by Latra Demaçi
“One of the first ideas I had while dreaming up the Witnessed Series was to curate a book based on correspondence between different Black community organizations in Germany and Black organizations in different English-speaking countries around the world: conversations which would transcend borders.”
These are Sharon Dodua Otoo’s words that struck me as I read the “Preface” for Heidi R. Lewis, Dana Maria Asbury, and Jazlyn Andrews’ In Audre’s Footsteps: Transnational Kitchen Table. They firmly cemented into my mind as I envisioned her writing fit like a puzzle piece in the ever-expanding realm of the Black movement, more specifically, the Black movement in Germany.
I wanted to be somewhat prepared for the day’s blogging session—Sharon Dodua Otoo is a British writer, activist, and publicist of many politically engaged pieces on feminism, culture, and diversity—I read from her website, as I quickly Googled Otoo and her Witnessed Series. With the grandeur of this online description and “Preface,” it was difficult not to imagine the author’s talk. I could see her coming into the room, smiling politely, awkwardly asking about our names, and diving into her transnational Black feminist intellectual ventures as a person who had lived in the UK and had moved to Berlin in her early 30s. My “background check” neatly fits into the Black and transnational feminist theorizing I had come to understand so far.
I was sitting in one of the corner chairs around the rectangle-surfaced table when Otoo slowly strolled in, nodding her head at the room in an acknowledging manner. It was anticlimactic but reassuring as I witnessed such an accomplished person move with such unassuming ease. It wasn’t that she didn’t smile politely or ask us to introduce ourselves. It was in the way she excitedly urged us to ask questions: “What is your guilty pleasure movie?” “What inspires you?” “What is your favorite dish to cook?” “What question would you not like to answer?” “What is your writing process?” These were some of the seemingly “off-topic” questions circulating the room, and I was struck by dissonance. I couldn’t help but feel that my question about her work, explicitly in relation to “transcending borders,” was a little tone-deaf at that particular moment. I went back to not knowing what to expect and let Otoo guide us in her own words and not the ones I had preconceived prior to the session.
Otoo answered each question with poignant lightheartedness and lighthearted humor. As a response to who inspires her, the author was decisive in naming Toni Morrison, the world-renowned American writer. She started by showing us a copy of Im Dunkeln spielen: Weiße Kultur und literarische Imagination (2019), the German translation of Morrison’s work of literary criticism Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). For Otoo, the German translation did not do justice to Morrison’s ability to examine the intricacy and complexity of trauma intertwined with the experience of being Black and the joy embedded within Black resistance. For her own writing, she draws inspiration from Morrison’s artistry in chronicling trauma through vivid and beautiful imagery and in constructing complex characters that blur the lines between good and evil. Therefore, she went on to emphasize the importance of concise translations that encapsulate the specificity of language which, in turn, enable complex readings of Black literature. For Otoo, it was Morrison’s complexity that made the experience of being Black in the U.S. legible and resonant, and thus what she intends to emulate with her own writing within the Black German context.
In retrospect, Otoo’s Black and transnational Feminisms didn’t emerge in this session through the explicit “promise” to “transcend borders” in portraying the Black experience. Regardless, the author’s critical perspective on the precise language, meanings, and complexity “lost in translation” did resonate with my understanding of Ika Hügel-Marshall’s “Crossing Borders, Overcoming Boundaries” from Children of the Liberation (Kraft 2020). More specifically, this chapter chronicles the testimonies of Black German post-war generations and the beginnings of a social movement. Hügel-Marshall is specifically concerned with the crossing of borders and overcoming of boundaries, internal and external, in the context of difference. As she puts it, “Crossing borders does not mean overcoming boundaries if experience is limited to national borders. For many, the internalized boundaries remain a life-long handicap, burden, and threat” (175). Here, she specifically references her observations during the fall of the Berlin Wall in terms of racism, sexism, and xenophobia as Berliners navigated their differences. For me, this idea echoed with Otoo in two particular ways.
