragmented transnational or “hyphenated” identity, as the briefcase papers are scrawled with Cyrillic and Arabic scripts, unfamiliar and thus unreadable specifically to the protagonist that holds them. By way of translational medium, the protagonist can access the information these archives hold and piece together their familial past, and in the process, cross the cultural and language barriers that initially kept them in place. The protagonist is thus able to better render a fuller picture of the personal narrative, one marked by the tragedies, atrocities, love, and delights that inevitably come with living.

I learned through the Zoom conversations with Sharon Dodua Otoo and Zafer Senocak that the ways in which writers position themselves have important implications for interpreters. The authors’ desire not to be put into neat categories that often reflect a narrow understanding of identity can serve as a reminder that we should not readily delve into seemingly obvious frameworks of reference when performing analysis but should instead think about the ways in which the text resists and contests contemporary understandings of (non-)belonging. I used to panic whenever I thought of writing about famous texts that have been previously interpreted by many others, but now I start to see how one could always find new things to say about canonical texts from one’s own unique angle, and that’s part of the charm of archives.

MGP editor Qingyang Zhou

Şenocak’s depiction of the idea that one’s identity should and can not be reduced to stringent categorization is particularly relevant today, as modern-day society is increasingly globalizing and fostering the exchange between cultural and linguistic barriers, and as many people of these so-called “hyphenated” backgrounds yearn to express themselves differently in the languages and cultures they identify with, without fully being able to “fit in” to each cultural box.

In the final workshop of the Archives on Migration series, Japanese-born German writer Yoko Tawada facilitated a lively discussion on her recently published novel, Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel. The influence of poet Paul Celan on her writing runs so deeply that it takes an esteemed place in the title of her novel, coincidentally published on the day of Celan’s hundredth birthday. Tawada deftly weaves the archival poetry of Celan into the narrative of her protagonist “der Patient” with playful, linguistic magic, and her workshop was particularly relevant to the current pandemic times, drawing upon the restricted movement across transnational borders influenced by her own anecdotal experiences of moving between countries, as well as the implications of the unknown sickness that ails protagonist Patrik, or “der Patient.” 

The Archives on Migration workshop events provided another outlet of discussion for the materials that we were engaging with, while also allowing us to hear the perspectives and commentary of the authors who generated the work themselves. I also found that I resonated a lot with the works of the authors from the workshop. Having a multifaceted personal identity myself, it was interesting to see how themes of cultural remembrance and multilingualism manifested for other individuals in their literary works.

Ardo Ali

The languishing immobility and dizzying fatigue that pervade pandemic life as we know it strongly correspond to the protagonist’s incapacitated state and further adds another layer of meaning to the word “corona,” the title of a poem written by Celan.  By establishing Paul Celan und der chinesische Engel as a quintessential pandemic novel, Tawada was able to craft a seamless record of Celan’s archival poetry crossed with her linguistic wordplay, centering in on the question of what it truly means to be sick through a defamiliarized gaze.

Beyond the frameworks of our seminar, it is also important to note that, in the past half century, German Studies within American academia has been increasingly shifting its focus from within the nationally defined borders of German literature to encompass a transculturally conceived field of studies. Along with the momentum of this “transnational turns,” German studies scholars have increasingly focused on literatures of diaspora and migration to allow for a more progressive, multicultural conception of German-language literature. As a result, there is much that German Studies can contribute to our contemporary understandings of the limits of national essentialism, the significance of archival practices, and the vibrancy of minority voices.

MGP editor Elizabeth Sun

By way of their prolific works, these three multilingual, Berlin-based authors have accented the positive path of cultural and social diversification that the German literary community is heading towards. Through their incorporation of personal experience with archives of German language and culture, they have completely done away with the formerly established common notions of what a German author is. The use of personal archives being repurposed in a modern context ultimately opens the door to the reframing of historical happenings, making room for forgotten narratives.

About Kumars Salehi

Kumars Salehi is a PhD student in German Literature and Culture.
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