Witnessed: An Interview With Editor Sharon Dodua Otoo

Witnessed: An Interview With Editor Sharon Dodua Otoo

Witnessed is a series of novels, plays, and non-fiction published by Edition Assemblage that focuses on the stories of Black authors who have lived in Germany. Today Young Germany talks to series Editor Sharon Dodua Otoo about how Witnessed came to be and why it is important.
by Nicolette Stewart

Young Germany: Let’s start with a little bit of history. Tell us about the idea behind the Witnessed Series.

Sharon Dodua Otoo: I moved to Germany in 2006 and immediately got involved with the Black German community here. I was already a member of the ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, or in English: Initiative  Black People in Germany) and back then I also became active in the first Black German media watch organization: Der Braune Mob.

At the time there was a horrendous advertising campaign which was raising money for education projects in African countries by using images of white children in blackface. The German section of UNICEF was resistant to our protests and complaints. It was only when UNICEF in the USA was contacted that the German colleagues took the matter seriously. That got me thinking: how can I use my international  English-speaking connections to support the very excellent race equality work already going on in Germany?

That's how the idea for Witnessed was born. Witnessed is an English-language book series written by Black authors aimed primarily at an international audience. It is also a platform where Africans in the diaspora can share and compare their experiences of living in Germany. We already have a very diverse collection of stories and formats.

Witnessed is a cooperation between Edition Assemblage and Limited to You. Can you tell us a little more about these two companies?

Edition Assemblage is a relatively new left-wing publishing project based in Münster. Willi Bischof, the man who founded Edition Assemblage, and I met at an event I was co-organizing and got on immediately. At the time I was working as a freelance trainer and project manager of creative empowerment projects, and I organized my work under the label of “Limited to You.” The division of labor is really simple. I find the authors, curate the series, manage the content, and Willi takes care of the actual mechanics of production and distribution.  Finance is a very tricky subject. I am lucky that Willi trusts me and is also a hopeless optimist.

How did you choose the name for the series, and why?

I chose the name Witnessed because I want the series to really be an account of life in Germany from Black perspectives. The aim is to reverse the gaze: Black people are used to being looked at in public spaces. These looks are not always friendly by the way! With Witnessed I would like to provide a platform for Black people who write in English to record what they see when they look back.

I deliberately chose the past tense of the verb (witnessed) rather than present tense or a noun (witness). This is to show that the accounts are about a very specific point of time. Life in Germany for Black people will not remain static (I am also a hopeless optimist!) so, the series should perhaps be considered to be something like diary entries which we can all go back to at some point in the future and say: “Ahh, so that's what it was like back then. Wow, how weird?!”

In your forward to Also By Mail, you explain that the series is in English in order to these stories accessible internationally, though it seems to me that these books could do work in the hands of German readers. Who do you see as your ideal target audience? Are many Germans reading these books? Are there plans to translate them into German one day?

Yes, these books are read by Germans who can read English. As I already mentioned however, Germans are not my target audience. This is in a way unfortunate for Black Germans, and other people of color in Germany, who don't speak English so well. If I am able to raise funding for this, a future project would be to have the books translated specifically with this audience in mind.

For white Germans, I have to be honest: I think there are so many publications already in existence—so many novels, poems, anthologies, magazines, not to mention documentary films, movies, plays, visual art production, cultural events... I would not like to distract from the already very excellent work that has been produced here and continues to be produced. Instead my strategy is to amplify those voices by bringing their perspectives to an international audience.

I really feel fortunate to have contributions from people like Sandrine Micossé-Aikins (curator), Philipp Khabo Koepsell (spoken word poet), Njideka Stefanie Iroh (spoken word poet), Sonia Barrett (visual artist), Olumide Popoola (author and playwright), and Maureen Maisha Eggers (Professor of Childhood Studies) within the series. Anyone who only reads German and wants to know more about them only has to use a search engine on the internet... :-)

How do you choose the books for the series?

Usually I have an idea for a book, and I approach people to be co-editors or contribute to the anthology. For the third book of the series Daima I asked my best friend Nzitu, a passionate photographer at the time, if she would like to produce a photo book. I am so pleased she said yes, because now we have a beautiful legacy of her work in book and exhibition form.  Nzitu died suddenly in August 2014, but the aptly named Daima (Swahili for “for ever”) lives on. The exhibition will be showing in Wiesbaden in November 2015.

Initially I wanted to publish two books a year. This is no longer possible simply because the funding situation is so disastrous. This is a real shame. But there have been five publications since Witnessed was launched in October 2012. So I am quite proud of the progress we have made.

