Witnessing Powerful Art: A Conversation with the Editors of Winter Shorts

By Ivy Wappler

IMG_20160615_095851662 (1)The FemGeniuses greeted the day with a rainy walk to the U-Bahn and a stuffy, damp subway ride. Peeling off our wet jackets, we settled in for class. This morning, we were lucky enough to sit down with the editors of Winter Shorts, the latest installment of the Witnessed Series. It was a pleasure to hear from Sharon Dodua Otoo and Clementine Burnley, co-editors of the influential collection. Otoo, a London-born artist and activist, moved to Berlin in 2006 with her three sons (she now has four). She described the motivation for the Witnessed Series as a desire to use her international connections to create momentum, shared understanding, and support for Black German activism through writing. Burnley has been in Berlin for 6 years, and writes poetry when she isn’t working for MSO Inklusiv. In 2015, MSO focused its work on youth, Black, and Queer people of color communities, collaborating with organizations like Street UnivercityJugend Theater Büro, Katharina Oguntoye’s Joliba, and the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland. This year, they’re working with Wagenplatz Kanal, a Queer grouping within the Sinti and Roma community, a Black Trans organisation hosted by Der Braune Mob, and a youth organisation in Heidelberg.

Otoo and Burnley emphasized that Witnessed, the first English-language series about the experience of Black people in Germany, is not meant to replace anything already written in German about the Black German experience. Witnessed is, rather, a diverse collection, a reflection of the myriad experiences that comprise a Black German collective consciousness. Previous installments include The Little Book of Big Visions How to Be an Artist and Revolutionize the World edited by Otoo and Sandrine Micossé-Aikins (2012), Daima by Nzitu Mawakha (2013), Also by Mail: A Play a Olumide Popoola (2013), and The Most Unsatisfied Town by Amy Evans (2015), which is based on the deeply controversial Oury Jalloh case. The original book launch and reading of this play was a collaboration with Roses for Refugees, a project Otoo developed that sought to engage with refugees living and protesting in Oranienplatz in Kreuzberg in order to improve the policies and discourses around refugees in Germany. A catalyst for activism, Witnessed also organized and hosted youth workshops in schools, along with performances of the play.

After Otoo and Burnley discussed their work, we asked questions about the texts we read for class from Winter Shorts, including Burnley’s “Boom,” and Otoo’s “Whtnacig Pnait (Watching Paint).” I found it interesting that Otoo explained that the latter was inspired by her son’s struggles with dyslexia. The protagonist hates school, in part due to this and also his new, unfamiliar home in Germany. Still, when the boy finds himself in a magical, secret safe space for people of color, he still feels somewhat out of place. This story, Otoo shared with us, was her way of saying “Look, I’ve been listening!” not only to her son, but also to all people on the margins of the Black community, estranged by forces like ableism, cissexism, and heterosexism.

IMG_0446I loved reading fiction for a change, and these stories were no disappointment, inciting rich discussions of racism, hegemonic narratives, and the role of art in activism. For example, I asked, “What role does autobiography play in your stories? How much of your writing is rooted in personal experience?” The answers I received were far more nuanced than I expected. Otoo articulated that, for her, even if she writes about something directly from her own life, that the very act of writing it down is interpretation. She is wary of the term “autobiographical,” as it may limit the interpretations of her work. Her stories are invitations for connection and inspiration, not simply narrations of disparate, specific happenings. Burnley responded, “I can’t write what I don’t know,” explaining that even though everything she writes is fueled by something she has seen, heard, or imagined, as soon as she’s written a story down, she no longer has anything to do with it. “What is more important,” she argued, “is what the person reading the story brings to it.” For Burnley, delineations of fact and fiction matter not: “Sometimes you write a story, and it’s complete factual experience, but for me it doesn’t make a difference. It’s still a story.” These responses made it clear, then, that no matter how connected to reality stories are, what matters most is how the reader can relate to the story.

