Take a Seat: An Interview with Sharon Dodua Otoo

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Having won in the same year the great Austrian writer and poet would have turned 90, NBG talks to British author Sharon Dodua Otoo about receiving this year's Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.

 

Photo of Sharon Dodua Otoo
© 2014 Ralf Steinberger

How did you find the days leading up to you being announced the winner?

They were very surreal. I love writing and I have always dreamed of becoming a full-time author. But my attempts to establish myself in the English-speaking literary world did not go very far. And then all of a sudden I am receiving a prize for a German-language text. On so many levels it hardly seems fair!

 

What led to you writing in German and what are your current or future writing projects?

This particular story was an experiment. I had been asked to write an academic contribution to a German publication about whiteness (a project which was never realised) and I asked if I could write creatively instead. The themes I wanted to explore needed to be told in German. Originally ‘Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin’ (‘Herr Gröttrup sits down’) was conceived of as a short story. But I was consistently given the feedback that the story needed to grow to a novel – so it became the first chapter. I am now continuing with the novel.

Which contemporary German-language writers have you been reading? And whose writing did you most enjoy at this year’s Bachmann Prize?

I read very slowly. I have a huge stack of books next to my bed and wanted to get through them a book a month. But this just doesn’t happen. The last contemporary novel I read was Olga Grjasnowa’s Der Russe ist einer, der Birken liebt. Now I am reading Yoko Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee. During the competition, I must confess, I missed everything that happened on Saturday. I listened carefully to most of the readings on the Thursday and Friday. I laughed out loud in places during Stephanie Sargnagel’s reading and I liked the opening of Sylvie Schenk’s piece. Overall though, I enjoyed Julia Wolf’s ‘Walter Nowak bleibt liegen’ the most.

Have you also translated German literature? And what perspective on the act of translation does it give you as someone who can ‘self-translate’ their own work?

I really dislike translating, I am not so good at it. I greatly admire people who can do this and my respect for everyone in the translating and interpreting professions sees no limits. I would not like to translate my own writing into German. For me, each act of reading involves an interaction between the book and the person – the reader gives their own interpretation. Therefore, if I translated my work, I would also interpret it again. The risk is that I would change the meaning of the work and make things more explicit in the text than I originally intended. I am more than happy to see what others make of my creative thoughts.

What’s the reaction been like to your having won the Bachmann Prize?

Really awesome. This award has lifted so many people up – especially people who are not normally featured as central characters in literature. I see it really as a community award. I have also been receiving some very moving messages – the fact that a British person can win a German-language book prize sends a positive signal to counteract all the bad news going on regarding Brexit. And in these times when there is so much angst about migration, it is deeply satisfying for many that this award has been made to a person of African descent.

How did you find learning languages at school in the UK?

I really enjoyed learning French and German in school, but it was quite arbitrary how the language lessons went. There didn’t seem to be the greatest ambition to make sure the schoolchildren really became fluent in speaking. When I completed my A-Levels, I was brilliant at German grammar but I was not so good at ordering hot chocolate in a café.

What do your family and friends make of your having won a highly prestigious writing award in a foreign language?

My family and friends are over the moon! They are totally proud of me. And to no small extent they are also proud of themselves, because, as they keep saying to anyone that will listen: ‘we knew all along that Sharon was a great writer!’