Literature is a tool to interpret, recreate and communicate the world. It is often used to process an experience, and it can be a social and political tool that reflects the status quo, or challenges it. It is also a medium of expression that connects with all the senses, yet eludes complete categorisation with any one of them. Words are unto themselves a way to experience and communicate the world, and a sense for how to mould and employ them is just as important as a sense for colour or sound. Words are, then, almost like a sixth sense.
There is perhaps no more famous a usage of literature to explore Berlin than Christopher Isherwood’s by now iconic novels. Drawing from the author’s life, they became representative and helped shape a myth of Berlin as a city of excess and freedom. But how is literature being used by contemporary British writers to explore the city they have chosen to call home? In this bonus section, we offer insights into the work of three British writers who are currently living and working in Berlin.
Musa Okwonga has always had a great sense of curiosity and enthusiasm for books. This was mostly because his parents had encouraged their children to read from a very young age. In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he reminisces that “Each of their books got a stamp: Okwonga’s library. And whenever we wanted to read one, it was like going to the library. We were only allowed to take a new one when we had finished reading the old one”.1 Born in London in 1979, Okwonga spent his childhood with his three younger siblings in Yiewsley, a suburban town in the London Borough of Hillingdon. Alongside his activities as a football journalist and musician, he works as an essayist, poet and a novelist himself today. Numerous of his writings have featured in The Guardian, The Economist, The Independent or The New York Times, but also in German newspaper magazines such as Taz or Die Zeit.2
This section seeks to address two of Okwonga’s most recent works: In The End, It Was All About Love and One of Them: An Eton College Memoir. The first one, In The End, It Was All About Love, was published in January this year. It documents Okwonga’s first years in the city of Berlin, which has been his adopted place of residence for seven years now. Readers are invited to experience Berlin through the eyes of the Ugandan narrator, an alter-ego of the author himself. With the use of a prosaic style mixed with lyrical interludes, the novella gives an impression of the many facets of the German capital and describes both the joys and challenges of living in the city as a literary expat, and as a person of colour. The rather unconventional second person narration is used as a technique to establish close proximity with the readership. “I wanted to put the reader in a place where they would actually walk a mile in my shoes”, the British author with Ugandan descent explains in an interview with the city journal Exberliner.3
In the End, It Was All About Love consists of three parts. “Righteous Migrants”, “Black Gravity” and “Your Passport” provide the framework of a deeply personal work which draws on Okwonga’s own experiences of racism and homophobia. Besides issues of low self-esteem and the struggle to find true love, the novel explores the benefits and drawbacks of living a creative life.4 Yet, the book features sequences that have not actually happened or characters that do not actually exist in real life. That is one of the reasons why Okwonga prefers to call his work a ‘tall tale’ rather than an autobiography.5 Another striking characteristic of the novella is its brevity of only 30,000 words. Given that people tend to be easily distracted in today’s fast paced world – whether it be, for example, by their phones with applications such as WhatsApp or other social media – the author aimed at creating a shorter piece with a relatively simple style that can be easily read when commuting by train or sitting in a doctor’s waiting room.6
On all accounts, Okwonga wrote his book in constant conversation with the city. In an interview, he states that he would “write bits of it, then go out and read them at poetry nights, and then write new stuff”.7 The speed of urban life and the unique spirit he feels when moving through Berlin have served as a rich source of inspiration for the British-Ugandan author. And yet, Okwonga acknowledges that there are two sides to living in Berlin. As much as he cherishes the numerous beautiful lakes and forests surrounding the city, or likes to relive his memories on conversations with fascinating strangers in Berlin’s countless pubs and bars until four in the morning, the author finds himself compelled to also address and therewith release repressed memories of racial and sexual discrimination.8 In the End, It Was All About Love takes both historical and contemporary perspectives on issues of racism and homophobia in the German capital. At the end of the day, however, Okwonga concludes that everything is about love: “Berlin has given me so much: I have written five or six books. And 24 songs. . […] Every time I come back from a trip abroad, my heart lifts a bit. That moment, when the TXL bus comes down the hill towards Beusselstraße, that feeling is so magical. I always feel like I’m back home”.9
