When Sharon Dodua Otoo, Relatively New to Writing in German, Won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize
In Conversation with Idra Novey About German Breakfast Culture,
Mansplaining, and Literary Tension in Translation
When Sharon Dodua Otoo won the 2016 Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, it rocked the German-language literary world. Sharon, a Berlin-based writer, was relatively new to German as a writing medium. Yet “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin,” Sharon’s second only published work in the language, had won one of the most important prizes in German-language literature. The extraordinariness of Sharon’s win is multilayered, no less because Sharon herself has described her award-winning short story as an experiment, an accident even.
When I wrote to Sharon in 2016 asking if she would publish her piece with STILL, I candidly said that I was bereft that German-language literature sorely lacks in the diversity of its creators. This is not to prop up diversity for diversity’s sake, but to bemoan the ways that a lack of diversity in the arts ultimately shrinks the potential of our collective imagination. It shrinks the capacity of storytelling and story-receiving and the capacity for stories to speak the full truth for everyone.
In the fall of 2018 Dodua Otoo and Idra Novey, the award-winning novelist and translator, shared an email exchange to discuss the publication of “Herr Gröttrup setzt sich hin” by STILL Magazine. Their conversatiom touched on many topics including when to follow instructions, fanatical commitment to routines, German breakfast culture, mansplaining and how literary tension fares in translation.
–Brittany Louise Hazelwood, editor STILL
Idra Novey: You create a fascinating kind of tension in this story through an almost fanatical commitment to routine. The escalating sense of drama you create over a breakfast egg is phenomenal. What role did that strict sense of routine play for you in crafting this story and the subtle humor it creates? Merely to “sit down”, as the title evokes, becomes an event in the story.
Sharon Dodua Otoo: Thank you for this wonderful feedback! I had a lot of fun writing this story, as you may be able to tell. For the creation of the characters Herr and Frau Gröttrup, it was very important to invoke a certain type of atmosphere which many German readers immediately recognize.
When I first moved to Germany from London, I found the differences between my family’s routines and those of the German families I came to know fascinating. Breakfast was a very big deal. For a long time, I couldn’t get my head around that. I was used to waking up too late every morning and running to school with a piece of toast between my teeth. For this story, I decided to take the German breakfast routine, with all its attention to detail and timing, and exaggerate a little more.
IN: The instructions to the reader incorporated into the story brought to mind Julio Cortazar’s “Instructions on How to Be Afraid” and other “Instructions” poems of his. What role do you see the instructions playing in the story and did they come in part from any earlier works that play around with directly addressing the reader that way?
SDO: I haven’t written reading instructions before and I am not familiar with Cortazar’s poem. But I will check that out! In my first two novellas, both written in the first person, I would occasionally address the reader directly, but I found it was still easy for the reader to retain a distance if they wished to. They could still just sit back and let the characters do all the talking. For this story, I deliberately wanted to force the reader to take a position: were they going to follow the reading instructions or not? I wanted this moment of discomfort and confusion. Generally speaking, I find confusion productive. I like its role in forcing us to question our surroundings and beliefs, perhaps encouraging us to look at them again from another perspective.
I find confusion productive. I like its role in forcing us to question our surroundings and beliefs.
Some people have said that they find the instructions annoying. I can understand that. I don’t know how I would feel if I were reading this story and the writer provoked me like that! But I think the content of the instructions also tells a story: the covering of one eye, then the next and finally the instruction to read the text with both eyes open clearly is a reference to the need to access different points of view in order to understand the full picture. I am also interested in exploring under what circumstances we follow instructions (think about “I was just following orders”) and when we choose to defy them. This doesn’t play such a big role in the short story, but I want to explore this more in the novel I am working on.
IN: As a multilingual writer, how aware were you as you crafted this story in German of subtle differences in the sentences you were crafting and how they might have come out differently if they were not in German?
SDO: I would simply not have written this story in English. Therefore I really have great admiration for the translators! There were things I wanted to express about Herr Gröttrup that I just did not know how to put into English. One example is a comment I make about him not liking “das Einfach-drauflos-Duzen.” In German, it is possible for individuals to address each other as “you” formally and informally. Indeed it can be quite tricky sometimes to make the right call. In the story, I refer to Herr Gröttrup as being the kind of guy who stands on ceremony. You cannot simply address him informally without being invited to. My original sentence marks an instantly recognizable everyday situation for many German speakers. In English, this situation is much more difficult to spontaneously convey. Patrick and Judith went with “presumptuous attitude of going straight to first name basis” which certainly is a translation of the social situation I describe in the story, but of course, the formulation is much longer. For me, the story had to be written in German.