Can you say something about the Black experience in Germany? Why is it something that specifically needs documenting? What is the Black experience in Germany like, very generally speaking?

I try to remember to talk about Black experiences of Germany (plural) because of course there is no single Black experience—we are as diverse as any other group of people. But within this group, there are some general similarities. All Black people in Germany are confronted with the experience of living in a society where whiteness is represented as the norm. As natural, desirable, competent. Everyone who does not fit this mold, may find their identity questioned: “where do you come from?” is a very common question.

Members of the African diaspora also have to negotiate the very exoticized image of Africa in Germany too. It is often portrayed in the media as being a war-torn, AIDS-ridden, and corrupt country. Yes, COUNTRY. Documentation is an extremely important form of resistance.

We have seen for example in the recent debates about racist language in children's books that one common answer was: “but no one ever complained about it before!” or “my Black friend says she doesn't mind if I use the N-word to describe her.” This kind of nonsense is possible because Black writers, social scientists, journalists, and philosophers have been marginalized in the past, and printed accounts of Black political movements in Germany are rare. We know that there was a politically active community of Cameroonians living in Hamburg at the beginning of the 20th century because an illustrated magazine called “Elolombe ya Kamerun” was produced in German and Duala language in 1908. These things can no longer be denied.

Do you have a favorite book in the series so far?

Actually I really don't. The project is not so much about the books for me, but about the process of producing them and sharing them with people. I am enjoying all of this immensely and wish I would have the financial resources to dedicate a lot more time to it.

Do you have any recommendations for further reading?

Yes, as I have already mentioned, there is a lot out there, especially in German. Two publications that I know of hot of the press are: Marion Kraft's Kinder der Befreiung and Michael Goetting's Contrapuntus.

In English I would recommend looking at Amy Evan's The Most Unsatisfied Town (Witnessed Edition 4) because this looks at a refugee story in Germany from a different perspective than what is being reported internationally. Also Amy's play will be staged in April 2016 by the English Theatre Berlin—and I am very excited about that.

The latest installment in the Witnessed series came out this month. Can you tell us about it?

Yes—buy it! Hahaha. It is a great book. It is a collection of short stories set in Winter time—hence the title Winter Shorts. I love about this book that the authors are really diverse—from various African diaspora backgrounds, from different German-speaking contexts, and also in terms of sexuality and gender identity. It has been a genuine pleasure co-editing this book with my close friend Clementine Burnley.

What are your plans for future Witnessed books?

The English-language translation of the catalogue Homestory Deutschland was unfortunately delayed but I am hopeful that this could still be published in 2016. Homestory Deutschland is a German-language exhibition, curated by the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, which focuses on the history of Black people in Germany looking specifically at 27 biographies. It has been translated into English and French and regularly tours African countries and the US. The catalogue to accompany the exhibition has until now only been available in German. It would be wonderful if the translation project could be realized next.

Could you tell us a little bit about your own experiences living in Germany?

I moved to Germany during the time of the World Cup in 2006. It was a positive mood, and it was a beautiful summer. That helped me to get over the sadness I felt for leaving Brighton, where I had lived for seven years beforehand.

I really am enjoying life in Berlin, but I have to stress I am still a relatively privileged person. Yes, I do experience racism and sexism, yet at the same time I have a full-time job which is interesting and fulfilling, I have access to good quality childcare, I have an EU passport, I speak fluent German, my mother-tongue is English, I have a degree from a London University, I am straight, I am in good physical and mental health, I have a very supporting and loving network of friends... I complain a lot (especially about structural discrimination and the lack of real tools to fight it effectively), but try not to take the privileges I have just listed for granted.

Life in Berlin is probably not representative of life in the rest of Germany. I do sometimes get stared at, but it happens much less here than in other parts of the country. I have been called names but it happens very rarely and these experiences are more than balanced out by the many positive chances for empowerment which I have. There are many politically active Black people and other people of color here who I enjoying connecting and organizing with. Additionally, I am fortunate to know and work with many white allies (people who are aware of their own privilege and are willing to work to share this with others).

One last question: could you tell us about some of your other writing projects?

I have also written two novellas. These have not appeared in the series, and yet they also do provide a Black perspective on life in Germany—specifically Berlin. My first novella the things i am thinking while smiling politely was published in February 2012 (the German-language version came out in 2013) and Synchronicity was published in German in summer 2014. The original English-language version of Synchronicity will appear at the end of this year. This is an advent story so get your copy early, so you can start reading on December 1st!

Thank you so much, Sharon!

by Nicolette Stewart