Okwonga’s second book One of Them: An Eton College Memoir was released in April this year. It deals with the author’s time at Eaton College and gives an insight into his private life and development. Besides, it serves as a critical approach to British society and politics, bearing reflections about a social and educational system that seems to only provide high-quality academic education for a small group of privileged people. The memoir is not to be understood as a radical reckoning with Eton, however. It rather poses the question of accessibility to equal education and opportunity in the UK10. Related to this issue, the book features a critical analysis of Eton’s natural emphasis on leadership and the fact that it “prides itself on creating prime ministers”.11 At the same time, the author reminds his readership of the significant role that Eton played in creating and maintaining the British Empire. In fact, when Okwonga himself attended the boarding school, it was not uncommon for him to be seated next to a “fellow pupil boast[ing] about the fact that his ancestor was a slaver”.12 Certainly, the mostly white environment of the school left its traces. But still, Okwonga remains grateful for both his family’s support and his scholarship that enabled him to attend Eaton College and make a childhood dream come true.13
Last but not least, his work takes a critical approach to the rather low status and priority that authors receive nowadays. Despite his high educational achievements, Okwonga mentions the difficulties he has faced in establishing himself as an author, both spiritually and financially. Although his name is highly appreciated in a range of literary genres, he deplores the fact that his best paid articles were those which were most widely shared, but not the ones which actually contributed to the “national or even global conversation”.14 One of Them is yet another political work that deserves a wide reading audience, not lastly because of its provocative criticism of an educational system which was designed to enable only a small part of the population to hold leadership positions and exercise political power. Especially in the face of global issues such as the pandemic and climate change, Okwonga remarks that “[w]e’re not going to handle the challenges that are facing us right now if we’re only taking expertise from an increasingly small group. It’s not going to work.”15 As a concluding remark, it can be said that both of Okwonga’s novels give vital proof to the fact that literature is necessary to politics, not lastly because it gives a voice to the otherwise voiceless. Now it is up to each and every one of us, to make all of their voices heard.
SHARON DODUA OTOO
Sharon Dodua Otoo is an author and political activist. She was born in London to Ghanaian parents and settled in Berlin in 2006 along with her sons. She writes prose and essays and is the editor of the English-language book series “Witnessed” at edition assemblage.16 She has been extensively involved with Black Activist work in Germany for many years.17 In the last years, Otoo has shifted from a more traditional kind of activism to an approach through literature, recognising the power that stories have of creating a connection with the reader. Through words, and, she stated, especially by employing humour, there is a higher chance of creating empathy and understanding, rather than argument and polemics18, and her work recognises and employs that power. Otoo was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2016.
Otoo has written stories whose main characters have been Black mothers living in Berlin, characters similar to herself, although the stories she has created for them were fictional. The important thing for her was to express “truths that [she knew], but that other people also knew, written from a Black woman’s perspective”.19 An important aspect in her work (and which is becoming increasingly more present in the writings of people of colour internationally) is the wish to tell stories of characters who are not white, but which are also not solely focused on suffering and hardship and a negative exceptionality. Rather, the central element becomes the wish to recreate and communicate experiences which are diverse, and humane, which take on nuances depending on the identities people inhabit: falling in love, making mistakes, discovery, loss.20 Words, then, become a medium for exploration of experience, for communicating it and thus for creating knowledge of one another.
Sharon has stated that, as a student, she used to love Bertolt Brecht’s writing, for his capacity to connect writing with political engagement and social critical commentary.21 She also talks about the influence of activists on her work, such as the writer May Ayim, and the importance of reading the work of a person who can express experiences that you can relate to, and the inspiration she felt and the wish it awoke in her to create in the same way.
