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Musa Okwonga’s love letter to Berlin

We speak with the Ugandan-British author, journalist and musician about his beautiful new novella documenting his first four years in the Hauptstadt.

Image for Musa Okwonga’s love letter to Berlin

We speak with the Ugandan-British author, journalist and musician about his beautiful new novella documenting his first four years in Berlin. Photo: Supplied

Musa Okwonga is a man of many talents. The Londoner of Ugandan descent, who has lived in Berlin for the last seven years, is a well-known essayist and football journalist; he is also a poet, podcaster and one half of the musical duo BBXO. Now, with the release of In The End It, Was All About Love (Rough Trade Books), he is a novelist as well. This fragmented, lyrical, beautiful work – interspersed with three of Okwonga’s poems – explores the many joys and challenges of life in Berlin as a literary expat, and as a person of colour.

Congratulations on the novel. How does it feel?

Honestly, I’ve been so excited. This is going to sound ridiculous, but I actually slept with the book on my bedside last night. [laughs] It’s like when Steven Gerrard won the Champions League, and he slept with the trophy – that was me, waking up and seeing my book. I took every creative risk with this book, and now I’m so proud of it.

Youve published books before, but is this novel particularly special?

It is! I’ve always wanted to write a short book – I’m obsessed with brevity. Especially now in the age of social media. I wanted to write a book that would get to people who might be distracted already – draw them in with brevity then hit them with something to cogitate on. I love the fragment form, I think of Fernando Pessoa or Claudia Rankine. I’m obsessed with saying the most I possibly can in the least possible words. Because people are busy.

Theres a long tradition of Berlin authors using miniature forms: Joseph Roth, Robert Walser. How did you piece together your own constellation of fragments to represent Großstadt life?

The way I wrote was, I would wake up at 6:30 am every morning, with a black coffee and a bottle of water, and start writing unfiltered for a particular scene. I wanted every paragraph to be dense, like that really dark chocolate that’s 70% proof. And I wrote the book in conversation with the city – I’d write bits of it, then go out and read them at poetry nights, and then write new stuff. It was iterative.

I’m obsessed with saying the most I possibly can in the least possible words

But the way I arranged the parts together – I can’t explain. It’s the the tempo, the feeling of when you’re going through Berlin. I wanted this book to be like an album, a complete composition, with the ebb and flow that all the best albums have.

The novel is narrated in the second person, which feels very universal at first but gets more challenging when the you-protagonist starts experiencing racism and homophobia

Yes, that was exactly the agenda. My idea was to start off with very universal experiences, like arriving in Berlin – anyone can do that, white, straight, whatever – and you’re reading it, you’re into it, so by the time something happens that is not specific to your experience, you’re already emotionally invested. I wanted to put the reader in a place where they would actually walk a mile in my shoes.

There’s a lot of personal material in this book. Would you call it an autobiographical novel, or autofiction, whatever that is?

I’d say it’s more like a ‘tall tale’ – can we call it that? [laughs] Obviously there’s parts of this book that haven’t happened, and characters that don’t exist in real life…

What‘s the role of the supernatural in this book – and the protagonist‘s therapist, Dr. Oppong?

The opening poem supposes that when the slave ships were sent across the oceans, the wind that sent them was racist as well, the wind was enjoying it. So my question was what happens to the wind when it leaves those sails – what does it do next? I didn’t only want the surrounding environment of Berlin to be spiritually active, which it is in the poems that open each section: I also want there to be individuals who are aware of these supernatural elements. But I wanted Dr. Oppong to be matter-of-fact – I wanted him to be like people you meet who say, I’m aware of the supernatural, but I know you think it’s ridiculous, so we’re never going to talk about.

The second chapters introductory poem conjures this image of black gravity, the idea that Berlins dark history and the history of racism is somehow atmospheric.

It is very liberating to see racial oppression expressed as a unit of atmospheric pressure – if you explain it that way, black people realise it’s not their fault. When I came up with “black gravity”, I thought about all the cities I’ve lived in and wondered where the black gravity is in each of them – what’s the black gravity in Rio, London, wherever. Now, all the different Berlin places I name in that poem are places where someone I know or me has suffered an incident of racial oppression. And the severity in the poem corresponds to the severity of the injury suffered. And then it ends with Wannsee and the Berlin Conference, where the worst things of all happened, where Black people practically can’t walk…

Throughout the novel, Berlin feels like home. But it is also resistant, especially with these racist incidents. How does it compare to London?

The peaks of Berlin are greater than the peaks of London – but then the lows are lower. Sometimes I ask myself, is Berlin worth it? And it is worth it, because the peaks are astonishing – you know, we have lakes, we have forests, we have incredible conversations that stretch from when the bars open until four in the morning. But then there are the hostility, the far right in certain areas… So there are cons. But seven years on, I keep finding new things to be joyful about.

Image for Musa Okwonga’s love letter to Berlin

In The End, It Was All About Love by Musa Okwonga is available from Rough Trade Books

One of your narrators friends never succeeds in living here because she never quite commits to the place. What do you mean by committing?

