“Parenting is the single most important thing I do.” This statement is the third sentence in the biography of Berlin-based activist and award-winning writer Sharon Dodua Otoo and it leapt out at me. Somewhere deep down I feel similarly, but it would never occur to me to say this out loud, let alone include this sentence in my professional biography. To admit this fact would feel like betraying some sort of feminist ideal, and I explain this personal conflict to Sharon as we video-chat on Skype.
“You remind me of a conversation I had with a white woman who is a feminist,” Sharon begins. “She also told me that she felt that if you were going to be a feminist, that thing with the children is something you do after the real work has been done. The reason she told me that was because we were both at an event and I was giving a talk and my youngest son must have been about one year old at the time, and he wanted to be breastfed, so I just breastfed him and I carried on talking.”
Sharon has always breastfed her children wherever she happened to be, but at this anti-racist event her actions caused a big sensation. The white feminist confided in Sharon afterwards that it would have never have occurred to her to breastfeed her child while she talked. She would have felt she had to end the meeting, go into another room, or perhaps not even attend in the first place.
For the modern woman motherhood can sometimes feel like a choice you have to apologise for, or an inconvenience to be conquered so that you are not “just” a mother. But motherhood began to take on a new significance for Sharon after becoming estranged from her oldest son. As painful as the situation was a simple reality became clear: “Motherhood structures my working time and motherhood is bloody expensive – it’s unpaid! I was like, ‘No, I am putting this on my CV! I am a mother.’”
“For me, everything only makes sense if I view it through the lens of being a mother,” she continues. When Sharon was on the management committee for the Initiative for Black People in Germany, she found herself travelling extensively, working long hours and locked in political discussions, while her kids played shoot-’em-up games at home. The distance between her pacifist ideology and her children pretending to murder aliens was something that she found hard to reconcile.
“If I am a proper activist, and if I really want to improve the world, how is it working in my day-to-day life?” Sharon asked herself. That was the moment she decided that her activism had to be strongly linked to tangible improvements in the lives of her children, and their experiences in school and outside of it.
“Sitting in a room and arguing with people about politics and racism can really bring you down, and I would come home and if I’m in a bad mood of course I’d shout at my kids, so I decided to stop doing that.” Sharon’s transition to being a writer was also a practical decision that would enable her to be more physically available for her children. “I write mostly for myself, as an exercise of processing things. I enjoy working things through by writing and I think that made me a better person!” Sharon laughs, but I’m nodding vigorously in agreement.
Although her work has taken a slightly different direction, activism and writing are still very much intertwined for Sharon. In her first two novellas she wrote Black women, specifically Black mothers, into a narrative that didn’t focus on their Blackness, vulnerability, or even the fact that they were mothers at all. “They are figures that I think we can all relate to, and that was a deliberate activist move. That was part of me saying that the literature that we have available to us as Black feminist mothers is sparse!”
Sharon Dodua Otoo was the first black writer to win the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize – one of the most important literary prizes for German-language literature – and it is an amazing feat for someone who came to German as a third language. While deeply honoured by the recognition, she is very reflective about the double-edged sword that is a Black British woman winning such an important literature prize for writing in German.
“On the one hand it is brilliant for raising the profile of Black people in Germany, and because I’ve been active in the Black German movement, I think it was a big win for all of us. I definitely see this as a community win. And yet on the other hand, there’s something really upsetting about me being the first Black person to win this prize. You would have the impression – because I won the prize – that no other Black people write literature, and definitely no other Germans are Black.”
“It has a role of making people invisible as well, and that does bug me.” Sharon continues. “It also places Blackness once again in the realm of the foreign [for other Germans]. You’ve got this public figure and it’s like ‘yeah, the first Black blah-blah-blah’, but they’re not a German person. [The general public] don’t place Blackness in Germany, they place it somewhere else. It’s very easy for them to place it in Britain, and in the States.”
It is both refreshing and personally challenging to have a conversation with another Black woman who is acutely aware of her relative privileges. The winning story that Sharon submitted for the prize, ‘Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin’ (‘Mr. Gröttrup sat down’), was a subtly humorous approach to addressing a forgotten corner of Germany’s Nazi history. “I do something with the story that it would be very difficult for a white German to do – I don’t think it’s impossible, but they’d have to be super sensitive.”
Sharon goes on to explain how white Germans have to write about the Nazi past in a way that very explicitly states that they are opposed to that political leaning. Anything that is slightly ambivalent will be shot down as nobody in their right mind would want to support someone who is seen to be supporting that side of history. Being a Black woman means that Sharon is able to come at the topic of Germany’s Nazi history from a completely different perspective, almost humanising a little-known historical villain before revealing a truth to a disarmed audience.