As a follow-up, Heidi raised a concern that  too often marginalized writers, especially Black women writers (the literary community she’s most studied) are assumed only to write autobiographical content, that they rarely considered to be creative. Otoo agreed and added that the literary perspective of white men seems to be the neutral perspective, rich in variation and creative freedom, while perspectives of Black women and other marginalized groups are seen as a specialized, specific and connected to the narration of their marginal experiences. She suggested that since the wealth of literature catered to the masses is written by white men, the small amount of writing done by PoC or QPOC is usually assumed to be simply nonfictional, and not creative. It seems that writers from minority groups have been affected by what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of the single story,” something that Burnley mentions in the introduction to Winter Shorts. When dominant narratives are written only by those in power, those without power suffer. Burnley actually touches on this frustration through one of her characters, Mimi, in “Boom.” Upon researching the Bab el Mandeb straits for a vacation, “Mimi was at once pleased and annoyed at the morbid romanticism of the language and the way it entirely avoided mentioning the slave trade and the more recent wars in the region” (47). Otoo, Burnley, and the writers of the Witnessed Series are all painfully aware of the danger of the single story, and aim to complicate limited narratives about the Black experience with their colorful collection of writings.

Talking to Otoo and Burnley this morning helped us see a real relationship between creating art and Black political thought. All the scholars in the room seemed to agree that this work against the danger of the single story, the Witnessed Series, is certainly political. Along these lines in the introduction to Winter Shorts, Burnley reminds readers of Toni Morrison’s insight: “If there is a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Burnley laments that capitalism has turned the appreciation of the arts into an elitist endeavor that many do not have resources enough to access. But she urged us today that her art, and subsequently her manifestation of political thought, is not always found in the high, abstract realm, “because we don’t always have the time or the money.” Among capitalist frameworks that commodify creativity and impose limiting structures such as genres, Burnley sees an opportunity for artful dissent. “That’s freedom for me,” she states in a matter-of-fact manner, “writing what I want.” Otoo agrees, “I like to write in a way that leaves room for interpretation…leaves room for dreaming.” Through their collections of art, Otoo and Burnley have invited their readers to dream of liberation. Through conversing with them and getting acquainted with their work, it is clear that they see art as a powerful political tool.

IMG_20160613_104425639The curation of the Witness Series, including Winter Shorts, is a glimpse into the multiplicitous nature of the Black German experience, meant to engender awareness and solidarity for their movement towards liberation. Winter Shorts does a beautiful job of showcasing the difficult everyday moments in which multiple intersections of identity manifest. Clearly, in these personal stories, rife with racially charged struggle, is where the revolution is situated. Otoo and Burnley are uniting people with these stories and inviting collaboration and change to be made. As Heidi writes in her book-jacket praise for Winter Shorts, “The revolution happens in our hearts, minds, and spirits during moments when we might least expect it.”  I want to thank both Otoo and Burnley for sharing their keen, revolutionary, and poetic minds with the FemGeniuses this morning.


WapplerIvy Wappler hails from Long Island Sound and is grateful to spend her summers in New England, and her winters in sunny Colorado. She is a Feminist and Gender Studies major, and an Environmental Issuesminor. After school, she hopes to explore environmentally and socially responsible tourism. She may also end up reforming sex education. An avid foodie, Ivy is ready to experience Berlin through its food and drink when she’s not in class. You may find her taking walks through sunny streets, seeking out farmer’s markets and green, open spaces.

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Our First Weekend in Berlin

In planning this course, I decided to include mandatory activities in the mornings and afternoons on weekdays so that the students and I could have our weekends “free” to explore the city. I did tell the FemGeniuses about most of the things I had planned in case they wanted to join me for some things. So, on Saturday, I planned to visit the Berlin Dungeon. The problem is that I didn’t pay attention to the fine print on the tickets, so I didn’t know that we shouldn’t wait in line for the English tour. So, we ended up missing it and had to come back on Sunday. That meant that I spent most of Saturday hanging with Celine.

Celine Pergamon Museum

Celine at the Pergamon Museum

First, we visited the Pergamon Museum. Even though Celine grew up in Berlin, she’s been enjoying some of our official tourist activities, because we both are learning a bit more about the “official” narrative of Berlin. This is importance, since we both are also invested in studying and teaching narratives that are often silenced in these spaces. Along these lines, we thought we may have invented the discipline Critical Tourism Studies, but I see now—after a quick Google search—that this already exists. Haha. The Pergamon Museum was full of lots of fascinating things that were “excavated” by Germans from various places and during various times. At one point, the woman in my headphones said something like, “This room is full of items from various times and various places in order to give you an idea of what a mansion might look like.” I thought that quite odd, but also quite telling about the ways in which Africa—the entire continent, of course—is still often constructed as a place outside of time or specificity. I didn’t take copious notes, but see pictures here!