Firstly, the translation of Morrison’s Playing in the Dark from English to German symbolized a figurative crossing of national borders through language. However, as explained by Otoo, the erasure of specificity in Morrison’s language comes at the detriment of her work’s transnational legibility and its potential in empowering Black communities in Germany. Secondly, Hügel-Marshall emphasizes the threat and burden of “internalized boundaries,” which can be understood as the differences embedded in German society that create literal and figurative borders and obstruct the overcoming of those boundaries. In the context of Im Dunkeln spielen, the idea of internalized boundaries is emulated in relation to conceptualizations of race that filter and dilute Black literature in the process of translating. In relation to such malpractice, Otoo added that it was clear to her that Playing in the Dark was not translated to attend to its legibility to Black Germans, but rather to cater to an audience that could not access the Black experience otherwise.
Ultimately, putting Hügel Marshall’s ideas in conversation with Otoo’s critical view of translating Black literature, linguistic boundaries can be crossed but will not be overcome if the specificity of language and meaning, in terms of Blackness, is not preserved and communicated. To my understanding, the overcoming of such boundaries is precisely conditioned by the extent to which a translated work is able to nurture transnational solidarity, commonality, and empowerment between Black communities within and beyond the contours of nation-states.
Furthermore, as a response to a question about her writing process, Otoo went on to add that although she does not commit herself to a specific writing process, it is vital that she portrays complicated Black characters that exist in moral, ethical, and cultural ambiguities. For her, Black characters that embody dilemmas and multidimensionality counteract a discourse on Blackness that has historically denied Black characters complexity. Otoo’s uncompromised pledge to write about and produce knowledge about the Black experience as paradoxical and intricate echoes counter-storytelling, a quintessential politic within the frameworks of Critical Race Theory and Black Feminism.
Last, but not least, Otoo emphasized the importance of Black expression and creativity as a means of building, connecting, and empowering Black communities in Germany. She exemplified this by talking about Resonanzen, a Festival of Black German Literature she curated. For the author, Resonanzen was born out of the necessity for spaces that center and celebrate Black authors and their creativity. The aim of the festival was to re-envision the literary scene in Germany by uplifting Black expression in German literature and to also criticize the ways Black authors and their work are excluded. What stood out to me was Otoo’s depiction of the festival as a place for Black German authors to connect, bond, share ideas, empower, be, and grow in each other’s presence. This image of the festival reminded me of “We Have to Stop Solely Reacting,” a conversation between Lewis, Asbury, and Iris Rajanayagam in In Audre’s Footsteps. In a discussion about Black self-organizing as responsive rather than merely reactive, Lewis emphasizes the importance of shifting the focus “from trying to convince them that we exist, and convincing them that our lives matter, and instead focusing more on us. Because to me, the things I’m good at—being a mom, being a teacher, being a writer—are because I have a community around me” (43). For me, Otoo’s Resonanzen embodies a similar idea: turning inwards and towards the ever-growing Black German community of authors to ensure it is continuously celebrated, supportive, and successful in individual terms.
I was in total dissonance when the session began. I was distraught in wonder about what she was thinking, especially while she was smiling politely. In my mind, I had figuratively put words in her mouth and it was difficult to discard any of my pre-conceived ideas. However, being in Sharon Dodua Otoo’s presence and listening to her helped me understand Black and transnational feminisms in more implicit and even ambiguous ways. Firstly, I got the opportunity to think more seriously about Hügel-Marshall’s ideas about crossing borders and overcoming boundaries in the context of translating Black literature. Furthermore, I was also exposed to the significance of concise translation as an attempt to enable transnational legibility between Black communities around the world. That being said, I reached the belief that “lost in translation” is a taken-for-grantedness that Black and marginalized communities at large cannot afford, especially as they work to self-assert their transnationality and complexity. Last but not least, Otoo’s work in community-building furthered my understanding of Black feminism’s uncompromised politics on creativity as a means to build community and Lewis’s emphasis on shifting Black-organizing as one that is inward rather than outward-oriented.
Latra Demaçi is a rising junior from Prishtina, Kosovo, and a Feminist and Gender Studies Major at Colorado College. She is also interested in Psychology and hopes to study both Gender Studies and Psychology for her post-graduate studies. In the long run, she hopes to return to Kosovo and help her local university develop a more advanced program in Gender Studies. This is her first time in Berlin, and she has been loving it so far! The accessibility of the city, the various cultural events, and the many hidden histories keep her busy and engaged. She hopes you enjoy reading about her experiences and observations!