I had a bad experience here about two years in, around the time the far right was surging in the polls, and I had to think, Is this really a place that I can stay for an extended period? And I guess I doubled down: I went to more arts events, I explored the city more, I did more of everything. I thought yes, it’s their city – but it’s also yours. That friend of mine, that Berlin wasn’t for – she was a very conventional career-oriented person, and I’m not judging that, but Berlin’s a bit more disorienting if you’re like that. In London, my straight male friends wouldn’t necessarily go to a gay bar on the weekend just for the music or a drink, but they do here. So Berlin is just a bit more queer, a bit more chaotic. There’s no shaming in leaving if it isn’t for you – it’s like avocado, it’s not for everyone, not everyone likes it. But I’ve responded to Berlin because I feel inspired by it. I can relate to the city’s trajectory, because my life has followed a path that is similarly unconventional.

Your narrator says his desire for love is the closest he comes to religion. Can you explain?

What is so beguiling about love is that you could be a king or a despot and still not have access to it. And it’s not just the love you have for someone else, it’s the way you observe the world, and navigate the world – how you lay down words on a page. Creation has to be an act of love, because you might never get published! [laughs] This book was rejected by everyone for a year before it got picked up. The whole process, from the genesis to the end, has been about love.

The novel is also very frank about the financial difficulties of a creative life, and the doubt that comes with it…

Someone who interviewed me the other asked me why I was being so honest. And I said it’s because I’m not ashamed. We need to demystify this shame. People currently make a lot of money for making money that destroy society, while people that do the most important work – as we’re seeing now with the healthcare workers – are paid the least. There are healthcare workers working terrible hours in Covid wards exposed to terrible risk who have to travel two hours home because they can’t afford a property in the city. That’s disgusting. So why are we then on top of that ashamed of the precarity of living?

Obviously I’m not someone who’s saving lives, as a writer, but I’m trying to do help push things forward in a positive direction – and it shouldn’t be as hard as it’s been. I wanted to be honest because confession inspires confession. And writers always talk about the glamour of it – I wanted to talk about the toughness of it, but then also the perseverance, and the joy that comes with actually making it through.

The joy of having your Champions League trophy by the bed?

Yes, and it feels completely different now. That journey is over. It’s something I’ve dealt with.

You’re well known as a football journalist. Do you feel more vulnerable about everything you’ve shared in the novel knowing you’re part of this very masculine sports world?

Not at all, because I made my own lane long ago. I’ve always talked about football in a way that’s about the wider context – literature, culture, politics. It’s like Balzac’s Human Comedy: football is a human comedy, with all these different teams, different contexts, different goal celebrations and styles of play.

Image for Musa Okwonga’s love letter to Berlin

Musa Okwonga is a Londoner of Ugandan descent who has lived in Berlin for the last seven years. Photo: Supplied

It seems the world of football is changing, too. In your novel, the narrator’s football teammates seem to provide a really progressive kind of masculine friendship. Is this just a special team, or is it part of a more general shift in football, like with professionals like Danny Rose talking about mental health and or Raheem Sterling with his activism?

It’s a special team. The club I play for, the Unicorns, is set up with a specific charter of being anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-sexist. The players are selected on being good at football, but also on being good people. We would have trials and then go for a drink at the pub with all the trialists to see what they’re like. Sometimes brilliant footballers would come to trial but wouldn’t be invited to the squad because they aren’t gentle people.

But then again, if you look at the activism by a lot of footballers last summer over Black Lives Matter in the UK – or someone like Leon Goretzka at Bayern Munich coming out to talk about the far right and saying he wants to establish himself against them. Goretzka is 25 years old,  he’s won the Champions League, and if you look at him physically, I mean, he is traditional masculinity. He knows that, and he navigates that space with a progressive outlook. It’s amazing. So I think the things we do in our amateur football team are being reflected at a higher level, too. And just look at what Marcus Rashford’s done in politics. Something is changing here. I’m really glad to be part of it.

The brief final section of the novel features a trip to Uganda. Did you really go?

Yes, and I wrote that entire third part in one go on my smartphone. I thought, I have to write this while it’s fresh. It was a five-hour, 322km journey into from northern Uganda to Kampala and I wrote the whole thing in the dark by the glow of my phone. Saying to myself: You have to write this in the flow. That discipline came from writing match reports for football, actually, because at the final whistle of every game you have to file on the deadline – if you had to watch the game in the pub, then you send it in on your phone.

For the last seven years I’ve been writing match reports like this, so it means my typing speed on my thumb is like lightspeed [laughs]. It’s strange how nothing gets wasted. Balzac wrote like 20 novels before he started getting anywhere. You work on so much stuff that seems like it has no value – and then one day, every skill you’ve learned finds a place. I really love that I’ve been able to Trojan horse poetry into a book like this [laughs]. What, three poems? You’re making me read poems? Ha-ha, too late, now you’ve got to!