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Sharon Dodua Otoo: “I talk about racism without reproducing these ugly words”

Native English speaker, Sharon Dodua Otoo published her first novel, Ada's Realm, in German and it became a bestseller. Now, two years later, it’s finally ready for English readers.

Photo: Ralf Steinberger

When Otoo won the 2016 Ingeborg Bachmann Prize – one of the German-speaking world’s most prestigious literary awards – she was a lesser-known author with two English-language novellas to her name. In the years since, she has established herself as a vital figure in the German literary scene – and, with her 2021 debut novel Adas Raum, absolutely delivered on the hype.

That novel is out now in English, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi, under the title Ada’s Realm. A highly original and deeply moving work, it tells the stories of four different women named Ada from different historical places and times, the last of whom arrives in Berlin in 2019.

We sat down with the star author to talk about writing in German, activism and literature, and how history is anything but linear.

English is your native language. How did it come to be that you are now a German-language author? It’s majorly impressive!

I talk about racism and sexism and antisemitism, but without reproducing all these ugly words

I was perhaps a little overconfident (laughs). When I first moved to Germany in 2006, I was doing what a lot of people coming from the UK do – teaching English. I could actually speak German because I studied it at university. Then I became involved in local Black German community organisations I was asked to write texts for, and I organised events, and so I found that I was using German to express my ideas a lot. Then somebody asked me to contribute a text in German on critical whiteness for a publication, and I didn’t want to do that, so I asked if I could write a short story instead.

That story, ‘Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin’ (Herr Gröttrup Sits Down), was my first creative text in German. It’s a satire about an old white German married couple who, every morning, have this argument over breakfast where he insists you have to boil an egg for seven and a half minutes. This time, things go differently, and it sparks a whole turn of events.

The publication project didn’t end up getting funding, so the story stayed in my desk drawer until I was invited to participate in the Bachmann Prize. My story ended up winning the competition, so then I had an agent and a contract for a novel. And it was clear to me that Adas Raum – which grew out of the story – would have to be in German.

Photo: Fadi Elias In-Haus Media 2022

That was the sole reason for writing an entire book in German?

I just have different possibilities with German than I do with English. It was a very German story – I was trying to express an idea about people belonging to Germany even if they don’t have German nationality or their German isn’t free of grammatical errors. And that had a lot to do with me as a person. So writing the novel in German was a statement about that. I’m also a person who’s very vocal about discrimination in language.

Around 2013, there was a controversy about racist language in children’s books: an author decided he was going to remove the N-word from his book and it started this whole moral panic about censorship. And I was one of the people who said, No, it is possible to write about discrimination without reproducing discriminatory language.

It was really important to put my money where my mouth was. In the novel, I talk about racism and sexism and antisemitism, but I was able to do it successfully without reproducing all these ugly words.

I’m a person who’s very vocal about discrimination in language.

Were you at all involved in the translation of the novel?

I could have translated it myself – I was asked if I was interested in doing so. At the time, there were already discussions about who gets to translate what. The translator, Jon, is not a Black person, but he is well connected with the subject matter and translates a lot of work with relevant themes. He also understands what it’s like to live in one national context but have family ties to others. And my relationship with Jon meant I had maximum flexibility. But I decided to be as hands-off as possible.

Firstly because, when I wrote the original, I was working with the German language – so there were specific sounds and images that worked well in German but don’t translate easily. If I had written the book in English, I would have done things differently; I might even have ended up with a completely different story. So I knew that if I tried to direct the translation, then I would always be unsatisfied, just because of the language gap. The second reason is because I believe the English translation is Jon’s product: it’s his own work of art.

Ada’s Realm has these four different Ada-stories, a supernatural intermezzo in the middle, whole passages that seem to be narrated by inanimate objects. Why adopt such a radical form?

My two novellas also involved playing with form – I have always wanted to do something with the structure of a story as well as the plot. The novel arose from the Bachmann story, where the man loses his argument because the egg decides to do its own thing.

That was the genesis of this thing I call a “being” that exists in a realm where we are before we’re born and where we return when we die. This being keeps wanting to be born, so it comes to Earth as an object – in the story it’s an egg, in the novel it becomes a broom, a door, a room, a passport. I was always very clear that I didn’t want to tell a linear story. I didn’t want the idea that history happens in a straight line: that we started off with something primitive, but we’re better now, and we’re going to be even better in the future.

Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. I wanted to think about that – how history keeps presenting us with the same challenges over and over again, and how we have the chance to learn our lessons.

What made you choose the four different contexts for your Ada figures to move through?

I wanted to bring together all these different elements of myself. The historical parts of the novel are set in what is now called Ghana; in London, where I was born; and in Germany, where all of my children were raised. And I wanted to think about how traumatic events of the past continue to affect the present day. The section in Berlin in 2019 is reflecting on how these things that happened in the past – colonialism, the potato famine, discrimination, the Shoah – still have relevance now. The end of the novel takes on restitution as a theme, with a nod to the Benin Bronzes debate. It’s deliberately complex, because I wanted to say that things are complex.

If I had written the book in English, I would have ended up with a completely different story.

You have described yourself as an activist. How do you see the relationship between your activism and your fiction writing?

They’re very tightly intertwined. Activism, for me, is a way of being – a way of seeing the world and interacting with the world. I’ve now got a position where I reach a lot of people with my work, and I can do a lot of damage if I choose the wrong words. And I take that seriously. If I’m writing something that is challenging, then who am I challenging, and why?

Are you excited about the English-language release?

Yes, I am, because the translation will create a different discourse – it will trigger discussion about different things that weren’t possible in German. I’m particularly fascinated to see what people who read English and live in Germany think about it.

  • Ada’s Realm is available now from MacLehose Press. See sharonotoo.com for more info