Otoo published her first novella, the things I am thinking about when smiling politely in 2012, with the small independent publishing house edition assemblage. The title is a reflection of her frequent experiences as a person of colour.22 The novella describes the painful disintegration of a marriage, and in doing so, brings into the fold the diverse aspects that make up the life of the unnamed narrator, who shares Otoo’s biographical background but who has a different and at times shocking story. It crafts a very tangible narrative of Berlin, the city where the events take place, and navigates the complex realities of being a black immigrant in the German capital, while also discussing parenthood, friendship, romantic relationships, and the various faces of privilege.23 She then wrote Synchronicity, a more experimental novella about a woman who, one by one, “loses her colours”. It can be seen as an allegory of the experience of migration, and an exploration of the ideas of community and adulthood, with elements of magical realism deftly woven into the narrative.24 In both publication, Otoo distinguished herself through her sharp, compact manner of writing.
In 2016, Otoo won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize prise, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Germany, with her German-language short story, Herr Göttrup setzt sich hin (Herr Göttrups sits down). The story is centered on the figure of Helmut Göttrup, the Nazi scientist who later went on to work for the Soviet rocket programme and then became the inventor of the chip card, his wife and their relationship. The story is written employing a surrealist technique, with even an unboiled egg as the narrating voice for a part of it.25 As the author herself explains, the story explores the idea of predictability and chaos, and the situation described is illustrative of the fact that surprise in the face of chaos is only possible for those who have been used to the privilege of having it their own way.26
The award-winning novelist and translator Ben Fergusson shares a similar love for books. In an interview with the BBC, he held that his passion for books and writing resulted from him reading Roald Dahl books “over and over again” in his childhood.27 Born in 1980 in Southampton, Fergusson spent his younger years near Didcot in Oxfordshire. After studying English Literature and Modern Languages at Warwick and Bristol University, he embarked on his professional career as an editor, translator and publisher in London and Berlin. For his 2014 debut The Spring of Kasper Meier, Fergusson won a number of awards such as the 2015 Betty Trask Prize for producing a distinguished piece of writing under the age of 35, or the HWA Debut Crown 2015 for the best historical fiction debut of the year.28
The Spring of Kasper Meier was written during Fergusson’s four year stay in Berlin. It is set in post-war Berlin and tells the story of Kasper Meier in the midst of a ruined city that was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation and suffered from a shortage of goods such as food, clothing and tobacco. In order to escape the misery of everyday life and provide for himself and his elderly father, the German protagonist commences illegal business in Berlin’s underground market. In the course of the narrative, he encounters a variety of different people, including a young woman named Eva Hirsch, who suddenly appears at his doorstep. Slowly but surely, Kasper is drawn into a world of intrigue he could never have anticipated. Overall, the novel conveys a very real sense of a city that is still reeling from the horrors of war and defeat. Despite the realistic portrayal of the tragedy involved in the post-war experience, not to speak of the bleak future that survivors of the Second World War were facing in its aftermath, the story succeeds in drawing a captivating picture of post-war Berlin and its inhabitants rebuilding the lives of their disrupted families and communities. Additional emphasis is put on the pioneering role of the rubble women, who helped with clearing the endless sites of destruction by using their bare hands – and in the absence of men.
