12. Reading: the things i am thinking while smiling politely

Sharon Dodua Otoo is my latest discovery in contemporary literature. She recently won the Ingeborg-Bachmann Prize for a short story about an egg at a German breakfast table. The book I read is her first novel: the things i am thinking while smiling politely (edition assemblage, 2012). In it, Otoo describes the end of a marriage with two children from the perspective of the abandonned wife. The story can be read in at least two different ways: from front to back, or from back to front, as every chapter ends with three dots, and also starts with them. The chapters a numerated from ten to one, and interspersed with what the author quite accurately calls “shrapnels”: parts of hurtful sentences one can imagine in the unspoken fights ensuing during the break-up.

But that’s only half of the story, as it is also a novel about race and prejudice contextualized right at the heart of Berlin Kreuzberg. Otoo wouldn’t be Otoo if she didn’t insert one or another side kick about white-german difficulties with The (black) Other. We learn about harassment at school, well meaning but ignorant white women trying to be friends, and the politics of (re-)naming in divorce. A friend of mine recently did an interview with Otoo for Frankfurter Rundschau (in german), in which Otoo explains that authors (people in general?!) could and should be much more creative in their use of language when it comes to dismantling prejudice. Her text about the egg (Herr Gröttrup setzte sich hin) is an example of this, and a logical consequence of her activist work in the Black German Community. After the things… I am curious about Herr Gröttrup…, because this creativeness in the use of words does not yet come through that clearly. Still, the things… is an impressive and touching account of a hurt and angry woman that never risks the sentimental.

How did I come across the book?

I admit I heard about Sharon Dodua Otoo for the first time when she won the Bachmann prize. Then I saw the interview with her in Frankfurter Rundschau, so I decided to have a look at her texts. A few snipets from Herr Gröttrup… hooked me, but since I am no fan of short stories, I asked at the local bookstore for a novel, and they offered me this.

When and where did I read it?

On a train ride from Konstanz to Berlin. It’s little less then a hundred pages, so it’s easily doable on that ride. A noisy waggon did not frustrate my endeavour, as it is a very enjoyable read, and a convincing story.

“I was dancing to “It’s Raining Men” and feeling on-top-of-the-world. My beer bottle microphone in one hand, my eyes closed and my voice bouncing off the walls. Singing like no one can hear! (Except I did have the feeling that some poor Kazakhstani peasant on the far side of the Mugodzhar Hills had just been wrested from peaceful slumber as I crescendoed on “God bless mother nature!” Never mind.)” p.44


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