One on One with Sharon Dodua Otoo
By Joy Li ’18
This month, 2016 Ingeborg Bachmann Prize-winner Sharon Dodua Otoo came to CC for a reading of her novellas, “the things I am thinking while smiling politely,” “Synchronicity,” and her prize-winning short story “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin” (Mr. Gröttrup sits down). She was invited by the German Program, in conjunction with the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series. During her visit to campus, Otoo took time to talk with CC student and German major Joy Li ’18 about her path to becoming an award-winning writer.
Born in Brighton, England, into a Ghanaian family with two other siblings, Sharon Dodua Otoo began her journey to Germany as an au pair in Hannover in 1992. Since then, she’s moved to Berlin, where she’s lived for 11 years with her four sons as a full-time writer. Otoo describes herself as a “Black British mother, activist, author, and editor,” and it’s exactly these intertwined identities that lend her work a perspective that, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper puts it, “you have to go searching for . . . because it hardly knows how sought after it is.”
Even though Otoo says she had always been interested in writing, until recently she never thought of writing as a serious career option. Before she became a full-time writer, she worked as a race and equality consultant for local authorities in London and organized anti-racism forums with people from different sectors like education or law enforcement. In Berlin, her activist work mostly involved working with local NGOs that promote racial equality and the ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland), an organization that represents the interests of black people in Germany. In 2012, she took a break from her work to spend more time writing (her two novellas were published in 2012 and 2014). In 2016, she was invited to participate in the Festival of German Language Literature in Klagenfurth, Austria, where she won with her brilliant and witty short story “Mr. Gröttrup Sits Down.” Earlier this year in January, she finally decided to make the transition to writing full-time, and she continues to engage in activism.
Interestingly, as a mother of four, Otoo claims that being a mother is also a form of activism. As she says: “Activism is very optimistic, you’re hoping something will work and you don’t know if it will in your lifetime; motherhood is a bit like that.” Defying societal expectations and pressures imposed on motherhood, Otoo has created a “fluid structure” for child-rearing with support from her network of friends and family. She also beckons for the recognition of the underappreciated work as a mother. According to Otoo, “I would like to encourage a culture where we integrate being parents or carers into everything we do. Nobody should do this alone.”
Her focus on creative empowerment is also visible in her literary texts that focus on the experiences of people of color. Both of Otoo’s published works, “Synchronicity” and “the things i am thinking while smiling politely,” feature strong, resilient black women and their perspectives on what it’s like to live in Germany, or specifically in Berlin. She was the first black writer to win the prestigious Ingeborg Bachman Prize for “Mr. Gröttrup Sits Down,” the first story she ever wrote in German. “Mr. Gröttrup” is about a white German pensioner (Helmut Gröttrup is a stereotypical white German male name), a former rocket scientist who first worked with the Nazis, then with the Soviet Union, and the repetitive breakfast routine he shares everyday with his wife. The story includes a section that is narrated from the perspective of an unboiled egg.
In an attempt to share her access to publishing houses with other people of color, Otoo has also edited a book series called “Witnessed” (published in English). The series of five books provides a platform where people of African descent living in Germany can share their work.
Otoo’s success is a story of resistance. By continuing to engage in activism and stressing the element of resistance in her work, she will continue to challenge the field of literature in the English- and German-speaking world. Her next project will be a novel expanding upon “Mr. Gröttrup setzt sich hin,” to be published by Fischer Verlag, one of the largest German publishing houses and a leading address for literary publications.