Novelist Jake Arnott praises Fergusson’s piece of literature for being a “powerful evocation of shattered lives trying to reconnect – and a heartbreaking story of the pain of compassion”.29 Certainly, Fergusson’s writing style enables one to experience every moment within his pages from up close. In an interview, the author gives expression to his great fondness for the power of words and language:
“I love that words can create a complete world for a reader – scare them, make them laugh or cry just through what you typed out on your computer. And I love that words can literally change the way you think”.30
– Ben Fergusson
Another of his renowned literary pieces is An Honest Man, which was published in 2019 and featured as one of the best novels of the year in The Sunday Times, The Financial Times and The Times Literary Supplement. The story revolves around the fictive character of Ralf and his complex friendships and family ties. It is set in the divided city of Berlin during the Cold War era. Fergusson’s recreation of late-1980s West Berlin gives a fascinating insight into the divided city shortly before a political transformation and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The developing tensions and inconsistencies of Berlin at the time are furthermore reflected in the coming-of-age story of Ralf. Narrated through the eyes of his eighteen-year-old self, the story sets off and takes the readership through Ralf’s fascinating journey from innocence to adulthood. When Ralf discovers his love for Oz, a young Turkish man whom he begins a passionate affair with, it marks the beginning of a poignant love story. In the course of the narrative, Ralf discovers painful truths about his own family, which eventually makes the story unfold to a mixture of a gripping thriller and a tragic family drama between trust and treachery, loyalty and lies. Readers are drawn to empathise with a set of stirring emotions experienced by the male protagonist who is forced to make difficult choices about his life, his family and his heart. Challenged by tough questions of love, allegiance and coming of age, Ralf soon finds himself tangled up in a web of malicious deceit.31 His inner agonies and the numerous unforeseeable events and obstacles he encounters bear the risk of being misled by seemingly reliable characters for both the protagonist and the readership. As regards the lack of trust and transparency, which comes with the many twists and turns throughout the story, it seems that the tense atmosphere – that is so strikingly characteristic of the divided city of Berlin during the Cold War – is considerably projected on a single individual and his personal relationships. With the eloquence and sense of history in his writing, Fergusson paints a vivid picture of the divided city and draws the readership into the spell of events shortly before the fall of the wall and German reunification in 1989.
Figure 1. Musa Okwonga © Creation Company
Figure 2. Ben Fergusson © Charlie Hopkinson
1 Vollmer, Anna. “Unheimlich gebildet.” Frankfurter Allgemeine. May 2021.
2 Wells, Alexander. “Musa Okwonga’s love letter to Berlin.” Exberliner. March 2021.
4 Riaz, Schayan. “Musa Okwonga: ‘You’re not considered as a romantic option.” Berliner Zeitung. March 2021.
5 Wells, Alexander. “Musa Okwonga’s love letter to Berlin.” Exberliner. March 2021.
7 Wells, Alexander. “Musa Okwonga’s love letter to Berlin.” Exberliner. March 2021.
9 Riaz, Schayan. “Musa Okwonga: ‘You’re not considered as a romantic option.” Berliner Zeitung. March 2021.
10 Vollmer, Anna. “Unheimlich gebildet.” Frankfurter Allgemeine. May 2021.
11 Riaz, Schayan. “Musa Okwonga: ‘You’re not considered as a romantic option.” Berliner Zeitung. March 2021.
12 Shariatmadari, David. “Musa Okwonga: ‘Boys don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, it is where they perfect it’.” The Guardian. April 2021.
13 Vollmer, Anna. “Unheimlich gebildet.” Frankfurter Allgemeine. May 2021.
14 Cummins, Anthony. “In the End, It Was All About Love by Musa Okwonga review – affirmative autofiction.“ The Guardian. February 2021.
15 Shariatmadari, David. “Musa Okwonga: ‘Boys don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, it is where they perfect it’.” The Guardian. April 2021.
16 Otoo, Sharon. Bio.
17 Gasser, Lucy. The things I am thinking about while smiling politely.
18 Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. Sharon Dodua Otoo.
20 British Council Germany. Sharon Dodua Otoo reading and in conversation at #BritBerlin 2017.
21 Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. Sharon Dodua Otoo.
22 British Council Germany. Sharon Dodua Otoo reading and in conversation at #BritBerlin 2017.
23 Gasser, Lucy. The things I am thinking about while smiling politely.
24 Inhoff, Marcel. Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity.
25 Oltermann, Philip. “Black British writer wins major German-language fiction award.” The Guardian. July 2016.
26 British Council Germany. Sharon Dodua Otoo reading and in conversation at #BritBerlin 2017.
27 Fergusson, Ben. “The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson.” Interview by Sara Cox. The Radio 2 Book Club.
28 “About.” Ben Fergusson.
29 “The Spring of Kasper Meier.” Ben Fergusson.
30 Fergusson, Ben. “The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson.” Interview by Sara Cox. The Radio 2 Book Club.
31 Rennison, Nick. “The best new historical fiction – lust loyalty and breaking barriers in Cold War Berlin.” The Times. July 2019.