From the start of our conversation it is clear that Sharon is very thoughtful and self aware, and this perceptiveness played a part in her decision to raise her children as a Black British single mother in Berlin in the first place. Thinking about myself in a similar position, I ask Sharon if she was not a little scared of raising her children in a society that she was not socialised in.
“I didn’t have that apprehension because my parents raised me in a society that they themselves had not been socialised in, it didn’t cross my mind that that wasn’t a thing that I could do myself,” Sharon responds.
Initially the move was meant to be temporary, but after recognising the opportunity afforded to her children in Berlin versus the quality of life available for them in London or Brighton, staying long term made the most sense for her, at the time being a mother of three.
“I felt like I didn’t have to struggle as much, just on a financial level, then I also realised that we have privileges here because we speak English. It means that people place us somewhere else, so we’re foreign but we’re not refugees or from the guest-worker generation. We were seen as something else. When I remember being in London, the boys’ position there would have been slightly different. They would have been in this ‘African-Caribbean failing young men’ mould, and I would have found it much more difficult to struggle against negative stereotypes in London.”
It’s not that Germany is a wonderland – Sharon’s sons have found it hard – but she says that she felt like she had a handle on the possible bad experiences, what the risks were and after comparing them to the risks that would come with living in the UK, she decided that Berlin was a risk worth taking.
We riff for awhile on the differences between racism in the UK and in Germany. Sharon confirms some suspicions I have about the slippery nature of British microaggressions that are hard to pin down and the concrete nature of ignorance that is more easily confronted in Germany. The battle lines seem a bit clearer there, where ideas of diversity are still limited to white women breaking the white male monopoly of mainstream TV programming.
Sharon explains that Germany very much sees itself as a white, Christian, heterosexual nation, exclusively, and that was why she never really considered even getting involved with the German literature scene initially: “Everywhere you look, everyone is white, everybody!” Apart from the odd person of colour who passes as white, or the occasional person with Turkish-German heritage, outside of that diversity may only be found in the shape of “internationalism” – i.e. writers that don’t come from Germany at all.
Musings on privilege and erasure aside, given the amazing things she has done so far, not only in terms of the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, but also thinking about her work in the Afro-German community as an activist and editor, I ask Sharon if she ever thinks about her ‘legacy’.
“I think of myself as part of a chain, the chain begins centuries ago, and the chain will not end with my death but will continue for centuries after it. I see myself as part of a process, [and] I haven’t, until you asked me this question, thought about my end product. I haven’t really thought about my legacy. The reason why I feel uncomfortable thinking about a legacy is there are a lot of ‘big man’ theories, or ‘superhero’ theories, y’know? It was Christopher Columbus who discovered America, and Martin Luther King is the name, but OK, what was going on with his wife, his best friend and his family? I’m very aware of my networks and I don’t like to think of myself as the central person, I like to think of myself as part of a community.”
I concede that the motivation behind narrow ideas of legacies and inheritance can be quite individualistic, and it’s clear that Sharon’s approach to her writing, work, and activism is in complete opposition with that. When I think about the ideal of art or creativity as service to a greater cause, I immediately feel like Sharon’s approach is a great example of that ideal.
Whilst having experienced sexism and racism, Sharon openly acknowledges that she lives in a country where her passport allows her to access all sorts of benefits. “I can use all of these privileges, my connections, and my networks to say ‘OK, I’m going to do something.’ I think it’s worth asking ‘Who am I? What can I do? How can I use what I’m good at doing to make life better for others?’”
A white man told her that now that she had won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, she should see herself as a “serious artist” and ditch the activism. “That’s a position that can only be defended if you think that being Black is some kind of special side issue. The opposite for me is true, all writing is political. You cannot create art without actually putting forward a specific view. People claim to be creating art that is neutral and I don’t see how that’s possible. You are either doing something that supports the status quo, or you’re somehow challenging it.”
Sharon Dodua Otoo will be reading her prize-winning story ‘Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin’ for the first time in English at two upcoming events. She’ll be in Brighton on Friday 24th February (hosted by Writing Our Legacy – writingourlegacy.org.uk) and in London on Saturday 25th February (hosted by Word Factory ). These events were made possible due to funding from Arts Council England and Spread The Word.
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Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts for various publications online and offline, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator. She tweets regularly from @JENDELLA and more of her work can be found at www.jendella.co.uk.
You’re Doing It Wrong is a bi-monthly column by Jendella Benson on parenting, relationships, and the kaleidoscope of small victories, anxiety and unsolicited advice that is modern family life.