OTA Kitchen

Stefani, Melissa, and Beril in their New Kitchen

On Sunday, the FemGeniuses moved from their two separate apartments into one. This is the apartment I planned for them live in for the entire course, but I booked them too late and had to separate them for the first week. I think they’re all glad to be together, and of course, the apartments are just as beautiful as they are when Tony and I visited them in November.

OTA Bedroom

Melissa and Kadesha in their New Bedroom

While the Zehdenicker Straße are a bit further from the classroom, they’re also a bit closer to me, and while the Greifswalder Straße students are a bit further from me, they’re also a bit closer to the classroom. So, this is really the ideal location.

Brunch

The FemGeniuses at Café Hilde for Brunch

We also had a group brunch at Café Hilde, which was really nice.

Berlin Dungeon

Heidi, Casey, Kadesha, and Kaimara after the Berlin Dungeon Tour

Later, Casey, Kadesha, Stefani, Blaise, Melissa, Kaimara, and I went back to the Berlin Dungeon, which is “a 60 minute journey into 700 years of Berlin’s horrible history.” Yes, 700 years in one hour. I got the sense from visiting the website that this was a semi-scary, amusement-park type place, but it was scarier than I thought. People jumped out at us in scary costumes. We were “trapped” in a maze of mirrors. A butcher locked us in a dark room where fake knives poked us in our chairs. Yes, it was something else. At one point, we entered a mock courtroom in which Stefani was put on trial for “murdering the fashions” in Berlin. That was pretty funny, but I think Stefani felt a bit strange being put on display. I think my son will enjoy this when he comes, but I think my daughter will be having none of it. Haha. I would share pictures, but we weren’t allowed to take them inside.

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Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz (Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla)

Later that evening, I met Celine’s family and we walked around Kreuzberg for a bit. We also visited the Roses for Refugees at Oranienplatz, which is organized by AfricAvenir International, AFROTAK TV CyberNomads, Berlin Postkolonial, Bühnenwatch, glokal, Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, and Tanzania-Network. Roses for Refugees has been happening every evening at 6 pm from April 13 until June 21 in order to express solidarity with and show support for refugees. On this day, Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz (Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla) read poetry and a short story. At one point, he read, “Sometimes our brain races away from our soul.” Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what this means for those of us committed to justice. I often find myself asking my students and myself to listen and to be compassionate—to not let our brains run away from our souls—as we think about ways in which we can try to change the world.

RfR III

Police Conducting Surveillance of Roses for Refugees

During his reading, I turned slightly to my left and noticed two police vehicles conducting surveillance of the park. I asked, “What are they doing here?” and Celine responded that they sit there 24/7, in shifts, watching the park, policing the refugees and their comrades. She told me that folks who sleep in the park aren’t allowed to have blankets and that the police will arrest and deport anyone who doesn’t abide by this and/or other unjust laws. This, of course, reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” It seems, then, that police and government in Berlin, similar to what I know about the police and government in the United States, has allowed their brains to run away from their souls.

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Roses for Refugees

One of my new comrades in Berlin, Sharon Dodua Otoo, is an instrumental force for Roses for Refugees, and when I posted a short video of Mutlu reading his work in the park, she asked if the FemGeniuses would be interested in reading poetry on Wednesday night. In honor of the late Maya Angelou’s life, we’ll read from her work. In doing so, I hope that we remember more wise words from Mutlu—“Not because they’re evil but because they’re people.” It seems that part of the human condition entails denigrating, subjugating, marginalizing, victimizing, and hurting each other. Not because they’re evil but because they’re people. Not because we’re evil but because we’re people. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only other way to live is to fight, to resist. To know that we will live…fighting, resisting. To know that we will die…fighting, resisting. With a heavy heart, Celine and I—with Celine’s friend Ana—joined Melissa and Kaimara in order to attend an event honoring the life of the late Stuart Hall at the Balhaus Naunynstraße. I actually wasn’t aware of this event—Melissa found out about it after doing some research on Grada Kilomba—so I didn’t require the other FemGeniuses to attend. Also, I decided to let Melissa blog about it, so you can read more about it when I post it tomorrow or Wednesday. So for now, I’ll just end writing that I am truly honored to be here in Berlin learning so much and having an opportunity to also share my own knowledge. It really is helpful to know that we are not alone in the struggle.

More to come!

Heidi