IN: Unsaid tension in dialogue is particularly hard to convey from one language to another. Reading the translations of this story into British and American English, did you find any variations in the unsaid tensions of the story?
SDO: Again, there were some vocabulary and phrases that I had access to in writing the German language original, which require a bit more explanation both in the British and U.S. American English versions.
For example: “Also waren die beiden allein im Esszimmer: Herr Gröttrup und das Ei, das sich traute, noch weich zu sein.”
Becomes in Judith and Patrick’s version: “So they found themselves alone in the dining room. Herr Gröttrup and the egg that dared to still be soft.”
Or in Katy’s version: “So the two of them were alone together in the dining room: Herr Gröttrup and the egg that had the temerity to still be soft.”
My prejudice is that German is a language that relies on longer words and formulations. Here, this is not the case. “Die beiden” is much shorter than “the two of them” and “sich trauen” in this context has something of the “dare” and the “temerity”. Both teams are right. And yet, the sound of the tension is slightly different across all three languages. I would be interested to hear the opinions of the readers about that!
Another thing I have just noticed: “to still be soft” could also have connotations of being silly or daft in English, which do not exist in “weich zu sein.” I would not have wanted this possible ambiguity in the original version. The “egg” is very definitely being defiant, as we find out later in the story.
IN: The arrival of Ada radically changes the story. Were you aware from the first drafts that her arrival would create this effect?
SDO: I think the most radical change is when the “egg” starts to narrate. I write “egg” in quotation marks, because actually it is a being that has decided today to become an egg. When I was writing the story, I had been working on the dynamics of the relationship between Herr and Frau Gröttrup. It was important to me that Herr Gröttrup would engage in mansplaining (or “Herrklären” as Germans might say!) and that he would turn out to be wrong. How exactly this would play out was difficult and I slept on it for a while before coming up with the idea that the “egg” would speak.
I was intrigued by the idea of writing a main character who barely appears, says very little, and is described even less.
When I introduced Ada, it quickly became apparent to me that she was the main character of the story. I was intrigued by the idea of writing a main character who barely appears, says very little, and is described even less. Of all the characters in this short story I like Ada the most. I like her ambiguity. It pleases me when people speak about the fact that they don’t know so much about her: “Is she Black?” “we only know she is a migrant, apart from that, nothing” “clearly she knows more than the Gröttrups about the breakfast situation though”. This for me sums up discussions about privilege and marginalization. The fact that the story ends with him sitting down and her cleaning the toilet is also a very deliberate statement. He has a lot of learning to do and today is the day he finally begins. He literally takes a seat. She is doing the work that many of us do not like to do, that is barely recognized, let alone properly paid. But without her, the Gröttrups’ household would not run so well, there would be even more chaos. No migration, no Wirtschaftswunder.
IN: In what ways do you see this story connecting to other works of fiction you wrote before this or perhaps to works-in-progress not yet in the world?
SDO: I am now working on my first novel, which is based on this short story. In the novel, we find out a lot more about Ada and her background before moving on to the specifics of the breakfast situation. It’s a challenge to make the whole thing work, keeping track of all the hints, clues, and symbols. But I am looking forward to seeing what everyone makes of it!
Sharon Dodua Otoo is a Black British mother, activist, and author. She is also the editor of the book series Witnessed, which appears in the Münster-based publishing collective edition assemblage. Sharon Dodua Otoo’s first novella, the things i am thinking while smiling politely, was published in 2012. The German translation, die dinge, die ich denke, während ich höflich lächle, appeared in 2013, also in edition assemblage. Her most recent novella, Synchronicity, was first published in German in 2014, then one year later in the English-language original. Sharon Dodua Otoo won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize at the 2016 Festival of German Language Literature.
Idra Novey is the author of the novels Those Who Knew, an Indie Next Pick, and Ways to Disappear, winner of the Sami Rohr Prize, the Brooklyn Eagles Prize, and a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Her fiction and poetry have been translated into ten languages and she’s written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Paris Review. Her translations include four works from Spanish and Portuguese, most recently Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. She teaches fiction at Princeton University.
Brittany Hazelwood is an intellectual property and technology attorney at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP in Manhattan. She has directed Festival Neue Literatur for the past eight years and is the Editorial Director for STILL Magazine. Brittany formerly worked at the German Book Office New York, Telos Press, Vice Magazine Berlin, and Deep Focus. Brittany studied German Literature and Cultural History at Columbia University, where she also received her law degree, and was a DAAD fellow at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Technische Universität Berlin. She is based in Brooklyn.